I stand sunburned and sweating in front of the thick metal cage. Indian families surround me on all sides. Leaning over the guard rail, the sweat running down my nose, I peer into the dark enclosure searching for movement. Nothing.
The 110 degree weather seems to be draining the life out of everyone- me, Mike, the Indian zoo-goers, and the zoo creatures (of which I’ve had yet to see any…maybe the heat is making them hide?).
As I gaze glassy-eyed into the enclosure, which supposedly has some kind of monkey in it, I ponder my incredible foolishness for choosing to visit India during the hot season. When I was planning out my Indian adventure, I briefly read something about the hot season, but I distinctly remember thinking well, I live in Hawaii so I am used to hot weather, I’m sure it will be fine. I’m kicking myself now for not even pausing to consider it any further. If I could send some message back in time to myself then, I would would say:
Listen Megan. Do you even understand what the hot season in India means? It means you will constantly be on the verge of passing out from heatstroke. There’s not much air conditioning around, and even if there is, the electricity goes off and on all day. You will come to worship the air conditioner, and when the power goes out for hours in the middle of the night, you will earnestly pray and plead for it to come back on. Instead of enjoying the amazing sights around you, your mind will be preoccupied with fantasies of burying yourself under a pile of snow and swimming in the arctic ocean. You will never feel comfortable, ever. You forget what comfort is…it becomes only some distant memory or vague concept which you can’t quite grasp. Got it?
I snap back to the present moment when the short, thick-mustached man standing to my right suddenly perks up and points down to a shady area under the raised cage, excitedly shouting something in a language I don’t recognize. I look down and see a mangy cat and her tiny kittens sprawled out lethargically on the ground (probably suffering from heat stroke). A flurry of activity explodes, as people start frantically pushing their way to the front to get a glimpse of the cats. A stout Indian auntie wearing a sari elbows me hard in the side as the tries to squeeze in between me and the mustached man. I give her a dirty look but she doesn’t notice, she’s too focused on taking a picture of the cats with her phone.
Mike and I navigate our way through the sea of people and drag ourselves across the sweltering asphalt towards the next animal exhibits. I can’t help but think this is the most bizarre zoo I’ve ever been to. It almost seemed abandoned, with dead shrubbery lining the pathways, and not an animal or zoo worker in sight. When our taxi driver had first pulled up to the Alipore Zoological Gardens entrance, he turned around in his seat to face us and exclaimed “Yes! Good! Garden, zoo, animals very good!” through his thick accent while giving a two-thumbs up.
We approach some restrooms, and while Mike goes inside to do his business, I lean against the side of the building and fan my red face with a zoo brochure. An older gentleman wearing thick spectacles approaches me and begins scolding me for coming to India during the hot season.
“You should not even be in India now! It’s much too hot for you. You must take care not to overheat! You should really just leave now and come back during some other month like November”.
I smile and nod my head in agreement and shrug my shoulders as if to say well, nothing I can do about it now. It was freaking expensive to get here, I’m not about to cancel my trip and waste the money. Here I am…for the next six weeks. This thought causes me to inwardly groan. Shit, six weeks? I’m seriously doubtful I’ll even make it through the rest of today without getting heat stroke.
Around 9pm tonight we are taking an overnight train ride to Varanasi, but because the hotel check-out time was 10am, we are left to spend the whole day roaming around Kolkata. We hired a taxi driver for the day, and although he barely understands English, we somehow were able to communicate that we wanted him to bring us to the local attractions. Unfortunately the taxi does not have any air conditioning (and neither did any of the other taxis we checked out). It’s difficult to determine if its cooler to have the car windows rolled up or down. Having the car windows up makes the interior unbearably stuffy and sweltering, and when they are rolled down, it feels like someone is blowing a hot hair dryer right into my face.
Mike emerges from the restroom with a disturbed look on his face. I decide not to ask about it. We continue walking, feeling a bit disenchanted with the zoo, but still hopeful that we might see some cool animals.
The next exhibit has a small crowd of around 15 loitering nearby, most looking rather bored. Even the kids look underwhelmed. I creep my way to the side and look into the enclosure. The barrier cage around the enclosure is so thick that I could barely make out a lone macaque monkey crouching in the corner.
Mike stares at the macaque for a second, furrows his brows, and whispers “hey, isn’t that the same species of monkey that are running wild all over the place anyway?”.
I can’t help but laugh out loud.
We continue walking our way through the zoo, past empty exhibits. The only other animal we spot is a stork standing miserably in a rather small enclosure, where rotting fish heads lie roasting in the sun over a thick layer of bird shit. We decide that we have had enough of the zoo and want to see if the driver knows of any restaurant with air conditioning in the area.
As we slowly make our way towards the zoo exit, I notice about thirty Indian zoo guests milling about, fanning themselves and dabbing the sweat off their faces with hand towels. Several large groups of families are sitting on blankets spread out on the dead lawn under the shade of a tree.
A young, well-groomed man looks up from his blanket and notices us approaching. He nudges his friend sitting next to him and says something. They pull out their phones, and when we get close, they stand and begin snapping pictures of us.
One of them asks if he can take a “click” with us. We agree, and as we pose smiling with him, a crowd forms around us of people who want to take their picture with us. After a million clicks, my mouth hurting from smiling so wide, we finally head back to the taxi.
One of the guys suddenly runs up next to me and says:
“Excuse me Ma’am, I apologize that we have bothered you, it’s just that we all wanted a picture of the most exotic creatures in this whole zoo”.
note- I imagine the zoo is much more exciting when it’s not so hot…although I’m still not sure if the animals were hiding or the exhibits were simply empty