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Published: February 3rd 2009
It was my first time to India and I was flying from Nairobi in Kenya to Mumbai. But on this occasion all I would see of the city was the inside of the airport terminal. A few weeks earlier I'd had a fit of wimpyness, decided that starting in Mumbai would be too much of a culture shock and booked an internal flight straight on. I first travelled on my own 3 or 4 years ago, really out of necessity rather than choice, i.e. no one else wanted to go, and the alternative of not going didn’t seem too appealing! Since then I’ve set out by myself on several long trips and generally don’t get fazed by it. This time though I’d paid too much attention to horror stories of how much I’d get hassled as a white woman on my own, let my nerves get the better of me and booked the internal flight. With hindsight was an interesting decision for several reasons. India wasn’t any harder to travel in than elsewhere in Asia and when I did eventually get to Mumbai it proved to be my favourite Indian city. The place I went to instead was Kolkata, which everyone
else I met chuckled at because it’s probably more of a culture shock than Mumbai, and lastly had I stuck with my original plan and stayed I would have been in Mumbai when the bombs went off.
So my first taste of India was Kolkata where I left the airport perched on the firm back seat of a small yellow and black taxi, the windows open (it was hot and Indian taxis have the ‘windows down’ type of air con) and speeding (as much as you can do in bumper to bumper traffic) to Sudder Street, the backpacker area. Finding a room wasn’t helped by the resident touts - four of them followed me around each stubbornly refusing to be shaken off and insisting they take me to a cheap hotel. Not out of the kindness of their hearts of course - hotels pay them commission, apparently up half the room rate, if you take a room. It’s the same game as elsewhere and I was already quite adept at haggling over room rates but in India touts just seemed to pop up everywhere.... the rickshaw driver, the guy I sat next to on the bus, the man I
crossed the road with... I swear everyone here has a family member that owns a guest house... or so they claim. Of course some hotels refuse to pay commission in which case the rickshaw man usually tells you that it’s closed, dirty, too expensive or simply take you somewhere else. I had so many arguments with rickshaw drivers in India, usually after they tried to increase the agreed price when I insisted on being taken to my choice of hotel not theirs - getting out and refusing to pay anything usually got me taken to where I wanted to go but needing to do it was frustrating. I really enjoyed India but it turned me into quite a stroppy, argumentative person!!
Eventually I checked into an overpriced flea pit and headed out to explore. My first job was to buy a train ticket - India has a fantastic train network but if you want to travel on a particular date you need to be planning at least a week in advance, more on popular routes. That said train stations sometimes have women-only queues and often have foreigner queues or even, in the case of bigger cities like Kolkata, separate
foreigner ticket offices in the city centre which makes the whole process a lot less painful! Initially I'd had reservations about using a system where foreigners effectively get to queue jump, or at least join a much shorter one than the locals - the travel snob in me said that it wasn’t really travelling if you didn’t do it the hard way. Then of course came the day when I reached a station that didn't have a special foreigner queue and I had to spend two hours 'queuing' (they don't always know the rules of queuing here) with the locals. After that I decided that actually, the advantages that came with being a foreigner weren't that bad after all. So much for being a real traveller!
Travel plans sorted I set out to see some of the city other than the backpacker bubble that is Sudder Street - not quite Khao San Road it was still a traveller friendly cocoon away from the mayhem. With a population of over 15million Kolkata was initially founded in 1690 when it was known as Calcutta. In 1772 it became the capital of the British administration and with the arrival of more soldiers
and traders dealing in everything from cloth and silk to tobacco and tea a colonial building boom followed. Walking around the city centre today I was quite stunned by how, if you blocked out the noise, people and smells that made it so India, you could be standing in London. The 'Indianness' of it all, the food stalls surrounded by people muching on Aloo something served in banana leaf bowls, the chai wallahs selling hot chail served in clay cups - no waste here, you just drop it on the ground after use, add water and...., the beggars on the street, the women in their beautiful bright sari's the iconic old fashioned Ambassador cars, added to the atmosphere. Perhaps not the place I should have chosen if I was looking for an 'easy' start to India but I really liked it here, much more so than many of the other big cities I was to see later in my trip. Or maybe it's just that here it was all still new and very exciting.
I stopped briefly at St Johns Church which was built in 1787 and now houses the monument to the Black Hole of Calcutta in its
overgrown gardens. I’m not sure if many tourists visit or if the priest was just very friendly but as I sat on a pew quietly reading my guide book he came over to chat - very excited about meeting someone from the UK and if I was around on Sunday would I like to come to the service. Maybe I was just looking religious... hmm
Outisde the road was jammed with rickshaws, buses, trams, cars and other traffic all chugging out exhaust fumes, tooting their horns for no apparent reason and with little regard for road rules (are there any here?). The church grounds in comparison provided an oasis of calm away from the noisy, dirty, smoggy madness of the city. There are a number of parks in Kolkata, in fact walking around I was surprised at how green parts of the city were, but somehow those open spaces didn’t quite have the same feeling of tranquillity as the church grounds, even though they were overlooked by blocks of flats and on a busy road. The South Park Cemetery was the same in that sense - OK a graveyard might seem like an odd place to go as a
tourist but this is an old one that first opened in 1767 to accommodate British soldiers and merchants who had died here. Behind large gates and high walls huge decaying headstones, obelisks and urns sit hidden amongst the shadows created by a canopy of green plants and trees. The quiet, dark, brooding atmosphere and the large black crows that sit on the headstones or swoop overhead give the place quite a spooky feel.
Finally there was the Victoria Memorial, a white marble monument to Queen Victoria and the Raj that’s surrounded by ornamental pools. Indian couples sat chatting on the grassy areas and the approach was dominated by a huge seated statue of an older Queen Vic - why are they never of her in her younger days? Inside there was an interesting museum about the city and paintings of key historical figures but for me the best part was the external facade - the interior architecture just didn’t match up.
Perhaps it was all the smog I’d been breathing in (blow your nose here and it all comes out black.... ugh), maybe it was something dodgy that I ate but after two days I had my first
bout of ‘illness’ - 24hrs spent throwing up. After the first few times I started to regret opting for the cheaper shared bathroom (read squat toilet) room and unable to face heading out again the next time I just grabbed a carrier bag (which fortunately didn’t have any holes in it!) and used that instead. This wasn’t a good time to be ill... maybe there’s no good time but when you have to get an overnight train the next day it’s not good. Fortunately the train didn’t leave till 10pm so I paid for the room for the day, finished throwing up and finally, about 2 hours before the train departed, managed to peel myself out of bed, pack my bag and head out to haggle the rate for a taxi. I just couldn’t face the thought of going back to buy another train ticket!
So this is the new me - no more epic blogs (yes this is a short one) :0) I’ve decided to try the little and often approach in the hope that I might not end up a few months behind all the time. We’ll see....
Next up - who said India was hot?!
A week in the mountains.
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