Kolkata - A Peak around the Old Lions Den

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January 10th 2011
Published: February 17th 2011
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Kolkata was the capital of India during the time of the British Raj. It has a population of nearly 15 million and has a fearsome reputation, along with Mumbai, of being extremely hectic and overwhelming. Our experience wasn’t too bad; in fact I quite liked most parts of it! We viewed some impressive British architecture, went to a cool club, and mingled with locals in some of the very modern main streets.

Of course it was busy on the streets, all Indian cities are, but it’s exciting watching the hustle and bustle of rickshaws, trams and taxis, which make it like a game of ‘Frogger’ when crossing the road. Walking down the street you’ll see people building furniture, taking apart computers, sleeping on the road, bamboo scaffolding, shoe shiners and package wrappers, most of which we’d end up using funnily enough. I got my trusty trekking boots cleaned and polished for 20 rupees or 33 cent!

We decided on another overnight train from NJP to Kolkata, which was only slightly delayed. It’s easily the best way to travel the long distances over here and it costs just the same as a nights’ accommodation, so budget wise it’s almost free :-) The biggest legacy that the Brits left in India is the extensive railway system, which spans the country and is the largest single employer in the world.

Queen Vic

First thing on our sightseeing list was the striking Queen Victoria Memorial. Some borderline ridiculous horse and carriages lye outside to bring you up the boulevard spray painted gold and silver...A tad out of keeping with the impressive Victorian building, which signifies the importance of Calcutta to the British Empire. Inside lye some exhibits on weapons and history, and some pictures and portraits. I liked the scale model of the building, where you could see the symmetry and elegance of the design from a birdseye view. Another interesting piece shows the crucial battle between the British and French, where the madly outnumbered Brits bribed their way to a key victory, and it paved the way for the East India companies’ domination of India.

Checking out the Solarhood

Nearby we went to see another beautiful white building, St. Paul’s Cathedral. It had beautiful gothic arches, a well kept garden outside and stain glassed windows. Next door to the cathedral was the Birla Planetarium where they keep the planets locked up during the day and we caught an English showing during the afternoon. Never have I ever so I found it interesting being pointed out all the constellations and stars. It’s like a big circular cinema where you look up onto the dome of the roof where they project the stars. They even told us some interesting things about some of the planets, like Mars having nearly twice as many earth days in a year than Earth. Very cool.

Stamp Guy

The next day we tried to send a package back home to Ireland. What a funny morning that was! It took us 2 hours to sort it all out, as it needed to be wrapped, by the wrapping guy, who was also the stamp guy. I nearly cried laughing when one fellow traveler looked on in vain as the stamp guy tried to stick his stamps on with the weakest glue I’ve ever seen. He had to rummage around in his desk, which had everything but the kitchen sink inside it, for a clay mixing pot, then find the paste, mix it with some water…to dilute it further…and spend about 10 minutes trying to stick stamp to card…of course it didn’t work and he ended up celotaping the stamps to the cards. This guy must have been working here for nearly 30 years at least and he still hadn’t mastered the art of sticking stamps…gulp!

Finally it was our turn, and we presented our 2 small bags for wrapping. He rummaged around in his desk for pieces of fabric to wrap it in…no boxes here folks. One piece clearly wasn’t big enough and I remember seeing Richard face palm in agony as he watched the man trying to flip it different ways to make it fit. Some more rummaging and he finally got a good sized piece of cloth like fabric, and started to sew the package together. Yes…he was going old school needle and thread style on the package! He did a pretty good job actually and after double checking the address he wrote with a permanent marker we said a little prayer that our package would reach home in time for Christmas (it did). I saw him carefully pick up the package and walk behind the counter and chuck it about 2 metres away onto a heap of packages. The ‘fragile’ sticker on the package stared back at me and I hoped that would be the roughest treatment it got (it wasn’t). The tea chests we sent home were damaged a bit, but sure at least they got there and have a story to tell!

Biggest not always Best

Afterwards we went to India Museum Kolkata, the largest museum in India, and toured around for a while. It had a massive collection of rocks, bones and fossils, but they were very poorly displayed. Imagine walking into a warehouse full of bones, that only has labels with the name and latin name on it… not very exciting or informative. They did have a few full skeletons of elephants and their ancestors, which were quite impressive however. The tusks on one of them were like huge scythes, sticking out at a sweeping 30 degree angles from the face. Big assed elephant with huge bone scythes…now that I wouldn’t want to mess with! Overall though the museum was very disappointing, but it does have huge potential for improvement if someone with a creative brain gets in charge.

Quest for Miss India

One night we had our first Indian clubbing experience, which was a good eye opener into Indian culture. Now a lot of Indians get married when they are young, usually through arranged marriages, so most of the girls we would see were not just taken, but off the books forever. Rich has a girlfriend, but I was hoping to find a Miss India for the night… the besta’ luck buddy! Nearly every person you start talking to will ask you ‘where from friend?’ followed swiftly by ‘married friend?’. They find it pretty outrageous that I don’t have a job, but when they find out I’m not married or even dating its full on face-palm flabbergasting! Who are you…my mother;-)

Indian males are an excitable bunch, and love a good old dance on any occasion, so when you add alcohol, loud music and dancing women together, it gets a bit mad. Now the club itself was pretty swanky. It was part of a nice hotel and charged cover fee’s of about 20 Aus dollars, which is very hefty over here, but we got waved in for free, probably for being Europeans. Drinks were expensive, even if we were still in Australia the prices would have been steep, so the people in this club were very well off. Some stunners strolled around in gorgeous dresses (no tarty short skirts here) followed closely by their boyfriend/husbands, but there were a few singletons in the mix too. I remember 2 girls were getting vigorously danced at by a circle of 10 Indian guys, literally getting passed around like presents in a game of ‘pass the parcel’!

Rich and I hadn’t drunk in a few weeks so we hit the sauce hard and got drunk pretty quickly. I got dancing with some lovely girls from Sikkim (made a mental note to visit there sometime) but there was no wrestling them out of their tightly knit defensive formation…they had clearly seen the game of pass the parcel happening on the other side of the dance floor. It was a great experience, and was good to see the affluent lifestyle of the richer Indians, was similar to clubbing back home.

Good Charity

At the other end of the affluence scale, I noticed something interesting during our time in Kolkata about the poverty on the street. In any big Indian city, it’s impossible to miss the abundance of poor people sleeping on the street and begging. In Kolkata I could see the poor trying to do something positive about their situation by shoe shining, shoe repairing, selling used newspapers, or sitting next to a weighing scales. It was very heartening to be able to help out the needy by letting them provide you with a service, rather than just a pity filled donation. It would be nice to see more of that positivity elsewhere…just a thought.

Next stop, halfway across India, New Delhi to prepare for our 15 day motorbike trip in Rajasthan.


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