Varanasi Railway Station
Vendors selling grapes and cucumber to passengers.
The train to Kolkata was two hours late, so we had to cool our heels at the station longer than originally thought. I'm surprised anyone gets on the right train here. Bishal said it is hard enough for him to find out when the train is due and what platform it will be on, let alone a foreigner. There is no arrivals/departure board so you have to rely on announcements for updates, if you can hear or understand them.
When a train arrives, the vendors appear, carrying their produce on trays balanced on their heads, a cane stand for the tray under their arm. I found it rather entertaining, as they weighed out grapes, placed them on a square of newspaper, and passed them through the train window. Others had peeled cucumber, plastic sandals, jewellery and men's belts. They are all so serious and intent on doing business, calling out on top of their voices to advertise their wares. Twenty minutes later it's all over as the train pulls out, so they disappear to another platform, and another train, and do it all again!
Eventually, we got underway and everyone settled. I had a wakeful night and when we
Varanasi Railway Station
Maybe someone needs a new pair of sandals?
arrived in Kolkata at 11.30am the next morning (Friday) I was shattered, and pleased to get out of the railway station and to the hotel. Nothing is ever that easy though. Pre-paid taxi vouchers had to be bought at the station, which Bishal queued for, while we waited another half hour. These vouchers help keep taxi drivers honest. They are purchased at the railway booth and not given to the driver until we have reached our destination and all luggage is out of the boot. The driver then has to redeem them to get his fare. So, if he takes you to his brother's hotel instead of the booked one, you retain the voucher and he doesn't get paid.
Hotel Victerrace doesn't have a lot to boast about, barely 2 star I would think, and it has awful reviews on Trip Advisor. The staff don't speak good English and look blankly at me when I ask them something. It does serve Barcardi in the small restaurant, so gets ten points for that! At only $1.10 per nip, I can afford to indulge whilst I sit in the air conditioning and blog. Every cloud has a silver lining, and that's
The mailbox of the hotel I'm staying in.
it for me.
Bishal has an orientation walk planned at 5.00pm and it's still awfully hot outside, with high humidity. We all sweat our way around the streets, trailing half heartedly after him. I wonder sometimes what's the point of these orientation walks, we only ever cover the streets around our accommodation which we could do quite easily ourselves, and I often have.
I'd developed a head cold from the air conditioning on the train, and that, combined with tiredness, had pulled me down. I had a shower after the walk and hit the bed, declining to join the others for dinner at 7.30pm.
Saturday marks the last day of the tour and my fellow travellers are starting to disappear. Everyone has somewhere to go, weather it's a flight home or further travelling. I'm ready to move on too, and breathe a sigh of relief when I move to a single room later in the day. After three weeks of sharing with others, I'm ready for some space. I have two more nights in Kolkata.
During the morning I decided to walk to Park Street as it was only 20 minutes from the hotel. Maybe I
was there too early in the day as a lot of businesses were closed and there wasn't much to see. It was just another busy, shabby street tinted with glory from times past, I think.
In the 1970s and 1980s much of Kolkata's night life took place at Park Street. Many noted musicians had played at popular night spots such as Trinca's, Blue Fox, Mocambo and Moulin Rouge. Even before that, in the 1940-60's, Kolkata's prolific night life was centred on Park Street. Apparently it remains Kolkata's foremost dining district, with many restaurants and pubs. It is often known as "Food Street" and "The Street that Never Sleeps".
A quick look at Google Maps and I find that Victoria Memorial Hall is less than 1.5klm away, close enough for me to walk. It houses a museum containing a large collection of memorabilia relating to Queen Victoria and the British presence in India as well as other exhibits. I studied the map on my iPad, memorised the route and set out. I should have known better, I forgot how bad my sense of direction is, and had to retrace my steps.
I did get there eventually to find
This was parked across the road from the Victoria Building. There were around six of them.
the building was closed, and only the garden was open. So, I paid my 20 rupees to walk around the garden. It was a little unkempt in places, and not that interesting, but at least I was able to get closer to the building for photos.
I have an early start on Sunday morning, with a 5.45am pickup from Calcutta Photo Tours. I have booked into their Cultural Kaleidoscope Photo Walking Tour which will take between 3-4 hours. Manjit, the company owner and his driver, are right on time and I am outside waiting for them. There is one other person on this tour, so it's an easy walk with just the three of us.
Manjit took me to places I would never have ventured on my own. Into the alleyways of Old Chinatown and the Muslim enclave. We were granted access to places which are normally locked to outsiders such as temples of minority religious groups. We were introduced to Stella, a third generation Chinese shop owner, whose business was so 'olde worlde' she still used an abacus to do calculations on.
It was a fascinating way to spend a few hours, Manjit spoke excellent English
His mother and sibling were sleeping on the street.
and was good company. At the end of our tour I was dropped back outside my hotel. In all, it cost me 2500 rupees ($45.50), 1000 rupees being the pick up/drop back. I was happy to pay the extra for the convenience, as the taxi drivers seem to have no idea where they're going most of the time. I highly recommend one of Manjit's tours as they have a friendly, personal touch you won't find everywhere. I appreciated the way he pointed out interesting old doors and such, which make great photos, and can be easily missed. Contact him through his website - www.calcuttaphototours.com or look for him on facebook.
I spent the hot midday hours at the hotel and decided to visit Motherhouse, Mother Teresa's resting place, during the afternoon. I set out on foot, but once again missed the street and ended up jumping in a taxi, after asking three of them if they knew where it was. I won't ride with a cabbie who has no idea where he's going but will pretend he does simply to get the fare. Their faces are a dead giveaway..
The Missionaries of Charity’s Motherhouse is entered via an
Cultural Photo Tour
alleyway, which is well signed. Pilgrims arrive here regularly to pay homage at Mother Teresa’s large, fairly plain tomb. Exhibits in a small adjacent museum include Teresa’s worn sandals and battered enamel dinner-bowl. Located upstairs, the ‘Mother’s room’ where she worked and slept from 1953 to 1997, is preserved in all its simplicity with a crown-of-thorns placed above her modest camp bed.
I spent half an hour here, then walked back to the hotel, which was quite a trek, but I had nothing else to do except sort out my suitcase and ready myself for a 10.30am flight to Bagdogra, enroute to Darjeeling tomorrow morning. I'm looking forward to some cooler weather and mountain views.
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