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Published: March 23rd 2017
Originally built in honour of Queen Victoria, it now contains a museum with a very interesting outline of Calcutta's history.
"Sorry sir, I can't let you board the plane without an onward journey."
"But I was able to do so when I first arrived in India three months ago?"
"They've changed the rules."
"What in three months?"
The check-in lady shrugs her shoulders. I was livid. This wasn't a requirement when I boarded my plane from London to Delhi back in November. This is the problem when rules are not universally enforced. You get Colombia to Panama: Round 2
So I used the same trick I used back then; using the airport wifi and my phone, I get to the final page of booking a bus ticket from Varanasi to Kathmandu without actually buying the ticket and just showed that to another one of the check-in lady's colleagues. And they fell for it again. Phew. On an even tighter budget now than when I was in Central America, I really couldn't afford to miss that plane.
Once through security, I had a little trouble getting rid of the last of my Sri Lankan rupees because of a weird government law where only US dollars are allowed to be used in certain shops in the airport. What a pointless law - just like the one requiring
Kolkata Traffic Jam
Ain't no-one movin'...
travellers to have an onward journey. A complete joke.
Once back in Chennai, I was bricking it slightly at Indian immigration without my proof of onward journey, I must say. Thankfully after a couple of questions regarding the address I provided on my immigration card and what I 'do' back in New Zealand (nothing, literally), I was waved through.
Then I don't know if it was the airport wifi letting me down or whether the Uber app had sent me to the wrong pick up point, but I just couldn't connect with two drivers to take me the short distance from the airport to my airport hotel. Therefore I had to take a ₹300 prepaid cab - three times the Uber price. ₹300 can go a long f*cking way in India. F*ck. I was already fed up with the country within hours of being back!
While I've tried to keep flights to a minimum on this trip around the world, it sometimes is the sensible option. I didn't fancy a series of long trains to Varanasi and I had always wanted to go to Kolkata so when an airfare there was just £10 more than a 30-hour train,
Chartered Bank Building
Beautiful old colonial building that has shades of London's St Pancras International Railway Station.
it was a no-brainer. I could then take an overnight train to Varanasi from Kolkata. Thus why I decided to stay a night in Chennai before my flight the next day and opted for an airport hotel. Low to mid priced hotels in India generally leave a lot to be desired and this one was no different, with no shower head on the shower and looking like it hadn't been cleaned properly for months. I could just about make myself out in the mirror. But it was comfortable enough and even came with breakfast and a free ride to the airport.
I don't know if it's the case at all Indian airports but security at Chennai's one seemed a bit over the top. I had to produce my ticket just to get into the airport building - which I could luckily do thanks to free wifi at the airport - and then had to have my backpack scanned before check-in. This was followed by a standard hand luggage security check where for the first time ever, I had to take out my camera and chargers. Why don't I just unpack my entire rucksack for you? Four gates then shared
Kolkata's iconic bridge.
the same gate number if that makes any sense, and then my boarding pass was checked another two times and then it was insisted I tie a baggage tag to my rucksack. It wasn't too bad in the end to be honest but much of the process seemed so unnecessary.
I did manage to connect with my Uber driver when I touched down in Kolkata and he was a really nice dude who really tried to talk up his city and pointed out all of the landmarks along the way, including a Big Ben replica! I was a bit miffed however to be charged an extra ₹100 for his airport parking though - that made the fare more than what I would've paid for a prepaid taxi. Grrrr, sick of having to fork out so much for airport transfers!
The diversity of India never ceases to amaze and Kolkata is no different. Having thought that I had come to grips with India, here I was with yet another language (Bengali) and another culinary vocabulary to navigate. The friendly owners of my characterful, full-of-antiques (which included my 70-year-old four-post bed - in my own private room for just ₹450 a
Crumbling Colonial Architecture
There are many examples of beautiful colonial buildings such as this one, in various states of dilapidation and disrepair in Kolkata.
night!) guesthouse pointed me in the direction of Bong Connection, a local restaurant serving distinctly local fare. I loved the feel and location of my homestay by the way, right in the midst of South Kolkata's jungle of narrow, nonsensical streets and alleys - I felt like I was really immersed in local life and living like well, a local!
The mustardy shorshe ilish
being the curry sauce and ilish
being the fish) - don't sip Pepsi straight after eating it unless you like snorting wasabi - was super tasty and lau ghonto
, which is supposedly an acquired taste, was a pumpkin-stuffed fish head with a sweet and sour taste. Bhetki kalia
is red, sweet and tangy - typical of Bengali curries - while the mochar ghonto
was spicy and coconut-y.
And Kolkata itself has its own unique feel; the old yellow Ambassador taxicabs, the peeling paint on crumbling colonial architecture and people on the streets everywhere reminded me of Havana
but with hand-drawn rickshaw drivers everywhere. It is a mess here too; there are a tremendous amount of stray dogs, loud horns and lots of homeless people - even by Indian standards. The poverty on show has
Taxi & Hand-Drawn Rickshaw
To iconic modes of Kolkata transport.
been particularly noticeable, with many either destitute or living in unbelievable squalor. It seemed like the poorest and dirtiest city in India. With each person you saw picking through the trash outside glitzy shopping malls, a little more of your heart started to break.
And it must have struck a chord with Mother Teresa who dedicated much of her life to help the poor here in Kolkata. For some, Calcutta is a byword for poverty although it is not a view that some locals are particularly fond of. The Motherhouse is where she established the Missionaries Of Charity which set out to do what they could. It is now where her tomb lies, which I went to visit. Also in the complex is a small museum of Mother Teresa's very few personal effects and her bedroom which has been left as is. Though her organisation grew into a worldwide one, Mother Teresa's bedroom simply had a desk, a dining table, a chair and a metal-frame, single bed with a thin mattress. She walked the walk as well as talked the talk. Incidentally, this is the second Mother Teresa homage I have paid in the last six months; back in
Meat workers doing their thing with chickens inside the New Market.
August, I visited her memorial in Skopje, Macedonia
, where she was born.
Kolkata's big sight however is the Victoria Memorial with its St Peter's Cathedral-like
dome, that you can also climb. It was built as a grand memorial for Queen Victoria and houses a museum on Kolkata's colonial history which includes many artefacts and paintings from the times. The Calcutta Gallery was an excellent chronological source of information on Kolkata's past and I learnt a lot. The storyboards were well written and I think it was worth the ₹200 I paid to get into the grounds.
The Victoria Memorial reminded me also of London's St Paul's Cathedral and indeed there is even a cathedral nearby the memorial with the same name. The architecture here is gothic rather than baroque however and is rather large.
My other stop of the day was at the New Market, a maze of shops housed under a red brick colonial building. The most fascinating - and slightly gruesome - area of the market was the meat market, where poor chickens were trapped in netted cages awaiting their deaths. Rather shockingly, the chickens are killed to order ensuring that they'd be the freshest chicken you'd ever buy.
Notice the bhaars - clay cups - into which the chai walla is pouring the chai. They are disposable and biodegradable; even if it did feel like a bit of a waste to throw something handcrafted like this away. I only saw these cups in Kolkata.
The beheadings were done right in front of me, on the spot. A few goats looked at me with sad, hopeful eyes, perhaps begging me to save them from their inevitable demise. The stalls that weren't in use were completely overrun by giant rats. Even the cats in there weren't going near them. Suffice to say, I didn't linger too long.
Coincidentally, just before going to Kolkata, The Guardian had an article on its front page extolling the virtues of Kolkata chai
. With the high quality tea coming down from nearby (sort of) Darjeeling, the chai served on the streets of Kolkata are supposed to be the best in India. And in particular, the chai served on Elgin Street in bhaars
(small disposable clay cups) are supposed to be the best in town. Elgin Street was only a ten minute walk from where I was staying so I decided to pay it a visit. The verdict? Because I've had so much chai now perhaps my judgements have become more critical; I thought it was nice but not the best I've had in India. The taste of the spices definitely seemed to be lacking - if it was a contest
for best tea without spices then perhaps Kolkata tea would've won. Maybe I need to try another stall...
The next day I decided to venture into the city centre. Delhi
may not the busiest place I have ever seen after all. And as mentioned earlier, the place is so dirty and so poor.
The Mallick Ghat Flower Market is an absolute hive of activity; it is however, in much more chaotic, much more squalid and less atmospheric surroundings than the flower section at the Krishnarajendra Market in Bangalore
. It also has a great view of the iconic Howrah Bridge right next to it.
I then took a walk around the old Chinatown that really has a back-in-time feel about it to 19th century China - until you encounter the sad sight of the makeshift tents and tarpaulins completely covering the footpaths, scratched-together slums right in the heart of Kolkata.
I said in my blog about Mumbai
that old Bombay is arguably the most British-influenced place in India; well, I might be wrong. Calcutta served as the capital of British India for over a century and this can be seen in the array of grand, stately buildings in the
Standard Life Building
Another Calcutta colonial classic.
BBD Bagh area. Sadly many of them are in various states of dilapidation and disrepair, but their colour and beauty still manage to shine through. The area around the high court, with its green areas, wide tree-lined boulevards and palatial colonial buildings felt a bit like London and the area around Buckingham Palace. All this meant that Chinatown wasn't the only area of Kolkata with a time portal feel; indeed with all the old buildings, old buses and old taxis, much of the city feels like a trip back in time.
It sucks having to be selective about what attractions you can see but that is the price you pay for long term travel on a budget. £6 to enter the Indian Museum - especially given the British Museum in London is free - is pretty steep anyway, even if it is the country's oldest.
What you can do for free however is wander the streets and indeed it is here that you can find Kolkata's most fascinating aspects, such as barbers giving wet shaves to men or men running a shirt-ironing business - all on the streets. You have to admire the enterprise on show here.
Old Chinese store in the old Chinatown area that harks back to a different time.
was often told not to photograph stuff; either because it was something worth photographing and thus people wanted money for photos; or because I was in a poor area. It seems that the locals are sensitive about the image of their city and all its crumbling buildings, but also didn't want the poverty that exists here recorded; which is fair enough as these are real lives, not some sort of circus, and everyone deserves a bit of privacy.
Speaking of photos, the smoggy haze here is obviously bad, especially in light of climate change, but one benefit is that it helps my photography, softening the light and creating some real atmosphere in my photographs.
In terms of looks however, much of suburban Kolkata looks like what you might expect to find in South East Asia - it fairly close to it after all.
Locals are supposed to be friendly here but I haven't really encountered any who were more friendly than your average Indian. I tended to be left alone most of the time although if I did get attention, it was usually in the form of a mad stare like sort I got in Delhi. I've gotten used
There are many "ghats" lining Kolkata Hooghly River, which locals still use to bathe and wash clothes.
to it now though, which is why perhaps I am handling it much better now than I did in Delhi. It still don't like it though and all the walking and recent travelling has really taken it out of me - I was legless by the end of the third day. I was also cranky and reacted accordingly to anything that would piss me off in the slightest, especially with the locals, which probably wasn't very nice.
I also encountered having to write down my own order at a restaurant for the first time here; not everyone can read and write in English.
Food usually cheers me up though and one Kolkata speciality managed to do just that - kati rolls
! OMG. I actually had these rolls of fried roti with egg filled with chicken, peppers, onion and sweet chilli sauce for the first time in London, as there was a store selling them around the corner from where I worked. They were good but I don't remember them being as good as the ones here in Kolkata - and they were about five times more expensive too! I am willing to put it out there that the kati
Kumartuli is a neighbourhood containing workshops completely devoted to creating idols and effigies for the Kolkata festivals of Durga Puja and Kali Puja.
rolls were perhaps the best thing I have eaten in India - and that is some statement.
Because much of Kolkata is so dirty and poor, I sometimes found myself walking through areas that I would never walk through in most cities - areas that would be considered dodgy - and thus I found myself a little nervous as I walked the streets of Kolkata, particularly at night. In the back of my mind I knew that it was safe but because of my Western programming of poor area + dirty area = higher chance of getting robbed, I did find myself feeling a little uncomfortable at times. Particularly when you're getting looked at. Man, it must feel even worse if you were walking around as a foreign girl.
It is in one such slightly ropey-looking neighbourhood that the Kumartuli idol-makers reside - it was pretty cool to see some uniquely local traditions. Kolkata has two big annual festivals - Durga Puja and Kali Puja - and massive idols are created just for the occasion where they are dipped into the Hooghly River. Seeing the idol-makers at work, it seems the effigies of deities have a wooden frame
Located inside the Belur Math religious complex, Lonely Planet describes the Ramakrishna Mandir as lloking like "a cathedral, Indian palace and Istanbul's Aya Sofia at the same time."
that is then stuffed with straw before being covered in clay and then painted.
Also on a spiritual level is the Ramakrishna Mandir at the Belur Math - a religious campus dedicated to an order that preaches the unity of all religions - which is a pretty impressive sight. Though only built in 1938 in honour of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa - I also visited the temple dedicated to him in Chennai
- it combines elements of different religious architecture and Lonely Planet describes it as looking like "a cathedral, Indian palace and Istanbul's Aya Sofia
at the same time." And the description is not wrong!
For my final Bengali meal in Kolkata I had shukto
- a quite nice, vegetable and coconut stew; pabda jhal
- a spicy fish curry with a sweet tang; and best of all, mishti doi
- an Indian style creme brûlée which was absolutely amazing. Quite possibly the best dessert I've had in India. It was so good that I ordered another one!
And after one final meal in Kolkata, I had one more stop to make before catching my overnight train to Varanasi - at the Kalighat Temple. It is quite possibly the source of Kolkata's
One of Kolkata's grandest buildings was built in 1780 for clerks of the East India Company.
name and it is a bustling place full of pilgrims battling with each other to pay their respects to Kali, the Hindu god of time, creation, destruction and power. I would normally wave away any sort of guide who comes up to me offering his services but I was kind of pushed into doing so and Lonely Planet made it sound like it was normal protocol to go along with one, so I did. The man was quite friendly as he showed me around the temple; to the "tree of fertility" where wishes are made and to a stall where I left my shoes and picked up some freshly washed flowers to take into the temple. I normally feel a little uncomfortable going into temples where people are actively worshipping but it seemed OK here. The guide tells me to chant "Ommmmm... shanti, shanti, shanti" before he blessed me with the flowers. I then chuck the flowers at the black idol of Kali. He then takes me to a sacrificial chamber where a goat was just about to be sacrificed. The goat seemed to be stretched and held by two men over a bloodied chopping block and some chanting is
Where I witnessed a live goat get ceremoniously and sacrificially beheaded.
done by the executioners and the observers before the blade comes down. I couldn't see it's head from where I was but I saw the guy slam down the blade; and the headless corpse spurting blood from the neck like you would see in a movie. I wasn't quite prepared for it and it was a little shocking to see and I felt a bit sorry for the goat - it must have been petrified. Though the goat met its fate ceremoniously, the dude who had the goat's head in his hands at the end, chucked it into the corner rather unceremoniously. I know of more than a few animal loving friends who would have been horrified to witnessed what I had just seen. My rather short tour of the temple ends back at the fertility tree where I chant "ommmmm...shanti, shanti, shanti" again and where my family and I are blessed again. I'm then asked for a ₹500 or ₹2,000 donation! No way. We eventually settle on ₹100...with a ₹40 tip for the guide and ₹10 for the flowers. Though not too bad and probably worth it given what I saw and did, it was a bit more than
St Paul's Cathedral
Not quite the one in London.
I was anticipating spending here at the temple.
And with that, my time in Kolkata came to an end. I found the city to be one of the more fascinating places I have been in India and the poverty on display here is stark. It does have a time-worn feel though, which I found charming and it does, like most places in India, have a vibe all of its own. I have definitely grown fond of the place.
But for now, I move on to what is supposed to be one of India's big highlights; Varanasi.
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