Well we did it! We finally took the plunge and got on the plane to Kolkata; a place that literally couldn’t be further from anything we know or have experienced before. To be honest, the moment we arrived at our hotel (not really a hotel to be honest, more of an inn and barely able to be called that), I was utterly terrified, and had one of those “oh god, what the hell have we done?” moments. After about 15 hours of travelling, we arrived at our inn after the cabbie took us to some random area of the city, to a room with no AC, no windows, barely any light, and a very unwelcoming check in to the place we’d be staying. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect; we’d ended up booking a bed in the centre of the residential district; a very dark, grotty and overcrowded neighbourhood made up of a labarynth of alleys and passages.
The first day, I think it’s safe to say Kelly and I were somewhat nervous to go out and explore, but the sheer heat of our room drove us out, and I’m so glad it did! Kolkata genuinely has been a smack in the face, mixing all the emotions you can fathom into a melting pot and boiling over until dry, but we knew it would be. Seeing so many people sleeping on the roadside, in particular, children, is very hard to see on arrival, as well as all the stray dogs and puppies, and knowing you can’t really help or change the situation can be hard to deal with. But that’s life here and it’s very much the norm. It didn’t stop us wanting to take all the children and dogs home with us though
I’m writing this on a sleeper train to Varanasi which I’m sure will do exactly the same. Never has the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” rung any truer to me.
I’m going to try and summarise my thoughts in Kolkata in sections that I feel make sense, rather than just a brain fart of conscious thought, so bare with me.
Let’s be clear here, India ain’t the tidiest place in the world, and Kolkata certainly isn’t! Everywhere you look there is so much rubbish and mess around you are literally wading through it at points, particularly around markets, but at the same time people were always sweeping up the streets even when it seemed futile. It was great to see people taking pride even when they had nothing. I literally saw buildings made out of tyres, bamboo, and propped up with plastic mounds. The amazing thing about the city though, is every night you see the majority get cleared away by the residents. It’s incredible to see what you’ve seen so many times on TV, people collecting all the plastic and metal off streets and selling for recycling, just to raise a few rupees. It’s actually quite amazing to see how much can be done with so little.
The city itself is absolute carnage I’m not going to lie. As I expected from many Indian cities, it’s horribly overcrowded and noisy. When people say India is a melting pot of smells, they aren’t lying. There is a constant cocophony of smells from cooking food, tabacco (and as much hash), urine, spices, rotting food and burning out motors (a combination of types, clutch, and diesel smoke), all made more pleasant by the heat and humidity. I only really found the rotting smell offensive, and after eating some fruit I bought from a street vendor, I can tell where the smell originates from. I’d like to think I’m fairly open to foods, but eating over ripe and verging on rotten papaya won’t ever make it to the top of my list I can confirm that!
The architecture is fascinating across the city. You can really tell that British colonial rule played a huge part in the design of the area and the influence over so many areas. The fascinating thing out around the city is the mash of classic British design, with to be honest a total mess of building designs, many that aren’t even remotely attractive. One thing I didn’t notice in Kolkata was any new buildings that looked even a little exciting. Shame really.
We were fortunate to see most of the sites in our 3 days here. We walked over 18miles in two days alone exploring the areas around Victoria park and the Eden Gardens, New Market and Park Street, eating all the street food along the way (see next section) and even managed to to get tickets to the Indios New Zealand 2nd test (for all of a quid a ticket. Bonus!).
Now for any of you who know me, you’ll know I LOVE food, experimenting with new food, and learning new techniques. For me, this was half the reason for starting out trip where we did. Kolkata is known as the Western Bengali capital of street food, and it certainly didn’t disappoint! We literally tried everything we could get our hands on. The majority of the street food was vegetarian and it was without a doubt the most flavoursome and colourful vegetarian food I’ve ever eaten, whilst actually being rather simple. I tried to get recipes along the way but it was rather challenging with the language barrier in most places. What I can say though is the food makes full use of mustard oil (and PROPER mustard oil, not like the limp crap we get in the UK), with citrus used to marinade everything (the local citrus fruit is a perfect mix between lemon and lime), and regardless of the lack of food safety, of health and hygiene regulations, the food on the streets is outstanding. We were living off street food for about £4 a day and nothing was short of excellent. My top food was an egg Kati Roll, a roti heated on a solid top with an egg scrambled on top. Chicken Tikka with fresh onion, chilli and sauce is then fried off and rolled like a burrito; delicious! Definitely something I’ll be playing around with at home in a years time.
I have missed fruit though. Every time I tried to eat any it was either tasting vile from being close to rotten, or I’ve had to avoid because everything is covered in flies. Everything I wanted to eat fell into these categories and I’m doing my best to avoid Delhi belly so had to give fruits a miss.
Basically, street food was amazing, and a great start to what I expected of PROPER Indian cuisine.
There are many things that can be said here. To keep it simple though, I met some absolutely amazing people and some total arse holes. It was tough to remember some things that so many people had said to me about the culture, namely
- People will stare
- They’ll stare a bit more
- They’ll probably try and rip you off
- You’ll hear yes a lot when actually they don’t have a clue what you’re saying
- You’ll find the blatant poverty around difficult to deal with
All of these things happened on at least one occasion..
Kelly had a particularly hard time as she currently has pink hair! I don’t think we ever got further than 100m without some kind of comment either directly or indirectly, and EVERYONE WAS STARING AT US, ALL THE TIME or asking to take photos with us, we were at times like celebrities. In the four days we were in Kolkata, I think I only saw about 5 other white westerners, so it’s fair to say we were the minority, and seeing someone with pink hair certainly isn’t commonplace!
But when we met decent people, they were truly awesome! From the 80 year old at the station today helping reassure us about our tickets and bought us chai even though he could barely speak English, to the Chelsea fan who helped us look for alternative trains at the station, to the wonderful family we sat next to on the sleeper train who fed us. A special shout out goes to Shekhar who we met on couchsurfing, who took us out for dinner and drinks: he was overwhelmingly hospitable and later drove us around the city giving us our own private tour! This kind of genuine hospitality for no personal gain is so alien in England and no natural here, it really makes you think. To all of those I’ve met on this trip so far, thank you.
Like a duck to water
I am writing this whilst on a sleeper train to Varanasi, after a particularly hectic day trying to find an alternative train (first one was delayed by TEN HOURS). This trip has already been a huge eye opener and to be frank, a smack in the face (hence the title), but we’ve got on with it well. Kelly in particular hasn’t let anything phase her at all, and is actually trying to talk me away from taking the opulent route on anything we do (like staying in the station for 15hours to avoid paying a tenner for a hotel, f*** that). Now we have 3-4 days in the holy city over Ghandhi’s birthday, which should be quite amazing. This part of the trip will be equally as difficult though, with the city renowned for its public cremations and poverty. We shall see how we cope!