Kolkata

Nick and I left our hotel and were on our way to the airport. As we walked down a side street in Bangkok we observed the chaos, falling electrical wiring and crumbling infrastructure. Nick stated, “India can’t be THAT much different than SE Asia.” Boy, was he wrong.

We bordered our flight and landed in Kolkata (India’s second largest city of 14 million people) at 2 am. After almost getting overcharged, then withheld our change, we took a taxi to our guesthouse. We drove in a late 1960’s taxi, and it seemed that all of the taxis and some cars were from a similar era. We observed the crowded streets (of working men) and makeshift shelters that lined the road. Some people slept on the sidewalk and others on the steps of buildings, sleeping bodies were everywhere. The taxi driver couldn’t find our guesthouse and angrily drove through the streets. When we arrived at our guesthouse that supposedly had a 24-hr front desk and that we notified twice about our 2am arrival, the gate was locked. Now we were alone, at 2am, in the middle of Kolkata, with barking street dogs and a urinating drunk man. We started to pound on the gate, then we yelled, this went on for 15 minutes. Finally, a tourist woke up and had to wake up the staff. The owner let us in only to tell us he didn’t hold our reservation and his guesthouse was full. Nick would not have this. He respectfully but forcefully went back and forth with the owner for 15 minutes until magically a room opened. What a warm welcome to India.

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Late 1960’s cabs

Observations:
Our experience in Kolkata was very unique as it is a poor city with little tourist infrastructure. Our friends who have experience traveling or living in India say they didn’t have the same experiences as we have had, so who knows how different the rest of India will feel. So please keep in mind this blog post is written extremely broadly and I do understand that my 5 days in Kolkata do not reflect upon the rest of the country.

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Transporting oil tins
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Samosa Man

Nick and I spent the morning wandering the streets of this new city taking in new sights and smells. Kolkata really is just like the movies we see, not the glamorous Bollywood movies, but movies like “Slumdog Millionaire”. 1/3 of Kolkata’s population live in registered slums. Nick and I passed a large slum when walking to Kalighat Temple (mentioned below) and saw toilets built over water, just like the opening scene in Slumdog.

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1/3 of Kolkata’s population lives in registered slums
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Bucket baths

Woman wear brightly colored sarais or kameez (cotton tunics) with flashy gold jewelry. Chai tea stands, jars filled with cookies and counters of sweets line the streets. There is culture everywhere, but there is also poverty unlike we have ever seen. It has become normal for street kids to approach us, asking for money or food and to hang onto our arms. They physically cling onto you and follow you. Mothers ask you to buy powdered milk for their babies (which is also a popular scam) and it’s heartbreaking. There are no rules to being homeless. People live anywhere and everywhere. Some people sleeping on the streets wear business clothing with combed hair, while others are sleeping naked and can barely move. We saw a fully nude man walking down the street and another man who looked like any other working class gentleman unable to pay for the 10 rupee (15 cent) bus fee. Tana rickshaws can be found on every street, which is a human powered (usually barefoot) mode of transportation. Public urinated is common, so are public squatters (pictured below). Young children often use drainage as toilets and it’s common to see human feces litter the sidewalk or street.

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Popular public toilets
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Painting
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Poor fate

In SE Asia I thought that I mastered the chaotic traffic. Confidence. Walk in the street and the cars will part. In India, follow every rule and it feels like you could die at any second (and I’m not being dramatic). There is no main downtown area and no area that is that drastically nicer than another. Street dogs are in poor condition, we saw some sick and shaking, some dead and some with huge infected wounds on their necks with bug crawling in them (we assume from dog fights).

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Animals and people looking for food

As a Western female, the first 3 days in Kolkata were extremely hard. On the first day, I noticed the stares. Degrading stares, up and down, left and right, which lasted what felt like eternity. When I’d pay for a bill, stand in line or ask the owner of my hotel a question I found myself waiting 15 minutes or being served after every male (that even came after me). But, whether it’s a cultural difference or affects from Western media, it something that I just have to deal with. On the second day, someone grabbed my breast while crossing the street. Later that day, a man sitting on a parked bus hawked a loony on my face, when I looked to see what happened he was staring straight at me. Uncertain if it was intentional the lack of gender equality became exhausting. On the third day, I began to notice men walking out of their way to elbow me or shoulder check me. I felt degraded and when it feels like for every 100 men in public there is only 1 female, it can get frustrating! By the last day, I turned it into a game. How many checks could I dodge? I lost count but did a pretty good job. Walking behind Nick and getting out of the way of every man comes extremely unnatural for me. However, I understand that if I am going to enjoy India, I am going to have to change the way I present myself.

This really dampened my view of the city as it was and will continue to be a hard adjustment. However, by the last day I started to notice the wonderful woman smiling at me and speaking to me in Hindi (although I could never understand them). Then the delightful men began to appear. They’d go out of their way to help Nick and I find our way or answer my questions and offer me dinner on the sleeper train. Good people are everyone and it’s our job to find them.

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A straight razor shave
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Preparing for Holi

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Activities:

Day 1:
Kolkata was the former capital of British India and is rich in history. Nick and I visited the Victoria Memorial, a white marble structure dedicated to Queen Victoria in 1901. It was described as a blend of the Taj Mahal and US Capitol. After, we visited the new market and the BBD Bagh, colonial-era buildings. We took various modes or transportation including taxis, subways, buses, auto rickshaws and the tram. It feels like everyday people are asking Nick and I about the political situation in the states, from the immigration officer in Singapore to motorbike taxi drivers in Myanmar. However, a man on the tram said something that stuck with me. He said, “Clinton should have won. Only you can stand up for what’s right.”(loose translation)


We ended the evening by watching a Bollywood film at the cinema. Although we couldn’t understand the film as it was in Hindi, the scene was worth it. Everyone sat on plastic lawn chairs and when a racy scene appeared (a man rubbing a peacock feather on a woman in a belly shirt) men in the audience hooted and hollered “Allah!” After enjoying some delicious street food, Nick and I returned to a new guesthouse for the evening. However, our room looked a little different at night with the bright lights on. We noticed the chipping, most likely lead paint, and when we plugged a phone charger into the outlet we blew our fuse. When we flushed our toilet half the tank water made it into the bowl and the other half on the ground. We made sure not to turn the fan on too high or chunky clumps of dust sprayed the room. Our sheets were dirty with rat poop and mystery blood. Needless to say, this would be the only night we spent here, but what didn’t kill you makes you stronger!

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The only time a room pushed our limit

Day 2-
On our second day we headed to the chaotic and colorful flower market. Beautiful flowers mostly used for religious purposes were sold in enormous baskets or strung together and lined the street. From the market, Nick and I walked to a small beach where we caught a view of the Howrah Bridge. This bridge is one of the worlds busiest bridges and built during WWII. Locals bathed in the beach and the shore was covered in human feces and trash. We made our way Kumartuli Street where we watched locals make idols (clay statues of deities). In the states I am most familiar with throwing on the wheel, however here they make the structure of the statue with straw then cover the straw with clay. They let the clay dry before they paint it, however never fire it. Later, Nick and I visited Dakshine Swar Kali Temple, which was our first Hindu temple. We watched locals pour milk on sacred rock structures and fully prostrate around various buildings. We took a ferry across the river to another Hindu temple, Belur Math, where we were the only foreigners.

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Howrah Bridge
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Dakshine Swar Kali Temple
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Belur Math

Day 3-
On day 3, the foreign sights and sounds felt more familiar. We started the day with a visit to the Marble Palace, an 1835 rajah’s mansion filled with original paintings and sculptures. Descendants of the original family remain in the residence and a man from the 6th generation provided us with some useful information. This residence held the first zoo in Indian (deer, porcupines, goose, birds) and feeds 400 people in need everyday. The mansion sat on a street among small shacks and homeless. Next, Nick and I headed to College Street where the streets were lined with textbook stores and we dipped into an Indian Coffee House, which although served less than mediocre coffee, was once the meeting place of freedom fighters, bohemians and revolutionaries.

After lunch, Nick and I walked around Barabazar and checked out some old cathedrals, old synagogues, and the post office. We walked around the crowded streets of old Chinatown, which after ethnically Chinese were driven away in 1962 is now predominately Muslim.

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Day 4-
On our last day in Kolkata, Nick and I visited Mother Theresa’s Motherhouse where we saw her modest bedroom (1953-1997) and tomb. Mother Theresa represents human sacrifice and worked to help Kolkata’s impoverished people for the second half of her life. Although I disagree with her views on abortion, divorce and contraception she was a giving woman that we can all learn from. She lived a simple life and influenced many. However, her work was controversy, as many Kolkatans don’t like their predominately Hindu city being known for its Catholic saint.

“…what dirt and misery,

what poverty and suffering.

I spoke very, very little.

I just did some washing of sores and dressings,

gave medicine to some.”

“An old woman…(said),

“You Mother, you big Mother, have become one of us for us.

How wonderful, what sacrifice.”

I told her that I was happy to be one of them –

And I really am.”

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Mother Theresa’s Motherhouse

After, Nick and I made our way to Kalighat Temple, an ancient Kali Temple built in x. We unexpectedly arrived on a festival day and quickly joined the mayhem. We removed our shoes and walked around the temple complex. The floor was slimy from water, dirt and blood. We entered a temple and looked out the window to watch goats, 10 feet away, being sacrificed. 20 goats a day are sacrificed here to honor the ever-demanding goddess, Kali. They are beheaded with a sword, and then cooked to feed hundreds of people in need. We watched 2 goats killed within a minute. A local had us remove a single flower from a strand for each of our family members and he said a prayer as we touched each flower to our heads. Pushing through hundreds of people we made it to a pool, the water pumped from the Ganges, where we made our final offering to Shiva, Kali’s husband. Although Hinduism has some bizarre customs, Nick and I were both thankful to be included in this festival.

Food (Bengali cuisine):

Nick and I have eaten some remarkable food in the past 7 months! We both agree that a sushi dinner in Japan (thanks mom and dad) has made our top meal. However, our second favorites differ. Nick still dreams about market stalls in central Vietnam, however for me, Kolkata has taken second place!
Bhoj Company – set West Bengali breakfast

Drive In – try a light coriander curry, jhol, which is a typical Bengali curry

Blue Sky Cafe – best Indian breakfasts with masala tea or a lassi (and wifi)

Girish Ch. Dey & Naku Ch. Nandy- You can find street stalls selling a variety of Indian sweets, including: dhoi (curd sweetended with jaggery), rasgulla (sweet balls in syrup), and cham- cham

Bhojohori Manna – try the mochar ghonto (mashed banana flower), echorer dalna (jackfruit in curry), and postor borar jhal (poppy seed dumplings in Bengali gravy)

Street food- endulge in masala dosa, Kati rolls, samosa and paw bhaji.

McDonalds- Nick and I checked out the menu and no Big Macs can be found here, only VEGGIE burgers!

Most Hindus believe that cows are sacred as they represent mothers, bearing all of the benefits of the land. Although dairy is used in a large part of India’s diet, Hindu’s will not kill cows, thus no beef will be found at McDonalds!

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Sweets shop
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Masala Dosa
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Paw Ghaji

Dong Ha & Hue

After 2 consecutive nights spent on a sleeper bus, Nick and I arrived to Dong Ha at 5am in the pouring rain. We were welcomed to Central Vietnam with the beginning of the rainy season.

Most tourists visit the caves in Dong Hoi, however due to flooding, Nick and I headed to nearby Dong Ha to visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ). This 6 mile stretch divides the north and south and millions of tons of ordinances were dropped here during the American War. It is estimated that about 1/3 did not explode. At the Mine Action Visitor Center, we saw various cartoons created to educated children on the dangers of these explosives. Every year hundreds of people are killed and injured, mostly children and ethnic minority groups. As always, learning and remembering war is heavy on the heart.

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Vietnamese Propaganda Poster

In 1966, just north of the DMZ, the villagers of Vinh Moc carved an extensive tunnel system to escape aerial and artillery attacks. These tunnels are 40- 75 feet below the surface and are extremely elaborate with 13 entrances. We met 1 of the 17 children born in the tunnels and can only imagine the life lived in the dark damp earth. As we walked to and from the caves we passed multiple craters from American artilery explosions.

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Vinh Mac Tunnels

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Man pointing to himself as a child living in the tunnels

We purchased tickets for the 8am train from Dong Ha to Hue (pronounced ‘Hway’), however as always, things don’t go as planned. The train was not running (the reason lost in translation) and the next bus (that should be running hourly) would not leave for another 12 hours. So, Nick and I sat on the side of the highway and drank coffee. To our surprise, we were able to flag down a small van with a sign that read Hue. After overpaying and getting squished in with 22 locals we arrived in Hue, welcomed by another torrential downpour.

The main attractions in Hue are the citadel and tombs, however to see these one must pay almost half of Nick and I’s daily budget. Neither of us were extremely interested so we decided to rent a motorbike and take ourselves on a self guided tour of free attractions and food. The food in Hue has been the best on our travels thus far. The influence of the north and south make for fresh and spicy dishes.

Stacia and Nick’s Scenery Tour

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Thien Mu Pagoda – Behind this Pagoda you can see the car that Thich Quang Duc (monk) drove on June 11, 1963. When he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, he got out of his car, sat in lotus position and self-immolated himself to protest the governments discrimination against Buddhists. This story has become a part of the communist party’s propaganda machine.

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Dong Ba Market – A 2 story market complex with individuals selling produce, sweets and clothing. This is a must visit in Hue.

Hue Walking Street – A relaxing walking street along the Perfume River lit up by laterns. Enjoy street food and tourist shops.

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Perfume River

Gia Long Tomb – This tomb, of the first emperor to unite Vietnam and move the capital to Hue, is off the beaten track.

Ho Quyen – This is an overgrown stone arena where elephants and tigers would fight (1830-1904) as a royal pastime. As elephants often represented royalty, the tigers teeth and claws would be removed to ensure defeat.

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Stacia and Nick’s Food Tour

Hang Me Me- Order the Banh Beo (royal rice cakes topped with shrimp and pig fat) and Banh Nam. These are local specialties and unique eats.

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Com Hen- Order the com hen (rice, herbs and oysters) or bun hen (noodles, herbs and oysters). I ordered the bun hen (without the hen) and it was one of the most flavorful dishes I have had. I also ordered an unknown desert drink which ended up being sweet corn with milk and rice.

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$0.44 bun hen (without the hen)

Che Hue – Women line the street selling che hue, sweets served over ice (purple sweet potato, sweet bean paste, coconut milk, tapioca pudding, banana, etc.). Street vendors also sell varieties of sticky rice, sweet potato with sweet coconut milk/ peanut crumbs, spongey coconut rice cakes, and banh cha (sweet waffles shaped like fish).

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Banh Cha

Lien Hoa – Maybe I am biased, but this was my favorite meal in Vietnam. At this Buddhist vegetarian restaurant we enjoyed fried jackfruit, banh beo, mecan (wheat gluten), spring rolls and sweet porridge.

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Fried jackfruit with sesame

Bun Bo Hue – A local dish similar to bun cha in Hanoi except with beef, fried oysters and lemon grass.

Banh Khoai – A local dish, fried rice crepes filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.

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Juan Thai Phu – We ordered the famous bun thit nuong (grilled pork with vermicelli, herbs and peanuts)

Mandarin Cafe – Enjoy a coffee while flipping through binders of Mr. Cu’s remarkable Vietnamese portraits.

 

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Hungry in Hanoi

After spending 45 days in snowy Mongolia, Nick and I were excited for some fresh food and warm weather. We spent 3 days exploring Hanoi and our stomachs were reset and elated. My college friend, Sarah works in Hanoi and we had a blast seeing a friendly face and staying at her quiet apartment. Thanks Sarah!!!!

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We landed at the airport and Nick quickly navigated the city bus as taxis cost about $20 to Hanoi. The bus is extremely easy, clean, and only costs $0.31 USD/ 7,000 D per ride. Once you sit down, you’ll be approached by a ticket man who will collect your money in exchange for a paper ticket.

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Hanoi is a charming city, bustling with motorbikes, a growing art scene, and ample amounts of foreign influence (French baguettes and architecture, Japanese mochi and matcha, and English speakers). The sidewalks are littered with plastic stools and woman selling noodles and sweets.

We enjoyed exploring the old quarter, West Lake and walking along the ceramic mosaic mural. From the mural you can see the Long Bien Bridge, this bridge was bombed multiple times by the U.S. and stopped when US POWs were put to work to repair the structure. The bridge symbolizes the strength of the people of Hanoi.

 

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Long Bien Bridge

The Vietnamese Women’s Museum was extremely informative and impactful, I would recommend it to any traveler. After, we visited the Hoa Lo Prison Museum “Hanoi Hilton”, Temple of Literature, and Presidential Palace. Below is a collection of portraits I most appreciated from the Women’s Museum. Click on the photos to be directed to the photographer’s website. 

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Ho Chi Minh Museum

Fruit heaven: Dragon fruit, mangosteen, star apple (milk fruit), rambutan, durian, pamelo, longan, mango, pineapple, strawberries, bananas, and green oranges (lychee and jackfruit seasons have unfortunately come and gone).

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Rambutan

Best eats:

  • State Run Food Shop No. 37 is an absolute must! This restaurant recreates what it was like during the communist era (4 USD pp/ 100,000 D). After you order you are given replicated ration coupons that you pay for before being served. We enjoyed fried tofu, greens, fried rice and cabbage water soup as a finale (pallet cleanser). The fried rice was wonderful as it’s a home style dish my grandfather use to make. This rice sticks to the bottom of the pan (upturned dome) to become crispy browned rice, it is then ripped apart and dipped in a salty sauce. 

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  • Enjoy Vietnamese coffee while soaking in the view of the old quarter and lake (Hô Hoàn Kiêm) at Ca Phe Pho Co. It’s a little tricky to find, however once you walk through a passageway of a silk store you’ll see a bar (order here) then climb a few staircases up to a terrace that overlooks the city. 

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  • Xoi Yen offers a cheap and hardy breakfast of sticky rice, corn, corn meal dried onions and optional meat (1 USD pp). 

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  • Bun Cha Nem Cha Be Dac Kim – enjoy Bun Cha (pork) or Bun Nem (vegi option) combining, broth, rice noodles, and herbs ($2.67 USD/ 60,000 D).
  • Banh Mì 25, delicious French baguettes with ground pork and vegetables ($0.66 USD/ 15,000 D – vegi options available) 
  • The Unicorn’s Pho Cocktail, delicious and involves fire ($6.68 USD).
  • The Pan Pacific (the old Sofitel Plaza) – take the elevators on the left and head up to the 19th floor. Take stairs up to the rooftop bar and soak in the sunset.

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