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.
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.
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.
Woman wear brightly colored saris 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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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!