Kolkata, the city of joy, has been pretty joyous for us in some respects. We’ve had a busy week, starting with an IPL game at Eden Gardens watching the Kolkata Knight Riders win their match. In fact, it started a couple days before that…
Grab yourself a cup of chai (or 3 if you’re Andrew) and catch up on all the goings-on.
Arriving in Kolkata
After a 3 hour flight from Goa and a wee wait for our luggage to get off the plane, we were in an Ola by about 4 pm. It became pretty obvious that driving here was going to be like driving in Mumbai, so we reacquainted ourselves with the sound of many horns within a few minutes.
It struck us that Kolkata was much more colourful than Mumbai. The buildings, shopfronts, taxis and even street signs were all just that much more eye-catching and we started lapping it up.
Meeting our Airbnb hosts
Have you worked out that we love Airbnb yet?
After 30 minutes in our Ola, we arrived at our wonderful apartment, with Rishi, Debbie, his new wife, and his Mom. The apartment is huge and very comfortable. Our room alone has a tv and air-con, which helps us stay comfortable in the heat and means Andrew can watch lots of sport! There is also a housekeeper who has done a great job looking after us and even taught me how to make coffee Indian style.
After a quick walk to find ourselves, we came home and got to know our hosts. They were even kind enough to invite us to share their home-cooked dinner before taking us out for some authentic Kolkatan chai, served in little terracotta cups.
Home cooked meals
Every morning we’ve had the delight of a home cooked Indian meal for breakfast, including beautiful fresh fruit; mango, watermelon, papaya and pomegranate to name a few alongside a more traditional dish like puri and pickle. We’ve been spoilt rotten with all the good food.
One of our main driving factors for a visit to Kolkata was to help Andrew fulfill his dream of watching an IPL match at Eden Gardens. We spent the morning, the day before the game making sure his tickets were legit, which they were, and after a wee wait in the sun he was delighted to have them in his hot little hands. It was only about 30 hours later and we were at the match!
Poverty at play
Speaking of hot little hands, we make the most of being up near the cricket ground and a bunch of other attractions and quickly get targeted by some young kids who come begging for money. They gave up before the adults they were with sent them back for another try. It continues to pull on our heartstrings but we continue to say no. This is a continuing theme throughout our time in the city. One small child even latched onto Andrews’ leg at one point.
Seeking out some shade
While in Kolkata we’ve often sought some shade during the hottest hours of the day. On 3 occasions we’ve ended up at a museum, none of which are air conditioned, but many of which have strategically placed fans. We’ve visited the Indian Museum where my favourites are one exhibit on the masks in Indian culture and one of ‘sculptures of the Indian anthropology’. Lots of very beautiful intricate statues of goddesses caught my attention.
We also visited the Victoria Monument museum which had a very interesting display on colonialism in India and was pretty stunning on the inside. It reminded us of St Pauls in London.
We also took a trip to Science City which was full of interactive displays. While these have all been interesting it makes us really appreciate how modern Te Papa, our national museum, is.
On route to the Indian Museum, we wander across the edge of the New Market bazaar. On the way, we are accosted by a young guy who walks with us, drops us at the door and invites us to see his shop. We say “maybe…” and go into the museum.
After about 2 hours we leave the museum and our new friend is waiting for us outside! He takes us for a meal as we are hungry and need a drink, and is very respectful, waiting until we finish. We agree to go to his shop.
We follow him through the new market and down a building. At this point, we’re feeling like we are in a literal tourist trap, especially when his boss closes the door behind us. They show us some beautiful scarfs and pashminas but we walk away with only one small scarf which is helpful for me when visiting temples, churches, and mosques.
Later in the week, we end up at the Baba Bazaar, and I reckon it’s the most authentic experience we’ve had yet. Winding streets with items on each side of the sidewalk, people haggling for good prices, traffic, trucks, street food vendors…. It all got a little much for me and I had to duck into a church carpark to get away for it for a few minutes. It was a real thrill, but I’m glad I could seek some respite.
After our experience at the flower market in Mumbai, we were excited to go to one in Kolkata. We ended up there twice, once early in the morning and one later in the day. It was more spread out then the Mumbai market and had a different vibe, but we still got to see some awesome flowers, spices, teas and veggies, all under the backdrop of the Howrah river and the Howrah bridge.
It was interesting to visit the riverside early in the morning and see so many people getting ready for their day; washing clothes, washing themselves, cooking, just going about the normal stuff we all do in the morning, but by the river. We even saw some men doing their yoga asanas towards the sun.
Kolkata is a very walkable city, although the pavement is a little hard to navigate in some places. We walked about 4 or 5 kms at least every other day, and despite the heat, it felt pretty manageable.
During our walks, we’ve seen some not so nice stuff. A very very thin man sleeping on the street. A small child taking a wee on the footpath. Blind, amputated, and injured men begging. Children as young as 2 begging. A monkey chained up and forced to dance. In fact, we’ve seen lots of animals who look in bad shape, from horses and monkeys to dogs and goats. It continues to be really hard to look at.
We didn’t have much luck with rickshaws, to begin with – it was only until our hosts told us that the rickshaws have very strict zones that they can operate in. This made sense and once we understood how the zones worked we had much more success. A rickshaw from one of the big traffic hubs to our place cost just 14 rupees, as long as we shared the ride with 2 other members of the public. Ridesharing is effective and efficient if not a little random.
Trying it on
One rickshaw driver tried it on with us though – he wanted to charge us 100 rupees for a 2km ride. We told him that our last ride was only 14 rupees and asked if he would take 50, but he was not keen, so we jumped out and walked. In retrospect, we wouldn’t pay $NZ2.50 and he wouldn’t take $NZ1.25….we should have just accepted the price and taken the ride.
During our walk home, we stopped for some chai from a street vendor. After three cups, (one for me and two for Andrew) he also tried to charge us 100 rupees. It turns out that each cup is worth 10 rupees, so we paid him 30 rupees and left. So cheeky!
Chai, coffee, and noms
On top of our beautiful homemade breakfasts, we’ve also been enjoying lots of street food. Thali, Kathi rolls, Chai, fresh fruit, Samosas and lots of Indian candy. Eating street-side continues to be affordable, with one lunch costing us just 54 rupees, and that included a litre of water! We had a big handful of salted watermelon another day for just 10 rupees!
We were pretty delighted to enjoy a meal out with our hosts on Friday though – pizza and beer, just what I wanted as a break from all the traditional food.
Andrew brings a lot of joy to the local chai wallahs, as he always has more than 1 cup. They laugh at him when he is on his third. He hasn’t yet asked for a fourth but if he ever does, I hope they offer him a bulk discount.
Easter Sunday we spent the day checking out a couple spiritual sights, but that theme continued into the week too, a good example of what we are likely to experience at Varanasi, our next stop.
We visited St Pauls Anglican Cathedral, the largest in Kolkata, before having the most intense experience yet, at the Kalighat Kali temple. We follow a Brahman around as he explains each part of the temple and I end up with an elbow to the face as I am flushed in front of and then quickly away from, the statue of Kali herself. Get many blessings for happiness in our marriage and for many babies. Much like the man in Mumbai, we end up with more red string after throwing flowers into a fire and making a suitable donation.
Later in the week, we visit the Birla Mandir, a very calm, peaceful and quite beautiful Hindu temple just down the road from our apartment. It couldn’t have been more different from our experience at the Kalighat, just 3kms away.
We also stumbled across St Andrews during one of our walks. A church set up by a bunch of Scots late in the 1800s. Very plain and simple, but with such an interesting history.
During one of our walks, we also see not one, but two funeral processions headed toward the burning ghat, or crematorium. I anticipate we’ll do a lot more learning around the Hindi practices of this while we’re in Varanasi, as it is right on the Ganges river.
To round off our spiritual experience we even visited Mother House, where Mother Theresa worked and lived and is now resting in peace. Again, very simple, but a very calming and quite humbling to witness.
Something that wasn’t so calming at Mother house, or any of the other places we have visited, has been the number of people who walk up and just say ‘Selfie?” before whizzing around and taking a photo. Once one person does it suddenly there are 10 more people who arrive and want to do it. It’s fun and games at the cricket, and even in the street, but it’s hard work at a dead lady’s tomb!
In contrast, because I have my camera around my neck about 80% of the time, some people just want me to take their photos. So I oblige and now I have a small collection of photos of random people who I do not know.
We love Ola, but sometimes Uber is just a little more cost effective. On one of our few uber trips, our uber car was hit by a bus (just a little puncture by my door, nothing serious). The driver came to a quick halt, leapt out of the car and picked a fight with the bus conductor before leaping into the driver’s window of the bus, via a step up on the front wheel. Everyone around was suddenly involved and had an opinion. We were pretty lucky it didn’t turn into a full blown fight, but there were some heated words shared. We made it to our destination safely, but the driver was not best pleased. Always interesting to see how these things are dealt with!
So the ATMs over here are generous with the big notes (we are also trying to withdraw large sums to keep the bank fees down…) but 2000 rupees is hard to get changed by your local street food vendor or rickshaw driver when they’re asking for less than 100 rupees from you. We tried to break the note at a smallish supermarket and got told a flat out “no”. So we had to leave without our items.
We had to visit 3 banks before we could find someone to help us break the note, and even then he could only give us 500’s. Better than 2000 but still enough to get a filthy look from a street vendor.
That’s it… I’m spent. Those are just a sample of my many thoughts and experiences in Kolkata. Soon I’ll share details of our upcoming time in Varanasi, arguably the spiritual capital of India.