Kolkata (Calcutta) 20 July - 2 August 2010
It was almost dark when we reached the outskirts of Kolkata. For this reason we'd booked ahead to the Howrah Hotel where we stayed in our last brief trip to the city - see our last Indian page prior to Bangladesh - so imagine our delight when we finally got to reception to be told they had no room for us! Apparently the internet form which had confirmed our booking has not been working for the last year. Might be helpful to have it saying that rather than "Thank you for contacting us"!! As this was admittedly a bit vague we had tried to confirm our booking from Bangladesh but for some reason our Bangladesh SIM card was barred from making calls to India. Anyway due to the long day and the stress of all this I lost my block with them in reception and shouted exactly what I thought of their lack of efficiency -well we had been driving 12 hours. Amazingly this wielded results and a room materialized for 2 nights only. Not sure if they chucked some poor soul out on our account but we were past caring!
As mentioned previously the Howrah has definitely seen better days. It was once a bit of a movie star - featuring in a few Bolloywood classics - but it's now definitely a has been. The actual reception area has character - all bright enamel work and unusual tiles but the room when we eventually got to it was pretty gross - very very dirty and I really didn't want to put my feet down in it. We resolved to look for somewhere else to stay the next day fell into bed and slept the sleep of the truly knackered!
Next morning we got up and walked onto and over the Howrah Bridge. This is a pretty poor area and there were lots of street people sleeping rough and it was filthy dirty - much more so than anywhere in Bangladesh. Kolkata has a name for squalor and poverty -it really suffered during the famine and drought of 1943 and then 20 years later during Partition it gained over 4 million refugees without really losing any so its over crowded slums were inundated. The situation became truly dire with people literally dying of hunger in the streets. Many relief agencies have since focused on this area and so the situation now is far better though there is a lot of poverty remaining as a glance around the streets will show.
This isn't the whole picture though and Kolkata (then called Calcutta) was once the Capital of British power it has many fine colonial buildings and is seen by many as the true cultural capital of India. The communist party has long ruled here and whilst this keeps the rents very low (and property prices far lower than any other Indian city) it means that as they can't raise rents landlords do nothing about maintenance and many lovely old buildings are literally crumbling away. As this snapshot implies there's a lot to Kolkata and it is an interesting city to explore.
Anyway on we walked under the bridge past the markets and off duty rickshaw pullers, and the little streets with below ground level shops - all very atmospheric. The traffic here remains crazy - the yellow taxis everywhere and the rickshaw pullers (who are the only ones who can get through streets submerged under knee- deep in water in some of the monsoon rains) as well as the odd herd of goats - right in the city centre!
Finally we caught the metro to Park Street where our first job was to try and find alternative accommodation. Sudder Street off Park Street is the real back packers' enclave where the cheap accommodation lies, but our big problem was that there is no parking to be had there.
Eventually we found a great spot the Sunflower Guest House a lovely 19thcentury mansion now a guest house very clean with a fabulous old fashioned man operated elevator like the one I had when I lived in Highgate.
It also had a nice little parking area out front so we were really pleased until the manager checked with the owner who said no way could we park there. We never really got a straight answer as to why not but he wasn't budging! We tried really hard to find local parking first we asked at the petrol station they wanted police consent and the police said it wasn't their jurisdiction so we started to go round in circles - basically no one wanted to get involved. Eventually we tracked down some paid parking for 75 rupees from 8pm to 8am and decided to use that …but in the end we never did. To date we've just left it -all locked up -outside on the street and have had no problems. It's a funny little road full of trucks - which the drivers all sleep on all night retreating quickly if it rains!
It is generally quiet but gets frenetic twice a day when the young ladies from the "Jewish Girls' School" are dropped off /picked up by their respective drivers. A very lively bunch they are too! Save for the gripe about parking the Sunflower has been a fabulous spot - a bit more costly than we're used to (700 rupees or $15 Aus per night) - but lovely and clean and a great central location.
With a good base we were ready to go out and explore Kolkata. Actually something about Kolkata (the heat, the humidity the traffic?) tends to sap the energy so often we don't get a lot done but this is what we've been up to between rests over the last couple of weeks.
First we visited the Kali temple Kalighat after which the city is named. Supposedly centuries old the present temple a silver grey building with bright coloured tiles dates from 1809 and weirdly the tiles on it are identical to the ones at the Howrah Hotel which is a bit bizarre! No pictures allowed inside but we managed to get one of the roof top from the next street which sort of gives you the idea.
The lead up to the temple was full of stalls selling flowers (to present to the goddess) religious artifacts and statues. Kali is the goddess of destruction - one form of Shiva's wife - and you have to make her offerings to satisfy her blood lust. Just as we saw in Nepal there is an area here where goats and sheep are sacrificed to her every morning. We missed this - which we weren't too upset about! We had a priest latch onto us and show us around and at the end he demanded that we give $50USD for the temple. We had decided to give a donation (it goes to feed the poor) but it annoyed us he expected us to give too much and we gave him short shrift. All in all it's an interesting spot - go in the morning if you want to see the goat slaughtering -once was enough in one lifetime for us!!
We had tried to see the Victoria Memorial last time - getting there 10 minutes late for the evening sound and light show. Sadly this is now off for the duration of the monsoon but we did finally manage a day visit.
Built in 1901 to honour Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee it is a really stunning building set in gorgeous gardens though Victoria looks a bit like she's fallen asleep on her throne in the main statue! Inside were a lot of ornate galleries of the city's history - no pictures allowed. All pretty impressive. Outside as well as postcards and snack vendors there were a lot of horse carriage rides, though sadly they looked a clapped out lot of horses - all protruding ribs and saddle sores. The pair in my picture looked a bit mis-matched too - surely you'd keep going round in circles!
Just nearby was another monument to the old Empire - St Paul's Cathedral. Built in 1847 this impressive building was the resting place of many who died in the 1857 rebellion - see our Lucknow page. It has gorgeous stain glass windows - one by Edward Burne-Jones according to my LP. Never heard of him but he's allegedly a big name in the pre-Raphaelite movement. An enterprising guy outside was drawing pretty good pictures of Jesus and collecting money. Actually he had done a few around the area and farmed them out to other sub -collectors - a good business!
Finally as night fell we went to the nearby Birla Planetarium. This was a really attractive building and we went in to see the "Sky at night" type of show. There was a really fierce Indian lady in charge and she told us firmly we couldn't take pictures. Half way through Andrew fiddled with the camera and he got a real telling off "How many times must I tell you??" whilst I tried to pretend not to be with him - not easy when we were the only foreigners there! Another hapless soul tried later and the lights went on and he got a real dressing down in public - so definitely no pictures! It was actually a bit stilted not a patch on the one in London but the building was lovely and the discipline admirable!
In the days that followed we took in the Indian Museum. This was apparently India's oldest dating from 1875 and it looked like it hadn't had much maintenance since. The rooms were immense big cabinets of rocks, crystals, butterflies or whatever which just went on and on! The building was actually more impressive than the exhibits and Andrew snuck a picture despite not having a camera ticket - will he never learn!
We briefly braved the shopping enclave of New Market which was a vipers nest of touts who wouldn't take no for an answer so we swiftly retreated! If I had a dollar for every time I've been invited to see a Pashmina scarf on this trip I'd be a rich women! The food market area was pretty grim - lots of dogs rats and bloody entrails! Parts of India really are designed to put you off meat for life - maybe a cunning plan from the Hindus!
Next for a bit of culture we visited Tagore's house. Tagore was a friend and contemporary of Gandhi's and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. This museum was set in his palatial (1784) family home with displays of his and his contempories' writings and paintings. Very interesting but it all needed a bit of a tidy up - parts were closed for renovation so maybe that had started.
Kolkata is a city where you can spend ages just wondering the streets - we stumbled across the house where British author Thackeray (Vanity Fair) was born in 1811, and the ornate Mosque named after Tippu Sultan - whose sons supposedly ended up as Rickshaw Wallahs in Calcutta as it then was. Kolkata is full of such hidden gems a good city for a walk.
We had befriended a few of the rickshaw wallahs who hang out in the road where we stay and as they kept asking us and needed the business we finally went for a ride. It feels a bit weird to be pulled through the streets by a barefoot man - a bit uncomfortable in a moral sense I mean - but they want and need the work so this objection seemed a bit silly. It feels VERY high up! Our road is full of rickshaw wallahs all of whom seem to sleep in their carts - a very tough life!
Whilst in Kolkata we have been spending some time with Andy Pag a fellow overlander whom we mentioned previously in this site on our 2nd Pushkar page. Andy is incredibly driving his vehicle (a converted school bus) around the world using bio-diesel largely made from chip fat so he is totally environmentally friendly. He has had a roller coaster of a trip -including a week spent in an Indian jail in Pushkar for owning a satellite phone! Andy has been on a wealth of trips and he has been a huge help to us when we've picked his brains about our remaining route through to the UK. He is also half Italian so of course he was just the man to source out the best coffee and olive oil supply in Kolkata! To hear more of Andy's adventures see his site http://www.biotruck.co.uk and http://twitter.com/biotruck
As a final treat before we were to leave Kolkata (we didn't ...best laid plans and all that!) we went to the Grand Hotel -now the Oberoi Grand. This gorgeous hotel dates from the Raj days and we had to go to their bar for a G&T sundowner! It was a decadent spot very relaxing nice pool great service - can't think why we don't say there! Then we got the bill and remembered! If you can afford this sort of place you'll love it - or like us go and look at it anyway! It's funny you step off the teeming streets - beggars, kids, touts go past the liveried doorman and into this oasis of tranquility. I guess the downside is if you stay at places like this you really don't see 99% of the real India!
We also made it to Flury's again. This Kolkata institution crops up in many novels so we were keen to see it. We had afternoon tea last time so this time we had the famed omelettes - very good - but a bit too pricey to become a habit!
As mentioned earlier getting a 3 month visa to India rather than the 6 months we wanted has thrown us a bit and we have had to re think our plans. We also found out that we can't get a permit to the Tawang Valley and much of the NE states easily so it won't be worth our going. Finally we have decided what to do. We will go south to Orissa and use the break in our visa to go to Sri Lanka. Andrew is really keen to do some surfing there and we can fly cheaply from Chennai. Obviously it's not worth shipping the car for that tiny distance we just wish they had a car ferry!
Whilst away we plan to leave the car with our Aussie friend Tim O'Reilly in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. We met Tim over a year ago and he said if we ever need a safe place to leave the car we can leave it at his factory - he runs a crab canning business. So we've called the favour in and luckily for us he was happy to help. So we journey down there over the next 3 weeks take the train down to Chennai and fly to Colombo from there. We spend a month in Sri Lanka before heading back up north to Sikkim and crossing into Nepal for our 2 month break from India and to see the east of Nepal at the end of this visa on the 19th of October. Whew - glad that's all sorted out!
As I type - Monday 2 August - we had been all set to begin the journey south a couple of days back. We will explore the state of Orissa before leaving the car with Tim, catching the train on to Chennai and the flights on to Sri Lanka on the 23rd of next month. This plan was rain checked when the poor old driver woke up a couple of mornings ago with a temperature and a bad cough - so he's having a rest in bed trying to sweat it out whilst I get the website sorted. We leave as soon as he's better - hopefully tomorrow or the next day.