April 30 - May 3, 2016
Arriving in Kolkata
The bus dropped us off around 6 in the morning after a 12 hour drive from Kathmandu. Despite the early hour it was already hot and steamy. Several cab drivers accosted us but we declined when we realized the street we wanted to go to was only a short walk away (though that didn't stop the cab drivers for asking for $4 for the ride). We asked for directions and found ourselves on Sudder Street, which offers a lot lodging options for tourists. Walking on Sudder Street we were able to see the street vendors preparing for the day, the city was still relatively calm and quiet. Some street vendors were still asleep on benches or new papers around their shops. I think they live and work at their shops.
We hadn't reserved a hotel in advance and we found ourselves in a bit of a predicament. It was so early that not much was open and we needed wifi to research hotels. After a long and uncomfortable journey we wanted a descent hotel. We stopped at an expensive hotel hoping to eat breakfast there and use their free wifi but they were very hesitant to allow us to use their wifi and the password they gave us didn't work. Back on Sudder Street we looked for hotels on our own and found a gem. Galaxy Hotel is clean with air conditioned rooms; we were sold!
The City of Kolkata
Excited to explore Kolkata, we put down our bags and set out. The city was waking up and as we walked cars were honking and street vendors shouting. Kolkata actually has side walks, a nice change from Darjeeling where we had to compete for space to walk in the road. Kolkata also, surprisingly, has a metro system.
We walked through the oppressive heat for too long (currently there is a heat wave) before arriving at the Victoria Memorial. This giant building almost looks out of place in contrast to the rest of the city. We walked through the museum area of Memorial to learn more about the British colonization of India. While walking out of the museum we received several stares from Indian men. A few were brave enough to ask for pictures with us. We posed for about 4 selfies, feeling like celebrities, though surely it was our white skin that caught their attention.
We ventured back to the hotel via park street. Observing the selection of nice restaurants we decided we would return later for dinner. Walking back we received some more stares (most friendly), a few hellos, and were beckoned by shopkeepers into their stores. Some bold children beggars persistently followed along side of us before getting the message that we would not give them money. Perhaps the most aggressive of all hagglers are the rickshaw drivers. Everywhere we turn they are bothering us to ride with them. As we walked, it was interesting to observe that Kolkata is not a city set up for tourists. It's refreshing after being in Kathmandu. The stores, stalls and restaurants here all cater to locals.
In route to dinner we got to were able to slow down in the reprieve of night air. Though still very hot, the heat was more tolerable. We were stopped by three Indian men to answer a few questions while being filmed for a short segment for their YouTube Channel. On park street we found the most crowded restaurant and figured it must be good. Surprisingly though it looked like crowds of people were waiting we scored a table for two. I think we were the only foreign tourists there. The restaurant was Indian and Chinese- Northern India definitely has a Chinese influence.
On the way back from dinner we observed an intricate process of several street vendors preparing paan. It was almost like an art form the way they mixed the multiple ingredients- areca nut and tobacco inside the betel leaf. They fold the leaf into a triangle to be chewed. Chewing on paan is supposed to be refreshing and is often consumed after a meal. It’s a bit of a nasty habit as people who do it frequently have red stained teeth. When people choice to spit the betel leaf instead of swallowing it, they make red stains on the ground. It can also lead mouth cancer.
Booking our First Ticket India
It was complicated, had to get sim card with local number. Trains fill up weeks and sometimes months in advance. We were forced to buy last-minute fares. We had to login prior to 10am the day before the train ride, select our train, and continue to buy it within 5 minutes. After 5 minutes most of the last-minute train rides were sold out.
Click here for complete overview of Indian Trains.
Early Morning Kolkata
The following morning we were out early and again able to see the city waking up. We noticed many people showering in the streets as they lathered up and rinsed in faucets above the sewers. The smells of the city are unavoidable- for better or for worse. Some smells are welcomed like the sweet smell of chai or hot street food cooking, but of the variety of smells most are gross- think urine and garbage. In our sandaled feet we had to be cautious of where our feet landed, to be mindful that we didn’t step in a pile of trash or questionable stagnant puddles of “water.”
Old China Town
We headed in the direction of Old China Town but couldn't manage to find it. Instead we walked through a bizarre which actually may be all the remains of China Town. At only 8 in the morning the heat was already intense. In the bizarre we observed many men getting haircuts outside, a lot of sick looking stray dogs, some men wearing a piece of fabric wrapped around their waists, and a goat being slaughtered above a sewer grate. These water sources above the sewer really are used for everything from showering to washing dishes to slaughtering animals.
Later in the evening, when the temperature had cooled somewhat we decided to venture to a different part of the city for some fine dining. We took an incredibly cheap uber ride, about 20 minutes away, to the east part of the city. We got dropped off at Science City, which was close by the hotel where we had dinner reservations. Science City was a pleasant surprise, it was a huge space with manicured gardens out front, rides, a museum, and a 3D theater inside. Entrance was only 40 rupees per person, less than $1 each. You can tell the museum is for locals not tourists with that kind of price. We played around in the museum, it had interactive exhibits demonstrating different scientific properties. The museum is oriented towards kids but can be enjoyed by everyone. It could be better maintained but we still had fun. The crowd in this part of the city was cleaner and more well put together- no bare feet or shirtless men here.
After the science center it was a short walk to the five-star hotel where we had dinner reservations. We were amazed by the splendor of the hotel. It was surrounded by a moat. Inside there were several restaurants. When we reached Peshwari we were greeted with great hospitality by the host. He led us to our table. We shared a tandoori salad with paneer (cheese) and a meat platter of lamb and chicken cooked in different styles.
To start the meal, we were served a flaky bread and raw onions which seems to be a staple at the beginning of dinner here. The friendly host insisted that we try their ‘dal’ that is cooked for 24 hours. We couldn’t say no. He brought us a sizeable free sample telling us we couldn’t leave without trying their famous specialty. The meal was great and the service, fantastic. It was so interesting to see the extreme differences between the area of the city where we are staying and the more luxurious lifestyle of the 5 star hotels.
The Mall and a Movie
We had plans to see a movie in English the next day, mostly to escape the insufferable heat. The movie theater was in a mall just two metro stops away. We paid only 5 rupees per person for the metro (7 cents)! As the metro pulled up it was a daunting sight- I didn’t think we were fit as people were stuffed into the subway cars like sardines. But, when the train stopped almost half of the crowd spilled out of the subway doors making room for us.
Ok, I feel the need to do some damage control now…my first impressions of Kolkata were, “dirty, chaotic, smelly, and poverty ridden city,” but Kolkata is a HUGE city and there are dramatic differences between the different areas of the city. When we got off of the metro we were in a cleaner area with larger sidewalks, less traffic, less honking and people dressed in professional attire.
We entered the mall and ate breakfast before seeing the movie. To get into the movie theater we had to go through metal detectors- a common practice here as we’ve seen it in nice hotels and the metro too. After passing through the metal detectors we were each scanned by security guards and had to check the battery of our cameras until after the movie ended. We couldn’t enter the theater until the exact time the movie was to begin. There were lots of previews and photo copies displayed on the screen of poorly-scanned documents indicating the movies authenticity--just another example of good old Indian bureaucracy. To our surprise, some graphic previews included real footage of people crossing the street in Kolkata and getting hit by cars to encourage people to use caution when crossing the street.
The movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane was actually very entertaining with a few twists. In the middle of the movie there was a pause for intermission. Before we could get up to go get a bottle of water a server came to take our order! What service.
When the movie finished we walked around the area attempting to find sunscreen. It was very difficult to find any quality sunscreen which is interesting considering the sun is so intense here. No sunscreen but tons of whitening products and lotions. We made a stop by a beautiful Jain temple which unfortunately wasn’t open. It was the most beautiful building we’ve seen in Kolkata.