I arrived Kolkata (used to be spelled Calcutta) in India after three flights that were all delayed. I took a taxi to my hotel, which encountered the most heavy and chaotic traffic that I have ever seen. Then the driver couldn’t find my hotel, which required several turn-abouts in the street causing the usual cacophony to rise another notch as all other vehicle drivers leaned on their horns. There were man-pulled rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, autorickshaws along with cars, taxis, trucks and motorcycles. If you wonder if I am safe here traveling alone, I can tell you that the biggest danger, by far, is crossing the street or walking along it in this traffic when the sidewalks are full! As I consulted my map to find landmarks in my neighborhood, it all was a mystery since most of the signs and certainly the street signs, if there were any, were in Hindi, which is unreadable to me. Then the afternoon traffic was at its zenith so I didn’t go very far that first afternoon. Kolkata reminds me of India as it was 25 years ago when I first came. The view from my hotel window describes the life here. Since there are no hostels in Kolkata, I was hoping to find a small hotel or guest house that is patronized by back packers that socialize in the common areas. But alas, I am in a modest hotel, which can be described as grotty and there are no backpackers here. Actually the room is fine except it seriously needs paint and a good floor scrubbing. I am not finding many (any) western tourists here. People often ask if I’m British or German—and are surprised but pleased when I say I’m from the USA. The second day I walked ‘west’ which I hoped would eventually take me to the Maiden, their ‘central park.’ While I did ask a few times for verification, I did run into the Maiden and walked a long ways to see the Victoria Memorial. As my LP guidebook said, “think US Capitol meets Taj Mahal.” It’s a huge white marble extravaganza, which was built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1901. Just walking around the streets and stopping in for chai now and then (tea cooked with milk, sugar and cardamom) is both interesting and challenging because of the traffic and level of activity. People were bathing (with their clothes on) at pumps on the sidewalks, hauling all sorts of stuff with their bodies and with rickshaws, and selling everything imaginable on the sidewalk. They also were preparing food outside of small restaurants, which, I gather kept some of the heat outside and maybe enticed people to come in and eat some of their cooking.
Later I walked back to the Maiden and enjoyed the Indian Museum. What a collection of very old Buddhas and related pieces. I enjoyed a 2300-year-old beautiful lion. There was a Second century BCE Barhut Gate from a Buddhist stupa that was colossal.
Next was linner, which I had at an upscale restaurant, the Marco Polo. I had a Kingfisher beer, a green salad (huge plate of lettuce, then slices of cuke, onion, red carrot, and tomatoes), a lamb dish with a gravy with many spices and some tandoori roti (bread). The usual ‘pickle’ (a very hot concoction) and onions soaked in red vinegar accompanied. The electricity goes off for a couple of hours a day but the hotel has a noisy generator, which keeps the lights, but not the lift, on. Since I’m on the 4th floor that gives me some good exercise.
Saturday was one of those days—I was planning to walk to see St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Academy of Fine Arts; then I would stop at an internet café and do my email. I walked along the Maidan and was treated to seeing their Lawn-Mowing-Detail, which was a herd of goats. Then I continued following the map but discovered I was on the wrong side of the road with no access across a high fence to St. Paul’s. Ditto the Academy. So I walked a long way around and headed back on the Wrong street. OK, back to get the right one and finally reached St. Paul’s, which was beautiful from the outside but a disappointment on the inside. Continuing on to the Academy, they have new hours—open at 12:00 instead of 10:00. It was now 10:30—shall I wait? No, I decided to go to an Internet café and do email. Along the way I encountered a Hindu Street Shrine. I also saw an Indira Gandhi statue.
Well, after finally finding the Internet cafe, I was locked out of my account, presumably because they didn’t expect me to be in Kolkata! Of course I couldn’t remember my ‘alternate’ address and for some reason the telephone number was out of date, too, so I was plumb out of luck. I gave up and had a chai from a little stand on the sidewalk. It was served in a pottery cup—I wondered if they reuse these or just throw them away? Back to my hotel—the electricity was off so the lift was not working, and by now I’m ready to drop of exhaustion. I asked at the desk where I could get a beer. Lots of perplexed looks and finally he suggested that I would have to take a taxi, etc. I decided to skip it and went off to a local restaurant for linner. Hah! 30 feet from the hotel was a wine/beer shop. Next problem—they couldn’t/wouldn’t open the bottle of Kingfisher beer that I bought. (Probably off-sale, only) But another solution—they had a fancier Kingfisher that had a pull-off cap—I’ve never seen one of those before. So I bought it and brought it back 30 feet to my hotel and drank it straight out of the not-so-cold bottle. Then back to the local restaurant to have some chicken biryani, which was good, although the chicken was pretty skinny.
Sunday morning I changed hotels and then took a taxi to the train station to see about getting a train ticket for the next morning to Bhubaneswar, pronounced something like Buuf’-nesh-zvar. I had to show them the printed name as I couldn’t pronounce it well enough to be understood. My taxi crossed the famous Howrah Bridge, which had a jillion people walking across and a solid line of cars. What an experience! The famous Howrah Train Station was HUGE and teeming with people. There were many doors and I finally walked along enough to find the right one to buy a ticket. Even then I had to go three places and discuss all of this with several people until they needed a copy of my passport (which the hotel had not returned to me!) before they could issue the ticket so that ended that. I took a taxi back to my hotel and the desk clerk contacted a travel agent! It’s hard to get used to the number of people that are anyplace—like the train station. There must have been 20,000 in that huge place! Later a travel agent secured a ticket for me but not for Monday, as they were fully booked, (everybody is going to Bhubaneswar??) but for the next day, Tuesday.
Then I came upon a rickshaw with a full load of live chickens, heading to the chicken market.
And I saw someone not so fortunate—he was sleeping on the sidewalk on cardboard under a blanket. It gets down to about 55 degrees at night, so that can’t be much fun. As I paused for a chai at a sidewalk stand, I asked a young woman if they threw the little pottery cups away, or if they reused them. She told me that they threw them away and pointed to a barrel for the purpose. I walked to the Academy of Fine Arts where I had been yesterday and not gotten in, today arriving just at the stroke of 12:00. Alas, today, in spite of postings to the contrary, it wasn’t going to open until 1:00! So I gave up and headed to a restaurant to eat. I had linner at a restaurant called the Teej. The interior was beautifully decorated with murals and paintings.
I had one of the best meals that I have ever had in my life. It was a thali, which is rice and bread served with several small bowls of different dishes. This was vegetarian so had quite a bit of paneer—kind of like solid cottage cheese, with various sauces; also potato and other vegetables. It was sensational! Walking back to my hotel I photographed some Hindi writing, which would demonstrate why I can’t read the signs! I’m enjoying Kolkata but Tuesday will travel on to Bhubaneswar, which is about seven hours (by train) south of here in the state of Orissa.