It was appropriate that my first port of call in India was Kolkata, formerly Calcutta and the where the British first established a base when they came to India in the 1600’s. As I transcended into the sprawling, heaving mayhem of the world outside Kolkata airport the sheer mass of people and smell the noise was nothing I had ever seen before. Not even some of the craziest places in Asia could have prepared me for this. Sure airports are busy places but this was breathtaking and at the same time utter chaotic. The air around the airport was a haze of dust, smoke and car fumes and mixed with the early evening red sun it made it look as though I was stepping out on Mars.
My first thought was to get to my hotel sharpish and hopefully leave some of this madness behind. Oh how wrong I was. The 45 minute taxi journey in an Old Yellow Ambassador was crazier than any other taxi ride I had endured in Asia so far. Not only do Indians use their horn every other second they seem to use any available space (no matter how small) on the road and drive like madmen. In the mix of millions of taxis there were hundreds of rickshaw drivers, cyclists, cows wandering aimless in the road and people just everywhere. It seemed like rush hour on acid as we sped through the crowded streets with flashes of bright colours and blaring loud Indian music emanating from everywhere.
From my window of the taxi I saw first hand the stark contrasts that surrounds life on the streets of India. Flash business types, beggars young and old, lepers, the odd cow wandering around, beautifully dressed women with colourful saris, men urinating by the roadside and unfortunately a dead human body laying by the roadside. It was a total shock and left me dumbfounded as it seemed that people took more care around the cows in the street than they did over the body. I asked the taxi driver about it and he just shrugged and said “welcome to India my friend”. As we drove closer to the hotel I noticed the grand scale of the buildings around us but unfortunately as most things in India most are left to decay. Mould and mildew scarred the remnants of the formerly white bulings around us as we stopped outside the hotel. Luckily the hotel was in good order (for Indian standards that is) and my room was clean and tidy with a good sized restaurant downstairs. I dumped my bags in my room, got washed up and down to the restaurant in great anticipation of my fist real Indian meal. I decided to gently dip my toe into the cuisine and go with something I recognized – Lassi (yogurt drink), chicken Dopiaza (literally meaning double onions) and a Alu Paratha (potato bread). It was glorious mix of maslala and spices with a touch of chilli and nothing like the westernized hot curries we get back home.It was also very filling and as I glanced around the restaurant and noted all the portly gentlemen eating there I gathered eating too much Indian can seriously impact your waistline. While I was eating I noticed that most of the men were drinking whiskey while eating so I followed suit. Taking small sips of the whiskey during the meal enhanced the meal that mush more. Feeling full I retired to my room to watch an epic cricket match – India vs Australia. India sadly lost by 3 runs as I drifted into a deep sleep.
The following morning i decided to take in the sights, sounds and smells of Kolkata and armed with a map stepped out on the streets and headed out to take in a few local attractions. It was going to be a full day with the sights of Indian Museum, Millennium Park, Victoria Memorial and St Paul’s Cathedral as my aim was to head on up to Darjeeling in the next day or so. Walking the streets was like stepping into a whole new world. Since arriving at the deserted hotel the previous night hundreds of shops had since opened up around the hotel. Each shop only taking up around a meter in width but selling pretty much anything and everything.The noise was deafing as vendors shouted for business whilst the endless streams of traffic honked and wrestled their way though the turmoil. The dust was unbelievable and the smells that wafted around mixed from urine, incense sticks, Chai (Indian milk tea) and food.
People were standing everywhere, drinking and eating and not one bit of pavement was unoccupied whether by a stall or rubbish or by people chatting. People seemed to be fixing and mending things everywhere from electrical goods to watches to TV’s. I headed off in the direction of the museum and an hour later eventually found it after going round in circles thanks to the inaccurate directions given by conflicting locals.
The Indian museum is much like the Natural History museum in London, however this one seemed to have been stuck in the dark ages. So many of the exhibits were ether out of date or falling apart it was almost comical. There were only two real interesting sections in the museum which were on the Indian cultures and on Egypt. The exhibition on Indian culture gave me an insight as to how diverse the population and cultures are within India. Although dated the museum did have a good descriptions on each of the exhibits. After this I had a quick walk round the Chowringhee area and the market and after being harassed significantly to see about a thousand shops I headed off to the Millennium Park for some peace a quiet.
The Millennium Park is situated on the banks of the Hooghly River and gives superb views of the mighty Howrah Bridge and a good place to escape the noise and fierce pace of the streets. Walking through the park was a good rest from the madness but soon I was mobbed by a couple of cafe owners who were keen to practice their English on my and to take turns and stare at me. Indians tend to stare at you a lot, its not a derogatory thing but to them seeing a white man in the flesh is a whole new world. Sat down an enjoying a cuppa Chai we started discussing the one topic Indians truly love – Cricket. Half an hour later and after a local lunch of Pushka (Kolkata speciality – best descibed as small balloon shaped poppadoms with potato and curry water) it was time to get going again after being told anything and everything about Freddie Flintoff.
It was romantic in the park as shown by the many young Indian couples canouldling. On from the park and a short taxi ride to the Victoria Memorial, one of Kolkatas finest and best maintained colonial buildings in Kolkata. The Victoria Memorial was built between 1906 and 1921 and is similar to Belfast City Hall and is a fine white marbled museum and a splendid reminder of the Raj. It is one of the grandest and most pristine buildings in Kolkata and also a museum of the history of Kolkata. An interesting and long hour later trawling through the extensive history lesson throughout the building I took a stroll round the outside of the memorial through the large grounds. It was mid afternoon and the heat of the city was beginning to tire me out.
One last tourist stop off to St Paul’s Cathedral was required to fill my tourist quota for the day. A large church rather than a cathedral, St Paul’s is grand white cathedral right next to the Victoria memorial and a another escape from the turmoil of the streets. Exhausted and all my senses battered I caught a cab back to the hotel, only to be held up in the usual and common Kolkata traffic jam. During one of our many stationary periods a fight broke out on the streets amongst us and an Islamic looking man was chased through the cars by a man welding a large bamboo stick. The taxi driver never even battered an eyelid and it was as though it was just another day on the streets.
Back at the hotel I had a nice cool shower and quick nap before heading down to book my tickets to travel up to Darjeeling the next evening and to have a bite to eat. This time I went vegetarian and ordered Channa Masala (chickpeas) and Nan which again was filling and tasty. Nothing like the creamy masala sauce you’d expect back home, but a dark sauce deeply flavoured with cummin and turmeric – some of the most widely used spices in Indian cuisine. Once again feeling full and tired I went back to my room to try and watch some TV in peace and quiet but the endless noise of car horns never stops. The next morning I woke late, the madness, noise and chaos of the city had taken its toll on me even after one day but feeling refreshed after several cups of coffee I chilled out for most of the day and went back to Chowringhee area to look around the market once more, have a late lunch of a Dossa – a southern Indian dish of a large lentil flour crepe with a filling of potatoes and curry leaves with a coconut sauce and pickle. I then decided to head and catch up on the Internet.and with each visit to the internet cafe you have to give over your passport and in some case they scan your fingerprints. After all initial checks the computers seem to be dating back from the 80’s and so very slow.
Later that evening I was heading to the train station and my first (but by no means my last) long train journey up to the Northern area of West Bengal and Sikkim which is sandwiched in between Bhutan, Nepal and China and to the cooler climate of the hills. An easy 10 hour train ride away and out of the noise and pollution of the city. Next stop Darjeeling for tea and peace!