First, on a clerical note, Calcutta was renamed, or, more accurately, respelled, officially in 2001. Spelling it as "Kolkata" is apparently more phonetically accurate to the Bengali pronunciation, whereas the "Calcutta" spelling was a viewed as a remnant of British colonialism. I'll be using the "Calcutta" spelling just because it's more widely recognized by Westerners... I think. When I arrived in Calcutta, I went straight to customs where the officer absolutely grilled me with questions about who I was and what I was doing in life. He seemed a little disappointed in me that I was not planning on volunteering in India like I had in Bangladesh. He was making me feel a little bit guilty. “India needs education too… maybe you could volunteer yourself for the same cause…” he said, leadingly.
Catching A Taxi From The Airport
I walked outside and somebody ran over to me offering the services of his taxi. I shrugged and asked him how much.
“750 Rupees” he replied.
I deliberated. I had no idea what the correct fare was.
“It’s a fixed rate,” he said sharply.
I hesitantly agreed, but as I began to follow him I noticed a group of people lined up for taxis. One of them was white, so I went over and said, “Hey, how much are you paying for this taxi?” The answer was that it was a prepaid taxi for 300 Rupees.
Can you believe that? This man was going to charge me more than double the fair rate. I almost got ripped off, hard.
So if you ever need a taxi from the Calcutta airport, be sure to get the prepaid taxi! You pay inside, and there is a line outside. In the meantime, buckle in guys, because 50% of India is going to be a never ending conga-line of people trying (and sometimes succeeding) to scam me. It has really been just unparalleled.
Hotel Review: Golden Apple Hotel
Price: 600 INR (9.24 USD) per night
I arrived in Calcutta with no reservations for a place to stay, so I split that 300 INR (4.61 USD) taxi with the westerner I had just spoken with to Sudder Street. Sudder Street is the traveler street in Calcutta, full of ticket booking offices and guesthouses. My flight from Dhaka had been delayed, so by the time I was actually on Sudder Street, most places had closed for the night. For lack of anything better, I just got a room in the same guesthouse as my new white friend. It was expensive, and in the wifi situation was pretty unforgivable. There was one room in the hotel that had wifi, but the wifi was only functional during certain hours, and only in exchange for your life story and passport. I checked out early the next morning and found a new place to stay.
I stayed in a hotel called the Golden Apple on Sudder Street. My first night there I paid 600 INR (9.21 USD) for a “cubicle,” and it literally was a cubicle. Aside from the smell of smoke, it would have been a pretty nice place to stay, if it wasn’t for the Bangladeshis a few cubicles down from me. To say they were talking on the phone loudly doesn’t quite do it justice. These guys were yelling. I thought that maybe I should just get used to it; maybe this is the way it is in India. That theory quickly faded though as Indian men I crossed paths with at the door motioned towards the Bangladeshi’s cubicle and acted out their disapproval for me. They continued their yelling until 1:00 am the first night, but I'm a patient man and I dealt with it. What I couldn’t deal with though was the fact that they started back up again at 7:30 am. I angrily threw open the door to my cubicle and, half naked, stormed down to their door, and knocked loudly. They yelling stopped when I knocked. The door opened to 2 young Bangladeshi men looking up at me, confused. Trying to be as intimidating as possible, I looked them in the eyes, and slowly raised a finger to my lips.
They were quieter after that, but I upgraded to a single room the next night anyway. I paid a whopping 1,000 INR (15.41 USD) for that room, but it was a nice room, and I could worry about being cheap later. Later down the road I met another American who had stayed in the same cubicles as me a few days prior to myself, and he had had the same experience. “Stupid fuckin' Bangladeshis!” he said in a thick southern accent.
Prior to my arrival I had known Calcutta only by reputation; stories of massive slums and malaria had made me wary of the city. But when I arrived, it I was surprised at how nice it was. It was actually really cool. (Take that with a grain of salt though, because I had just arrived from Dhaka, and Bangladesh hadn’t set the bar very high.)
The one of the first things that stuck out to me were the distinctive 1950s style cars that filled the streets. Every taxicab was something out of a Marlon Brando movie. With giant banana leaves protruding from the headlights and colorful flowers draped over every available outcropping, they took on an interesting alter ego here in India.
The buildings were similarly out of place. The city had clearly been an important hub of the British Empire in during the early 1900s. Since their departure from the Indian Subcontinent, it didn’t look as though these buildings had received much upkeep (although clearly more than the colonial era buildings I saw in Rangoon).
Still, other parts of the city were much worse. There was good and bad literally right on top of one another. The juxtaposition was powerful.
Out of all these colonial buildings, there is one that stands out above the rest. The Victoria Memorial was the crowning jewel of colonial English extravagance in Calcutta. Even to this day, the locals are proud of it, which surprised me. You’d think that they might have some sort of resentment towards their colonizers, but that was not the impression I got.
Inside the memorial is a museum. You can pay to go into it, but we chose to only purchase a pass to walk the grounds of the memorial instead. It cost 10 INR (0.15 USD). I think the Victorian Memorial must be the greenest, most well kept, least crowded point of interest on the whole Indian Subcontinent. I still have a ways to go of course, but I don’t anticipate having to withdraw that statement. It was a very nice place. India is a pretty conservative country, but the lawns were covered in young Indian couple canoodling behind the shelter of their umbrellas.
Off in the distance storm clouds loomed. A rainbow appeared, arching over the marble stones of the memorial, shortly before a light rain blew in. Everybody ran to the shelter of the trees, but it wasn't long before this little sun shower had dried up.
Mallick Ghat Flower Market
Wedged underneath Howrah Bridge is one of the coolest stretches of market that I’ve seen during my travels. The best time to arrive is around sunrise, but even at 11:00am, when I finally found my way down, it was still a sight to behold. The sweet aroma of flowers and the putrid stench of garbage overwhelmed my senses and canceled each other out. My olfactory receptors fatigued within second of entering the market.
It was so hot that I was dripping in sweat, but so was everybody else, so it was okay. At times I was literally wading through piles of compost and garbage but the bright colors of the shops and flowers were amazing. These might seem like cool photos, but I actually don’t feel like I did a great job fully capturing this place. There was sort of just too much going on to stop too long for the sake of a picture.
Behind the market is Mallick Ghat and the Hooghly River. A "ghat" is basically a flight of stairs that leads down to the water. People come here to bath and wash their clothes. You will see a lot of these as I go forward through India. They are pretty dirty looking, but at the same time so authentic and picturesque.
I made a few visits to New Market during my time in Calcutta. It helped that it was right next to Sudder Street. It was about a 5-minute walk from my hotel, so a friend and I walked over around midday. It was pretty typical… until we got to the meat market. The smell made the air thick. It was absolutely disgusting. The best time to get there in order to actually buy meat would have been early in the morning, while the meat was still fresh. By mid-day the meat had started to become rotten, and the odor! It was like swimming in/through a smell... if that's possible; it was that thick. The market had an eerie charm to it though. It looked as though the space had previously been a railway station, or something. Blood ran through the cracks in the floor, and mangy, scratched up dogs prowled the messy aisles. The fruit section had a much better smell, but it still wasn’t good.
I returned later on during my stay in Calcutta, this time during the evening. It was a nice area to walk through. The smell of Chai (tea sold on the street) and spices filled the crowded streets as I navigated through the crowds.
Even though it was getting late, it was still really hot. With the heat index, it was 117 degrees Fahrenheit while I was there. I was thirsty, so when I saw a sign for a rooftop bar, I wandered in, curious. The Indian guard told me it was at the top floor, so I took an elevator up. When I arrived at the top floor, I wandered through a hall and found myself alone in a construction site. That construction site had an amazing view though, so I stayed as long as I could before somebody noticed me and kicked me out. It was a beautiful sunset.
Trolling Calcutta’s Graveyards
South Park Street Graveyard is a famous place in Calcutta, but when we got to its gates, it turned out that it was closed for the month. "Any inconvenience is deeply regretted" the sign on the gate said. It was a bummer, but it turned out that there was another graveyard nearby, that I don’t know the name of. It was a pretty sketchy area of the city, but we walked a bit further to find the gates. At the gates of this graveyard the guard was slumped over in his chair, asleep. We tip-toed past and in. It was quite a spooky place. The sky was getting dark. It would rain soon. We walked a few hundred meters in. Stray dogs lazily slept the day away on head stones, and neighborhood children flew kites off towards the back of the graveyard, but the weirdest thing about the whole place was the crows. There were HUNDREDS of them sitting on the headstones. It was like walking through an Edgar Allan Poe poem. Did you know that group of crows is called a murder? It is.
Peter Gets Pick-pocketed
It was on the way to this other cemetery. Some street kids came up to us asking for money. That’s pretty normal, so we just didn’t engage them. One of them had a money sitting on her shoulder, like a pirate with a parrot. It was a bit weird. We kept walking, saying ‘no... no... no...’. As we walked they were getting physical with us, but they were still managing to pass it off as cute. One boy hung on my arms, as if we knew each other, and I didn’t mind. It wasn’t going to get me to give him any money though.
I have a little pouch that I take with me when I travel that attached to my pants via my belt. It has in it everything valuable: my passport, my credit cards, my plane tickets, you name it. It would be the end of my trip if I ever lost it, but it is, at all times, wedged firmly in my pocket, strung through my belt, and zipped shut. I often wonder if I’m going overboard with security.
Anyway, I felt a little hand so I glanced down. The pouch, which had been in my pocket, was now swinging freely from my belt. Those little kids had tried to pickpocket me! Actually, to be fair, they hadn't tried - no - they had succeeded. It was out of my pocket, and it would have been gone if not for the rope strung over my belt, which my shirt had been covering.
I stopped in my tracks. No more Mr. Nice Tourist. “You tried to steal from me?? Get OUT of here you little assholes!” I yelled. As I said it, a little girl made a lunge for my friend’s bag, which was now mostly unzipped. We both pushed them away and yelled at them to get away from us. The children nervously back up and left us alone. All the white guilt that I had been feeling was gone. The plight of the Indian street kid is a sad one for sure, but these kids almost got my passport. That would have been it for Peter's Big Adventure, at least for now. So screw those kids.
Peter Is Rescued From Angry "Holy Man"
"Holy men" ...yeah right. They are glorified bums. I didn't know that yet though. This was my first time in India.
I was walking down the street when I saw an interesting old man sitting at a corner talking to somebody. I snapped a picture of him. A few seconds later he looked up at me and, seeing my camera, gestured for me to come nearer. He was gesturing for me to take his picture, so I shrugged and took another picture of him: *click*
Then I gave him a smile and a wave as I started to walk away.
“100 Rupees!” he yelled.
“Uh... no?” I responded. I began to walk away again.
He jumped up and got in my face, demanding money. Not wanting to get into a fight with an old man, I tried a 3rd time to walk away. He jumped in front of me blocking my path, poking my shoulder angrily.
“100 Rupees!” he yelled again.
Okay, it seemed that in order to get rid of this other dog I was going to need to bark. “No! Now get out of my face!”
A crowd had gathered, and a young man stepped between us.
I told him, and he cringed, knowingly. He told me not to worry. Then he turned to the old man and said something to him quietly in Bengali. Like an obedient pet dog, the old man looked at his feet, disappointed, and sulked his was back to his seat on the corner.
“Wow, thank you,” I said to my savior.
“It’s okay, but you should go” he said with a smile, gesturing for me to clear the scene.
So take a note of this! Nothing is ever free. At least not in the center of large cities like Calcutta. That's not just an 'India Lesson' though; that's a life lesson.
Before I finish though, let's circle back to the guy who saved me. The only other place where I have ever had a random passerby step into a situation to help me was in Dhaka, with rickshaw drivers. It must be a Bengali thing (Dhaka and Calcutta both are Bengali). I like it. More places should be more like that.
Peter Gets Pooped On
(It was by a bird)
Eventually it was time for me to get my train ticket out. I would be going to Varanasi next. I was supremely suspicious of the people that booked my tickets because the person who had led me to them had been aggressively soliciting me weed every time I left the hotel. I was warned not to accept the ticket until my seat and coach number had been confirmed, which doesn’t happen for outside ticket sellers until a few hours before the train leaves. I probably seemed like I had a huge stick up my butt dealing with these people, but in the end they came through for me, so here’s their address: 4 Sudder Street, Calcutta, India. I admit it: they are honest people.
I got my ticket, and set out for the station 2 hours early. That turned out to be way too early, as the Calcutta train station is pretty centrally located. The universe tried to send me a sign I think, because as I was leaving a bird dropped a fat dump on my shoulder.
Indian men around me who saw it happened roared with laughter. One of them spoke English, so he yelled to me.
“In India, some people say is good luck for bird to shit on you” he said with a laugh.
All the same, looking back on Calcutta, I have a soft spot for it. It was beautiful in its subtleties.