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Flag of India  , West Bengal,
Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Kolkata (or Calcutta to give it its English colonial name) is a crazy, whirlwind of a city. As we were only here for a few days, and because we needed somewhere close to the airport to welcome my cousin Dan and his wife Mel for their single night en-route to Australia, we'd chosen a hotel in the new town area.  My gosh we were in for a treat – so posh!  Plush hotel, huge private Jacuzzi just outside the room, exceptional food and 5-star service.  It couldn’t really have been in more contrast, however, to the city outside.

On our first full day we took a cab to see some sights – and the cab ride itself was the main attraction of the day – it weaved its way in and out of heavy traffic, down packed narrow lanes with rickshaws, horse-drawn carts, motorbikes, lorries and wonderfully diverse and colourfully dressed people, beeping its horn wherever it went (as did everyone else – an enormous cacophony at all times of the day, anywhere in the city).  We were surrounded by small shops and houses spilling out into the street, piles of rubbish everywhere and an endless spider-web of open-air cabling - all giving the impression it might collapse at any second into the street.  As we rode the smell shifted from over-powering incenses, to glorious food cooking, to sewage and everything in-between.  It was a giddying introduction to India and an assault on every one of our senses.  By the time we had reached our first destination (a Hindu temple) we took a few minutes to realise it was actually closed already, by which time we had been surrounded by orange-clad monks begging for money (do monks normally beg?!).

We gave up on the temple and headed instead for the Victoria Memorial – a monument built for Queen Victoria and her children and one of the many reminders of the former British rule of India. Kolkata is rich in this history as by the late 17th century it had become one of the major trading centres of the East India Company (the British trading company that effectively ruled much of India until the late 19th century, when Indian revolt led to power being transferred to the crown).  This led to rapid growth along the Hooghly river that flows through the city. Today it is a city of more than 4 million and forms the capital of West Bengal, a fascinating state of India that covers an area a few hundred kilometres south of Kolkata right up to Darjeeling in the Himalayas.  After India’s formal independence from Britain in the early 1950s (led by Mahatma Ghandi who is so revered across the country his face appears on all the bank-note denominations) Kolkata was one of the places significantly impacted by how the country was split - into the Hindu centre and Islamic east and west - creating Pakistan and what was ultimately to become Bangladesh (this split agreed much to Ghandi’s dismay).  Formerly peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims melted away as people fled to be on the "right side" of the border. Those left on the wrong side were persecuted and even murdered by extremists.  Today those tensions are much reduced on this side of the country at least, and there is still a relatively strong Muslim influence across West Bengal, resulting in an overall relatively conservative state government.

Kolkata isn’t really very touristy at all – very, very few European faces.  This made us somewhat of an event– people stared at us open-mouthed as we walked past, and every few minutes someone would ask to have their photos with us, a very strange feeling.  In the new market area (where Tracie successfully bought herself three tailored sets of Salweer Kameez outfits) it resulted more in being hassled by the numerous market touts trying to direct you towards their friend’s shop, or beggars that would grip your arm either side and tug at it as you walked asking for money.

We also soon learnt that India isn’t somewhere you get anything done in a rush or straight-forwardly.  On one occasion we had just stepped into a taxi, when he pulled over and asked us to wait just a few minutes.  Those few minutes involved us sitting in the cab whilst someone hoisted it up and changed the tyre, with the cab driver looking on calmly sipping a cup of tea, before we eventually got going half an hour later.  Take booking train tickets as another classic example.  We tried and tried to arrange tickets to Darjeeling (where we hoped to spend Christmas) but online tickets don’t work because (a) you need an India phone number to register and (b) even once you sort that out with help, you need an Indian bank card to buy them and (c) they are all booked up weeks in advance in any case.  Going to the train station itself for last minute tourist quota tickets also failed – (a) you need to fill out a ticket request form on which you need to state the exact train you wish to travel on, (b) to find that out you need to queue at the information desk, then (c) queue up at the ticket desk again, only to be told that the train is full after all – so go back to (a) and start again ad infinitum.  And even queuing is not really as easy as it sounds – there is zero respect for queues here, people will just push right in front of you or worse, lean over you and push their request through the screen to the ticket operator whilst you are midway through discussing your journey with them.  It has to be seen to be believed, but if everyone does it, it works we suppose – in any case we are definitely way too British about the whole thing, something we’ll have to get better at!

In the end a kindly man put us out of our misery by honestly telling us that any train to Darjeeling for Christmas would be “totally impossible” whilst shaking his head from side to side in a very Indian way that either seems to mean no or yes depending on context – we haven’t yet quite worked that one out.

To top it all, the city is shrouded in a permanent haze of smog which means you can only really see a couple of hundred metres in front of you.

And yet...  we still look back very fondly.  The people we stopped and spoke to – from the hotel, to restaurant staff, to taxi drivers, to the many people who stopped and talked to us as we made our way around the sights – were so genuinely warm and friendly it was hard not to be seduced by it.  And the chaos, the admin, the time it takes to get things done, the queuing – these are just some of the peculiarities of India that make this such an interesting place to visit and experience.  To add to that, we had such a wonderful evening catching up with Dan and Mel again, who looked so well and so happy midway through their “mega-moon”, that in the end, as we left for Darjeeling in our cab ride to the hills we left feeling like we were destined to fall in love with this remarkable country.
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