India is incredible, no doubt about that. But my 2-week journey to this exotic land has added more dimensions to the term ‘incredible’ than I could ever imagine. Some places were incredibly beautiful, some incredibly poor and dirty, some incredibly disappointing while some incredibly exceeded our expectation. Some people were incredibly kind and warm, some incredibly aggressive, some incredibly fun to be with, while some incredibly cunning. It is no surprise that we experienced a very turbulent emotional roller-coaster during those 2 weeks, from incredibly upset and frustrated to incredibly ecstatic and happy. We only saw a few facets of this vast colorful kaleidoscope of cultures, nature and people, but already we were in love with the sub-continent.
Part 1 – Kolkata
To us, Kolkata is a city forever stuck in the past. The glorious intellectual and cultural capital of India is falling into decay. Walking around Kolkata feels like being in a slow-motion post-war movie made decades ago, with a dilapidated airport, crumbling facades, squalid streets, heart-wrenching poverty, and suffering human horses. We did not manage to see any trace of the noble and vibrant former capital of British India during our 1.5 days stay in the city. Even the exterior grandeur of Victoria Monument could not save it from its perishing interior.
But with hindsight, we are glad we chose Kolkata to start off our journey. It is a perfect place to warm up and sort everything out, if you are like us, coming to India during Christmas high season with no transportation and accommodation booking. It has the best exchange rate, the cheapest (but delicious) foods, the most helpful travel agents, and the most laid-back atmosphere that put you right at ease. As described in Lonely Planet, Kolkata is much friendlier and safer than India’s other mega cities; it is the place where you ‘feel’ more than ‘visit’. Feel the slow vibe of the surroundings, feel the nostalgia in semi-collapsed buildings, feel the warm humanity in mass-feeding activities for the poor, feel the surprising eco-friendliness of unfired clay chai tea cups, and feel the love chefs put into their mouth-watering Bengali dishes. Above all, feel the courtesy, good humor and intellect of its people. Nowhere else in the world could we find more insightful philosophers in random hole-in-the-wall travel agencies. Here are a few quotes as examples:
“Everything is possible, but some things are not possible” (when we asked whether we could book some train tickets just a few days ahead of time, and then wanted tickets for specific destinations on specific days with specific classes)
“When travel in India, you need a pill of patience” (when we complained how difficult it was to get things done quickly)
“A year may not be enough, but a day may” (when we admitted 2 weeks were too short for India)
View of Kolkata from our taxi
A sweet kick-off for our journey – chai tea served in unfired clay tea cups.
This is how chai tea is made in India. A concoction of tea, milk, sugar and some spices is boiled, and then filtered through a fine mesh cloth.
You can find chai tea everywhere, from street vendors like this, to wandering vendors with a big thermo flask on trains.
A boy sorting out the clay teacups. All are handmade, hence not perfectly round.
Once used, the cups are thrown away. You may think it’s a waste of labor and money, but for locals, it is much cheaper to make the cups from clay than to buy plastic cups. It creates jobs. And most importantly, the cups are degradable, hence more environmental friendly. We were so impressed, we decided to wash our cups and keep them as souvenirs, despite the curious gaze from the locals.
We found a wonderful restaurant on Sudder Street called Bhoj. It is clean, tastefully decorated, and serves amazing Bengali foods, most notably its fish curry.
Bhoj’s prawn curry is equally yummy.
Chole and Batura for breakfast at Kempton Hotel, delicious!
A very popular food stall in Sudder Street. Every night, locals crowded this tiny place. As we only had 2 weeks and did not want to risk a stomach upset or food poisoning, we did not dare to sample any street foods. If we had had more time, definitely would have given this place a try.
Another street vendor selling something like a mini version of Kempton’s chole and batura. When moving around, street vendors somehow manage to put everything – the bamboo high stool, the basket, the pots, and all the foods – neatly on their head and walk so elegantly and effortlessly that at first we did not even know what they were carrying. Quite fascinating!
Other tea and food stalls on the streets
Shoe cleaners at a local market
Vendors at local markets selling everything under the sun, from fresh fruits to ethnic clothes, from cheap plastic earrings to antique coins.
Apart from the markets, life is quite slow everywhere else in Kolkata. Poverty is really in your face.
Mass feeding of the poor
This is a so-called ‘house’ for some locals, so tiny the inhabitants cannot even stand up straight. There’s hardly any furniture, no real kitchen, and of course no bathroom or toilet.
Two locals getting ready for a new day.
It was quite cold in late December, so poor people have to keep warm by burning whatever they can find, papers, rags, logs, anything that can be burned really.
We saw lots of people on the street, hanging around fires, or chatting over some chai tea.
A local barber
A man washing his feet with a rare hand pump in the city center
Pulled rickshaw is a popular mode of transport in Kolkata, but it is restricted to small alleys only.
We could not help feeling terribly guilty when using these human horses, even just once. On the other hand, that is their only source of income, so which is worse, using and pay them so that they can put foods into their mouths and their children’s mouths, or not using their service, and let them stay out in the cold for the whole day without a penny in their pockets?
Men carrying goat milk around the city
A street painter near Victoria Monument
Women gathering under the statue of Indira Gandhi
Melted candles near a church in the city center
A man feeding two goats in his shop
Another man carrying chicken to the night market (probably???)
An ingenious way of hanging clothes without hangers or clips
We saw two American girls getting henna painted by some local women sitting by the street, so we decided to have henna too, for the first time in our life.
The henna ‘artists’
Henna in the making
And the final products ^_^
After having henna, getting all train tickets and accommodations booked, we were set to roll on and discover India.