Thursday 1 August 2019

Back to India. It’s been a whole year. Time goes fast, it doesn’t feel long since I was last there. (Not counting the brief stop Meghalaya in April!).

My usual 2pm flight to Bangalore. The highlight being vegan chocolate ganache dessert on the plane. Wow.

We arrived in Bangalore at 4.30am. We used to be the only plane arriving at this time in the morning. But now there’s a Kuwait and a Mauritius. Which meant lots of queues – although luckily the visa on arrival (e-visa) queue was zero people. But queues to get your passport checked (to ensure you got a stamp!) and hand baggage scanning (yes, they scan on arrival too! Before you pick up checked luggage).

But I’m not staying.

Well. I’m staying 5 hours. It would have been shorter, but my next plane was cancelled and this was the next one I could book.

I’m off to Kolkata. India’s third largest city after Mumbai and Delhi. A new city for me!

Kolkata is the capital of West Bengal. I was in East Bengal a couple of months ago, when I visited Bangladesh. But haven’t been to West Bengal yet.

I left my bag at left luggage. And by 5.45am I joined the huge queues for scanning to get back into the terminal. You would think being this early it would be quiet. But not at all!

We left at 10.30am. I slept for the whole plane (I had been up all night so far!). But woke as we were flying over a large delta, so many little islands.

Then over brick fields (which I only found out were a thing in Bangladesh in April!). And small towns of blue and silver buildings.

I got a prepaid taxi (£4!) for the 1 hour drive into the city.

It was hot. It’s 33 degrees anyway. The taxi is old, with no air conditioning. They are all like that here – all the same shape yellow cars! Every city has something a bit different!

Calcutta was renamed Kolkata in 2001. Calcutta was the capital of British India from 1772 until the British decided to shift their capital to Delhi in 1911. They have left lots of British style buildings, particularly in the ‘white town’, which is the area I am staying in.

I had an email warning me about strikes in the city, along with road blocks. But didn’t seem to be anything around.

Just as I had got myself ready to go out and explore. It started pouring with rain and thundering. Not ideal.

By 3.30pm, the rain has stopped and I took my chance to go out!

I ordered an Uber to take me down to the Victoria Memorial. And it took nearly 25 minutes to turn up. Completely ridiculous.

But I got there eventually. It costs 500 rupees as a foreign person to get in (verses 20 for an Indian!).

The memorial was built between 1906 and 1921 and is dedicated to Queen Victoria. It is set in large grounds, with ponds and fountains and lots of trees. And surprisingly not actually that many people. Maybe it’s a bit late in the day.

Inside is a statue of Queen Victoria. And lots of old paintings.

It was a short walk out of the grounds, to the St Paul’s Cathedral. This cathedral was built in 1849 for the British people who lived here during the British rule. It looked just like an English church inside. The only difference being the huge fans dangling from the ceiling!

From here I got an Uber back to nearby where I am staying, for a walk around the New Market.

This hectic area contains stall after stall after stall of everything – plastic things, toys, shoes, every type of clothing. I was followed and hassled quiet a lot.

I got back around 5.30pm. And still had half an hour of daylight left for some swimming!

For dinner I ordered a Bengali thali as room service. They said they could make it all vegan!

And the amount of food which arrived was ridiculous! It was really delicious – so many different vegetable curries, popadoms, puffed fried bread, falafel type things, chutney, rice. But far too much food – would have been enough for 3 people!!

Saturday 3 August 2019

I left at 7am. And outside was deserted. All the market stalls pack themselves up every evening! All that was left was neatly packaged sacks, lining the street. What a lot of effort!

I am going on a walking tour and met my guide at 7.30am. The meeting place was supposed to be a 13 minute walk away, but it took me nearly 30! Everything is so much slower here, the pavements are terrible to non-existent. And trying to cross a road, a nightmare, even at 7am!

And I was already boiling. And dripping with sweat.

The walking tour was mostly around the ‘grey town’ areas – between white town and black town, where immigrants settled. So there are so many cultures in a small area – Chinese, Farsi, Indians, Jews, Armenians and Anglo Indians.

We walked around the bow barracks area – this was an army barracks during world war I. But now is occupied by Anglo-Indians, who apparently pay no rent to stay there!

From here we popped into a Buddhist monastery and living quarters. Then a Farsi building – we couldn’t go into the temple as it’s reserved only for the Farsi people – of which there are apparently only a handful.

We stopped off at some food stands – one selling fried bread filled with a thin layer of spicy lentils. And a tea stall – and they made me a no milk tea!

We spent a while just wandering streets. Goats that you can order to your house to be milked, every shape of vehicle passing by – bikes, cyclos, hand pushed carts. But no cows! They eat cows here, so none wander the streets!

The area of Tiretti Bazaar was originally the area where 20,000 Chinese people lived. They mostly came here as part of the sugar industry during the british rule. We went into a Chinese temple – it had a meeting hall underneath and a temple on the first floor.

The market area spilled out onto the streets. Fruits and vegetables. And Chinese dumplings!

We went inside an old dark building, which looked like a house. Inside was totally unexpected -a noodle factory! Men rolling out sheets and cutting them into noodles! Not what you expect to find in India.

Just around the corner was another Chinese temple. This one larger and with an attached school- we went inside one of the office rooms. And the guide pointed out some sticks that are used for opium! This area was traditionally the home of opium dens and some are still around today (despite it being illegal).

Our last stop was at the Beth El Synagogue. A large building, inside with huge chandeliers and Hebrew writing around the edge. Kolkata’s Jewish community used to be around 30,000. But now there are 18. When one service had an attendance of 10 people, it made it into the local newspaper!

The guide left me at the synagogue and I continued walking the city by myself.

I walked along a hectic main road. Several lanes of traffic – people literally spilling out of every single bus. Market stalls lining the whole length of the street. And pedestrians flooding the edges of the roads.

I made it to the Mullik Ghat Flower market. A colourful explosion of chaos. Flowers lining the streets and floor. Most of the market is a wholesale market, but at the edges are individuals selling small amounts of flowers.

The flower market sits beneath the Howrah Bridge. This bridge is 705m-long and was built during WWII. It is one of the world’s busiest bridges – streams of buses, tuk tuks, bikes and taxis zooming by. And the pedestrian walkway completely solid with people moving across.

It took me a long time to find an Uber. And 20 minutes later, we were at College Street. This is where the University and several schools are based. The surrounding streets are completely filled with book stalls and shops. I’ve seen similar ones in Madurai before, but nowhere near as crazy as this. Hundreds of stalls, each selling hundreds of books. Some new. Some second hand. And some clearly photocopied fakes.

I popped into the Indian Coffee House. A hall that serves coffee and some food. It was completely jam packed. So I didn’t stop.

I walked a few more streets to the metro. You just buy a token from a lady at a desk, for 5 rupees (about 5p). The train itself was hectic. So busy you probably couldn’t have squeezed another person in.

I got back around 12.30pm. And did nothing for the rest of the day. Just swimming. And nothing.

Sunday 4 August 2019

I didn’t have much planed for today.

I had breakfast in my room – idli and dosa! And a bit of swimming.

My plane back to Bangalore was supposed to be at 2pm. But even at 8am this morning it was already delayed on its route for the day.

It kept getting more and more delayed. I left at 12pm to head to the airport anyway, as it’s a 1 hour drive away through busy traffic.

I had lunch at the airport – tikka chaat, potato and chickpeas covered in tamarind and chilli. Really good.

We didn’t end up boarding until 5pm. And finally landed in Bangalore at 7.30pm. 3 hours late.


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