Following an alarmingly steep, bumpy take off and a two hour flight, I landed in Kolkata (Calcutta) fairly late at night. The airport was probably the worst I’ve ever seen – little more than a shed. Welcome to the second largest city in India!
I took a taxi into the city in one of Calcutta’s iconic, ancient yellow Ambassador cabs – a great experience in itself. Traffic everywhere, suicidal motorbikes squeezing between giant overladen trucks, animals, noises, smells, all accompanied by a constant drone of car horns.
In amongst all the chaos, the taxi stopped and the driver said, cheerfully, “Here we are sir. Sudder Street,” – the place where I was to stay. Exhausted, I found a room in an old, crumbling hotel and fell asleep immediately.
In the morning, I surveyed my room. Peeling whitewashed walls, mouldy mattresses and a jagged hole in the wall with a few bars across. (Whether or not it was supposed to be a window, I couldn’t decide.) That’s the thing about India; you can live like a king, and pay for it, or live in fleapits for practically nothing. Of course, this time, I fell into the second category – and it was great fun. Talking to fellow travellers on the rooftop terrace, comparing notes on the states of our respective rooms, one learns that, if you’re prepared to really rough it, India is the perfect place to do so.
Calcutta has a bad reputation, and has done ever since the days of the Raj. Yes, it is full on, in your face, dirty and incredibly decrepit, but I really liked it. It has character and feels so Indian. I felt incredibly safe there, even wandering around at night, and the people were so friendly.
The Maidan, a large park in the centre of the city, is a place locals come to relax, picnic, ride horses and play cricket.
Indians really do love their cricket. I could see at least ten games underway here, from school kids using sticks as stumps, to adults, fully kitted out in their IPL gear sporting the latest bats and pads.
The classic Calcutta Ambassador taxis.
The Albert Memorial, on the edge of the Maidan, surrounded by beautiful gardens.
I was sat on the grass with a book when a group of guys approached me asking if I wanted to play football. A gentle kick-about turned into a full-on match when another group joined. It was really great that these guys invited me, a total stranger, into their game.
Exhausted after the match, which only finished when it got too dark, I headed back to my hotel, stopping on the way to eat a Bhel Puri; puffed rice, potatoes, spices and chutney; all mixed up and served in a cone of magazine pages – delicious.
Chai and street food vendors were everywhere. I spent quite a lot of time sitting on a bench with the locals sipping chai. The chai wallahs have a big pot of the stuff brewing constantly. It’s a good, social pastime, sampling the brews – each one different – whilst thinking about what next to do.
On my hotel’s rooftop terrace, I met a Australian guy, Lloyd, who was planning to go to Varanasi at the same time as me. So, we decided to book the train and travel together. The Indian rail network is fantastic; you can go almost anywhere, and it is, by far, the cheapest way to get around a country so vast. Plus, you can book the trains online – surprisingly efficient.
Getting from our hotel to Howrah station, however, was not so straightforward. We had to take a bus, but the busses’ destinations are written in Bengali, so not much use to us. Eventually, a bus drove past with a guy leaning out of the window shouting “Howrah, Howrah!” So, we shouted “Howrah!” back at him whilst battling through the crowds towards the bus. The driver didn’t feel the need to stop, meaning we had to jump up and hang on, whilst trying to balance five heavy bags between us. Getting off was just as problematic, requiring considerable use of elbows. I dropped one of my bags on someone’s head at one point, causing considerable amusement.
At the station, I bought a Times of India newspaper for 2.5 rupees (3p) and sat on the platform waiting for the train. When it arrived, the ‘Doon Express,’ we found our carriage and got settled in. They pin a sheet of paper on the side of every carriage, with the names of everyone who has a reservation and their corresponding seat. Again, very efficient. That’s one of the paradoxes of India – it’s chaos, yet well organised and orderly at the same time.
We opted for Sleeper Class (SL) – the cheapest. The more expensive classes have carpets, air-con, bed linen and glass windows. None of these luxuries on Sleeper; there are three tier, open bunks, open windows and a BYO policy on bedding. Made the Thai trains look positively plush! It was great fun – besides saving money, it’s the way that ‘ordinary’ Indians travel so a perfect chance to get chatting with the locals. Very atmospheric too, with the chai and food wallahs bustling up and down, and people leaning into the windows at stations selling refreshments.
In the morning, and after another scrum, we caught an autorickshaw into Varanasi’s old city.
There are cows everywhere here. Varanasi is an extremely holy place for Hindus, so the cows are allowed to wander around at will. Our hotel was in the middle of the old city, hidden amongst a maze of narrow alleyways. For the first few times, finding our way back proved tricky – you just have to wander randomly until you see something you recognise.
A Babu, or Hindu Holy Man.
The Ghats, steps leading down to the River Ganges (‘Ganga,’ in Hindi), are the focal point of the city. Annoyingly, there are also loads of people trying to sell you opium and hash, legal here, for religious, spiritual purposes. And they’re seriously persistent too. The boatmen can be a bit of a hassle also, trying to sell you rowing boat trips down the river (“Hello boat?”)
Locals come here to wash themselves and their clothes, and pilgrims come from all over the world to cleanse their souls in the holy river. You can get massages and haircuts done here too. Unfortunately, people also use the river as a sewer and rubbish dump. Another paradox – the holiest river in India has raw sewage pumped into it. Everything goes in: rubbish, dead animals, dead people. The water is black. Many pilgrims actually drink the stuff… guts of steel I recon. Lloyd and I decided, against our better judgements, to take a swim in it with the locals. At one point I trod on something which felt horribly like a human skull… Still, my skin did feel pretty good afterwards (following a long shower!)
There is a festival on the main ghat every evening with music and candles. Thousands of people come together to celebrate. Sitting on the steps, people watching and soaking up the atmosphere, we both agreed was the highlight of our time in Varanasi. There is a very spiritual vibe surrounding the entire city. Whether Hindu or not, the feeling in the air is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s impossible to describe in words – certainly the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been.
The alleyways around the old city are full of cows, often blocking the way.
Monkey on our hotel’s rooftop terrace.
View of the old city from the terrace.
Cricket in the alley outside our hotel.
Alleys leading down to the ‘burning’ ghat. Hindus from all over India bring their dead relatives to Varanasi to be burnt on the ghat, next to the river. And if a person dies in the city, they believe this frees them from the cycle of reincarnation. The burnings are done in public; large funeral pyres burn 24 hours a day. Stacks of wood are lined along the alleys and the dead’s relatives must buy their wood, which needs to burn for four hours to fully incinerate the body. Far from being morbid, as I thought it might be, it’s actually very beautiful. There are no tears and anybody is free to sit and watch the process. Often you see funeral processions making their way through the backstreets; a column of people, chanting and bearing the embalmed body on a stretcher down towards the burning ghat.
Our favourite chai stall.
This sweet little girl was selling lotus flower candles to float on the river.
We wanted to do a sunrise boat trip but, for several mornings in a row couldn’t face getting up at 4am. So, we decided to stay up all night on the terrace, along with a few Israeli guys. They got out their hookah pipe and we talked the night away, about traveling, religion, the state of the world at the moment… all that sort of stuff. Following that, we made our way down to the river and got into a rowing boat.
The burning ghat. You’re not supposed to take photos up close, but our boatman said it would be ok from this distance. Watching the sun rise over the river, as people started coming down to pray and wash, was very beautiful.
Washing being done in the Ganga.
For some strange reason, Lloyd wanted to acquire a human skull. He went off for an hour and came back with this thing in a bag. Despite my protests, he decided to bring it to the room to clean. It must have been pretty fresh, there were bits of crusty flesh attached to the neck and “brain cobweb” inside. Interesting, in a weird way. It stank something awful though; the smell permeated the whole floor of our hotel. At my insistence, he got rid of it the next day.
This guy was off his tree.
Towards the end of my time in Varanasi I got a stomach bug – the infamous Delhi Belly. Without the gory details, it was the worst diarrhoea I have ever had and it lasted for over a week. Virtually everyone who goes to India gets some sort of stomach upset; the hygiene standards are very poor. It must have been something I ate; it wasn’t the dip in the Ganges, I know, as it had started before this.
From Varanasi I took a train to Mumbai – 27 hours. The stomach was pretty bad at this point…
Traditional rural communities along the railway line.
Mumbai was totally different from my expectations. The centre was fairly clean, organised and stress free (for India, that is.)
Lonely Planet describes it as like ‘London on speed,’ which I can definitely see. There are many grand Victorian buildings and an eccentric, modern, buzzing atmosphere. There is a noticeable energy here; not surprising as it is a financial and cultural hub. The home of Bollywood, the movie industry is a big deal here. My stomach was, however, at its worst here which put a bit of a dampener on my experience. For example, I would have loved to go and watch a movie at one of the many old cinemas, however the thought of having to risk two hours without easy access to a toilet meat I didn’t attempt this – a real shame.
I explored the waterfront and saw the Gateway of India, a huge arch by the water. However, unfortunately I can’t seem to access the photos I took that day.
Cricket on the Oval Maidan
The High Court. Barristers walk the streets wearing similar gowns and wigs as are worn in England – another throwback to British rule.
A groovy taxi I took to the airport.
Following another night spent in an airport, I had a short flight to Qatar and then a long one to Cape Town, via Jo’burg.