I remember I quote I read in a guidebook about Kolkata “poverty in your face” and arriving to this city I wonder – is it really the case? We take a pre-paid taxi at the airport (there is one in every major airport in India, they’ll only cheat you for coupe of rupees) and go to the hotel. Its early afternoon, but the streets are completely congested, numerous cars, buggies, bikes, buses, all honking, trying to squeeze through. For a moment I even feel like I am back in Cuba, as so many old school Ambassador taxis drive around. We slowly move in the direction of the hotel, I see that something I said in Darjeeling coming true – “Dirty? Wait until you see Kolkata!” Just by the side of the busy road, a small kiosk-like structures without doors can be seen. Those are public restrooms, used by passing men. Passengers in the cars just watch them go in and out. There are bamboo sheds too, covered with pieces of torn fabric, nearby small, extremely skinny children are playing, with ropes around their bellies. Nearby someone is cooking food, others are eating rice with their fingers. Everyone is very thin and very poorly dressed, majority just have a rag around their hips.
I’s very hot in the taxi and you have to pay extra for the AC (another way how taxi drivers will strip you of money – having an-AC car doesn’t mean that the AC will be on when you are driving by the meter). This taxi driver is no different from the other ones we have encountered in India so far; he doesn’t know where our hotel is either. In the end we finally find the hotel, looking in Google maps (which shows wrong house) and asking passers-by. We’ll only stay one night at this hotel, as tomorrow we are headed to Sundarbans national park. The tour agency that will be providing the service is just a minutes’ walk from our hotel.
We are in the center of the city, where the streets are broad and sidewalks are full of small shops and… cows. They eat rubbish from the ground, drink from buckets and are milked right there. If in Darjeeling people were burning their trash, here it’s fed to the cows. I don’t want to think about the kind of milk comes out after such ration.
Guidebooks on Kolkata describe it as the former capital of the British India, the architectural pearl for true history buffs. We mostly came for the Sundarbans park, where Bengal tigers supposedly live, and then the historical part is extra. Of course we also want to see the House of Mother Teresa.
On the day of arrival we don’t have too much time. We take a shower, find out that our laundry isn’t drying here either and run to see the city before it gets dark. We reach a city park that is marked on the map in the very center. All we see are cows, horses, goats eating grass that reaches our knees and puddles of mud and animal excrements. All sidewalks leading to the park are covered in plastic bags, plates, bottles and other garbage. Locals observe us intently but don’t ask for pictures just yet. We also walk through the Kolkata metro, where metal detector goes crazy when we pass. The guard doesn’t pay any attention to us. We don’t use the metro for riding somewhere, just for crossing the street to get to the other side.
Victoria Memorial seems to be the only building from the British times that is taken care of. But even Victoria Memorial inner walls are covered in red chewing tobacco paan spit. The streets are the same red color. Numerous homeless dogs wander around, same as goats, being herded to the park.
We want to take pictures of the memorial at sunset, it’s also lightning heavily in the distance, but we don’t succeed too well, as the sky is covered with clouds. Soon a guard arrives and tells us that the usage of tripods is forbidden here. So we build a tripod from stones and one shoe. While we take pictures, every couple of seconds someone comes up and wants to take a picture with us. We decline, first politely, then getting more annoyed, as the light is disappearing quickly.
Storm is nearing and we decide to head back to the hotel. Finally we have to cross a junction and we realize we are in trouble. Locals somehow manage to cross the street, even wearing flip-flops (but they do get their fair share of honking). The cars just don’t stop for pedestrians, even when the signal is green and left and right turning vehicles have to give the way. A nearby shop keeper comes to us and says – just run! How?! Finally we cross it somehow, a car honking at us anyway. It’s really getting dark and we want to get back to the hotel while the restaurant is open. We have walked quite a bit during the day and would like to take a taxi back, since metro is not really convenient for our route. Unfortunately, we find out that taxi drivers wouldn’t stop for foreigners on the streets. Actually, they don’t want to stop for anyone. Local women just jump in a cab while the red signal is one. No one speaks English here (except that shop keeper, it seems), and that must be the reason why they won’t stop to pick us up.
While we are still trying to catch a taxi, we notice a burning rope around the tree. It’s a public lighter! Anyone who want to, can light a smoke here. The rope is burning very slowly, the tree bark seems to be fine and the nearby men seem content. After a few more taxis haven’t stopped for us, we decide to walk. It starts raining and now we run toward the hotel. I have a very long skirt, so it’s being dragged on the dirty pavement. I don’t want to think about all of the dirt around my ankles, considering the amount of paan and dog shit on the pavement.
On the next day we wake up early, grab a quick breakfast and run to the agency where we have booked a two day trip to Sundarbans national park. If you get very lucky, you might see a Bengal tiger there.
We sit and wait to get going to the bus, there’s going to be eight of us. Except the four of us from Latvia, there is a British girl who has been traveling around India for two months and seems to have some itching skin problem and a Japanese guy, who has been here many times. They both eagerly compare notes on this country. The guide says that the missing two people must be locals, as otherwise he can’t explain them being late more than thirty minutes. Finally an Indian girl from Kolkata (but living in Bangalore) shows up and after a while her Dutch boyfriend too. I think she is the first Indian woman I see wearing jeans.
We are finally headed for the bus that will take us to the beginning of the Bengal Bay canal system. Sundarbans is roughly 10 000 square kilometers large protected area, most of it belongs to Bangladesh, but India has a piece too. Because of the proximity to the ocean, the water in the canals is salty.
The drive takes us almost three hours and its market time all the way. Honking, mud, countless people, livestock and dogs. Nearing Sundarbans the scenery changes a bit. Vast rice fields and small clay houses. We finally stop to stretch our legs and try the local ginger tea, boiled in milk. A local girl takes us to her house to the restroom, which looks a lot like the ones in the bus terminals in the Soviet times, the only difference being that this one is clean. Her house is only a bit taller than one meter and is made of clay. Later she asks our guide for money for the restroom usage. He promptly pays.
We are finally at the boat that becomes our home for the next two days. The guide gives us chocolate waffles (our attentive friends notice that expiration date has passed over a year ago) and more ginger tea.
Our “hotel” for the night is the Eco-village or a place that doesn’t leave any footprints in the ecosystem. Electricity is made from solar panels, water collected from the rain. On the day that we arrive there diesel generators are on too (we are told that it’s because of a festival). The houses are truly Spartan. Good thing I have my own sheets and towels. The house is made from clay (as everything here…), the roof is made from reed and there is a sticky mosquito net over the bed. Despite the minimalistic interior, there is even a toilet, sink and a shower head, but like in India, it’s not a real waste system, all of that must be going in the ground somewhere behind the house. There is a lizard on the roof, but I love those, as they catch mosquitoes. The British girl is been in the country for quite some time and says she isn’t using any malaria prophylaxis. Considering the amount of mosquitoes, we are.
They serve us some stew for dinner, rice and ginger tea. I finish off my protein bar reserves. In comparison to what the food like is here, everything in Darjeeloing was very mild. Food here consists of spices. The man, who brings us the food, starts coughing on the way, of course, not covering his mouth with a hand. No appetite after that whatsoever. The guide encourages us to take a walk in the village; we think we are well prepared, as we have hiking shoes. Then we see the mud that covers your feet up to the ankles and decide to take walk of our own, back to the boat. We see women in the rice fields, children playing in the mud and goats.
We are supposed to take a boat trip to the largest mangrove forest with the sunset. It’s a flat, long boat that passes through the narrow space between branches, at times we help with our hands, chasing away a few crabs. Others scream, but I like them. We see a few birds too, but are surprised that there aren’t too many of them. We return when it’s dark. The next morning the guide shows us a mangrove with a snake around its trunk. There must have been a few last night, we just didn’t see them.
Evening is the time for local music performance for the festival, but we are too tired form all the smells, sounds and mud, so we just want to go to sleep. All the valuables are put in the bed in the place of a pillow. At night dogs make a fight outside of our room, rats run on the roof and we don’t sleep too well.
On the next morning after another spicy breakfast we are headed to get a permit to go inside the park. Every year 45 people are eaten by tigers. Officially only 20-25 are reported. Locals get special permits for collecting the honey in the park, and this is where the 20-25 come from. The rest are in the park illegally. When asked about the number of the tigers in the park, the answers differ. The last number was”a bit over 100”, and they started with 300. We are also surprised that we don’t go the park at sunrise, as wouldn’t that be the best time to see the animals? No, it doesn’t depend on it. Later, when I see the table where tiger sightings are marked, most of those are at sunrise. The last time our guide saw the tiger was 4 months ago. Considering the noise level on the boat, I am not surprised. I am sure tigers heard and saw us. Most common sightings are when tigers are swimming to another island and they have nowhere to disappear. We spent the whole day navigating the muddy waters, seeing gray mangroves and deer. No tigers.
We return to Kolkata by a different route. Complete darkness, more potholes than there is road, Indian music blasting and drivers clapping hands and singing along. The bus is shaking so violently that it is impossible to stay in your seat and it feels like we spent most of the time between the seat and the roof. After some time the British girl gives the driver her iPod and Hotel California is on.
Return to Kolkata
When returning to Kolkata we have made a reservation for the tour on the next day with the same agency. Of course, the price is different from what we had agreed before… We try to haggle but no success. Normally this is a motorbike tour, but we are not ready for that kind of extreme so we pick a car. We argue for a long time about the pickup place, as a hotel pickup is significantly more expensive. In the end we agree to pay as it would be impossible to get the cab anyway. The agency also catches a taxi for us for the way to the hotel. The driver doesn’t speak English and doesn’t know where our hotel is. He keeps asking passersby and finally some guy gets his phone with a map and tries to show the driver where our driver has to go. At this moment we understand while our attempts on explaining have not worked before – the drivers don’t know how to read a map! The guy tells him specifically where to turn and finally we are there. At that moment we realize there are flees in the car. Poverty? Yes, very much of it. Such poverty that the driver has a hole in his shirt where the seatbelt is rubbing on it.
After Sundarbans our hotel seems to be the paradise. We pack up dirty clothing in bags and deliver it to the laundry, surely, you can do your laundry on the street for way less, but we just don’t have the strength to look for cheaper options. We also eat dinner in the hotel (the menu has unbelievable assortment of selection). They also have some very good tasting fries, not like the plastic ones we have had before.
The next morning in Kolkata is thirty degrees hot and humid. We are ready to explore the city! Having a guide in India has its perks – we get into an old British cemetery, supposedly closed for repairs. It’s actually mostly visited by couples looking for romantic place and not history buffs. Cemetery is grand. Most of the people have died young. Monuments for generals, their wives, family crypts, and all of it is covered in green moss.
We also go to visit the Motherhouse (resting place of Mother Teresa) and come by Victoria Memorial once more. Next are the unusual places. First is the Kali temple, guide tells us the name change from Calcutta to Kolkata is from this goddess. There are numerous small shops selling flowers and small items to be donated at the temple. Inside the temple people are queuing to see something inside the hall. A naked child with just a rope around its belly is standing in the line and crying. Guide also tells us that goats are brought here, for donation. We see how someone is washing bloody floor from the hose. Suddenly we hear drums and dozens of people with almost burning-like eyes rush to the drums, wanting to see what is going to happen. “They are going to donate a goat, that’s why the rush” the guide tells. After a while the drumming has stopped and a man comes out of a small building, carrying first the head and then the rest from the goat. Another man runs to us and starts telling us something ecstatically. There is only one way to describe that, “fanatic”. After visiting this temple I don’t have any illusions about religions I know nothing about. Red yarn around the hand may look nice, but the horror from the temple makes me want to stay away.
We ask the guide what is going to happen to the goat after this donation? The temple will donate it back to the people who gave it. Of course they are going to eat it! No illusions about vegetarian India either. Most of the people simply can’t afford meat.
He also takes us to het Kolkata dump, where the untouchables work. “Those, who are supposed to do this job”. There are cows and pigs eating at the dump too.
Next we visit the Kolkata Botanical gardens. I believe this place has the potential to be the most beautiful garden in the world, especially, if someone would have been taking care of it for the past forty years. There are just few footpaths left; all the signs with tree names are lost. Plants have overgrown and resemble a jungle. The only plant that is taken care of is the enormous banyan tree, the widest tree specimen in the world, more than 250 years old. The rest of the garden is left for the nature to take care of, same as most of the British heritage in the city.
Next on our list is the famous Kolkata flower market. Flowers are brought here from all over the country, thousands and thousands of marigold crowns, lotus, rose and jasmine buds. There are long garlands in baskets, carried around on the head and offered to the passersby. Flowers are sold in bouquets but I asked for a lotus flower. The seller opens it up with his fingers and it turns from a bud to a gentle pink wonder. Unfortunately the next day it’s covered in mold.
There are crowds in the market and the guide takes us to the riverside. We see anorexic-looking people lying on the benches in a grand British bathing house. Kids are swimming in the river, adults are washing themselves and their clothing. Not far from the flower market there is crematorium, of course, the ashes are scattered into Ganges. Clay is taken from the river too, to prepare statues for the festivals. Straw base and Ganges clay turn into various characters, gods and goddesses, animals and strange beings. The statues are thoroughly painted; dressed and put on pedestal, then send to the families who have ordered the idols. During the festival these idols (with clothing and plastic jewelry intact) are put back in the river.
After Kolkata we have a feeling we have seen another India. The worst poverty, religious fanaticism, and one of the most modern airports where we have been. Before returning to Deli we try a burger and fries in an Irish pub. It’s spicy, but after Sundarbans spice stews we can eat this easily. The items for sale in the airport are extremely expensive (you can get it ten times cheaper on the street), so we just head to our gate.
Would I visit Kolkata again? I doubt it. I am a bit sad thinking back about the two days in Sundarbans, as it was not as colorful and exciting as it seemed to be from all the reviews. And Sundarbans was the reason why we came to this area. But I am still happy that I had the chance to see this city, national park and a different India I had only heard of in the movies and books. I don’t regret visiting this place. Maybe with time some things will change here and also the British monuments will be taken care of. Unfortunately, the “poverty in your face” won’t be eliminated in the next five or ten years.
As always, all pictures by my husband Jekabs Andrusaitis. Don’t forget to take a look at the gallery on top of the page!