Kolkata, India – Friday 22nd December to Wednesday 27th December
We made it to India!
This might seem a little disjointed, since we’re picking up after Week Twenty Eight back in Thailand… However, what with each of us disappearing off to work for a number of weeks, we’ve decided not to include our independent travels through Thailand in The Road to Happiness blog.
Our arrival into India has also been tinged with disappointment; we had to fly across the Bay of Bengal to get here, the first flight of the journey! When we set out from the UK we had hoped an overland option would somehow materialise to get us into India. However, this did not come to pass.
The Myanmar/India border remained firmly closed to foreigners on a one way trip; and while the China/Nepal border had reopened, it did so only once we had left China, and were already at the Southern end of Vietnam. Not easily able to backtrack (what with visa and Tibet permit restrictions), we pressed on hoping for a sea passage, perhaps crossing to the Andaman Islands from Thailand. This route also remained elusive.
So it came to pass that the only way within our time and budget constraints was to fly from Bangkok to Kolkata, and continue overland to Bhutan from there.
The bleary-eyed packhorse ready to fly
India is intense. Though in our experience so far it has been in a different way to what we expected. Everybody stares, and everybody is curious; and many are totally unabashed about showing it. Hannah gets asked for selfies everywhere we go – minor celebrity such as she is; and Phil is only ever half a street away from the next handshake and conversation or hello.
Our first couple of days in Kolkata were a bit of a pain. Our first hotel had mysteriously cancelled our room, and were asking an extra £100 for the four days we’d planned to stay there, so that was out the window. We then thought we’d found a safe haven at another hotel nearby; but the incessant beeping from the lift meant the next day we were on the hunt again. We decided to try a hotel in another part of town, but after an hour in a taxi we took one look at the place, and were back on Booking.com looking for an alternative. Let’s just say that the pictures online were not exactly representative.
Eventually, after another hour and a half in a taxi (which was not easy to get), we arrived back in town at The Middleton Inn, which was costing us £52 per night. We were expecting India to be dirt cheap, but to get anything close to the good bits in the city centre this was a pretty standard price. Especially since we had to make sure we had enough space in the room for Hannah to do her physio.
We managed to pick up some back-street SIM cards for £6.40 each, paying a premium of a couple of pounds not to have to register them (you need an Indian reference officially), so finally we were good to go.
Our West Bengal adventure began with us hunting for relics. It turns out that one side of Hannah’s family were based in West Bengal for 300 years, and her dad was born in Kolkata, so we were on a mission to visit the places associated with Hannah’s dad and grandparents.
The first stop was on Camac Street, at her grandparents’ marital home, and then off to St Thomas’ Church, where her father was baptised. Seeing these places really gave us a sense of living history; though it was almost impossible to imagine what they would have been like 65 years ago when her family left for Britain.
Visiting the grandparents…
We also managed to check out the incredible Park Street Cemetery: resting place of the Empire. The lavish tombs and epitaphs paint a vivid picture of Imperial society. Nowadays the cemetery functions as a venue for private romantic walks for Kolkata’s young couples.
Hannah takes in the South Park Street Cemetery
The next day we visited Lord Curzon’s Victoria Memorial, a gleaming white folly completed in 1921 to honour the late queen, and the locals went selfie crazy with Hannah. Too perplexed to act, Phil only managed to get one snap of a paparazzi moment; but trust us, it was happening all the time!
Hannah papped at the Victoria Memorial
Before we knew it, Christmas was upon us! And it turns out Christmas in Kolkata is a big deal! Each year, Park Street (think Kolkata’s Oxford Street) is closed to traffic, and the whole street becomes one enormous Christmas celebration! Nothing really happens, that we could work out, but Park Street thronged with people seemingly just walking up and down the road wearing Santa hats!
I’m not gonna lie… This is not what we were expecting
We’d originally planned on trying to find some sort of Turkey-based Christmas dinner, but all we could find were all-you-can-eat buffets in super crowded places, so we ended up taxi-ing across town to The Grid – the latest trendy bar to hit the city. We’d missed the full kitchen opening hours, so had to settle for Christmas pizza. The strangest thing was that in The Grid we could have easily been in any bar in Shoreditch, with craft beer and cocktails the order of the day.
Boxing Day we were again on the trail of Hannah’s family. We discovered another former family apartment at Dey Mansions, and then went on the hunt for her granddad’s workplaces. First up was the tea company offices in Chinatown, then the National Telegraph Office, and finally the General Electric Office on Crooked Lane.
Fallen splendour (Hannah admires the wiring)
Imagining these places in their heyday was fascinating, but also a little sad. Kolkata today bears so many hallmarks of fallen splendour. Grand buildings left to ruin; rusting, windowless trams; and thousands of people living in roadside shanties, or just out on the streets.
Neither of us have ever seen true squalor before, but this is the only word that even begins to describe the poverty and apparent deprivation here. Though we saw few who were obviously starving, many of Kolkata’s poorest truly do seem to have nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few pots to cook with on open fires in the street. Every few streets in some neighbourhoods there would be a public bathing station; men washing themselves in water from a hand pump. And more hand pumps dotted around the place provided water for the poor, too.
Sunderbans National Reserve, India – Wednesday 27th to Friday 29th December
We decided to get away from the city, and Hannah had discovered a tour company that could get us out to the Sunderban National Park. Bridging the border between India and Bangladesh, the Sunderbans is a wildlife refuge for bengal tigers and the largest coastal mangrove forest in the world.
Tea to settle an anti-malarial-upset stomach before the tour
Backpackers’ Tour De Sunderbans were offering a package for two nights in their eco village, with river safaris and bus/boat transfers to Kolkata for £65 each. So, after an early start, four hours on a bus, and two more hours on a boat, we docked at the village jetty. This was the other side of India that we had wanted to see. No pollution, no car horns, just quiet and nature, and people getting on with their lives.
We were staying in a thatch-roofed clay hut that was literally still drying. Tour De Sunderbans originally started bringing visitors out to lodge with the locals, but as interest grew they realised it could be a great opportunity to bring jobs and more money to the locals by employing them to build and staff an eco-resort.
Man and mud hut
After tea and settling in, we were straight out on a river safari, delving deep into the mangroves. So deep, in fact, that we were literally all having to fold ourselves in half so as not to be pushed out of the raft by mangrove branches! Bird life abounded. Herons, curlews, egrets, sandpipers and kingfishers were all spotted from the boat; and being on a small paddled raft rather than a big motor river cruiser meant we actually managed to get close, and were able to hear the avifauna all around.
Phil goes deep in the mangrove forest
That evening we were treated to a delicious dinner and some local music. I wouldn’t buy a CD, but it made for an interesting evening. The sky was so clear that the moon lit up the night, obscuring all but the brightest stars; casting hard shadows all around.
After a sound sleep in our mud hut, we were back out on the river for an all day cruise, and more wildlife spotting. We stopped off at two tiger sanctuaries, but saw only monkeys. Through the course of the day, however, we were treated to spotted deer (like Bambi!), a few wild boar, more birdlife, and even a crocodile and a river snake!
On our final day at the village, we went for a morning walk around the local area. It was so simple, and so peaceful and beautiful. It felt like we wanted India to feel. Not the bustle, noise, and pollution of Kolkata, but farming, and cooking, and tending animals.
The India of our imaginations…
Our first week in India ended in drama, with our tour guide in a fist fight over a parking space. Aside from that we were back to Kolkata safely, if a few hours late, ready to continue our Indian adventure.
Next week, we road trip south to Puri, and have a minor drama of our very own (Phil’s) making!
Hannah and Phil x