Everything here is in districts.
We begin exploring on our first morning in the south part of the city, and walk towards the Maidan, (their Hyde Park) through the fruit, vegetable and fish markets that line the busy roads in this area. I love the colourful buses, and Tasha says the taxis are just like the ones in Cuba.
I am on the hunt for some coffee, so we veer away from the wide open park space of the Maidan and through the hospital courtyard to the university district: booksellers line the streets with impossible stacks of books on things like Bio-chemistry, Accountancy and IT, with the occasional penguin classic thrown in for good measure. (Side note: don’t try to find a book on how to play chess in India. They will think you are a nutter)
Our destination, the promisingly named Indian Coffee House, is less a temple to excellent coffee (what I was hoping for) than old men’s social club… but as we sit there I can see how political independence movements got started in places just like this.
We walk back through the metal works district (watch the flying sparks from the welders squatting on the floor) and stop to get some lunch. Here is another thing no one told me about Kolkata: it is the capital of street food as well!! Forget Delhi (trying to), this city is lined with little stalls, makeshift benches, enormous saucepans balanced on tiny Calor gas stoves, tandoori ovens, throngs of people grouped around lean to’s and wafts of the most incredible smells and spices! (The locals eat with their right hand, left arm is tucked behind the back… warning: this takes years of practice to perfect, and you get messy fast if you try to copy… we ended up asking for forks… so embarrassing!)
We find ourselves in the clothes shops district… quite pushy which I’m not in the mood for so we make our escape. We get a bit tired so we catch one of the brightly coloured buses that rush down the roads… there an art form to this, like the eating thing, locals have it down, we don’t. Firstly there are no bus stops (well there are, but we don’t see them!!), instead you look out for a gathering of people on the side of the road and join them. Of course, we have no clue where they’re going, or where we’re going, and any potentially pertinent information is colourfully and thoughtfully painted Hindi on the side, there are some numbers on the front that could literally mean anything. They might not even be numbers. There’s no time to ask, so you take a leap (of faith, and physically onto the boarding step), pay the conductor the 6p fare and see where you end up!! (Once aboard it’s all quite old fashioned: ladies to the left, gents to the right, and ne’er the twain shall meet…). They remind me of the nostalgic red London buses of yesteryear… before some old dear tripped while hopping on or off and the whole thing got health and safety-ed to death. Well here you take your chances.
I think the conductor will certainly be left behind or run over as he springs on and off the boarding step to the street, but when we hop off he is in one piece so I assume all is well. We are pretty much exactly where we want to be. Call it fate. Call it chance. I call it my new favourite form of transport.
It’s time to meet our new group for the overland tour to Kathmandu. I’m curious about the new group, how will they compare to the Rajasthan crew?
There are ten of us in total. Tasha and I are joining the final leg of a much longer trip all over India, which we didn’t know. Relationships have already been formed, and I’m glad, as usual, that I have Tasha here… going solo into that situation would be a bit daunting.
Our new adventures begin with some of us getting up early to go to the wholesale food market beside Sealdah station. This is classic Kolkata… totally not for tourists and totally fascinating at the same time. The market never stops and it never sleeps, Goods come in on trains from the countryside in huge wrapped bales, they are unloaded onto the heads of the waiting porters, transported to their correct corners of the market (which is a ramshackle series of covered wooden halls tacked together), and then sold on to the various buyers, and we stand there owl-eyed and try not to get in the way of this relentless commerce. The air is full of steam and smoke and the language of traders, the ground underfoot is soft and squelchy with bright green vegetable leaves discarded by their thousands (where oh where are the cows Tasha??) Riots of shape and colour adorn every square inch, and men carrying impossible weights and baskets move at a serious pace along the narrow walkways. I could cheerfully watch all day.
I buy some ginger. I want to become part of the action, and besides I’ve become accustomed to a ginger and lemon water of a morning (I also add it to chai like it’s going out of fashion). The ginger seller bemusedly sells me 10 rupees worth of his products, more than enough for my needs, although I am clearly very much not his typical customer. I notice above the market lanes are the sleeping quarters of the workers, to catch a few hours sleep when the hub downstairs is less chaotic I assume, though when that would be I have no clue… The market is what I imagine Wall Street stock exchange used to be like. We are mesmerised visitors but make no mistake, this is long hard and gruelling work getting done here.
Tasha and I catch another bus back to join the others and hit up market #2, the much anticipated Flower Market by the famous Howrah Bridge, another sight to behold. I can’t quite get my head around this one. I understand the Sealdah market: foodstuffs are quantifiably useful, but flowers? on this scale? By their very ephemeral nature they will be gone in a day or two, and while you can say the same thing about spinach, a good few million people here will consume it before it turned… who needs this many marigolds? The clue is religion. So the answer is, everybody needs them. Everyday. Marigolds are everywhere in India and it’s lovely.
We weave through the lanes, turn right and find the river. You follow your nose really, even if you don’t want to. This here is maybe the first bit of Kolkata that I can’t get to grips with… The mighty river, and it’s rubbish strewn banks… let’s put it this way, I was quite happy to jump into the Ganga way up there in Rishikesh, but nothing on earth would induce me to dip one single toe in it at this end… unlike these brave gents!!
Howrah Bridge is pretty awesome though. We cross to the other side and catch a local ferry downstream to the cricket grounds of Eden Gardens (this stadium could teach Wembley a thing or two I’ll tell ya!). We have to cross some train tracks to get from the ferry to the road, no guard rails or bells obviously, so we wander across, i stop to snap a pic and a selfie, and I notice a man wave his arm in a very desultory fashion… well less then a minute after I step off the track a bloody great big train roars past! Which is why Tasha is making that face!!
We are catching a train ourselves later, but first webgo foraging for some dinner. After all out marketing I feel like some fruit (and I miss rishikesh!) so we go back to out original road, buy a beautiful papaya, bananas and pomegranate, we hit up Baskin Robbins, find a park bench and the Kolkata Sundae is born! So proud. (It’s delicious!!)
Too soon it’s time to leave, and we pile into taxis back to Sealdah station and onto a sleeper train heading north to Darjeeling.
Bye Kolkata, it’s been real, and you haven’t seen the last of us…