We’ve finally made our way to India. It’s been on our list of places to visit for quite a while, and now we’re here. We arrived on December 8th in Kolkata (Calcutta) after traveling for a few weeks in Thailand. There was no specific reason for choosing Kolkata as our starting point, other than the fact that Air Asia flies from Bangkok, Thailand to either Kolkata or Chennai. After some quick online research, Kolkata won. So, this posting is all about Kolkata.
The experience of India actually started before we even arrived, and even before we left Thailand. The flight from Thailand to India included mostly Indians on the flight, which is to be expected. And with them came a bit of the Indian culture. As is commonly known, India has a large population, about 1.2 billion people. And in many places the population density is very high. According to the 2011 census, the population density of Kolkata was around 69,000 people per square mile. For comparison, in 2011, New York City had a population density of around 27,000 people per square mile and Boston was around 12,750 people per square mile. We’ve come to realize that this density can create competition for space.
This competition for space appeared on our fight to Kolkata. As soon as it was announced that boarding of the plane would begin, people dashed to the doorway leading to the buses that were to take us to the airplane parked elsewhere. Now, out of fairness, this happens at airports in the U.S. and other places we’ve traveled, though, to a lesser degree. People were jockeying for position, cutting the line, and there was a general sense of panic and anxiety in the air. It was clear that the folks at Air Asia on this particular flight were used to this and sent people away from the front of the line. At which point they cut in other sections of the line.
Passports and Visas had to be checked, so the line moved at a little slower than the boarding of most flights, but still a totally acceptable pace. As we waited in line, a couple of men directly behind us were outwardly troubled by the slow pace of the line. They were moving side to side trying to catch a glimpse of the front of the line, maybe trying to figure out what was taking so long. They sighed anxiously every 15 seconds or so, while bumping into my and Sarah’s backpacks almost constantly. Other travelers we met before India warned us that line cutting was common place in India and that you had to hold your ground in order not to lose your place in line. So Sarah and I gave gentle, yet obvious nudges backwards to make them aware of their encroachment.
Throughout the ordeal we couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Once I had reached the front of the line one of the two men made a last ditch effort to make it to the front of a second line parallel to ours. He was quickly rejected and sent back to his place in the other line. I finally asked the men what they were worried about and commented that the plane wasn’t going to leave without us and the 40 other people still waiting in line behind us. One of the men chuckled because he knew it to be true, yet, their anxiety persisted.
After our visas and passports were checked we boarded the buses that would transport us to the airplane. The frantic atmosphere was present there as well. People refused to give up their positions closest to the door, making it hard for others to enter the bus and make their way to empty space. Once the bus reached the airplane, everyone hurried to the side of the bus that was closest to the stairs leading to the entrance of the plane. The doors opened and people squeezed their way through and then wedged themselves in front of others at the bottom of the stairs. There was still more jockeying for position on the stairs. Sarah and I got a little joy out of creating a human barrier, blocking anyone from passing us.
Once we were on the plane it became apparent why there was so much competition for line placement. Many of the passengers had purchased duty free items and wanted to ensure they had a place in the overhead storage compartments. There was a small group of men that had far more bags than was allowed and took up more overhead compartment space than you’re supposed to. Even without the fight for luggage space, many people had a hurried pace for no apparent reason. All the while, the flight attendants were clearly frustrated, and at times appeared to take their frustrations out by aggressively jamming luggage into the overhead compartments. Luckily, we found space for our bags near our seats, though, not above our seats where they’re supposed to go.
And that was our introduction to India.
After arriving at the Kolkata airport, we had to take a taxi to a hotel we picked out of the guidebook. We were told by a security guard that there were metered taxis outside. So we tracked down a taxi driver who claimed he had a meter. I was skeptical from the get go and once arriving at his car refused to enter until he showed me the meter. He pointed to a very old analogue gauge of some sort, clearly not resembling any kind of meter for tracking the cost of fare. So I said to him, “that’s not a meter”, to which we agreed and then quoted us a ridiculously high fare, 850 Rupees ($16). I’d read on a recent trip adviser posting that the fare should run around 220 Rupees ($4). So we walked away from his cab as he tried to negotiate price, all the while refusing his still too high quotes. The same trip adviser posting mentioned that there was a prepaid taxi. So we walked, carrying our large and small backpacks, surrounded by 5-8 taxi drivers all vying for our business until we found the prepaid taxi booth. We paid the 250 Rupee rate and finally got a taxi to the hotel.
The hotel we stayed at appeared to be a building from the British colonial era. It had an old style lift and a nice classic feel to it. There were bell boys on every floor, always trying to find a way to serve you. We’d read about this ahead of time and always politely told them “no thanks”. They were eager to serve solely in an attempt to receive a tip. We’re budget travelers, so tipping is something we avoid when at all possible. The room we stayed in cost enough, so paying for a service we didn’t want was not going to happen.
We soon found out that bell boys weren’t the only people wanting money. We were either asked for money directly, or given a service we didn’t want and then asked for money, somewhere in the range of 40-50 times during our three days in Kolkata. Some of these were vendors that approached us in the street asking us to visit their “shop”. The conversation always starts with “where are you from?”. Unfortunately, we’ve had to resort to outwardly saying to people after hearing this question, “we don’t want anything”. So far, this only seems to be a problem in areas that tourists frequent.
Our first night out we walked from our hotel to the tourist area near Sudder St and Park St. We threw ourselves head first into the sea of people and the madness of the street traffic. Crossing the streets in Kolkata was the most challenging and scariest we’ve experienced so far. The best tactic is to join others in a critical mass until you can block the flow of traffic.
An easier way to navigate the city was to take the train. The train line runs past most of the areas we wanted to see during our visit so we took it often. A train ride usually cost us around 4 rs ($0.08) per person per ride. Not bad. As can be imagined, the train got pretty packed at times. On especially crowded rides we had to join the other riders in jamming ourselves into the already packed train cars. The crowd becomes a huge moving mass of people.
The first night out we discovered Kathi rolls. Think buttered burrito tortilla filled with Indian food. They became a staple food for us because of their low price, around 15 – 45 rs ($0.30 – $0.85) per roll. One roll was sufficient for a meal. The fillings that we tried were paneer (cheese with the consistency of tofu), chicken, vegetables, egg, and combinations of any of those, all with Indian spices. They were a little on the greasy side but very delicious.
Not surprisingly, one of the reasons we were excited to visit India was because of the food. There was plenty to try in Kolkata.
Kolkata was the British era capital and is full of architecture and some monuments from that era. One of the most impressive monuments is the Victoria Monument, built in honor of Queen Victoria.
While trying to buy train tickets to our next destination we walked through what used to be the business district of British era Kolkata. The buildings have held up pretty well and seem to be heavily used to this day.
The Indian Museum was founded in 1814 and is a huge old building housing some amazing artifacts, ranging from fossils to ancient Hindu stone carvings. We spent the better part of a day exploring the museum and waiting for some of the exhibits to open. Aside from the artifacts, the building and old display cabinets were reason enough to visit the museum. It felt like we’d traveled back in time.
After finding the foreign ticket office and bringing the correct documentation, we bought our tickets and made are way to Darjeeling by train. This was our first experience with the train system in India. According to our guide book, the Indian rail system is the largest employer in the world with roughly 1.5 million workers, and transports around 20 million people everyday. Wow!
Being our first experience with the train in India we didn’t know what to expect. The station in Kolkata is huge and was filled with hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Similar to our experience on the flight to India, the train station was a frenetic place with people running back and forth every few minutes or so as platform numbers were announced. Each platform was full of people, luggage, and tons of cargo. As is common in densely populated areas in India, the smell of urine and feces was in the air. There were dogs everyone, food venders, and men moving cargo bag and forth from platform to platform. While waiting for our train we got to experience many more of the curious stares from Indians we’ve come to accept. Suffice to say, it was an exciting, slightly overwhelming experience.
The train ride itself went off without a hitch and we arrived in Darjeeling the next day. There were a few more surprises though. Many beggars, people giving blessings and asking for merit/payment in return, and what I can only describe as rude gypsies clapping loudly in your face and then expecting some money in return passed through the train several times. This gave us more practice at saying “No” in an even more convincing manner. All in all an interesting experience to say the least.
Kolkata was a great introduction to India. It gave us a taste of some of the many characteristics of the country. That said, I’m sure there’s much more to experience.