I arrived in Kolkata after a 3 hour flight from Bangkok After a smooth check in with immigration (Indian visas need to be paid and obtained in advance), I caught a prepaid taxi to take me to Sudder Street, an area rife with guesthouses and known as “backpacker central” of Kolkata. I felt like I had been transported back to the British Colonial period, as they still use the old fashioned looking Ambassador taxi cabs, as we drove through the city, the ride taking about an hour. Since I arrived fairly late at night, after 9pm, options were slim. After trying my two top choices and finding no vacancies, I found a simple no frills guesthouse that would be suitable for that first night.
My first impressions of India? Pure chaos. I felt my five senses heightened as I tried to take everything in at once. It doesn’t help that Kolkata is one of the largest cities in India, clocking in at over 14 million people. Car and motorcycle horns blared, as impatient motorists tried in vain to quicken their commutes. Stray dogs and cows wound through the street, seemingly oblivious to the traffic. Trash littered the sides of the street, and there was a distinct odor in the air. Last but not least, there were people everywhere! Even at this late hour, the sides of the street were packed with people pushing and shoving each other as they walked by. After being accustomed to seeing so many Westerners in Thailand, even though there are a fair amount of travelers in India, the sheer number of local residents overpowers them.
I planned to have a few days to get acquainted and adjusted with India, as well as see some of Kolkata’s sights before spending some time volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (post to come later). I’ve always been a firm believer that walking around a new city is the best way to get one’s bearings. Armed with a paper map as well as Google maps on my phone, I set off. My attempts at sightseeing in India the first few days can be summed up as a series of unfortunate events, since while nothing majorly wrong happened, I found myself present with several minor setbacks along the way.
This memorial commemorates Queen Victoria of England during England’s prior reign over India in the 1800’s. Here I had my first experience of India’s two-tiered pricing system for tourist attractions (similar to Egypt and parts of Africa), with Indians being charged 20 rupees, while foreigners are charged 200. The memorial is sort of a hybrid between many U.S. State Capital buildings and the Taj Mahal. It was set in a beautiful and lush garden and the grounds were immaculate. Inside of the memorial was a small museum and art gallery, detailing the history of England’s rule over colonial India, as well as several paintings of landscapes in India, painted by former British colonists. I found the museum to be very interesting and definitely worth a stop inside. After wandering around a bit, I chose to take refuge in the shade of one of the trees-India is hot, even in “winter”!
A hodgepodge of small indoor shops as well as vendors lining the street outside, this provided an interesting place to wander around for a bit, checking out the wide variety of items for sale.
Again an assault of the senses! Located near the Hoogly River, hundreds of people peddle their flowers and various other plants, fruits, and vegetables. The flowers are bright and vivid and their smells help to mask the familiar stench of the city. People push their way down the aisles while others passionately negotiate purchases prices from the vendors. Definitely a memorable experience!
St. Paul’s Cathedral
An impressive structure, I felt like I was back in London as I gazed up at the enormous cathedral. The inside was equally as impressive, although pictures were forbidden inside.
State Bank of India Museum
While a relatively small museum, I found it interesting to learn about the history of banking in India and its evolution throughout history. Worth a stop if one has an hour to spare.
The Bad (due to several slight misfortunes, not that I find the actual exhibits themselves to be bad.)
I was looking forward to seeing this, as I haven’t been in many planetariums and was interested to see the Indian version. Unfortunately upon getting there I discovered that it was closed for the entire year for renovations. Oh well.
I decided to head to the Academy of Fine Arts, a nearby art gallery. However when I arrived there, I was informed that it was closed during the midday hours and would be opening at 3pm. Since it was around lunchtime, I didn’t deem it worth it to stick around and wait.
These gardens were actually pretty stunning and peaceful. There was a small pond and several locals were doing their morning exercises on the walking paths. I experienced a slight misfortune when I tried to exit the park, as I found myself locked in from the inside! Similar to the art gallery, apparently the gardens are closed during midday as well. I was able to ask one of the morning joggers passing by and he informed me that fortunately there was an exit on the other side of the park, so only a slight snafu.
Since I have been traveling long-term, I try to go to local gyms from time to time in an effort to stay somewhat in shape. Kolkata had a Gold’s Gym that offered free one-time visits. I made the journey there one morning, planning on getting a good workout in, after checking the business hours online. When I arrived there I was told that it was closed “on the second Thursday of every month”. How random! India is strange like that.
This is the oldest museum in India, opening its doors way back in 1814. I’ve had mixed experiences while visiting museums in developing countries (Egypt), but I decided to give this one a try, as I was intrigued to see if any efforts had been made to modernize the original museum. Lonely planet listed the admisision fees as Indians 10 rupees, and foreigners 150 rupees. While not in support of the vast pricing differences, I still felt that the price matched my curiosity. When I arrived to the ticket booth to purchase a ticket, I slid 150 rupees through the window. “The admissions price is 500 rupees, sir”, responded the attendant. A bit taken aback, I pushed the money back through, and told him that I had read and heard that it was only 150 rupees for foreigners. He then gestured to a small sign hung up that detailed an increase in admission costs effective December 2015. The Indian tariff was raised a modest 10 rupees to a total of 20, while the foreigner price more than tripled to 500 rupees! While 500 rupees is by no means a large sum of money (around $7.50 USD), I was firmly against the principle of the matter that the Indian government felt the need to more than triple the admission fees for foreigners. I refused to pay the 500 rupees and enter the museum based on principle-while I do understand why Indian prices are so low to make it accessible to a wide portion of the population, hiking the foreigner price by more than 300% is not an acceptable policy in my opinion and thus chose to pass on visiting the museum. (A side note, there were also portions of the museum currently closed off due to renovations, so the entire museum wasn’t even open for viewing). End rant.
While Kolkata is not a normal stop for most travelers making their way through India due to being located near the East coast away from other popular cities, overall I did enjoy my stay here and felt it was a good “Introduction to India”.