We got up at five and tubed it to Heathrow, then flew with Jet Air to Mumbai. The flight was good – we were well supplied with Indian meals and we had a little tablet in the back of the seat in front of us, so we could pick what we wanted to watch. Luke watched The Martian and listened to music whilst I worked my way through Andy Cole and Thierry Henry’s greatest goals. After we’d eaten our lunch Luke said “I think we’re over hungry”. To which I replied “Yeah, we’ve had two meals already and I’m still starving.” To which Luke then said “No, I think we are flying over the country Hungary.” Oh how we laughed, as I reached for the crisps. The flight was uneventful as they usually are, but it was interesting passing over the Middle East and seeing the rocky desert landscape, devoid of settlement for as far as the eye could see.
I’ve never really been to an airport which reflects the level of poverty in the country in which it’s based. Mumbai is no different, competing with Heathrow on scale, decadence and all-round poshness. We went through immigration and got ourselves officially stamped into the country before hanging about for three hours for our plane. Ever the culinary adventurers, we both bought a paneer cheese burger from Burger King. I think there’s a reason that curry and burgers are kept seperate, and I don’t think this particular east/west fusion burger will be making our top ten memorable meals when this trip is over.
Our second flight took us in to Kolkata at half four on Tuesday morning. As we came down through the cloud cover the dawn light was only just beginning to break out on the horizon, but even at this early hour the temperature was 29 degrees. The baggage collection was swift, although we did note with amusement the heavily duct-taped cardboard boxes with “Fragile” written on them that clunked their way up from the bowels of the airport and roly-polied onto the conveyor belt. Indian soldiers are everywhere around the airport, swinging their AK-47s on their shoulders and discussing with each other how best to groom their immaculate moustaches.
We pre-paid 240 rupees (about 100 rupees to the pound) and presented the driver of one of Kolkata’s legion yellow cabs with our ticket. The cabs around here are called Ambassadors – they have a vintage look about them, made all the more authentic by the multitude of dints, scratches and duct-tape applied to their bumpers. Luke sat in the back whilst I squeezed into the front seat. An image of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu God of Fortune smiled up at me from the dashboard – an appropriate deity to have looking down on you as a driver in this city. Our driver revved off round the corner and spotted a bloke walking along with a carrier case, looking lost. He screeched to a halt in front of him and gestured at me to get in the back so he could accomodate this extra fare. Pretty soon we were bollocking along a ramshackle carriageway, weaving our way around huge trucks and buses crammed to well above capacity. Our driver was in cordial and enthusiatic conversation with our new passenger when he suddenly turned round and addressed us…
“No mate, Derby.”
“See over there on the left?” (He points right) “Big watch. Big watch from London!”
Out the window to our right we are passing a scale model of Big Ben, about twenty foot high.
“Oh yeah, Big Ben! Clock, that’s a clock mate.”
“Yes yes! Big Watch. British. You see that building over there? Old British. That tram? British.” (He laughs hysterically and keeps his eyes fixed on us, whilst the car careers forward at 30mph.) He continues in this vein for some time, whilst Luke and I are praying to Ganesh that this mad bastard could just keep his eyes on the road.
We passed all kinds of spectacles, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Crumbling colonial houses, half collapsed in and enveloped in vegetation. Mangey dogs picking at piles of rubbish left at the side of the road. Live chickens squawking for dear life as they hang suspended by their feet from a hand cart being pulled by a man who had the physique and texture of a twiglet. At one point the horn blared out and we almost had an old man on the bonnet. I peeked in the rear view mirror as he shrugged this near-death experience off and continued his journey across the road. We pulled up at some traffic lights to ask for directions to the other passenger’s hotel. Out the window to our left three generations of a family were flat out on the pavement, sleeping in the morning sun. Two children lay next to each other, one of them barely old enough to be a toddler. We revved off again and screeched to a halt opposite a narrow looking street where a bloke was having a wee against some shutters. Our fellow passenger hopped out, examined the accomodation that he had pre-booked to stay in and shook his head. “I am not staying in this area” he said, and I can’t say I blamed him. We continued on to two further hotels which he turned his nose up at before finally accepting a room in some side street guesthouse. Five minutes later we rocked up at our own accomodation – the Diplomat guesthouse. It was half six in the morning and the entire front of the building was encased in rusty shutters – it looked like it had been condemned for years. Beggars were lurking in the street and we began to get an uneasy feeling about the legitimacy of our reservation, but our taxi driver was unperturbed. He banged on the shutters until a lithe youth came out and granted us access. After demanding his tip our driver scuttled off and we found ourselves alone with this young lad at the front desk of the hotel – or so we thought, until a short, balding bloke in his fifties popped up from underneath the desk, put his shirt and trousers back on and wiped the sleep from his eyes before making himself scarce. I’m assuming he’d been struggling for a place to sleep and the night porter had let him bed down behind the desk. Our room is grubby and contains about ten electric switches that appear to have no function whatsoever. It’s a comedown from some of the places that I stayed in with Hollie in South-East Asia, but I’m reliably informed by Luke that this place is good for the money. Besides, it has air-con which we couldn’t do without, and it’s only setting us back £7:50 a night each. Having been up for 24 hours we decided to take a powernap before commencing our exploration. We slept for about four hours and I woke up freezing cold – no better reccomendation for an air-conditioning unit.
In the afternoon we headed out to the Madan Park, where we walked past a couple of cricket matches. We were given directions to the park by a curious fellow who introduced himself by saying: “I don’t want any money, I help you.” He appeared to have honest intentions and gave us clear instructions on how to reach the park, but then went off on a bit of a tangent about “Self-help”. “People need to help themselves you see sir – self-reliance. Not all the time I mean, but some of the time. I mean I show you the park and you get there on your own. But if you fall in a pond and can’t get out, I help you not drown. Self-help, you see?” As we strolled past the cricket matches and young courting couples, our stride was broken by a herd of about fifty goats and sheep who were legging it towards a pool of muddy water, waved on by a goat-herder. Whether it’s normal for a goat-herder to live in a park in the centre of a large city in India, I don’t know. But already I feel like there’s nothing in this country that would surprise me.
We walked to the Victoria Memorial Hall – an impressive imperial monument built by the British to honour the passing of Queen Victoria. I say built by the British, but what I probably mean is designed by the British, and built by Indians who had little choice in the matter. Outside the hall in a pretty ornamental garden is a large jet statue of Queen Vic herself. As we wandered over to the statue we were detained by a group of five Indian lads, who wanted their picture taken with us. Why? Well our only guess is that they don’t see white people very often. We posed for several selfies before another lad shyly asked if he could have his photo taken with us, which we obliged. I have to say, I felt that I was coming in for particular attention from the Indian public, but this is not me blowing my own trumpet – I am at the best of times a pasty shade of beige, whereas Luke has a much more Mediterranean complexion. Throughout the day as we walked along, Indians (always in their twenties) would greet us and ask us how we are before staring at us as we went past. Although it’s a bit disconcerting at first, their fascination seems to be friendly and harmless, rather than piss-taking. The Memorial Hall itself resembled Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and housed collections of old weapons, trinkets and paintings from the days of the Mughals and the British Empire.
At this point the sun was at it’s hottest and we paid a comparatively extortionate amount (about a fiver each) to sit in a buffet curry restaurant. The street food in Kolkata looks delicious and you can feed yourself comfortably for under a quid, but we would happily had paid a fiver just to cool off in the heavily air-conditioned restaurant.
After this we took a taxi to Kali Ghat temple – the holiest Hindu site in Kolkata. In the morning goats are ritually sacrificed here, and all day long swarms of pilgrims jostle to throw hibiscus flowers at an altar. We hung around soaking up the atmosphere and ignoring the attentions of a man who wanted ten rupees to look after our shoes whilst we go into the temple. The place was rammed and it didn’t really feel right us going into the temple itself to get involved in a ritual we had no knowledge of, so after a bit we walked off and wandered the ramshackle streets surrounding the temple.
We visited Shanagar Burning Ghat – a ceremonial area overlooking a stream where traditional cremations and funeral procedures are performed. When we visited it wasn’t in use, but about a hundred-odd kids were playing in the putrid waters of the stream that it backs on to, whilst a rickety wooden boat ferried people from one bank to the other – all the time being splashed by the kids in the water.
After this we were driven back to our hostel in Sudder Street. The relief of a cold shower (not that warm would be available anyway) is fantastic after a day in such heat. We headed out for tea and ended up perched on some stools in a little street cafe, where we had a paneer wrap each, vegetable biryani and Momos – a kind of Tibetan dumpling. It cost 250 rupees for the lot and it was sensational – ten times as good as the earlier buffet.
I’m going to leave it there for today – there are so many more things that we’ve seen and done, but it’s getting late and I’m jetlagged. As I write this we’ve been in India for less than 24 hours and have already experienced 101 sights, sounds, smells and tastes that we’ve never known before. Some good, some outrageously bad, but I think that you have to take the rough with the smooth out here.
Have a nice day,
Tommy and Luke