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Even if you’ve done your research, seen the movie ‘City of Joy’ or know of Mother Teresa’s work; being in Kolkata defies description. It’s a mass of humanity, limbless bodies, hacking taxi drivers, overwhelming traffic and rubbish piles. But there’s also much beauty here and this is largely thanks to Kolkata’s inhabitants. Bengali people have a wonderful, hospitable, open and friendly demeanor and welcome you with open arms. The city itself soon grows on you once you’ve worked out the ins and outs of metros and trams, getting food and have delved through incredible quarters containing remnants of the British Raj, ancient Hindu deities or Muslim heritage. So hang in there, Kolkata is worth every moment of your time.
A day in the Life
If you arrive or depart the city by train you’ll have the opportunity to travel across the impressive Howrah Bridge with a stream of other buses, taxis, bullock carts and pedestrians. It’s a good introduction or farewell to Kolkata’s cacophony of noise and humanity.
If you go nowhere else in Kolkata get to the incredible Victoria Memorial, something of a marble monolith to the power of the British Empire with a statue of Queen Victoria guarding the entrance. Inside are portraits, statues, paintings, photographs, French guns, pistols and a wealth of information about British-Indian history. Nearby is the Maidan, an enormous expanse of land where you will find people picnicking, playing cricket, running or strolling, riding ponies and idling away the day.
Another part of the Kolkata story worth checking out is Mother Teresa’s premises on A.J.C Bose Road. Here you can see her room, tomb and a museum dedicated to her life. It’s inspiring stuff and could be the catalyst for you to stay longer so you can volunteer to help Mother’s Sisters of Charity at homes for the sick, dying and destitute around the city.
Best of the Rest
If you’re wandering around the Maidan or Victoria Memorial pop across to St Paul’s Cathedral, another reminder of India’s British history. There’s some marvelous stained glass and an impressive steeple. In stark contrast, some of the holy Hindu sites in Kolkata are rather bloody in comparison. The Kali Temple is one. It was built on top of the Kalighat temple, from where people believe the city derived its name. It’s a busy pilgrimage site and can be rather colorful during festivals such as the Durga Puja. To get there either follow the crowds from the Kalighat metro or drops of blood – seriously, lines of goats are slaughtered here every morning and the blood seems to go everywhere!
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The South Park Street Cemetery is a fantastic place to get some respite from the chaos of Kolkata’s streets. Enjoy the shady trees, moss-covered tombs, enormous epitaphs and peace and quiet inside the well-kept grounds.
In all the urban expanse of Kolkata you would probably never expect to find a horse riding club, swimming pool and golf course. But the famous 44-hectare Tollygunge Club houses all the said delights and billiards, badminton and tennis courts. It’s located just to the south of the city and is a great place to relax for the day. The golf club was established in 1829 and is the oldest in the world outside Britain.
Most budget travelers stay somewhere on or near Sudder Street where there are a number of hotels, foreign currency exchange booths, good restaurants and plenty of beggars and touts. Basic accommodation at spots like Hotel Maria starts from Rs. 200 (USD $4-5) per room with shared bathroom. For your own bathroom, hotels charge about Rs. 300-400 (USD $6–9). If you want any kind of luxury such as an air conditioner or TV, rooms cost Rs. 800-1000 (USD $17–22).
One of the most colorful places to stay on Sudder Street is the Fairlawn, although it is rather pricey at Rs. 1500/2100 (USD $33-46) for a single/double. The owner is a rather eccentric Armenian lady who takes breakfast with her guests every morning and can usually be found having drinks in the grounds of an evening. The rooms and floors are crammed full of family history, colonial furniture, photographs and memorabilia; it’s almost like a museum but with a welcoming, lived-in feeling.
Kolkata at Night
Bengalis are renowned for their music, dance, poetry and film and there are regular events, recitals and concerts across the city. Check the local papers for details or head to places like Rabindra Sadan, Kala Mandir or Sisir Mancha for their programs.
It’s worth visiting Sudder Street at some point to meet other volunteers working in the city, check your email or to get some good food. Popular eating spots include the tightly packed Blue Sky Café where you can order everything from lassi to spaghetti. The street stall Titrupati is another eating institution with fabulously good and cheap meals. It’s located just outside Hotel Maria and run by some charismatic guys, some of whom are deaf and dumb. There are also a few up market bars nearby at the Lytton and Fairlawn Hotels. Someplace Else at the Park Hotel on Park St has live music.
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In Kolkata someone is always happy to sell you something, so you won’t have to go far for retail therapy. If you’re staying in the Chowringhee area you’ll be amazed at the number of street side vendors selling everything from belts to water, DVDs, books and juice. Some of the best shopping to be had in this area is in New Market. You’ll be accosted by every shopkeeper you pass in the warren of stalls, but it’s worth having a wander around even if you don’t want to buy any shoes, fabric, meat, cheese or anything else – just don’t get lost and bargain hard for everything.
The Oxford Bookshop on Park Street is a fabulous browse through the literary world and a great way to escape the heat and noise. There’s an enormous collection of books here so if you’re looking for good literature on India or just about anything else, you’ll find it here. The café on the second floor serves great cake and coffee.
Getting there & away – Kolkata’s international and domestic terminals are 17km from the city centre. India has enjoyed the recent advent of budget airlines like Spice Jet, IndiGo, Jetlite and Kingfisher and this has made access to/from Kolkata now easier than ever. Gone are the days when you had to train right across the country to get here, although many travelers choose to do that at least one way. AirAsia also started daily flights from Kuala Lumpur to Kolkata in November 2009.
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Howrah and Sealdah are the two main train stations in Kolkata. Most trains come in and out of Howrah unless they are for northeastern regions such as Darjeeling. Getting a ticket on any of the trains can be a difficult experience and many choose to use booking offices and travel agents instead.
Getting around – Transport around the city is best looked upon as something of an adventure. There’s plenty of it but roads are often clogged with traffic and during peak periods public services like trams, buses and the Metro are completely packed. Be very mindful of pickpockets at all times. Buses and trams operate on set routes and are very cheap at just a few Rupees for a ticket. They are fantastic if you know where you’re going and where to get off. Kolkata’s Metro was India’s first and is very clean and efficient. Stations are being added all the time and ticket prices (a few Rupees) depend where you begin/end your journey.
Human-powered, cycle and auto rickshaws are another feature of Kolkata’s busy streets. Rickshaws are as much a tourist attraction around Sudder Street as they are an essential part of transport for low-income residents. They are often the best alternative for getting through heavy traffic. You will need to negotiate the price of a journey, which should cost only about Rs. 25 (USD $0.55) for a 10minute ride.
Pre-paid taxis are available to/from the airport, for other journeys bargain hard with the driver. Ferries operate across the Hooghly River below the Howrah Bridge.
Joanne Lane is an Australian freelance photojournalist based in Brisbane. A love of writing from an early age led her to complete a university journalism degree in 1996. The travel bug soon hit and Jo has now travelled to some 40 countries or more and lived in a few as well, writing and documenting her experiences for newspapers, magazines and online sources around the world. For more details, see www.visitedplanet.com.