Thursday, December 1, 2011

I remember reading that it's impossible to like Kolkata; you must love it or hate it

Moment-to-moment, that's true. I've had very few moments of liking Kolkata. I've had a lot of love moments and a lot of hate moments.

The love moments:
- meeting up with the Kolkata Couchsurfing community. Even though I couldn't actually find any available hosts, I got a chance to talk with a bunch of cool people. A lot of young folks and a lot of men, although a few women and older people too. One, Avik, even invited me and another CSer to dinner (which was a great time, and delicious); another CSer, Ratnish, invited a bunch of us to his house for some board games, including Taboo. Now, Taboo is great, but kudos to the Indians, Germans, Austrians, and others there who had English as a second language! That would be tough. And I got to play chess with another, Prithvi. Good folks all.

- meeting a couple of Australian folks who run a travel business and just bought a house in north Kolkata. They've lived here for 16 years, but they go back to Australia for the summer and monsoon season. (Summer sounds awful: over 100 degrees and humid, constantly.) Then they come back to find mold on their walls. They have running water for a few hours a day; they store it in a tank that effectively gives them running water for the rest of the day. But this tank has a hose which they have to remove at night, because otherwise the rat will chew through it. Sometimes stores are closed (like today!) because of strikes. The most recent one is because of supermarkets: the government's making some deals to allow Wal-mart, Carrefour, etc to set up shops in India, and there is a complicated issue. (which I would love to talk about sometime, incidentally.)
Their business is Kali Travel Home at or traveleastindia at gmail. Highly recommended! They do walking tours and coordinate cooking classes with locals, as well as a bunch of other stuff on their website.

- seeing everything in one day, courtesy of a motorcycle tour by a guy named Sukant.
Park street cemetery: neat overgrown/crumbling atmosphere.

The Great Banyan! It is all one tree!

Flower market. Spices too.

"Now we are going to the Garbage Mountain! ... There is the start of it." "Where? There? No..." "Yes! It is five kilometers long!" This was actually fascinating. Fifty years' worth of garbage. I don't know if you can see any people in that photo for scale, but it is immense. Meanwhile, everything gets sorted out: glass bottles, plastic bags, scraps of foil, colored plastic, etc. As we rode past it, we saw all these little piles of one type of thing which would get recycled. I imagine every American city has multiple Garbage Mountains, but we never see them, and we recycle a lot less. What can we learn from Kolkata? Well, I don't know: all this recycling requires an army of people climbing on top of that mountain, picking through all the junk.

(again, more photos if you click the "photos" link above.)
If that's a thing you'd like to do, check out Tour de Sunderbans.

- Kolkata is nicely navigable and walkable, especially the central bits.

- Bengali food is so good all the time. Kathi rolls for snacks, delicious fish curries of pomfret and ilish for meals, shondesh and mishti doi for dessert. Anyone want to open up a Bengali/Nepali restaurant with me?

The hate moments:
- beggars. Well, now I know, ignore them all, just as you ignore all touts. You are even allowed to do such absurd things as hard-core shunning them, yelling "no" or "chalo!" ("go away!"), ditching them, or pretending not to speak English.

- on that note, Kolkata is terrifying! Not because I ever felt unsafe, really, but because you're surrounded by countless examples of "there but for the grace of God..." I guess a few roaches here and there is a fact of life. I can't imagine running a house, like those Australian folks.

- the tourism zone (including the internet cafes) is more soul-crushing than most. I trust a Kolkata tourist-businessman less than I can throw him.

- I am tired! My travel gumption is fading, and I cannot seem to recharge. Being in a big city is nice, but it's also tough in its own way. I was planning to spend next week in Delhi, but I think instead I will spend a few days and then go to Rajasthan. (in retrospect, I should have planned to stay a couple weeks, because meeting the same people a few times is nice.)

So yes, love and hate. If you take the average, though, I'd say overall I like Kolkata.


  1. What a synopsis ! At least overall it turned out ok... And the people? Is there also a dichotomous relationship there? I hope you get some rest soon, you still have a ways to go. What's the latest on the visa-re-entry status? Hang in there ! :)

  2. Well, yeah. Hated all the Sudder St/New Market touts, loved all the people I actually got to talk to as something other than a consumer.

    And hey, I've re-entered India, so no problem there. Think I've got it all squared away.