Monday, 6 January 2014

The tour of the colonies must take a short break

But first, Calcutta.

Another overnight train journey - the last one in India. I took the later train on the basis that it got in at 8am rather than 6am, and took longer to get there, so I got more sleep. This is more logic that Indians just don't understand.

But before I go any further. Public service announcement for the people who travel in the train carriage with me. Or in fact, in any train carriage.

When it is 5am, please do not:
(1) Turn the main light on. Use a torch! Or your phone! Yes, you have a phone - see (3) below.
(2) Talk really loudly. If I can hear it through my earplugs, then you need to shut up.
(3) Play rubbish music on your phone. In Britain, we call these people chavs.
(4) Take photos of white man sleeping. Especially if you've already woken me up, and I know about this because I have one eye open to glare and generally judge you.

OK, that's my rant for today done. Or, more likely, that rant done.

So eventually I got myself back to sleep, and not much later we were at Howrah station in Calcutta.

The place is huge.

But not huge enough to justify trying to charge me 100 rupees to push my bag down the platform for me.

It's a BACKPACK. Designed to be carried.....ON MY BACK. The look of shock on his face when I informed him of this was mildly amusing.

Worth a try though I suppose - I'm sure someone would fall for that one.

So I found where the prepaid queue was. They have nice yellow Ambassador taxis here - they're something of a symbol of Calcutta, so I wanted a photo.

But I'd left my battery charger in the wall in Puri. With the batteries in.

Damn it.
Not quite the same
It was a civilised queue as well. But in my shock at leaving my battery charger behind, they'd pounced.

"Sir, come with me. Same price as prepaid. You don't have to queue. Look, long queue!"

So I just told him that I was British and so I liked queuing, which he had no answer to. Oh how I enjoy playing with them. I think I get this one from my dad. Or I'll blame him for it anyway. Or thank him, depending on how you look at it.

Calcutta's not too crazy, by Indian standards at least. Yes, there are traffic jams, but they aren't too bad. It's just got a better feel to it - a better atmosphere.

First impressions: I like it here.

Even if my first stop was the traveller ghetto on Sudder Street.

Someone on the street asked me if I was looking for a place to stay. I was, and I presumed it was someone from a hotel - and he was taking me to a place that I'd heard about and that was actually cheap enough.

No, their cheapest room is 1000. No, I don't care if it's got AC, I can't afford that.

Then he took me somewhere else. No, 600.

Then I realised - I'd been had. He wasn't from a hotel - he was just a guide who'd demand commission.

So I told him that no, I was looking for a place for 300 rupees. When he told me that they were all full, it confirmed my initial suspicions, and so I did a runner to find a place by myself.

In my coffee- and breakfast-deprived state, I remembered the name of a hotel I'd heard about: Hotel Paragon. I knew it was 250-300 rupees, and probably wouldn't have people trying to drag me in - they just don't charge enough for that kind of thing. And surprise, surprise - as soon as I mentioned the name, they gave up with their "the cheap places are all full" rubbish.

Rule number one of travelling: know how much things should cost.

Applies to taxis and autorickshaws especially.

Rule number two: know where they are, and go by yourself if it's walkable. Ignore the various people on the street who want to withdraw money from you: you're a walking ATM, remember.

The room was a bit like a prison cell: small, and with a fan that had two settings: off, and superspeed.

But quite frankly, it was fine. And it was cheap, so I didn't care that much.

And it had bed bugs. Oops.

So I asked for a couple of extra sheets and all was good.

By now it was pushing 11am and I was in need of breakfast. I found a place called Jojos that seemed to cater to my types: the ones who'll normally go to a local place and have local food, but if they haven't had coffee or breakfast, it's another story entirely.

There's certain luxuries I can't give up: proper breakfast is one of them.

No, not yet. Must complete menial tasks first
My next task: find some new rechargeable batteries, and a new charger. Kind of necessary. I found a shop in the market that sold them, and of course the first one they offered me was priced at 2800 rupees. To be fair to them, that was the MRP - but once I'd told them I'd paid 500 rupees in Jaipur, then they knew they weren't dealing with that kind of customer. The look on their faces!

750 rupees and it charges 4 batteries. That'll do. Spare batteries are always a good thing after all.

I also needed a pristine 100 dollar note for Burma - certain grubby characters had depleted my dollar supply somewhat. I found a moneychanger who told me he would change it for 6000 rupees, if I could head to the ATM. He also seemed to understand what I was talking about when I said I needed the quality for Burma, confirming what I already knew about it.
Moneychangers? This seems like a relevant photo
But of course, I got accosted by a beggar at the ATM. No, she was asking for food this time. So I started doing some funny twitches with my face, and told her that she didn't want my food because it made me crazy. Ah, it's great fun seeing their reaction to the rubbish I tell them.

Back to the moneychanger, and now they wanted 6500. Surprise, surprise.

But they were buying for 64 and selling for 65, so I thought I'd let it slip - that's a pretty good spread, especially on tourist mecca street in Calcutta, where someone would surely fall for a 55/70 spread without thinking.

And yeah, that looks pristine enough. Ta.

And at 3pm, I actually made it out to the city.

It's so incredibly civilised! People walk in lines, keep to the left, and don't get in the way if they're trying to go to a stall. Every pavement is a street market here.

In the end I couldn't be bothered to walk, so I thought I'd try out the metro. For the grand cost of 5p.

And I went 2 stations, when I could have just gone one, and a load of helpful locals had to help confused foreigner find major tourist attraction in Calcutta.

Ah, there it is. No, that's a different one. Meh, I'll go and look at it anyway, it looks nice.

Here I met a guy called Neel, a local engineering student who I think was trying out his new SLR. His English was good and he seemed happy for me to tag along - he was headed for the Victoria Memorial too, and having locals on your side is always good.

Between St Paul's (yes, really) and the Victoria Memorial, there's a park called Maidan Park.
Not sure if India.... or London
And then there's the Victoria Memorial, something so British that I think must be the reason that the Indians love us so much. It's incredibly impressive - even if it is so politically incorrect that it's dedicated to Queen Victoria. Sorry, Empress Victoria. It would probably be as famous as the Taj if it was the Gandhi Memorial, or the Mughal Memorial, or something otherwise homegrown. But no, you must not know about imperial history. That is not how it works.

Look at it. Just LOOK AT IT! OK, point proven.
Eventually we arrived there. Neel's ticket was 4 rupees and mine was meant to be 150 rupees. Foreign premium, eh? So I gave him a 500, something that would normally unleash the whines of "change! change?" - but he changed it. I got 496 rupees change. The unthinkable had happened. Not only had I been given change for a 500 for a 4 rupee ticket, but this was at a booth that demanded exact change for said ticket.

Oh, and my ticket said "for Indian nationals only".

This amused me far too much.

It's a very grand thing, the Victoria Memorial - something that really wouldn't look out of place in London. In fact, I get the feeling that if Southall, the very Indian enclave of London, was to expand and take up the entire capital city, it would be a bit like Calcutta.

Don't tell the BNP/EDL/etc about that last sentence. They'll have a field day at the very thought of it.

But now it was going dark (no, there is no pun here, behave) and it was time to wander back to my ghetto for the night. I was planning on visiting Kalighat at some point, so Neel left me his number and told me to let him know if I was heading down that way. Yes, it can be helpful having a local at places like this, just to tell the various touts to go away.

By now I was ready for some food (as if I'm ever not hungry) and decided that maybe I'd try some Bengali food, given that I was kind of in Bengal. I didn't have a clue what anything on the menu was, or meant, so I just let them choose "the best" for me. It's probably best to say that whatever they gave me was something of an acquired taste.

I had kufti for dessert though, and that was good - even if the first few bites are definitely better than the last few. Not for the first time.

The second day came round and I was back to my new home of Jojo's for breakfast - but more to the point, to abuse their wifi. And of course this meant that I didn't actually make it out anywhere until 11am.

Colonial buildings awaited.

And if there's something I like a lot, it's colonial buildings.

Even if I did nearly get killed by a taxi, and then a bus, on the interchange above; they weren't stopping for anyone. Maybe I take some of what I said about crazy traffic back. It's still India after all!

.Oh yeah, and they have trams here too! Even if they are falling apart - quite like half the colonial buildings (more on that later).

Another thing I noticed here: there's not a lot of staring. That made the place a lot more comfortable than many other places I've been - and as I've mentioned, staring is one of those things that really makes India uncomfortable, and really amplifies the culture shock.

But eventually, even if the traffic isn't that bad, it's still a big city, and it was still nice to escape it for the peace and quiet of a church. St John's, take a bow.

There's really something quite British in both the look and feel of this place - no surprise that it was the capital of the Raj for quite a while then. So it only seemed appropriate to head up to BBD Bagh, the square that housed a lot of the British administration and other buildings back in the day.

This is British.
This is even more British.
And Dalhousie Square is a far better name than "BBD Bagh" as it's called now. Just like "Calcutta" is far better than "Kolkata". Kolkata only has its uses when applying for visas...
Well played, Crown van, well played. Good timing on that photobomb.
Many, many old colonial buildings. Here's a selection:

Even if the last one's falling apart, it drastically reduced the capacity of my memory card. I get a little overexcited about things like this. You wonder why my sense of humour is so messed up, eh?

Eventually though I had to leave and have a wander through the market, which was certainly not colonial in the slightest - and so my confused mind had to take a detour into the Armenian Church for a bit.

It kind of made me want to visit Armenia. Actually, I do want to visit Armenia. Any country that's disliked by most of its neighbours must be doing something right that makes them jealous. There's always a next trip after all!

Also, this should be an Olympic sport.

My wanderings then took me riverside, where I got accosted by people who don't speak English. They were incredibly friendly though, and of course we got along. This is the way here.

Yes, this is how people live
Even if I scare babies.

And they still bought me some chai, even if they definitely couldn't afford to! This is what I love about India.

Even if they suggested I just threw away the pot that it came in. No chance! This is the best kind of souvenir after all.

Eventually I found the place I was looking for - the departure point for the Howrah ferry. Only took me 3 hours to make it there.

5 rupees. Fantastic. I was only after a photo of the bridge anyway. Which you're prohibited from taking photos of, but I take photos of anyway, because I'm such a rebel.

And after all that, I couldn't even fit the whole bridge into the photo. My difficulties, eh?

Normally I avoid restaurants in railway stations like the plague - in fact, make that any food sold on the railways - because they tend to be overpriced and a bit rubbish.

Not in India. The government doesn't let them - because if it did, or indeed if it removed the subsidy on passenger fares, it would lose the next election pretty heavily.

So I went back to Howrah. It's not like I got a photo of it the first time.

Which involved going through this tunnel. Fun.

Thankfully, I didn't get mugged. It's not Newport after all.

Back on the bridge and I took a few more pictures I wasn't actually allowed to - but fair play, this is an impressive piece of work! The Eiffel Tower school of architecture never did so well.

And that evening I had something else in a pot: ice cream. My life is that exciting that it warrants a mention.
Yes, and a photo too.
Also, hand-drawn rickshaws are a weird experience. Yes, it's a guy pulling a cart down a street, with someone sat in it.

So of course I had to give it a go. Apparently there's a moral question about this, but to me, there's only one question: does he eat, or does he starve? So of course, I'm more than happy to pay for the service. And I only went to the metro station anyway, because I was feeling a bit lazy.

Today I was headed for Kalighat, and Neel was going to meet me there, to head off all the touts. The metro seemed a far bigger challenge for me though, as I nearly sat in a ladies' seat, before the glares warned me off it.

There was a guy with full cricket kit, equipment and all sat in the "physically challenged" seat though. That amused me for a while.

So on to Kalighat. And this is where knowing a local helps - I got into the main chamber, with queue-jump, for just 40 rupees. They often try getting 4000 rupees out of you for it. And Neel gave the touts a few choice words in Bengali too. Sorry, "priests". All I know is cello, cello!

And in 5 crazy seconds, you're in, touch the feet of the deity, ignore some other priest's request for a donation, and out. Whoa. As with everything in India, it's an experience.

I wasn't allowed to take a picture of pretty much anything inside there, but Neel's local temple had an image of Kali too. Of course there was a local temple. There's always a local temple.

I was thinking of heading to some more temples up north, but after the craziness of that experience, I decided against it. Neel had offered me food and beer at his house - and if there are two things I don't turn down, there are food and beer. Even if I feel bad at accepting Indian hospitality given their poverty.

But eventually I had to do a runner, as I had a flight to catch.

So back to the hotel, even if I took the metro in the wrong direction before I realised the error of my ways. Oops.

And even if the taxi drivers here will use the meter, this one tried to get a bit more out of me. 100 for parking. No, I've read the sign, it's free if you're only in there for 10 minutes, or 60 if you're in there a little longer. To avoid making a fuss, I gave him 60 rather than telling him to be quick. No way was he getting 100.

Oh, and he wanted a tip. No, you're not having a tip, you just tried to cheat me.

Not that I tip anyway. Unless circumstances are exceptional.

It's been a long blogpost, but I'll say this about India: however much the country infuriates me, I'll probably be back - it's got so much to offer, even if culturally I find it a struggle.

And I wish I'd spent longer in Calcutta too - a city that I really did like.

But now it's time to join the madness in Bangkok. Let's see how that goes down.

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