On Wednesday 21st we moved on from Agra and it was time to brave the Indian Railways to Kolkata. The Rajdhani express doesn't stop in Agra, and so it was necessary to take the train to Kanpur. Late morning we travelled to Agra Cantt (Cantonment), and passed a school 'bus'. This was around 10-12 girls, all in school uniform crammed onto one cycle rickshaw - it was an impressive piece of packing!
We had a bit of a wait at Agra, lots of hassle from people wanting to clean my shoes (I was not wearing leather), and from street kids. I did weaken and gave some cash to some streetkids in exchange for a photo. This is against advice, but it's very difficult when they're right in front of you.
Then someone official looking offered to help us to our carriage. We declined, as we were quite capable of reading the ticket, but he insisted despite our protests. As we arrived he demanded 100Rs for his trouble! Okay, so it's not much, but as we didn't want his help....
Indian trains can be excellent, and at the same time quite stressful. As a white european I was being constantly hassled to buy something, and this gets tiresome. For the train to Kanpur we had a compartment in a second class carriage. These carriages are open to all, and at each stop people looked in, and then the hard sell began. This train would have ended up in Kolkata, but it would have taken 36 hours, and I would not have slept well - or at all.
We were due in Kanpur at around 6:30pm, but didn't get in until 8pm. In the next compartment there was an american couple, also going to Kolkata. The guy was called Caleb and I can't recall the woman's name. They planned on staying on the train, but changed their plans when we said we were transferring to the fast train. We had a wait of 1hr 50 minutes at Kanpur, unfortunately they didn't spend any of this time making sure their ticket was adequate, and so the last time we saw them they were arguing with the guard - I hope they weren't stranded!
Up until this point, the experience wasn't too good. We were being continually hassled, and didn't feel at all secure. The Rajdhani express was something else, and is to be recommended. First Class AC is expensive by Indian Standards, but works out to be equivalent to a modest railway journey in the UK. The carriages are secured, so one can relax. Linen and an evening meal is provided, as is morning breakfast and a newspaper.
At Kolkata we were met at Howrah station by some of Monica's family, Anupam and Barnali. They took us to our hotel (reasonably priced by UK standards, but we did get a good rate on it which brought the price down, it was incredibly extravagent by Indian standards, a bit posh by ours, we took the hotel on the advice of another of Monica's family). This hotel was the biggest expense in the whole trip. After refreshing ourselves, we got into a Taxi and went to see Monica's mother, she lives in an area called Kasba.
Driving in Delhi was scary, but driving in Kolkata left that in the shade. Kolkata driving is akin to stock car racing. In Delhi, there is a weight of traffic and slower moving vehicles which keeps the speed down - not so much in Kolkata. It's like Delhi driving but fast. Nobody indicates in India, the rule of the road seems to be that as you pass someone you sound your horn, therefore, if there is no horn being sounded it is safe to pull out. Several times in Kolkata we were on the edge of our seats with nervousness. Couples with this is the fact that in many taxis I simply was too tall, having to bend by neck just to fit. We were in Kolkata for 10 days and got used to the traffic, and by the time we returned to Delhi, the driving there seemed tame.
We spent the 22nd and 23rd december in the flat, we'd begin to venture out on Christmas Eve.