New Year in India

See previous and next. Date: 31st December, 2005 Place: Kolkata

Monica was a little unwell in the morning, which was a bit of an inconvenience. Anupam arrived at around noon with some medicine for her. The plan for the day was to go to 'Science City' , but instead we went straight to Monica's Mum's flat. On the way, we saw a poor chap with leprosy, a truly horrible disease. The skin on his hand had gone, leaving the flesh raw and exposed. At the hotel, there was a donation box for leprosy relief, and I made sure that we put a chunk of change in there. Apparently the disease is quite difficult to catch, it needs a depressed immune system.

Anupam, Shejomashi and IWe popped into the flats of Monica's aunties today, seeing Shejomashi (third aunt) and then Boromashi (elder aunt).

Shejomashi was quite concerned that I was not to be bitten by mosquitos, and so fanned me for the whole time I was there!

Back at the hotel, we were not really up to partying the night away - we had a long day of travel ahead, and we were both a bit under the weather. A loud party at the back of the hotel did not keep us awake. Vey boring, but very necessary.

Walking in Kolkata

See Previous and next. Date: Friday, 30th December, 2005 Place: Kolkata

It was quite relaxed today, I took Monica out for a walk in the morning. We went down Camac Street and Shakespeare Sarani to a photo-processing shop, we wanted to get some prints for Monica's family. We then walked back down Shakespeare Sarani and turned onto Lord Sinha Street, going to the Gmami centre, specifically to the bookshop on the top floor.

We had a browse, Monica bought a couple of Rabindranath Tagore titles, and I bought a camera case as the zip had failed on my old one.

At the hotel, I had a fun time cashing a travellers cheque. They only had very low denominations available, and so I had to wait for the safe.

St. Paul's Cathedral in KolkataThe Birla PlanetariumMonica took a bath, and I went hunting for postcards - not easy in Kolkata - it's not really geared up for tourists! I went down AJC Bose Rd, then turned right and walked past St. Paul's and the Birla Planetarium, where we'd been a few days before. No luck, I walked back on Shakespeare Sarani, and on a whim went into the Landmark bookstore in the shopping centre on Lord Sinha street and found some.

When I returned, Monica was ready to go, and so we headed to the flat for the afternoon.

In the evening, we decided to pack, so we wouldn't be rushing to do so on New Year's Eve, or New Year's day itself. Then we went down to 'The Polo Bar'. This was pretty much the same as the previous time, we wrote a few postcards, listened to the Phillipino band murder some quite good tunes and so forth. Tonight, there was a belly dancer, who came with her own security guard.

To me, he resembled a member of an Indian tribute band for The Village People.

The Botanical Gardens

See previous and next. Date: Thursday 29th December, 2005 Place: Still in Kolkata

Ferry Terminal for a crossing of the Hooghly, KolkataDrawing closer to the Hooghly BridgeAnupam and Barnali met us at the hotel at about half nine, and we took a cab to the Hooghly River (thankfully the medicines we had taken that morning saw us through the day). I think it was near Millennium park where we caught the boat.

We travelled across the Hooghly, travelling away from the Howrah Bridge. The previous day I had seen this boat heaving with people, and was concerned that it'd be like that - but it was out of rush hour, and so it was not a problem and we had a pleasant trip - though the pollution was quite something.

At the far bank, we walked up to the main road and caught another cab to the Botanical Gardens, it was quite some way. The Botanical Gardens are huge, we only saw a fraction of them, and like most things in India, tourists are charged a higher rate than nationals.

In the gardens there are lakes, birds and (to European eyes) some strange plants.

The Great Banyan Tree in KolkataBanyan TreeOne of the highlights is the great Banyan tree. From a distance, the Banyan looks like a small forest, but it's actually one tree. It looks like many tree trunks whose branches have grown into each other, connecting the trunks. Everything you can see in these photos is one tree. The weird thing is that the entire tree has grown downwards to meet the ground from the sky - what looks like trunks are actually aerial roots.

This sounds impossible, what actually happens is that the tree starts to grow as usual, and then sends out horizontal branches. As these spread, they tend to collapse under their own weight, so they send down tendrils toward the ground, the aerial roots. When these touch the ground they begin to 'flesh out' and provide both nutrients and structural support. In the case of the great Banyan Tree, the original trunk that grew upwards was diseased and removed. All that's now left are the aerial roots.

The whole tree is some 430m in circumference, and still growing.

Reflections at the Botanical Gardens in KolkataCommercial River Traffic on the HooghlyWe walked in the Botanical gardens some more, stopping for some lunch (I didn't want any, but Anupam insisted I ate, so I had some crisps - I could face no more). By the time we took the boat back, the air had cleared somewhat, we could see people on the banks of the river washing clothes and themselves, and also we could see the bridges clearly, and the other river traffic.

The cab ride to Monica's Mum's was rather depressing. Unlike Agra, Delhi and Jaipur, Kolkata had been pretty hassle-free, but at one junction when the car stopped there was a small boy, followed by a disabled guy, then a blind guy, literally feeling his way from car to car asking for cash. All the advice tourists are given is not to hand out any money, for several reasons. This is all very well in principle, but rather different in practice when faced with such abject poverty. I found myself quietly shedding a tear.

At the flat I went to sleep rather rapidly, and I wasn't in the mood for food. One of the neighbours came in with some noodles which they had prepared for us - and it would have been rude not to accept. Then Kalpana produced a fish curry, I think they called it a Chilli-fish. It tasted like chicken.

It was the best fish curry to date. To my surprise the whole meal went down very well, I really didn't feel like eating beforehand, but am glad I did.

Back at the Hotel (Hotel Hindustan International), we decided to go for a drink and went down to the 'Polo Bar'. This is billed as an 'English Pub with a live Phillipino band'. They had a mix of songs, ranging from 'Every Breath you take' to Bollywood.

So, we were in an English Pub, with a Phillipino band, playing Hindi songs, in Kolkata, where the main language is Bengali.

Unfortunately the only beer they had was Heineken. So I did the only reasonable thing for an Englishman abroad in India - I had a Gin and Tonic (extra Quinine, dontchaknow, anti-malarial).

The waiter was particularly good, he was constantly scanning the room, and when he saw a customer running low on nibbles, they were topped up before the customer even noticed they were low, when a customer fumbled with a cigarette, he was there with a light. (A shame about the amount of smoke in the bar, but with all that pollution outside, what's a little more?)

The trick I couldn't work out was how to stop him before he replenished our snacks!

A quiet day in Kolkata

See previous and next. Date: 28th December 2005 Place: Kolkata

A bus on AJC Bose Rd, KolkataThe 28th was a quiet day, both Monica and I were struck with diarrhea (not literally I hasten to add) and so we spent much of the morning at the hotel. By mid afternoon I was feeling better and went to stretch my legs.

I went along AJC Bose Rd for a bit, then turned into Lord Sinha road and into the Emami Shoppers City - a quieter and cleaner New Market.

On the top floor is a store called 'Landmark', which is primarily an English Language bookshop, with some Hindi and Bengali. It also sells stationary, DVDs, VCDs and CDs. I got four DVDs including three films by Satyajit Ray.

Victoria Memorial, KolkataAn illuminated Peacock at Millennium Park, KolkataAt about half past four, Anupam appeared at the hotel and we both felt confident enough to go out. We went to the Victoria Memorial and walked around the gardens there, again, we didn't go in. From there we went up to Millennium Park, a new section had just opened. Millennium Park is a long thin park on the banks of the Hooghly. At night, the Howrah bridge looked like a suspension bridge, the lights on it made it look delicate, and one could not see the iron girder structure. Millennium Park was full of life, people around, a band playing - generally a nice spot.

We ate at the flat (mostly through politeness, neither of us felt well) - and the meal included some boiled green banana to settle the stomach.

Back at the hotel we found that neither of us felt as settled as we'd have hoped. We took some medication and crossed our fingers for the next day...

More Kolkata Shopping

See Previous and next. Date: 27th December, 2005 Place: Kolkata

On the 27th, Monica's cousin visited us. He wanted to take us out to buy something (this is the done thing in India, it's not polite to refuse). We took a cab to New Market again (actually, only partway, as he had an argument with the cabbie and we got out and walked). He was looking for a bronze statue for us, we went from place to place and were being asked for inflated prices. Things usually ended in an argument and we walked out. Eventually, I tried waiting outside the shop - as soon as we tried this, the prices roughly quartered. The message is, if shopping in India, take a local! He also got a leather wallet for me - it's Indian style, brown with nice patterns on it. It's a bit large for trouser pockets, but just right when I'm wearing a jacket.

We headed back on the metro (which was packed) and then to Monica's Mum's appartment.

Me, Monica's Mum, Barnali, Kalpona, Anupam ShejomashiIn the evening, Anupam arrived with a chadoor for me, as I said, it's really hard to stop people buying gifts! The chadoor is great, essentially it's the West Bengal equivalent of the poncho. It's a short long blanketlike thing which you wrap around your torso, and it keeps you very warm. It came in handy when I had some time sailing on the English Channel earlier this year!

On the way back a taxi driver tried it on saying that I'd given him the wrong money, I know I hadn't. The difference was 50p or so equivalent, so not the end of the world, but it was the principle of the thing (I'd even included a tip!)

The thing I hate about India is that it can sometimes seem that everyone sees you as an easy mark. I understand it, relatively speaking we're well off, but it's very tiresome. There was one cab driver who was up front about it, he asked for a higher price, and when I pointed out that he was overcharging he said 'yes, but I've given very good service!' We agreed with him, and he got his cash. I didn't mind that, I did mind when people were sneaky about it, trying to play us for fools.

I don't want to overplay that, though - that's a small part of this great country.

Christmas in Kolkata

See previous and next. Date: Christmas Day Place: Kolkata

Fast Food, Indian StyleWe spent Christmas day in Kolkata at a place called Nicco park, a little way out of town, past Science City. This is an amusement park, with lots of the usual sorts of rides, dodgems, a small roller coast, a water slide and so forth. It really is a place for the locals (not that Kolkata had masses of tourists to start with). I certainly was the only european I saw all day, and people kept waving at me. In Kolkata itself later in the week people kept coming up to me saying 'Nicco Park! Nicco Park!'

It didn't help that on the boating-dodgems (sort of rubber tyres with outboard motors), mine broke down, providing much amusement to the Bengali picnickers by the side of the lake - all I could do was smile and wave.

The fast food here was excellent, the guy made a curry straight on the hot plate, and it was delicious.

Anupam and I both went on the water slide, and arrived at the bottom dripping wet. No problem though, it was a warm day.

Christmas MealOur Christmas meal back at the flat was a chicken curry dish, and very nice it was too.

In the evening we gave out the gifts we had brought with us. We'd saved them as we were worried that they may be refused, and we wanted to be able to fall back on 'it's Christmas day' if we had to. In the evening we were to meet one of Monica's cousins at the hotel, so we rushed back. Whilst waiting (he never appeared) we had Terminator 3 on the TV, the Kumars at No. 42 and Desperate Housewives! An unexpected selection!

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

See previous and next. Date: Christmas Eve Place: Kolkata

Nativity Scene in IndiaSt. Paul's Cathedral in KolkataIt's been quite surreal, on TV there have been Bengali santas selling carpets, and outside St. Paul's Cathedral in Kolkata there is a nativity scene, but apart from this we've essentially escaped the whole Christmas shenanigans.

One of the main things today was a trip to Rash Behari, a nearby street where jewellery is sold. Monica's mum was set on buying us a ring each. This was non negotiable. Now, the Indian sensibility is more gold -> better. Unfortunately this meant that most of the rings were way too much for me, I felt like 'Del Boy' and I wouldn't have worn the ring. In the end I got a nice simple gold band. Monica got a nice piece too. Gold jewellery is sold simply by weight in India, and in several shops they had an electronic display showing the up to the minute price from the financial markets. Monica's mum was a bit disappointed that they didn't have more 'bling' - but we had to explain that if she wanted us to wear the rings then they couldn't be quite the style she would have chosen.

In the evening we went into Kolkata with Anupam and Barnali and saw St. Paul's Cathedral, we then went to the Birla Planetarium. This was an English Commentary, and was quite funny when the woman broke into 'Indian Masi' mode and scolded the audience saying 'I thought I told you to keep the children quiet!'

There are also commentaries in Hindi and Bengali, I'm not sure how Anupam and Barnali coped with the English commentary.

After the planetarium we were taken over the Hooghly Bridge (Vidyasaga Setu) and back. Anupam seemed set on stopping the taxi in the middle of the bridge. We thought this was bloody dangerous, no hard shoulder - and it's not the best place to photograph the bridge!

Back at the hotel it was difficult to sleep, there was a wedding going on downstairs and music was thumping up through the floors.


See previous and next. Date: 22nd December 2005 Moving to Kolkata

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!

Kids at Agra StationWe 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....

Taken on a moving train....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!

On the Rajdhani ExpressUp 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.

Couple Commits suicide over Rs 8

In Kolkata, a couple took poison after being scolded for borrowing Rs 8, and thus causing anger in the husband's father. They had borrowed the money in order to buy some clothing for the wife. After being scolded, they locked themselves in their room and took poison. They were taken to hospital, but died on the way.

Rs 8 is about 10pence in the UK, 18 US cents, or 14 euro cents.

Ants Prevent Plane Takeoff

This is a story which caused concern, considering that this weekend my wife will be taking off from Kolkata airport to return home. Burrowing ants caused the rear wheels of a plane to collapse through the tarmac on the taxi strip at Kolkata.

This sounds rather comic, but it could have easily been the runway. This is one story which I won't be emailing Monica with to keep her up to date.