This is the first city in my India series; for a quick introduction to my trip, see here.
Kolkata: India’s second-largest city. The intellectual heartbeat of the country. I decided to launch my trip here for reasons I can no longer remember but am happy now that I did. It felt both charming and suffocating at times, but I quickly fell in love with its colonial-style architecture, the gardens that graced its crumbling buildings, and the city’s unwavering and inexplicable energy.
But like India’s other modern cities, Kolkata is a place where poverty and inequality greet you around every corner. As the world’s second most populous nation, a third of its population lives on less than a $1-3 per day. The experience of witnessing this first-hand was hard to stomach but it also doesn’t define the city: often referred to as the “City of Joy,” it rings true despite these truths. The people were charming and mischievous, and the city’s balmy, tropical vibe, full of flowers and birdsong and beautifully dilapidated buildings, gave it a dreamy, delightful quality.
The first few days were a blur. I could recount the efforts of trying to find an honest hotel room price or my hesitant forays into the dizzying flavours of Indian street food. Hours spent lost in an urban maze of people, cows, and auto rickshaws. I could share my frustrations with taxi drivers who would state one fare then inflate to another, leaving us sometimes stranded on the side of a hot, dusty road in protest. Or how I wandered through throngs of people during Kali Puja–a holy ceremony for Hindus–and saw street stalls filled with delicate garlands of jasmine and bright orange marigold flowers but also a disheartening number of beggars and street kids. I volunteered for a day at Mother Teresa house and saw, for a fleeting moment, those who dedicate their lives to caring for Kolkata’s most impoverished and destitute. And I could reminisce about a relaxed evening on a rooftop patio drinking tepid Kingfisher beers and watching the fireworks celebrating Diwali, the festival of light.
But my most visceral and memorable experience–and among my top in India overall–was my first sip of chai tea, the Kolkata way. Here, chai (sweet, milky tea) is served in earthen clay cups and sipped on a chaotic street next to the chai wallah’s stand. People will tell you chai tastes different from a clay cup. It’s true. For the rest of my trip, no cup was as delicious as that first one, savoured slowly and carefully in the low evening light of an alley off Sudder Street. And the best part? When you’re done drinking, you throw your cup to side to be melted down and reshaped for another day.
Where I stayed: Compared to South East Asia, the backpacker trail in India isn’t well-tread. Every city does have its tourist district; in Kolkata that would be Sudder Street. I would recommend a specific hostel or hotel, but the truth is you’d be hard pressed to find the same one you booked online (Indian hawkers or touts are notorious for taking you to their “Uncle” or “Cousin’s” version of the hotel you booked). My advice is to wander around and take the first room you’re comfortable with.
What I ate: Kolkata was my introduction to Indian cuisine. I played it safe with Aloo Gobi, rich lassis, and rotis of various shapes, flavours, all slathered in butter. If you go? Bengali food is a must.
What I learned: Experience a ride in one of Kolkata’s yellow taxis but try to find out a fair price from a local and negotiate with the taxi driver beforehand. Don’t rely on a meter if there is one. Book your train travel days in advance; it was less spontaneous than I had hoped but you’re not guaranteed a seat if you leave it last-minute (Indian trains do reserve seats for tourists, but they book up fast.)
Have you been to Kolkata? Share your thoughts or experiences below; I’d love to hear them.