Day 112: Kolkata – India’s second biggest city: simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate, and I fell in love instantly. A much welcomed friendly tonic following the Hyderabad fiasco, and I threw myself into the madness.
Poverty’s certainly in your face here, more so than I’ve seen elsewhere, and starkly contrasting with the colonial buildings, air conditioned shopping malls and old fashioned service. The streets are packed with your usual market traders, mechanics, people beavering away fixing this or that, always enterprising. Most places in India seem to have “A” thing you then see repeated on every street, here it seems to be welding (no masks, obvs), Enfield bikes and mechanics.
Kolkata’s streets are also paved with bhar – the standard vessel for chai. Fragments of the handmade dusky orange clay cups lie everywhere, remnants of a piping hot 4 rupee chai that’s been smashed back into the ground from whence it came, only to be replenished the very next day with a fresh batch, knocked up by the bhar wallahs. Street vendors conjure up who-knows-what Bengali food that tastes delicious, if you’re willing to take the risk (I did).
It’s a much leafier city, with plenty of parks and open spaces that seem to make it easier to breathe in the 39 degree heat. Getting around is super easy too – your pick of an efficient air-con metro, bashed up trams, bashed up buses, bashed up Ambassadors, TukTuks, horse drawn carts or man powered rikshaw, all vying for their space on the same road to get you from A to B through the busy traffic, of course beep beep beeping all the while. Or better yet, a good old fashioned stroll down the back alleys where I got a much better feel of Kolkata.
The light skinned Indian’s just left for Delhi, and I’m off to Varanasi tonight – just a short 14 hour/760km overnight train journey away. By morning, I’ll be by the Ganges River, with a whole new gang of Steves. They say “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favourite stop of all.” I say, it’s got some hefty competition, and I’m ready for the challenge.