Kolkata is not for the faint-hearted. The moment you step out of the airport, you know you are in for a roller coaster ride, West Bengal style.
Tired from a five-hour (excluding four hours of delays) flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and a nearly missed connecting flight from Mumbai, I mechanically grabbed my bag from the carousel, immediately looked for the driver and hopped inside the taxi Fairlawn Hotel had sent me, hoping to get a breath of fresh air along the way.
However, getting fresh air or having a scenic ride was not the first order of the day. Instead, I had a bird’s-eye view of what I will be having for the next three days. Kolkata is famous for its crazy traffic where humans, human-driven rickshaws, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, animals and any other moving creature on the planet share the same road. Traffic lights created more chaos and was often ignored. And blowing of horns, even if there was not an inch of space for traffic to move, was the norm rather than exception. There I had it, inside an ageing, non-air-conditioned ambassador car used by the British, the Kolkata that used to be the mighty capital of India was right in front of me, in a messy kind of way.
After surviving more than an hour of traffic-jammed journey (to the driver’s credit, he avoided bottlenecks by detouring to small alleyways where I saw men happily bathing in an open fire hydrant while women cooked their day’s meal along the road), we reached Fairlawn Hotel unscathed.
|"This mighty bridge over Hooghly River built in 1874, has withstood the stormy weather of the Bay of Bengal."|
The hotel, located at the centre of Sudder Street, was an eclectic mix of memorabilias since the time of the British Raj. The green hue made it welcoming despite the screaming walls of framed pictures of the owners, their families and their guests. Hmmm…I thought I could also write a beautiful thank you note to Ms Smith (the owner) so she could frame it and hang it on the wall.
Sam, the front desk manager, asked how my travel was. I honestly told him Kolkata seemed desperate and depressing with so much poverty around. Then he had this worried look and told me I should probably get some rest. He assured me the first impression would change as soon as I get to know Kolkata more.
A few hours later, I emerged from my room (which was conveniently right next to the dining area) feeling fresh. It’s still 5:30pm and I was just in time for afternoon tea. One thing good about Fairlawn Hotel was this ritual of taking your tea served the old way. They still had this beautiful, thick embroidered white cloth sewn to fit the whole tea pot so it won’t get cold. For the time being, I thought I was somewhere in time. With a jolt of caffeine, I was ready to see the beautiful side of Kolkata. I wandered through Sudder Street and checked the nearest Internet cafe, restaurants and shops travel books had recommended. Sudder Street is Kolkata’s backpackers’ mecca but not comparable to Bangkok’s Khao San or Kathmandu’s Thamel. Here, you see rundown cheap places to stay with minimal services to offer. Definitely, Fairlawn and the other two-star hotel next to it stood out from the pack.
Just a few metres from the hotel, men pulling rickshaws made their offers to tour me around town. Kolkata is one of the Indian states where human-pulled rickshaws are still very much around. A few years ago, there was an attempt to rid the city of these rickshaws but it was met with opposition. Besides being part of its rich culture, people are too poor to afford auto rickshaws, especially with the rising fuel prices.
After a few minutes, I bumped into Suu, the driver who picked me up at the airport. Since tourists were quite scarce, he tried his best to convince me to see some ‘tourist spots’ using his cab for a minimal fee. Taxi fare negotiation in Kolkata was quite complicated. He said the normal fare was 100 rupees (US$2) per hour or 10 rupees (2 dollar cents) per kilometre, whichever was higher. But the minimum fee for a tour was 500 rupees ($11), even if you consumed less than three hours. Fair enough, I thought, considering he would also serve as my tour guide.
So Suu and I hit the road the following day. Our first stop was the St Paul’s Cathedral. The quick tour was enough for a photo snap then we hurried towards Victoria Memorial dedicated to Queen Victoria of Britain who also carried the title Empress of India. Before heading to some important temples, I insisted on passing through Howrah Bridge, where more than four million people and vehicles traverse everyday. This mighty bridge over Hooghly River built in 1874, has withstood the stormy weather of the Bay of Bengal.
After Howrah Bridge, we passed communities where people manually pulled carriages containing products like tonnes of bamboos, metals, clothing, scraps.
Our next stop was Dakshineshwar temple, one of the important pilgrimage centres of India built in 1847 AD. Standing along the banks of the holy Ganga River, this temple was dedicated to Hindu lord Shiva and Radha Krishna. Every day, pilgrims make their holy trip to this temple and bathe in the river.
On the other end of the riverbank stood Belur Math and Ramakishna temple—a personal favourite because of its intricate architectural design that I thought could match the Taj Mahal. Belur Math looked like a temple, a mosque or a church, depending on which angle you’re looking at. Photos were not allowed so I just had to admire it with my own eyes. Established in 1898, it was dedicated to popular Sage Ramakrishna Paramhans, who preached about unity for all religions.
The 500-rupee tour that day was worth it because it had opened my eyes to the realities of Kolkata, its cracks and its beauties.
On my way to the airport on the last day, I had to fulfil one more mission—to see Mother Teresa’s tomb. The door to the compound of the Missionaries for Charity had a simple MC sign on the door that spoke so much about the religious order Mother Teresa established.
The only place in the MC compound visitors were allowed to take pictures were Mother Theresa’s tomb and her life-sized statue. But a glimpse of the nun’s life of service was enough consolation for me. I left Kolkata with a heavy heart. It was not the best travel I had but the impression it left me was lasting. (By JOFELLE P TESORIO In Kolkata/ ANN/ AsiaNews)