Kolkata as a first timer

I haphazardly booked Kolkata as my destination for a US work visa and made a trip out of it. I am an Indian national. I speak Hindi and English but not Bengali. It was enough to get around. I went with my 70 year old dad.

Why Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)?

  • Kolkata had an available Visa appointment date a week before Mumbai or Delhi ✓
  • I have Canadian and UK tourist Visas but my lawyer advised me against them to avoid possible administrative processing ✓
  • I could visit my sponsored child ✓
  • Never been to Kolkata before and don’t know when I would get the opportunity ✓
  • Safe ✓

Day 1 – Arrival and rat sightings

We landed at Dum Dum airport in the evening of Jan 2nd. My dad booked a night at a guest house he is member of. We got there by prepaid taxi. The staff was enterprising so I tried staying positive. The building wasn’t built or maintained well. The bathroom drain started with a hole in the wall, no cover. Bad sign. Soon a small rat shot out of the air conditioner, made a beeline for the main door, jumped over the threshold, off into the hallway. That was our last night there. Dad, as I insisted, told them about the incident. He said they nodded like they knew about the existence of the species.

The tiffin service they had knocked our socks off. We ordered a special non veg platter for Rs. 140. I couldn’t find it on the internet. So try your luck at your own risk: Pancha banjan Rina Dey. Cell phone # +91 9433379995, +91 8481945819. You’ll need to order before 9:00 a.m. for lunch and before 5 p.m. for dinner. may be in Bengali. Our staff ordered for us.

Day 2 – Biometric appointment with the Visa application center

I took my biometric appointment with the visa application center. I had my current passport, DS-160 printout, appointment confirmation, a face and all 10 fingers. I passed with flying colors 🙂 We moved our stuff to the new place that would soon disappoint us as well. The food, as usual did not. The caretaker was over friendly. He said he could cook for Rs. 250 for each of us and not to tell the landlord about it. We enjoyed dinner 2 nights.

Day 3 – Kolkata and Howrah by car

Howrah
top – Belur Math; bottom left – great Banyan tree; bottom center – Dakshineshwar temple; bottom right – Vidyasagar Setu

We booked a prepaid cab to show us around for 8 hours. This cost us Rs. 2000 and parking fees ranging from Rs 20 to 50 per location. This was a convenient and productive way of doing it. My dad has arthritis in his knee. Cab drivers don’t know where they are going most of the time. This would mitigate it some. We had 3 smart phones on us. I had Kolkata and Howrah’s maps downloaded on 2. Our phones are always charged.

We went to Kalighat and blew it. Remember people *Keep your shoes in the car and tell any guide, priest, any stranger that your host has asked you to not talk to anyone*. I showered at 6:00 a.m. and wore an Indian salwar (Indian leggings) kameez (traditional Indian vest). We fell for a tourist trap. We thought we would pay some money but it would be entertaining. What the hell. Rs. 130 for flowers Rs. 500 for donation. Rs. 200 for colored threads. They did not have the decency to walk slow for my dad and screamed us to pay more and more. Rs. 500 to keep our shoes. Mind you, this was a store and not just on the streets. When we started this drama, they told us we only need to give what we feel like. They will snatch what they can without leaving you with lunch money. Dad bargained it down some. I told them this was not a good experience. Some ladies tried finishing us off by following us all the way. We walked over and stood next to the police guards at the police station. They looked at us and didn’t tell these ladies anything. I wonder if they are in cahoots? Avoid this destination altogether if possible. I’m speaking with Kolkata police about this on fb.

We drove by the Mullick flower market at Strand road I think this is only meant to be seen at 5 a.m. when the trucks unload. On the journey, I told Dad to not give any shady character ANY money. Then I took all his bigger denominations to be safe.

Belur Math was next. I wanted to see the religious places in one go because I had limited Indian dresses and didn’t want to walk bare foot and wash my feet and shoes every night. Photography is not allowed inside. Every temple has a deity, a spiritual ambience and you can enter for free. The exhibition has a paid entry. It has a banyan tree in the center and replicas of the rooms where the contributors of Ramakrishna mission stayed. They had some paraphernalia of Indian villages. Being Indian, I would skip the exhibition if I knew better. We drank coconut water outside. We continued this tradition for every tourist attraction 🙂

Now to Dakshineshwar. Dakshineshwar is very crowded after 9:00 a.m. through sundown. We didn’t mind the crowds. It was good people watching. We took the side line and got the side view. In retrospect, we should have stayed in the center line. This one too, was worth the visit.

We saw Hooghly and Howrah bridge on the way. We broke for lunch at Aaheli. The chicken in grandmother’s recipe was so tasty!

Victoria memorial hall was our last destination for the day. The construction and design reminded me of St. Paul’s cathedral with it’s large hall, upper balcony and golden paintings of Queen Victoria’s life. The garden in the premises is huge. We strolled for a bit. I realized this may not have been the best choice for my sponsored child’s trip. There isn’t a ton to do here.

Day 4 – Marble palace permission

We hand washed our laundry and made trip to the tourism department of Bengal. I wanted to do this asap to get a permission letter for the Marble Palace visit. The address was ‘Tourism Department, Government Of West Bengal, 2 Brabourne Road, 4th Floor, Kolkata 700001.’ My dad got that after calling various departments. What we needed to do this time and every time we needed to go anywhere was 1. Hail a cab. 2. Throw out a few landmarks near our destination. 3. If he recognizes any i.e. if he wasn’t born yesterday, we say take us in that general direction, we will give you exact directions once we are closer. 4. Negotiate to pay Rs. 30 per mile approximately. 5. Fire up offline maps to make sure he is more or less on track. Offline Google maps ignored several one ways for us and didn’t give us walking directions. 6. Pay 🙂

If it is an Uber, replace 1) with 1 – alt) Book the Uber & ask a local close by to direct them to the exact location. Most drivers here turn their GPS off.

The paperwork was quick and friendly. We got a form that allowed us to visit on a specific day. We chose a Saturday. The hours were from 10 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. We needed ID and current address.

Day 5 – Room change and Marble Palace

Kolkata
top – Rabindra Bharati Museum; bottom left – Victoria memorial; bottom center – Marble palace; bottom right – Indian museum

Our room leaked at 3 different places after 3 nights. We got the hell out of there as well. I’m not a last minute lover. It’s just that my paperwork, flight, hotel bookings needed to be done serially and it was that touristy time of the year. We mitigated our risks by booking only for a few nights each time. The caretaker lied about the leakage and insisted on making us meals and tea he would charge us for. I joined my hands namaste style and thanked him for everything so far repeatedly as I heard sales pitch after sales pitch. “New room”, “We’ll fix the leakage”, what not. I was not having it. The location was good though. We dined at Arsalan twice. Yum! I booked a new place at half price as they stood inches from me.

The new place in Kalighat was pretty barebones but definitely a better construction. I just wanted that and proximity to the US consulate. We shifted. We had to request the host to check in early. This saved us a lot of hassle. We had to tell the cleaners to clean the bathroom and change the sheets. They were ready to leave without.

We had a small window for marble palace so if we had to do one thing today it had to be…? You guessed it.

This was my FAVORITE!

The Marble palace is the private residence of Raja (king) Rajendra Mullick. His family has dedicated tour guides to show your party around free of charge. The Mullick family still lives there in another section of the palace.

Though the building looks blackened from the outside, the interior is just exquisite. The billiard room itself has marble and metal sculptures, vases from Japan and China. The ballroom has glasses and chandeliers from Belgium. The various hallways and rooms had a stunning ornate display of marble and bronze hellenistic sculptures and paintings from as far back as the middle ages. The courtyard too, had it’s share of Indian Gods, human depictions of the seasons and continents. This one is a real treat even if you are not museum or a history buff.

We grabbed lunch at Piccadilly square.

We had time to see Indian museum that day. We just made it. The evolution of elephants was a fun and interesting bit. I’d forgotten their ancestors started with 4 tusks and then 2 long and curved ones. I got a kick out of guessing which sculptures were cryptonite, which ones were basalt or granite. These date back to a few hundred B.C. The have a large collection of guache paintings I enjoyed browsing through.

Day 6 – Bird exhibition and Visa appointment documents printouts

It was Sunday. We visited an international bird exhibition bang opposite our Airbnb. The mirth on people’s faces was gold. We have never seen an event like this in Bombay: Blaring local music in a small local park and people lining up around the corner to see birds. We printed out my W-2s (Wage documents from my employers in the US) from a store on the street. I used Google settings’ offline verification code to login to my gmail. The printer was unable to print on both sides and needed me to hold the tip of the paper up while printing. We walked through the local vegetable market a stones throw from where we lived. Everything we needed was close by.

I met a local friend in the evening. He explained to me why a lot of the city is painted in white and blue and some of it in red and cream. They are colors of 2 different political parties.

Day 7 – Visa appointment documents notarization

We needed to get my printouts notarized. This was top priority.
We chatted with former neighbor over tea and sweets. He arranged to get it done. Kolkata was the first capital of India during the British rule. We passed by buildings over a hundred years old. We stayed in the rest of the day.

Day 8 – Visa appointment (Approved :))

It was D-Day and I woke up with not enough sleep. I had a dream that US set the clocks forward and my appointment time did not exist. Ugh. I fed the wrong address to my dad’s Uber app. Luckily we chatted about it and he agreed to take us to the right location. There are 2 Ho Chi Minh Sarani streets. One on Park street and one at Behala. We hit traffic and one ways offline maps do not show. I landed right on time running in heels to wait an hour and a half on the street.

I tried overhearing the interviews as I stood in line. Why do you want to go to the United States of America? What does your son do? What does your daughter-in-law do? What Visas are they on? Will you stay longer than 6 months? Which school are you going to? How long will you stay? What material will you study? How much do you make? Just one gentleman did not qualify. My QnA was simple. Who do you work for? When do you join? How much will you make? I had to show my work visa petition. She did not ask for my tax and other documents neatly arranged in my harmonium folder. I was ready. I was sooo ready. Visa approved yay!

Time for a Mughlai (Persian) meal and a nap 🙂

I’d been unemployed for over a month at this point. I was done. I just wanted to go back to work.

Day 9 – Botanical gardens, Tagore house and more

LocalSightings
top left – Princep ghaat; top center – All Bengal bird’s association exhibition (blue crowned pigeons); top right – Lascar war memorial; bottom left – A street close to Kalighat temple; bottom center – Park street; bottom right – Police memorial

Our target was 3 attractions. We did 2. Not bad. Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Botanical gardens and Tagore house a.k. Joresanko Thakur bari ak.a. Rabindra Bharati museum.

The botanical gardens exceeded my expectations. I imagined a green house with pots. What I got was a banyan tree that looks like a forest, giant water lilies, double coconut, a mad tree that has leaves of different sizes and shapes. It is 273 acres and needs a buggy to go around. The usual Rs. 10 per head and Rs. 250 for the impromptu buggy ride just for me and dad. It’s free if you book in advance and a lot cheaper if you wait. It’s a half an hour ride. Every plant species here is man made.

We got pretty hassled making our way back to Kolkata. The cab guys were charging us Rs. 330 to go to Tagore house. Dad asked the guy at the garden ticket counter how to get there. He asked us to take a bus. We hopped on the bus he recommended. By the time the driver got off the phone (yeah), we had traveled the wrong way and got on a bridge. Better late than never. We hailed another one to Kolkata, specifically Esplanade. The cab driver from there confused Tagore house with Rabindranath sadan. He was not the only one. Then drove us to right next to marble palace. That was it.

Cab drivers and Google offline maps don’t get ‘Tagore house’. It needs to be ‘Jorasanko Thakur bari’ or ‘Rabindra Bharati Museum’. Rabindranath Tagore is best known by Indians as the the author of our national anthem. For history and literature buffs, he is a very celebrated poet, singer, composer, author and painter even. Immensely talented and impactful that he was, his house is decorated with photographs and excerpts of his travels and his encounters with other influential figures of his time. This one could easily take and hour or 2. My favorite quote implied (I couldn’t take a picture) that people all over the world have the same human values. Every culture amplifies their own subset. We paid 10/ 20 Rs. each to enter I forget which. It’s Rs. 50 to photograph the courtyards only.

Our former neighbor gave us a tour of the Princep memorial, promenade at night, park street, the ladies only golf course, the runway that was turned into a road and some others. Kolkata has history at every corner.

Day 10 – Meeting with sponsored child and spa

I met my sponsored child. I’ve been sponsoring her education since 2012 and hadn’t met her in person before. She traveled 3.5 hours with her mother to meet me. She is a beautiful young woman now. I was thrilled to see her! She touched my feet out of respect and her mom touched my dad’s feet. Her mom got married at 15. Her 2 older sisters married at 17. They still value education so much. We needed our local contact to translate our conversation. She was tired and looked a bit sleep driven. So we kept it simple and went to the mall. We gifted her, her mom and her baby brother some clothes. She was scared to get on the escalator and needed to be escorted. It was her first time in the city. We grabbed lunch and chit chatted with the crew and spoke about her future. She wants to be a nurse. We were trying to figure out a way to keep in touch and continue her education.

We hit some unexpected traffic and needed to skip the drive to the Hooghly 2 bridge. 5 stars to Children International for being absolutely on top of this whole plan and ensuring we have a fun, productive and smooth meeting.

We checked out and moved to Kenilworth hotel too. I loved the spa services. I got the signature massage, body scrub and steam <3. This is a great place to go off the grid.

Day 11 – Day tour and passport pickup

Our former neighbor gave us a final tour of Kolkata during the daytime. We saw the swing bridge, the Ganges river, Hooghly 2 bridge, promenade, police monument, Lascar war memorial, St. Xaviers college and many others; the list goes on.

Kenilworth had a bad wifi day. So we walked to the Visa application center and picked my passport up. I had subscribed for a text too but the Visa office didn’t send me one at my US phone number. That was the whole point of getting a travel pass and not a local number :/. We booked our flights at the restaurant. This was our last day in Kolkata.

I’m going to skip the notes about expenses in Kolkata. The main expense was the flight. Entry fees, getting around and food are cheap here.

Tips:

1. Book your stay in the park street area.
2. See Howrah in one day by prepaid dedicated Car for 8 hours
3: Drink lots of coconut water 🙂
4. There is no free wifi in cafes or by the city. Plan accordingly

My recommended itinerary:

Day 1 (recommended)

  • Victoria memorial
  • Elliott Park (optional)
  • Indian museum
  • Break fort lunch
  • St Paul’s Cathedral – I’d skipped this because I saw Westminster’s Abbey in this trip already
  • Permission letter for marble palace – I’ve given the address above
  • Book Botanical garden tour

Day 2 (recommended)

  • Dakshineshwar temple – See this before 9 a.m. to avoid crowds
  • Botanical gardens
  • Belur math
  • Hooghly 2
  • Vidyasagar Setu
  • Princep ghaat

Day 3 (recommended)

  • Marble palace
  • Tagore house
  • Stop by the police monument and Lascar war memorial
  • Walk on the promenade

Afterthoughts

Kolkata is on the tourist map but I think, still underestimated. The roads are good but traffic is umm…has a steep learning curve for a newbie. The traffic lights are off sometimes but the locals seem to know when to cross and when to dodge. We were lost till the last day. The cabs are yellow Ambassadors by Hindustan motors. Lol. Am I in Cuba? 🙂 The craziest things were a) A dood riding a scooter with live hens tied upside down with just a string. I was too mortified to take a picture. b) A traffic cop blocking a slight hit from a vehicle with his bare hands and continuing with his usual business. We stayed at 4 places in 11 days we do not want to go back to which is weird because I really want to visit again.My mom packed a quilt and towels for us which I thought was ridiculous. Not any more :). There were buildings I could see every brick of :D. The people were genuinely friendly and helpful throughout. Since I grew up in Mumbai, I couldn’t help comparing the 2. The honking was louder to a level that should be illegal. The people were better behaved. Western dresses are rare. I got some rubber necking but no cat calls. Less wealth disparity – This was my favorite difference. Less crime needless to say. The traffic is more manageable. No big garbage dumps. The city has an unspoken curfew at 10 p.m. I saw massive crowds of people hanging out in Mumbai at 11 p.m. too. In Kolkata, the crowd thins down at Sundown even at Park street. The food beats Mumbai by a margin. If you are a foodie, this is the place to indulge!

Food
top – Aaheli; bottom left – Picadilly Square; bottom center – Arsalan; bottom right – Pepperazi

Tips from the West Bengal Department of tourism are here.
Kolkata’s revival is on its way. I missed the zoological garden at Alipore, the Kumurtulli idol makers. Eden gardens is a popular venue for sports fans. Someday…

P.S. The cover photo is of Naga King Apalala from 2nd century CE

11 thoughts on “Kolkata as a first timer

  1. I loved your honest depiction of the City. Too bad you underwent that particular the fateful day f harrasment in Kalighat 😦 really sorry. You should have been told to stay away from those panda(religious agents). I will tell my friends to follow this itinerary now on. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Although I’m embarrassed to admit, you have explored and portrayed Kolkata much elaborately than what I’ve seen of her till date, despite living merely 100 kilometres far. I’ve bookmarked your post as a reference for my upcoming endeavour of kolkata rediscovery. Photos complemented your article equally well. I wish you didn’t acknowledge WBTDC at the end, because they have simply done nothing to promote tourism in WB till date. Happy travelling!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your compliment 🙂 I’m learning how political Kolkata is. At the minimum, all the places I visited were in great shape even if they haven’t been advertised. I’m happy to do their job 😀

      Like

    1. Sure! As you know India can be a bit scary for females at every step. Female infanticide to sexism to sexual assault. My motivation to sponsor an Indian female’s education was reading the book ‘Half the Sky’. I wanted to help at least one female travel safely. If she is educated, she makes more money, delays child birth, walks out of abusive relationships and takes a cab if she has too.

      Kolkata has a multistorey brothel called Sonagachi that predates even the British rule in India. So my pick was from Bengal. She stays in Southern West Bengal. We write letters to each other off and on. She likes riding her bicycle. She is in class 12 and is a member of youth groups. They teach her how to open a bank account and disadvantages of having children too early etc. She chats about the weather and classes in her letters. She likes the bollywood actor Salman Khan.

      She looked healthy. But to be honest, a part of me felt really bad that someone needs to depend on charity and feel so indebted to someone else for such a basic need, education. I give $30 a month. That is one fancy meal for me, here in Seattle. I noticed she and her mom wore socks and flip flops. Not sandals even. My dad warned me not to shop too much for them. But he ended up insisted I do after he met them. He said they are very basic and simple people.

      She was very very shy when I met her. Our conversations have been superficial. We did not really know each other’s personalities. I liked her and thought she was a beautiful girl. She was on her best manners. I didn’t see her feel uncomfortable when we spoke in a different language in front of her (at length). We spoke about her future mostly.

      She makes me want to watch my expenses and sponsor another

      Like

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