After spending a few days in Bilaspur for Manor’s volunteer work, we began our travels in earnest. Our first stop was Kolkata (Calcutta), the capital of West Bengal and the former capital of British India. Hotels are a bit more expensive there and we’d heard many are not very nice, but we ended up finding a really great place called Bhammar’s Inn that only opened last year so it hadn’t had enough time to become run down. It was also outside of the main tourist area, in a neighborhood called Ballygunge. Although it was a bit more inconvenient to get to some sites, we really enjoyed seeing an actual Kolkata neighborhood where regular people live (and eat breakfast and get their morning shave on the street) and we soon learned the public transit system of shared rickshaws that go up and down the major streets, and of course, the famous Kolkata Metro!
Kolkata is not usually on most travelers’ itineraries but I’m not really sure why. The city actually has quite a few “sites” and the people are quite friendly. Plus, the food is amazing! Our first morning we took the Metro into the downtown area (we were both pleasantly surprised to find that people are not insanely pushy like they are on the trains in Mumbai) and walked through the Chinatown area of frenzied markets. There was one main street that was so choked with stalls, people, rickshaws, and motorcycles that we frequently lost sight of each other. We’d been in crowds in Mumbai of course, but this seemed more intense, perhaps because we didn’t know the city.
Smack in the middle of it all are two synagogues, a few blocks away from each other. Both are very old and barely in use now. At the first one, Neveh Shalom, we stood outside the gate until a young man noticed us and asked if we were Jewish. When we said yes he opened the gate and took us into the large courtyard and then into the synagogue itself. It was massive and beautiful, with intricate stained glass and other decorations. The young caretaker, who is Muslim, told us there are only 30 Jews left in Kolkata and they only use the synagogue on holidays. He said there had been a small ceremony for Chanukah with 10 people in attendance. The second synagogue was just as large and beautiful, and its caretaker informed us it is no longer in use at all. While it’s sad that these gorgeous buildings are now almost useless, we were at least happy to see that they are being taken care of and protected.
We ate lunch at a cart on the street that seemed to be extremely popular with local workers on their lunchbreak. They sold South Indian dosas and idli that were pretty darn good, which we followed with a glass of chai from the cart next to it.
Feeling refreshed, we headed over to the Indian Museum, which is more of a natural history museum, complete with dinosaur and mastadon skeletons, as well as a hall of stuffed animals, including of course a lion and tiger. It was interesting mostly for how old and quaint everything was; there were entire rooms occupied with antique wooden cabinets filled with thousands of tiny minerals or bones or other relics.
We then headed over to the Howrah Bridge because underneath it is a huge, insane flower market. India does crowds and chaos so well: always with tons of color, both literally and figuratively, and of course the flower market was no exception. Filled with dozens of sellers hawking bright orange and yellow carnation chains, elaborate lily and rose hangings, and mountains of loose flowers, leaves, and petals the area was pulsating with energy and our eyes struggled to take everything in as we walked down the middle aisle littered with stems and torn leaves.
On our second day we headed over to the Marble Palace, which we had gotten a permit for from the tourism office the day before. Supposedly you can still get in without the permit if you just bribe the security guard at the gate. I don’t doubt this is true because when we left he asked us for a “baksheesh” (bribe) anyway.The Marble Palace is not actually a palace, but a mansion owned by a wealthy family whose descendants still live in one wing of the building. The gardens surrounding the building are quite extensive and actually include quite a menagerie: about a dozen different bird species, several monkeys, a porcupine, and probably other animals I’m forgetting, all in labeled cages. To enter the building you need a guide to lead you through the decaying rooms filled with thousands of valuable paintings, sculptures, ceramic vases, and other decorative items. There are indeed many rooms with marble floors and/or walls that are very beautiful, although rather dusty. There is a large courtyard in the center, with several beautiful antique birdcages with birds inside them lining the sides. When we passed the wing where the family members still live I couldn’t help but imagine some sort of Miss Havisham characters trapped in the early 1900s, given how the rest of the home looked. All in all it was quite creepy and fascinating.
We then finally made it over to the Victoria Memorial, the main “sight” in Kolkata, although we made the mistake of going there on a Sunday so it was packed full of tourists, most of whom were Indian. It’s a huge British colonial-style domed structure built for Queen Victoria surrounded by lovely parks. The structure itself is nice, if you’re into British colonial architecture. Inside is a large hall with several inscriptions about the Queen and how wonderful Britain is for India, followed by some exhibit rooms with various accoutrements behind glass cases, like swords and uniforms and the like, and paintings. The paintings were actually quite interesting; they were done by a few different British artists of various places in India. The artists would come over to India for a few months, paint away, and then bring the paintings back to England. It was interesting to see how India looked back in the 1800s and early 1900s.
I think our favorite part about Kolkata was actually the food. When were in Ajanta and Ellora we met a group of guys from Kolkata and they told us to eat in a certain restaurant called Bhojohori Manna for authentic Bengali food. Well, we ate dinner there the first night and quickly discovered they had several locations, which meant we ate there for lunch the following day AND dinner again. The menu is huge, so we got to try several dishes. Bengali food is so different than other Indian food we’ve had, both in and out of India. There is a lot of fish, but also the basic flavors and curries are just generally sweeter—everyone knows Bengalis love their sweets! Our favorite dishes were chhanar dalna (a kind of fried cheese–not paneer–in a sweet sauce), mochar ghonto (mashed banana flower—no, I still don’t know what banana flower is exactly), shukto (vegetables in a coconut curry), echor dalna (sauteed jackfruit in a delicious sauce), bhetki paturi (fish with mustard steamed in a banana leaf), and basanti pulao (a sweet rice with cardamom, cloves, and cashew nuts). But the best thing was, of course, dessert: our waiter the first night recommended the natun gurer, an ice-cream dish. Obviously I never say no to ice-cream and when it came out in a little clay pot I knew I would not be sorry. It was a kind of caramelized kulfi mixed with what tasted like cake crumbs. The whole thing was covered with some maple-ish syrup. If I ever find this in the States I will be a happy woman!
From Kolkata we took a two day boat trip to the Sunderbans Reserve, a protected marshland about xx km south of Kolkata. We were especially looking forward to this part of the trip, due to the possibility of some wildlife, namely a tiger. We knew that tigers in India are extremely rare and if you see one you are quite lucky, but we were still hopeful. That is until it rained almost all day when we were out on our boat in the reserve. The only wildlife we saw were kingfisher birds (which are very pretty) and a monitor lizard. The thousands of mangroves were pretty, but quickly grew monotonous. We were also stuck on the boat with a very loud and obnoxious group of three Indian families. The parents proceeded to get drunk (even though alcohol was not allowed on the boat) while their kids ran wild and demanded potato chips from our guide. Our favorite moment came when one of the little girls was swinging her purse (which seemed empty) around and accidentally flung it overboard. No one else saw and she simply shrugged her shoulders and returned to her potato chips.
The most interesting part of the tour was actually getting there. After a three hour drive from Kolkata the road literally ends in Sonakhali where we climbed aboard a boat that was literally a pile of wood with a motor. We had to sit on the very edge and it truly seemed like we would fall into the water at any moment, that is of course if the whole thing didn’t catch fire, which is what a friend of ours had told us happened to his boat! Luckily we made it across to the village of Gosaba, where we then hopped on to a cart attached to a bicycle rickshaw. This was my favorite part; we cycled for about 30 minutes through the village to the next one (Pakhirala) and in the process saw how people make their homes in a marshland. Every home (usually made out of mud and straw) had a sectioned off pool of water in front or back, a small garden, chickens, and sometimes a cow or goat. We learned that many of the men go out for several days into the reserve to fish and harvest honey; they then sell their intake to the “big village” of Gosaba.
All in all the Sunderbans was probably the biggest let down of all our travels; I guess having the success of a tour hinge on seeing 1 of 274 tigers in a 258 sq km area is unfair…but we would’ve been infinitely happier if it just hadn’t rained so much!
* Sorry about the lack of photos…our camera was stolen in Delhi (more on that unfortunate incident later) so we don’t have pictures for the next couple of posts.