The first few hours in Kolkata had m instantly falling back in love with India, i checked into my guesthouse and went for a walk. The intense differing aromas (some not pleasant), the sounds, the wind-down from the hustle and bustle of the day gone by, the locals roaming the street and the ever present sleeping road blocks (cows; had all combined to instantly relight my love for India. I was back in the country whose people, traditions and way of life, i'd first fallen for two years prior. It was great to be back!
A local fella attatched himself to me and played to me, 'liquor sah, you ant some good liquor? me have best price in Kolkata, maybe India.' A brave statement for an Indian to say they the 'best price' (no matter their trade) and a phrase that stirs doubt in mind reminiscent of Pune. I'd learnt the hardway about the true meaning of 'best price', what they forget to add after the phrase is 'for me.' I was being offered some good liquor for a reasonable price and was happy with the purchase and the possibility to unwind after the flight. We (the fella and myself) were both happy.
That evenign i sat on the streetside with him, talked and drank a little. I'd only landed a few hours before and here i was sitting on the path, stroking stray dogs, having a drink and chatting with a complete stranger until just before 1am, at which point we both retired to bed, happy with ourselves and a little blurry-eyed. He'd prove a hard character to shake off over the next few days but i'd made a mistake. He offered to show me his 'friends shops', obvisouly so he could recieve comsssion on any sales, and i played to the English weakness of over-politeness. Not thinking i'd ever see him again, i said 'tomorrow afternoon we will go.' Massive mistake but i'd lost my touch of dealing with Indians in a blunt manner, simply saying 'no thankyou' to each coninuously pressing question and offers of 'best price'. And so for the duration of my time in Kolkata i would always bump into him, or he would spot me from afar and run over. I couldn't then say 'no sorry, i;m not interested' i'd lose face and feel like a right tit. So i fell into a spiralling stairway of continuous lies, each time making excuses for th last; 'sorry i fell asleep', 'i was here, where were you?' and the lonesome traveller favourite of 'i have/had to meet my friend'. He saw right through me and i felt terrible for not living upto a promise (albet one i had no intention of fulfilling). Lesson one learnt and the learning curve of India had begun; how to cope with people who could sell sand to the Egyptians.
There didn't seem to be much to Kolkata that i couldn't see or do elsewhere during my short stay here in India/ Son after two full days and three nights i booked a train to Varanassi, 'The Sacred City' of India, situated on the bank of the Ganges. There was little point in travelling during the day, the journey would take over 14hrs, so i booked an overnighter and saved an evenings hotel cost.
During the first day (in Kolkata), i went for a roam around teh city to see what was about/on offer and to visit the Maiden and Victoria Memorial. To say Kolkata reminds me of Mumbai, prehaps isn't fair on Kolkata or Mumbai. In Mumbai, there's all the hustle-and-bustle but on a scale like no other, Kolkata has this but on a smaller scale. It is to Mumbai, what Sheffield is to London, in essence, just another city. Or at least that was my perception.
The Maiden is one of the largest city centre parks in the world and is about 4km in length. In complete contrast to the chaos of the streets surrounding it, the Maiden is a great place to have a stroll, sit down and read and enjoy the tweny or so games of cricket taking place around you. So this is how i spent the majority of my first full day in the city. Steering clear of all touts and just enjoying some peace. That evening i had some food (including a bloody great masala dosa and banana lassi) in a pit of a restaurant i'd been recommended. It stank of damp and mold, its once white walls were a mix of brown and black and a few rats (to add to the feel) playing in the open gutter just outside. To go a long with its marvlously intriguing decor, strewn across the floor inside were dried stains and new patches of the red juice the locals spit when chewing Paan. For those who don't know, Paan is a digestive, come mild-stimulant, come chewing tobacco that's wrapped in a leaf of the Betel tree and slowly chewed. The men are heavily addicted to the stuff and every few minutes they spit out the red juice that chewing of Paan produces. Resulting in puddles of red spit all over the pavements, road sides and walls of buildings. And if you're not careful, your feet, as happened to me the other day when a rikshaw driver emptied his mouth out down the side of my leg. But as i was told, ignoe the 'decor' and just order your food, so i did and not only was it bloody gorgeous but unbelievably cheap. A feast of a meal cost me just over 50p.
The next day, after booking my rail ticket, i headed back to the Maiden. I decided to have a look around the Indian Museum, Victoria Memorial and Kolkata Gallery Iwhich is one of the few places not to change it's name and is still the 'Calcutta Gallery'). The Indian Museum was ideal to kill a little time but wasn't spectacular in what it had to offer. There had been a robbery in 2004, when during opening hours someone had managed to steal a priceless Buddhist statue and so security was extremely tight. Upon walking through the metal detector, i was aksed what i thought i was doing walking into the museum with a lighter in my pocket. My mission had been compromised! There was a dceent array of collections on show but nothing to make me stand back and gaze for any period of time.
Victoria Memorial is an impressive looking m,ounment, in stark contrast to its surroundings. Shimmering white marble, reflecting the Sun's rays make it a somthing that stands out amongst the green of the park. And the gallery, well, the gallery is full of mementoes from when Britain ruled India. British Imperialism is what the gallery reflects, with portrait paintings of certain monarchs throught the period. But unfortunately there wasn't much info to go alongside the paintings, thus not being a fan of that particular style of art (not that i'm a critic or know anything about art, but still), i soon left and headed to Fort William, also in the Maiden's grounds. An impressive looking fort, dating back over 200 years, it's now a military headquarters, hence entry is prohibited. Designed to hold the Europeans of the city incase of an attack, it now makes a nice place to just sit down, stare at and imagine times of old. I really wanted to catch a game of crcket at the Eden Gardens Stadium, 80p for a days live viewing in the stands. But it seems i chose a week that didn't hold a match every other day, as is usually the case. A crying shame i wasn't there this weeknd, givcen the bloody great game between India and Pakistan that's been happening there. To see Ganguly hit his first century at his home ground would've been top and watching it here on the telly has been great itself. But hopefully i'll catch a match furtehr down the line.
The next day was spent doing very little but reading. I knew if i went out for any period of time, i'd end up spending money. So i just chyilled out before the night's train journey to Varanassi.
The train was due to leave at 8pm but i wasn't holding my breath and reached the station for 7.30pm. Unbelievably, despite the feel of utter chaos, India's train stations run very well and to the timetable. As you enter, your heart sinks and you're left wondering how you're going to get through this. But that's purely down to the volume of people within the stations walls; street kids, de-formed elderly begging, hoards of families, the occasional westerner and the odd stray dogg. Not to mention the people selling chai, coffee and plenty of cheap grub. The vibe was manic and plenty of people wanted a slice of the money i had in my back pocket. So instead of getting into the situation of repeating myself over and over again; 'no thankyou', 'i'm fine thanks', 'it's ok' etc, i put the Ipod on and side-stepped through the crowds. Soon enough i was infront of the info board, found what platform my train left from and headed to it. Sure enough it was there and left on the exact time it was meant to, English rail services take note.
I'd chosen to travel 'second class sleeper' and it was a decent experiejmce. Cramp conditions with siz beds to a 1.5m by 2m area but ideal for an overnight trip. There were constantly young lads walking up and down the train selling tea and coffee and other snacks, people wanting to shine your shoes and the squeels of babies crying. I ordered a meal from a young lad and at the next stop, what i'd ordered was brought to me on a plate from an outside restaurant. First class service in my opinion.
I decided to get my head down but it was hard work. I was on the top bunk of three and had about 50cm of room between my bunk and the ceiling. On my bed lay my backpack, daypack and gifts, leaving little room to sleep myself. But after finding a position, i spent five minutes trying to sort my boxers out (which had taken the form of a g-string around my backside) and then fell asleep to the sounds of screeching babies and the most insan snoring i've ever heard. God i miss my own bed!
Anway, going for grub now so i'll finsih updating tomorrow before my train. Unfortunately can't find my pics of Agra, could only find the cd with the TAj but i'll try and hunt it out.