We arrived late last night, immigration slow, baggage slower. We found our driver with his battered up old car and endured a hair raising journey through the incredibly busy and noisy (and crazy) Delhi traffic to arrive an hour later, just before 1am, leaving the cab and being led on foot through tiny streets and alleys of Old Delhi, dodging mopeds and stepping over sleeping men and dogs, trying not to inhale the worst of the smells, but breathing in the dusty, hot air, still so hot an hour after midnight. We reached a heavy wooden door and stepped inside to find a beautiful peaceful haven amongst the surrounding squalor and experienced our first Indian welcome. So, adorned with red paint on our forehead with rice pressed into it, beads round our neck we drifted off with thoughts of what new experiences lay in store for us in India.
Our haven is in fact a haveli, a grand town house similar in shape to a Morrocan riad, lovingly restored to its beautiful and peaceful former glory, its grandeur dotted with photographs of its recent derelict past. We explore the city after a breakfast of pumpkin curry and marsala tea, but with only the one day here we limit our foray to the Old Delhi area. These streets are so cramped that colonies of striped chipmunk-like squirrels live up on the rooftops, leaping from building to building. Higher still, riding the thermals above the city, is an improbable number of huge birds of prey, known as pariah kites, circling and calling as they await the kill moment.
We visit Jama Masjid, a colossal mosque, the largest in India which can accommodate 25,000 worshippers, its size and architecture impressive, its decor plain apart from 1 dull chandelier. We climb the steep steps of one of the minarets for a fantastic view of the city and chaos below. We meander through the tiny streets, bustling markets, the noise incredible, the loud chatter and constant sounding of horns. There appears to be no rules on the road, it’s a free for all, Tuc Tucs, moped rickshaws, pedal rickshaws, cars, it’s a wonder anyone gets anywhere. There is street food everywhere, the smells tantalising taste buds, the hygiene saying you shouldn’t eat here, oh well, we are here to mingle with the locals, what harm can it do? Perhaps tomorrow will tell! We stand at the roadside at a grubby table with some locals eating some sort of curried parcel with a dish of veggie curry on the side, hot, delicious, difficult to eat without cutlery and all for the princely sum of 60p for the two of us! The street drink of the day is pure sugarcane juice, they crush the sugarcane in a mangle like contraption, the result is a refreshing but very sweet drink, just the thing for an energy boost! The afternoon heat took its toll and after being pestered all day by rickshaw drivers we give in and take a ride to the spice market.
Delhi is loud, hot, dusty, dirty, and the sheer numbers sleeping rough is shocking; whole runs of pavement out of bounds to pedestrians and covered with lines of sleeping bodies. Litter covers its streets and every spare corner. Our visit to Sri Lanka means we’ve seen this before, but in Delhi it is very intense and would shock a first timer. However we did only have time to see Old Delhi, undoubtedly the city’s most earthy quarter, and boy have we seen its underbelly today.
The bazaars we visit are very lively and the bustle washes over us. Michaela, small and blonde, is a novelty and attracts much attention, often being unashamedly stared at, though it is either in fascination or apparent awe, either amused or inquisitive; just occasionally leering but never threatening. Lots will look, then one, usually a teenage boy or girl, plucks up courage to ask for a photograph, and then the floodgates open and we spend the next fifteen minutes posing for other people’s Facebook pages.
The evening sky above the rooftops then fills with two of the Punjab region’s time honoured pastimes, kite flying, known as parang baszi, and spectacular displays by trained pigeon flocks, flying in formation in a sport known as kabootar baazi. The two, set against the setting sun and the ever present birds of prey still in huge numbers, form what must be a city skyscape unique to the world.
We eat on the roof of the haveli with the moon and Indian red wine for company; there is a tasting menu featuring many of the region’s dishes which proves too tempting. And so we end our first day just before midnight with mouths alive with wild spicy flavours, full to the brim with unusual and delicious foods. Feels great until we remember we have to set a 5.30 alarm to catch the early train to Agra.
But we do it, up with the alarm, through the waking alleys, hail a tuk-tuk and reach the utterly rammed railway station. Despite the huge crowds, it’s easy to find our train, the Gatiman Express, and like so many other things in India, there are endearing moments from a bygone era, in this case when a railway employee pastes the names of passengers to each carriage, and seeing our names on the list stuck to coach E1 was both quaint and reassuring. Like the huge handwritten ledgers when you check in to your hotel, it’s all rather reminiscent of times gone by.
As the Gatiman Express races through the countryside, you can’t help but notice the sheer volume of people in this country, it’s mind boggling. There are huge fields of crops being harvested by hand by an army of workers; there are endless numbers employed on the train. And every station we race through has a community simply there, from waiting passengers through to those using the train wash as a shower, through to the hordes simply doing nothing. No wonder the cities are thronged; no wonder there is poverty, there are simply so many people.
Agra is as hot as Delhi, more touristy yet less oppressive somehow despite being hectically busy. The Taj Mahal, of course, dominates, and the city caters for this unabashed and shamelessly. You are here because of it, and they all know it.
Yet the city also hosts Agra Fort, which we visit today, but only after we’ve wandered through a village suburb close to our hotel and once again inhaled the smells and sights of this sensory country.
Our first sighting of the Taj Mahal is from the roof terrace of our hotel. There it is, just a short distance away, the symbol of India we have known about and seen in books ever since childhood, right there, an amazing site and tomorrow we will visit this world icon.
The Fort actually proves to be a most worthwhile destination in its own right, the place is colossal and stunning and so very well preserved. Built over 500 years ago and then extended more recently by the Brits, it is a beautiful and expansive place steeped in history. The British also bulldozed the Red Fort at Delhi in a petulant response to the Mutiny of 1947, one of the factors leading ultimately to India’s independence from the Commonwealth. You learn a lot about the less edifying side of British history when you travel. The street food lunch is even better then yesterday and, incredibly, is cheaper, at 40 rupees, that’s about 49p for two!
We spend a while reading and chilling on the hotel roof; it’s incredibly hot to begin with but soon starts to cool; we are told it was over 40 degrees today, and it felt like it, but there’s a nice breeze up here. And we watch the sky fill again with kites and formation pigeons as the blistering sun drops lower and cools down.
This evening we find a friendly tuc-tuc driver, Raja, who takes us to our restaurant for tonight where the food is again excellent. And so tomorrow is the Taj Mahal, more Agra, and then that overnight sleeper train on to Varanasi.
We figured that Delhi belly might strike at some point on this trip, but for Michaela it comes particularly early and she loses half the night being ill.
She soldiers on after a light breakfast and we head off for our visit to the Taj Mahal. With echoes of befriending Mangala on our Sri Lanka trip, we hooked up with tuk-tuk driver Raja last night who is ferrying us around today.
When planning this trip we originally thought we would self drive part of it, but were put off firstly by the difficulties with booking, and secondly by Phil’s Indian friend Rimmy who said we must be mad to even think about it. She was right, the roads here are more than scary, and chaotic is a word that just doesn’t do justice. The only analogy we can think of is walking along Oxford St pavement on a busy Saturday, where there is only a rough sense of which side for which direction and you just choose your route and muscle through. That’s what the drivers do here. There are simply no rules, you just aim where you want to go regardless of lanes or road markings and barge through, regardless, especially if you’re a tuc-tuc driver.
So Raja drops us at the Taj Mahal gate which he says has the smallest queues and we start our tour. Michaela feels a bit wafty but she’s doing ok and we have plenty of water. Walking towards the place is dream like; it is an image we’ve all known since childhood and we pinch ourselves to think that we are actually here. The place is built on a huge scale, a dedication of love expressed by Shah Jehan after the death of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. We wondered what you do to become the “favourite” wife of many in the harem, but hey let’s not degrade this stunning mausoleum!
The Taj stands above the river, where the pariah kites are joined by fish eagles, black storks and herons amongst others; children swim, mothers wash the laundry. The sun beats down; and you think, this is all unchanged, this scene has been played out daily for decades, maybe centuries. It’s noticeable too how, despite this place being a major world attraction, most of the large numbers of visitors are Indian.
Raja then takes us to the “baby Taj”, which actually pre-dates the Taj Mahal, being the burial place of Mumtaz’s grandfather, and is a precursor to it, built in the same style and from the same marble. It has a beauty all of its own, away from the milling visitors at the main site, and is well worth a detour.
We take a light – and inoffensive – lunch, as Michaela is wilting now, and we have no refuge. We are checked out of our hotel, and tonight we are on the overnight sleeper train to Varanasi, so we have no room to creep off to, despite attempts to persuade the hotel – “we are full!” – not good if you feel rough! We sit in the lobby, and Michaela drifts off to sleep as recovery takes over, it’s no good fighting!
She wakes a whole two hours later, refreshed and looking brighter. And now we can start looking forward to the next adventure, 13 hours on the overnight sleeper….
The sun disappears into a haze rather than a sunset, behind the film of pollution which hangs over every Indian city. Michaela feels brighter, Raja is on time and we head once more through the truly crazy traffic to Agra Fort railway station.
Confusing signs give different information but we work through the stimulating chaos and establish that the Marudhar Express is running around 30 minutes late. Our train then slowly draws into the station, we walk with it looking for our carriage, clamber up the steep steps into the narrow aisle, cubicles either side, some with four bunks others with two, people confused trying to find their bed for the night, ours turned out to be across the corridor from each other, we decide to share one bunk for now. The carriage is noisy, loads of Indians, no other westerners apart from us two. Feels so real! We watch the lights of Agra slip away, and settle in for a very unusual night.
Sleep is fitful but we do ok and Phil loves the feeling of laying in bed watching the world go by. Our eventual arrival in Varanasi is 2 whole hours late so we’ve lost most of the morning by the time we haul slowly into Varanasi Junction. We’d pre-arranged collection by our hotel but we had no notion that we would be treated like royalty. The pristine white car whisks us to the banks of the Ganges, where the hotel’s private boat and FIVE staff take us along the river to our colossal, beautiful former palace of a hotel. We are treated like guests of honour, yet after a night on a train, grubby and unwashed, we don’t exactly feel or look like it! We step off the boat , each of us with a person walking by our side shading us from the ferocity of the sun with a parasol, we climb the steep steps and enter this ancient Palace which is now our home for a while. It is simply stunning and the views of the Ganges from the terraces are absolutely amazing.
We take a walk along the Ganges, or rather along some of the Ghats, then through the tiny back streets, before heading back to the Palace for “high tea” (very British, very colonial!) whilst gazing at the magnificent views. The grandeur of this hotel and the colonial feel give it a vibe of a bygone era and we feel like we are playing a role in an Agatha Christie novel.
Varanasi is instantly appealing, no , it’s more than that, it is a wonderful sight, and you know straight away that you have arrived in a very special city. This approach, by boat, is one of the most wonderful travel experiences either of us have had, no exaggeration. The Ganges – Mama Ganga to the locals- is a huge body of water, and the city, clustered to just one side of the river, tumbles down the steep sides to the water’s edge. Ancient palaces trace the beautifully perfect curve of the river, fronted by the “ghats”. Mama Ganga is sacred to Hindus, and so consequently is the city of Varanasi, one of the three most ancient cities of the world. The Ghats are a series (87 separate sections) of steps leading down to the water, and are a sacred destination of pilgrimage for all Hindus.
Most famously of all, this is where devout Hindu families bring elderly relatives to die; then they cremate the bodies publicly, on these ghats, and float the burning bodies out on to Mama Ganga, thus ensuring a happy afterlife and avoiding rebirth. This is one of the most sacred places of all, to all of the Hindu faith.
At sunset, we take a boat to watch the evening ceremony at the ghats but first we sail past Manikarnika Ghat, one of the Cremation ghats. Fires ablaze, stacks of wood piled high and a glimpse of one of the dead, swathed in orange robes, being carried to the burning pyre.
Our boat stops at the Dasashvamedha ghat, darkness has fallen and excitement is building. Around us many tiny boats crammed with people, a sight in itself, forming a huge band of water borne spectators. The steps leading up from the Ganges are also crammed full of brightly dressed Hindus eagerly awaiting this important event. The ceremony begins, 4 young priests dressed in orange and gold robes step onto their plinths and begin their rituals, the music is loud, drums, flutes, bells and the most evident of all tiny cymbals clashing together creating a most deafening sound. The priests dance, their movements precise and slow, they chant and encourage the crowd, hands and arms waving in in the air, the whole spectacle is mesmerising, it’s almost hypnotic. The dancing continues but now with clouds of incense, rose petals floating in the delicate breeze and then the priests gently circle a tree shape structure full of tiny oil lamps around their body and head. It goes on, the sounds becoming louder and then a trail of brightly lit boats float behind us, we are told it is a special festival tonight, Ram Navami, the boats represent all the Gods, celebrating the triumph of good over evil, once again we are lucky to have been here to witness this annual event, the sights and sounds awaken all of our senses like nothing else we have ever witnessed. Michaela wants to join in part of the ceremony, she takes a small dish full of brightly coloured flowers and a tea light, she places it on the Ganges and sets it afloat then offers a prayer to Mama Ganga asking for all that is good for eternal happiness.
The experience is truly, truly wonderful. To be in a place which is the very spiritual, philosophical, mystical and educational heart of Hinduism, alongside this oh so sacred river, and witness this event amongst these devout people lost
in the joy of their faith, is a wonderful, wonderful thing to experience.
It is dark now, and we re-enter the tiny alleys of the city. And they really are narrow, so there are no cars or even tuk-tuks here, the only way to access the ghats is on foot or by boat. Mama Ganga’s deep religious significance means, of course, no alcohol anywhere along or adjacent to the ghats – in fact our hotel is both alcohol and meat free, as are all establishments around the ghats. We had earlier been told though that you can find beer in the labyrinthine alleys, if you look hard. In the event, though we don’t go looking, we pass a tiny cafe, and the owner, rather in the style of a cockney spiv, says “welcome to Varanasi, I have beer”. He pours it in to metal mugs, to hide the content from inquisitive eyes, and carefully places the unfinished can behind a chair leg; we have no idea whether what we are doing is illegal or just naughty, but the cold Kingfisher is refreshing.
It’s too late for a large meal now, and there aren’t a huge number of conventional style restaurants anyway, so we seek out supper in a cafe where the owners and their friends are watching IPL cricket on TV, and choose dosa, a kind of chupatty filled with aloo chaat with three sauces, from the very limited menu on the wall. It’s a light supper but very tasty, and sets us back 140 rupees, that’s £1.61. Splashing out again!!
As we drift off to sleep our minds and hearts are full of tonight’s events, and everything we have just been privileged to witness; we know that we have just experienced one of those days of travel which will live in our memory for ever.
Our Albania blog described Berat as being as unique as Venice; well, Varanasi joins them, unique in its appearance and certainly unique in character.
We set off to expore the Ghats. The place is alive with activities, men bathing in the Ganges, boys diving in from the step, boat builders hammering, ladies and men doing laundry in the river then laying it on the dusty steps to dry, do they ever have really clean clothes?! Next to this the cattle lay almost submerged in the water taking refuge from the searing heat. And many more people simply sit, meditational, some in yoga positions, gazing across Mama Ganga.
We turn the opposite way to yesterday’s walk and head west along the other ghats, towards the plumes of smoke at Harishchandra Ghat. As we get closer it is clear that four cremations are in progress, the dead bodies wrapped in orange shrouds and placed within the pyre. Uncertain of etiquette and whether we should move on, we accept for the first time the offer of a “guide” who will explain the dramatic scenes unfolding before us.
In Hindu beliefs, the body must be burned between 6 and 7 hours after death, no later, hence the need to bring the unwell to this sacred place in order to die. The body is carried in its shroud on a makeshift wooden stretcher through the town’s alleys and down to the ghat, where the cremators (our “guide” is one of the family) build the pyre. First the body, adorned by marigold flower heads, is immersed in the river to cleanse the spirit, the flowers drifting out on to the water. Each family member then cups their hand and scoops the Ganga water into the mouth of the deceased, so ensuring that their last drink before their journey begins is sacred water. The deceased’s family circle the pyre, then the appropriate relative according to protocol lights the pyre with burning reeds. The cremation will take around 3 hours, the family stand and watch until all is burned away.
Although, “family” in this case are the male relatives only; women are not allowed to attend the funeral ceremony. In part this is because they will show outward emotion, which would cause the soul of the deceased to leave this world unhappy, and thus not rest in peace. More shockingly, women are also barred because there was a growing tendency for bereaved wives to throw themselves on to the pyre and burn themselves alive in front of the gathered relatives.
Perhaps most incongruous of all is how ordinary this all is; there is no great ceremony, no wailing or emotion. The wood, the shroud, the building of the pyre, the flowers, all have to be paid for, and businesses satisfy those needs, for profit. Next to the cremation (and in spite of the pollution), children swim, ladies do laundry, people take photos. It’s an alien scene for westerners to witness, difficult to take it all in, hard to comprehend the ordinariness of this daily routine.
Wow it’s been hot today. We have no way of knowing the temperature accurately but someone said it was over 40. That’s 104 fahrenheit, and it felt like it at times!
The tight alleys here are full of animals, you meet cows, dogs, goats, monkeys, rats and even ferrets (no really!) as you wander through, although not a cat to be seen. Consequently there is an awful lot of shit about, not that the locals seem to care.
This evening we see the festival from the other side; we watch from the shore, and the crowds in the boats, we were part of it last night of course, are nearly as stunning as the ceremony itself! We return for another sneaky beer, the guy is even more furtive tonight, metal cups again but he pours it out of view and makes us sit by a back wall. Not sure who is in the wrong or who would get punished, but we feel very naughty.
We sit now on the veranda of the hotel, looking over the town and its lights reflecting in the Ganges, for the last time, as we fly to Kolkata tomorrow evening. But our alarms are set for 4.15am, tomorrow starts with a boat ride to capture the sunrise…
We head down to the Ghats, darkness still shrouds the Ganges, we have a boat to ourselves and there is strange calm over the city as we set off on this sunrise voyage. As darkness begins to lift we see that a mist hugs the sandbank across the river, the chugging of our boat breaking the eerie silence. We see Varanasi gently awaken from its sleep. A handful of people are already taking their sacred ablutions in the Ganges, their numbers gradually increasing. Cows ambling along the steps, not hot enough yet for them to wallow in the river. Outside a Temple, children setting out low stools in preparation for their yoga class. The early morning cool breeze is a welcome rest from the searing heat of the day and humidity of the nights. We hear the distant bells of the morning Aarti as the young priests once again offer prayers to Mama Ganga. The sun begins to rise, the light giving the whole waterfront a wonderful amber glow, complementing the orange robes of the Priests as if re-enforcing the knowledge that this is a most holy place. The sun rise isn’t spectacular due the the haze but even that somehow adds to the ambience. Within the hour the ghats have become busy, the noise increased, a new day has dawned and this city continues its unusual existence, more and more Hindus taking a ritual sunrise dip in the sacred water.
So, what do you have for breakfast after a 4.15 start and a sunrise boat trip? Well, veggie curry, boiled egg and banana cake of course!
Varanasi is famous for silk production, there is silk everywhere, of course there are fake silks too so we begin inspecting the hundreds of choices thrown in front of us, the hawkers barely giving us time to look at one before the next choice is placed on top. Eventually we emerge from the bazaar, or Sardar to give its correct local name, with an assortment of beautiful silk scarves, a throw, armfuls of bangles with the obligatory sparkles and a mass of wooden beads, Indian shopping has well and truly begun!!
The Sardar of Varanasi is similar to the souks of Marrakech and the bazaars of Turkey, and we have some fun haggling over prices of these purchases before heading to a street food “cafe” right in the heart of all the madness. It’s pakoras and samosas with curry again, rammed in amongst the babbling locals; we’d spotted this place several times and knew we had to experience it before we move on. Great atmosphere, so noisy you can’t hear yourself eat! Once again we are the only Westerners in evidence, love that feeling.
It’s unbelievably hot today, searing sun and high humidity, someone tells us it’s 42 now, that’s an incredible 108 Fahrenheit. Wow! So we decide to sign off from Varanasi with a cycle rickshaw tour for an hour. The poor guy pedals us around various sites, through the chaotic streets and in this overpowering heat, not the best job in the world on a day like this, but he does us proud, visiting hidden temples where he persuades them to open locked gates, a peep at a strange Buddhist gathering of some kind; at one we are given a book of mantras for self betterment in the Buddhist ethos. It’s all very interesting but it’s incredibly hot. Suddenly we are well past the hour and a long way from home; we have to tell him that we now need to hurry to Bajrami Palace, our hotel, to get to the airport. Of course, because of the alleys, he can only take us so far, and we have to hurry (that’s “hurry!” in 42 degrees, not good!), and finally reach home 10 minutes late. So the planned freshen up can’t happen, we are whisked straight on to the boat, and we now know that for the second time on this trip, we are going to arrive at a posh hotel looking like a pair of waifs!
The transfer to Kolkata is then notably stress free. The boat gives us our final awesome views of Varanasi from the Ganges, then a car journey through poverty stricken shanty towns on the outskirts. Whilst in Varanasi we have met a very pleasant couple from Hawaii, Chet and Karen, they too are moving on now and we say our goodbyes at the airport. Once in Kolkata, it’s all very swift, no admin as it’s a domestic flight, and our bags are two of the first four out. We seem to be at our hotel in the blink of an eye.
From the taxi window, Kolkata looks different from the other cities, more modern and well, more of a city as we know it. We are in the Bengal state now, so a change of cuisine and a change of language. Kolkata, then the mangrove swamps, then the beach, are what lie ahead..
Bit of a slow start today after the long day yesterday, but our first walk out into Kolkata reveals that this is indeed different from the other places we’ve visited in India, more instantly recognisable as a city, perhaps slightly more westernised. The roads are all tarmac for a start, and everything, despite still being loud and chaotic, is toned down a couple of notches from the three previous cities. It’s also slightly less dirty, some green areas and some streets are positively clean. Well nearly.
The climate feels different too, the sun not as searing as Varanasi but the humidity has been ramped right up; it’s incredibly sticky and you are drenched in sweat after just minutes of walking.
It strikes us too as we walk that it would be impossible to take home the thing which will in all likelihood be the most powerful memory of Indian cities; you can take photos and you can keep diaries and you can buy souvenirs, but you can’t take home the soundtrack of these terrifically noisy, frantically busy places. The soundtrack is unique and would, once experienced, be instantly identifiable for ever more.
Kolkata, erstwhile capital of British India, is packed with bold and gigantic buildings from that era, huge imposing constructions that make their own ostentatious statements about wealth, power and status. The British exploited this nation shamelessly, but it can’t be denied that the architectural legacy is impressive in the extreme.
So we explore parts of central Kolkata today, taking in markets, gardens, those imposing buildings, our first sight of the Hooghly River and the famous Howrah Bridge.
From our guide books, we seek out a specialist Bengali cuisine restaurant for our evening meal, the long established Kewpie’s. Unfortunately the place is deserted and we have the restaurant to ourselves, but the owner then tells we are too early, as Bengalis don’t start arriving till 9.30 for evening meals. Sure enough other diners arrive as we settle up, and as we wend our way home the streets are becoming even busier.
Before setting foot in India, we’d wondered how the food would compare with Indian food in restaurants back home. Well, this is how it is. You don’t tend to see vindaloo, madras, dupiaza, or the other “named” curries from home, apart from byriani, and tandoori options only appear on occasional menus; and, as Indian people don’t tend to take alcohol and food together, the majority of restaurants are not licensed. But the biggest difference is undoubtedly the number of meat dishes; the overwhelming majority of curries here are vegetarian, in fact there is always, simply, a small section at the back of the menu headed “non-vegetarian”, where you may be lucky to find just three or four meat options. You can see why though, as the veggie curries are so tasty, and generally speaking hotter and more spicy than back home. Bengal is also famous for, and proud of, its sweet dishes. We’ve only tried a couple, but they really are incredibly, eye wateringly sweet.
Lovely as it all is, we are nearly curried out; there’s only so much 3-curry-meals-a-day you can take, and we are already craving a change.
Today marks a watershed, the psychological half way point of the trip, being not just our last day in Kolkata but our last day in a city before we head out to the more rural destinations of the Sunderbans delta mangrove swamps and the remote beaches of the east coast.
So over breakfast we plan a tour, trying to allow for the heat and humidity, then set off first across Maidan, the huge central park, past untold numbers of Sunday cricket matches, then south towards the Victoria Memorial. This splendid marble building, bequeathed to the city by Queen Victoria, now houses a fascinating museum dedicated to Kolkata/Calcutta’s history, and is splendidly laid out chronologically right up to the present day from its ancient history. Much space is of course dedicated to the period of British rule, with the commentary that nowhere in India benefited from the British presence as much as Calcutta, but nowhere paid as high a price for the mutiny.
In the years between the world wars, the Bengalis had started to revolt against British rule, and there had been bloodshed on Calcutta’s streets. During WW2, a famine struck Bengal, and the British saw an easy route to quell the riots and, in a little known subtext to the main War, cut off all food supplies to the region from the outside, turning their (our?!) backs and leaving the famine to take its toll. Over a million people died. Read that again. Over a million Bengalis starved to death.
Of course, it didn’t work. Once the Nazis were defeated, Britain was destitute after the financial impact of the war, India was determined to be independent, and Britain had neither the resource nor the energy to fight the ensuing mutiny which culminated in India’s independence in 1947.
After learning all of this we move on to the Anglican church, St Pauls Cathedral, and then get our first taste of the Kolkata underground train network towards New Market, where we grab a great lunch at a Kolkata institution, Nizam’s. Established 80 odd years ago, they lay claim to inventing a popular Kolkata snack, the Kathi Kabab, so of course we have to try it, and it is delicious, and very welcome. We are told it’s 37 degrees today, but it’s ferociously humid and we feel the 6 miles we have walked is about as much as we can manage, so we grab another Kolkata institution, a hand drawn rickshaw, and make the poor guy pull us through the sweltering streets to our last destination.
We are of course in the city where Mother Teresa (remember, we used to call her Mother Teresa of Calcutta) set up her first convent and set about her life’s work of helping the poorest of the poor. So our last destination is that very place, the convent and house where she conducted her marvellous work, and where she now lies buried. Kolkata is a city of diverse religions, but when here, you can feel her presence everywhere, and it is very clear that the love for her transcends religion, beliefs, class, everything. No wonder; the small museum within the convent provides ample acknowledgment of the wonderful work done by this incredible woman who made it her mission to bring comfort to what she termed “the poorest of the poor”.
During this trip Michaela and I have seen the most appalling poverty. Wherever you travel in India, there are disturbingly large numbers of poverty stricken families; people sleep on the streets, in parks, on railway stations. Their “homes” might consist of a cotton sheet drawn over the branches of a tree, the children play or sit forlornly in the dirt. These people have nothing, and often have no one. Every spare corner of dry ground houses someone, whole shanty communities live on disused footbridges, under flyovers and alongside the railway. It’s hard to see, it’s hard to witness, it’s hard to keep walking by. We’ve talked about it, of course, but you just walk by.
And as you leave the convent museum, one tribute from just one of the thousands Mother Teresa took into her care, stands out. It hits you between the eyes. It reads…
“I have lived as an animal, on the street. I die as an angel, loved and cared for”.
Day 9 & 10
Wow these two days have been amazing, so full of new experiences, the very essence of travel and the reason we love to do all this. But first, last night we satisfied our need for an alternative to curry by seeking out another Kolkata peculiarity, Indian Chinese. Apparently the Chinese food here, fused with Indian spices, has a burgeoning reputation which is spreading across the globe; so we try it and yes, it’s delicious! After that, it’s alarms set for yet another early start.
And so we set off on our journey to the Sunderbans. We meet Rajesh, he said there was just us today so we set off in a rickety minibus just us, our driver and Rakesh who is to be our guide. We head out of this enormous city, seemingly endless. City sprawl gives way to a succession of towns and villages each comparatively chaotic as the city itself, even provincial towns are utterly heaving with people. We stop in one village for chai, they drink tea all the time, it’s delicious usually infused with fresh ginger or cinnamon, refreshing in this heat. A group of young boys are grinning at us, they are clearly playing dare to come and stand near us and when we wave at them to join us for a photo shoot their faces light up with a huge grin and their mates giggle from a safe distance. The journey continues on roads through paddy fields, past ever more rural scenes, chaotic roads with no rules, our driver driving far too fast for comfort. With every mile we are further from home, and we’re not talking about miles.
After almost three hours we pull over, “the road ends here”, says Rakesh.
The Sunderbans is a group of 102 islands within the mangroves, with no less than five major rivers joining the ocean via this delta, and from here we are on to those islands, and there are no more cars, or even roads. Literally thousands of square miles without roads, we are moving into even more new experiences from here. We walk to the river and join the locals and board what can only be described as a customised wooden fishing boat, everyone crams on, some sitting, others playing a balancing game as we make the 15 minute crossing, locals wondering what these strangers are doing on their ferry and finding us rather amusing.We reach the main village where islanders come to buy all the goods and food they need, then got a lift on a cycle and trailer, no seats just a truck for goods which took us to another ferry, same type of boat, rammed again, another ride on a trailer behind a cycle, jarring over the bumps in the track, then finally arrive at the village and our eco lodge. Rakesh showed us to our mud hut, basic as expected, just a bed and mosquito net.
This eco village was the brainchild of Rajesh, who we met yesterday, designed to provide an opportunity for adventurous travellers to explore the swamps, or jungle, or tiger reserve, whichever name you prefer. It’s adjacent to one of the island villages and was built entirely by the island dwellers using only natural materials from the site. There is only solar energy, we are a considerable distance from the nearest mains supply here.
It is once again baking hot, and we only manage a short stroll before we take sanctuary in our mud hut for a brief siesta before the real adventures begin, though it’s long enough to see our first collared kingfisher. We share the eco village not only with the local people employed here, but also with chickens, turkeys, cows, goats, dogs, a horse, some cats, and, most improbable of all, an emu. Most of these have a brood in tow.
We really are falling in love with the various teas of India, from the regular cups of sweet chai made with a kind of condensed milk through to the uplifting ginger tea we are now given before we set off on our first bird spotting walk with Rakesh. This place abounds with dozens of species of exotically colourful birds, plenty of which we have already spied on these two short walks as we wandered around the vivid green paddy fields which will be ripe for harvesting in 3 weeks. Rakesh takes us to the water’s edge and we board a small rowing boat; the ride around the nearest islands is beautifully peaceful after the chaos and noise of the cities and we just sit back and enjoy, this is so relaxing, the gentle plop of the rudder and the calling birds the only sounds we can hear. Apart from now and again when Rakesh bursts into an Indian pop song, gets told off by the oarsman and sits back down.
The majority of visitors come to the camp for stays of only 2 or 3 days so it is a transient place; we soon meet our fellow travellers, just a handful, English, Dutch and German, before three of the village musicians join us and play Bengali folk music by the dual light of the oil lamps and the full moon. Wonderful moment. Again all the food here is vegetarian, spicy and utterly delicious.
After dinner Rakesh asks if we want to do a moonlight boat ride. We head to the river bank, the tide is high now which makes getting onto the boat much easier even though our only guide is a head torch. We glide silently through the water in darkness apart from the light from the full moon, just the sound of the jungle surrounding us and the sound of drums and music drifting across the river on the gentle breeze from the nearby village as they celebrate poya, the full moon. We move deeper into the mangroves feeling like we are on a magic carpet as we glide through the tops of the trees which are now almost submerged, a surreal feeling. We lie on the deck gazing at the moon letting the whole atmosphere wash over us. Mangrove swamps are surreal, these trees can only survive in salt water environments, but to be rowing between tree tops which stood a good 20 feet above water level just a few hours ago is a weird feeling. Before we head back we shine our torches into the trees and can see the translucent crabs in the exposed branches taking refuge from the waters below; remarkably, both these crabs and the weird looking mudskippers climb right to the top of these trees, keeping just ahead of the rising tide, then descend as the water level falls, feeding on what the sea leaves behind. Nature really is amazing. Bedtime comes early in the eco Village, we retire to our mud cottage, it’s quite cozy really, and then we saw it, a huge spider, body at least 3 inches wide, nestled in the roof! Not knowing if India has poisonous spiders we ask Rakesh to come to our rescue, to our relief the spider is harmless and Rakesh scares it out of our cottage. We settle down in our silk nod pods and sleep very soundly.
In keeping with one of the themes of this trip, it’s a stupidly early alarm again as we have to meet at 6am, a quick ginger tea or three and then it’s off on safari for the whole day, deep into the Sunderbans, deep into Bengal tiger country. It’s a wonderful day, we don’t get to see the elusive tiger, in reality we didn’t expect to, but the whole day is terrific. The slow chugging of the boat around this remarkable scenery, the biggest mangrove swamp in the world, the hot sun, the stops to go into hides to view the wildlife, the chats with the Bengalis on board with us, all make for a terrific experience. We see herons, egrets, storks; four species of kingfisher; kites and eagles; bee eaters, parakeets and other exotic birds; we see spotted deer, monkeys galore, two water monitors and, probably best moment of all, an enormous crocodile slipping effortlessly by, right beside the boat. We see all aspects of the mangroves, high tide and its full waters show the treetops but little wildlife, then as the waters recede, the wildlife returns as the mud banks appear and the cascading roots of the trees are once more exposed. The feeling of being somewhere special is very strong; we feel a long, long way from England.
We learn that the most dangerous jobs in the Sunderbans are those of the fishermen and honey collectors, easy prey as they sleep on their boats for the hungry tiger; the Bengal tiger is an expert swimmer.
It’s lunch time, a lady from the village has been working hard in the galley all morning and the Bengali banquet she has prepared for us is amazing. Good home cooking Bengali style, daal, okra, bitter gourd, a tasty vegetable/fruit, all fantastic, but the boiled egg and potato curry was the centre piece and deliciously mouth watering.
The end of a long day, feeling relaxed and sun kissed we disembark “Elmar” for the last time and begin our long journey home stopping briefly on the way for the obligatory chai. We check into our hotel in Kolkata, the luxury of a hot shower to wash away the dust and dirt of the last two days is so welcoming, as is the cold beer and cool air in the rooftop bar, up on top of the building with a deliciously cool 6-storey-high breeze. We clink our glasses and, over that cold beer, reflect on our once in a lifetime experience.
Just to get a bit of the free traveller spirit into this holiday, we have made no plans for how we get from Kolkata to Bakkhali other than basic research which told us our options were trains, buses or car with driver. Rajesh and Rakesh, and our previous hotel, all confirmed that the first two options are both regular and cheap, whereas the car was expensive and not much quicker.
Things start to get a little less straightforward when we try to turn it all into reality. We already know that both the bus and the train only go as far as Namkhana, then it’s a ferry across the river and you pick up the Bakkhali bus the other side; but we now discover that despite all our advice so far, there are only two direct trains per day, the remainder are a convoluted double change route taking over 4 hours just to Namkhana. To keep all options open we ask the guys at our new hotel, the Aauris, who tell us they can provide driver and car for 6,500 rupees within half an hour, and that’s one third of what we were quoted at the last hotel. We’re a little ashamed to say we abandoned our travellers’ principles and took the easy option.
And so we hit the coast at around 3.30pm, and find a rather below par hotel, we’re definitely back into backpacking territory here and it feels like a bit of a comedown after the rather decent hotels of the cities, to say the least. It’s all rather odd, not very welcoming and – well, we’ll see. However, we have without doubt stayed in worst places, though perhaps not many!
Our first stroll around the village reveals a number of important points. The sandy beach is huge and fabulous. The Indian Ocean is probably lovely but the tide is so far out that we can only just see it. There are thousands – literally thousands – of red crabs on the beach, which dive into a hole in the sand when you get within ten metres or so, vanishing in droves and in formation ahead of you as you walk forward. We get the giggles, it’s an amusing sight. There are other types of crab, including that white one which hurtles, cartwheel style, down the beach at breakneck speed. Everyone here other than us is an Indian on holiday and we are once again a novelty. The sunset over the sea is beautiful.
There is a cluster of strange shops, kiosks and cafes down by the beach, catering for the Indian holiday trade, all with that ever present scrubbiness that typifies India, but no less interesting for all that. It’s clear too that there is a lot less English spoken here and we are struggling to communicate, but we kind of always enjoy that too.
One of the things which attracted us to Bakkhali was the positioning of the beach, which juts out from the mainland facing due south, meaning you see both sunrise and sunset out over the water. There can’t be too many beaches like that anywhere in the world. Our first sunset then is a huge orange ball, so archetypically Asian, though over quickly so beautiful but not necessarily spectacular.
Earlier, we bought a small late lunch, cost 72 rupees (83p); no one in the village can change our smallest note, 2,000 rupees! No one has change for £20, more or less!! This could be a problem from now on, and we have to leave them without cash, promising to return to pay tomorrow. Not sure how we’ll get round this.
Now, tonight, we really are a bit thrown. After sunset and under the bright moon illuminating the incoming tide, half a dozen fish sellers set up stalls on the sand, and the beach, shrouded in darkness, fills with Indian holiday makers who take their place on plastic chairs and sit facing the sea and eating their alfresco fresh fish curry dinner. Another surreal scene!
For our own meal, we choose one of those ramshackle cafes, and, after many struggles with translation, much to the amusement of everyone in there, we enjoy a great home made curry (meat!!!! Wow!!!), eating not with cutlery but with our right hand, just like all those around us. It’s a fun thirty minutes, it costs less than £3, and guess what, he can’t change a 2,000 note. Oh dammit this is going to be difficult!
Bakkhali sea front by the way is alcohol free; our hotel tell us that they can give us a beer but we can only drink it in our room. Not going to be a boozy trip to the coast, this one.
We take a final stroll along the beach in darkness, the moonlight reflecting beautifully on the lapping waves, the surf gently swishing on to the sand. It’s all rather romantic.
As we turn to head back along the beach for home, one last amazing treat as an enormous owl lands on the sand just ahead of us, then before our very eyes swoops silently along the strand line, scooping up any number of those small white crabs as he goes. Wow.
Whatever else happens from now on, we are certainly in a very unusual place for the next few days.
We mentioned earlier that we’ve bowled up at a couple of posh hotels looking a little less than posh ourselves on this trip. Backpackers doing 5 star, that kind of look. For the Sunderbans safari, we could only take minimal luggage for obvious reasons, so we stuffed just the essentials into our day bags and left the main backpacks in storage at the Oberoi Grand. The second day of the safari was a 16-hour job from rising to getting back to Kolkata, on the back of a night in the mud hut. Boarding Elmar after one of the stops, Michaela slipped on the gangplank and rapped her shins; then, Phil gouged his knee on a piece of metal on the car door at the chai stop on the way home. Michaela’s solution to the girlie issues of mud huts had been to use very limited make-up, and a bandana to control the hair. And so it was that we limped into the Oberoi 5-star lobby, sweaty, dusty, dishevelled, one in a hat and one in a bandana, one with a bruised leg and the other with a dried blood trickle from the knee, covered in dust and dirt and with egg curry stains on our shorts, just as the well heeled guests were arriving for a Kolkata society dinner, sharp suits and silk saris everywhere. Just ever so slightly out of place! We have to say though that the Oberoi staff carried it off with aplomb, chatting with us about Sunderbans with genuine interest and not a hint of prejudice, in fact their only concern was that we’d chosen a different hotel for our return visit. Top marks for professionalism chaps!
And so back to today, and a chance to take a second look at our slightly dodgy hotel. It’s an odd set up, it looks as if someone set out to create Bakkhali’s first quality hotel, then ran out of money and the cheapskates took over. The overall design is sound, but the choice of furniture and fittings dreadful. The room is a decent size, maisonette style with a cooking area and nicely fitted bathroom, in part at least, but there is no cleaning service available and the state of the linen leads us to opt for our own “nod pods” and our travellers towels, in fact we have wondered whether they send them to be washed in the Ganges! They are genuinely shocked when we go down and ask for breakfast, they fetch a young lad to cook it, he in turn has to go down the road to buy some bread in order to feed us. Like when backpacking though, you have to see the funny side, so rather than waste time looking for a Plan B we decide to stick with it.
Making sure we clear our debts, we call back in to yesterday’s cafe and pay up, the old pair that run it are very smiley (with their limited number of teeth), and we vow to return for breakfast tomorrow. We walk miles along the sand towards the next village, Frasergunj, but have to hang around a while, and then detour inland, as the tide is now high and the beach is cut off at one point. Frasergunj thus turns out to be too far to reach in this blistering heat, so eventually we abandon the expedition and turn inland again to wend our way along paths through farmland and tiny dwellings back to the main road.
The walk along the beach though is stunning for one main reason; the sight of the famous gathering of the red crabs – fiddler crabs they are called – is incredible. There are tens of thousands scurrying out of the sea and up the beach, in successive enormous columns like mini crab motorways. When they then come to rest, the beach looks like a poppy field, deep red as far as the eye can see. We both remember seeing something like this on a TV nature programme, but in the flesh it is an astonishing sight.
The fascination with these two white people in this remote location continues, we are stared at and shouted to in equal measure, but those who stare usually respond with a beam and a wave if we smile and say hello. Some come and chatter, we have not a clue what they are saying but that doesn’t stop them, they finish, wait for our response, and we stand there like grinning mute idiots, unable to even say we don’t understand. We should have learnt some basic Bengali! One group of guys get just a bit too close, one photograph too many, getting a little too hands on, asking for phone numbers (these have a bit of English), and we have to make our excuses and leave. We could do with avoiding these, but this is a small place and we are almost bound to bump into them again.
In the end our walk is a bit too long, we get overheated and almost run out of water and are very grateful when we come across a small shop with water from the fridge, a sugary drink, and a packet of crisps; even more pleased to hitch a ride on a motor bike trailer and get dropped back at the waterfront. And in no time we are back again at the same scruffy cafe, grabbing a late lunch of mystery veg curry, chatting with the owners and eliciting their toothless smiles once again. We like these two. A couple of times when we’ve had a snack over here, it’s been served with “puffed” rice, in effect rice put through the process which turns corn into popcorn. This quick snack curry is served with it, and the curry sauce has the effect of turning it almost back into ordinary rice, interestingly.
Tonight the evening is even busier on the beach, dozens of Indian holiday makers sat in the dark on their plastic chairs, facing the ocean which they can no longer see, scoffing fresh fish from the vendors. What a strange ritual this is. We thought that our night in the Sunderbans would show us a starry sky which compared to the wonderful sight in Valbona, Albania, but we were thwarted by the full moon, and, though waning, it’s still too bright here to be star gazing.
As the moon rises, we have our pre dinner chai, it’s the best aperitif here as there is strictly no alcohol. We decide to try a food shack tonight which caught Phil’s eye during the day. We sat on the red plastic chairs set out in the street and were treated to the spectacle of watching our dinner being prepared and cooked in the open kitchen, all freshly prepared, even down to the dough for the chapati. Five Sari clad women working as one in this small kitchen, smiling and laughing as the created an amazing meal for us, the food was scrumptious and watching them cook was an entertainment. We will come here again! Tomorrow we are back to nature, Henry Island is just around the coast, we will explore for ourselves tomorrow.
This isn’t the first time we’ve stayed in an alcohol free area on our travels, but this one does feel a little odd, being five days on the coast, in the sun, with no beer. It’s not so much the beer itself you miss, it’s that whole sit-and-chill part of the day when you just chat everything through and unwind, you don’t get chance to do that in places like this, and it definitely means a certain something is missing. This whole stretch of coast has a blanket ban on public drinking, so the one option available is to buy beer off the hotel and drink it in the one place you are allowed, which is inside your room. That wouldn’t be so good so today is the third day of five without beer, we won’t have one now until the last night of the trip, back in Kolkata.
The alcohol ban is by no means the only thing which makes Bakkhali different, but today we feel like we’ve kind of got it, despite the major culture shock of landing in this remote corner of the globe and finding that pretty much nothing is “normal”, whatever that means. It has in fact been one of those very edifying days of travel when things start to fall into place and you know you’re settling into your new surroundings.
After breakfast at Cafe Toothless we hitch a ride on a Toto, slightly different from a tuk-tuk, across to Henry Island. We desperately try to arrange with the Toto driver that we just want a one-way ride, but the language barrier proves insurmountable and, given that their usual fare is to give people tours of the area rather than be used as taxis, our driver sticks to us like a leech wherever we go and simply waits for us, even when we laze on the beach for an hour he just sits under a tree 200 yards away. Henry Island is a large, deserted beach of fine white sand backed by Casuarina trees with a tidal lagoon inside a sizeable sandbank where the rolling waves break. It is a bird watcher’s paradise due to the constant numerous migrations, but there’s little about today other than a flock of giant gulls and a few whimbrel.
By the time we return to Bakkhali there is a perceptible change to the village. Bakkhali is, we already knew, a weekend getaway for the people of Kolkata, and, now, Friday afternoon, they are starting to arrive. We can tell from activity levels all around the beach area that more are expected, too, and as we try out another dirty cafe for lunch (poor hygiene, terrific curry) we can see a marked difference in dress code, less in the way of traditional but increasing numbers of T-shirts and shorts.
The village has a crocodile sanctuary which everyone is keen for visitors to see, but on our brief visit we only see two sleeping crocs and a handful of deer which barely made it worth the 11p entry fee.
As we stroll to the beach though, Bakkhali is very definitely gearing up for its weekend, already there are more than the usual amount of plastic chairs with even more in the way. The tide is right out again and we see masses of people at the waters edge so far away that they look like a colony of ants. We decide to join them so begin the long walk across this enormous expanse of gently rippled sand, having to cross a knee deep lagoon first. We walk, not seeming to get any closer to the waters edge, not much wildlife here, no red crabs but there is a splattering of minute translucent crabs the size of pinheads and tiny hermit crabs, a handful of birds and nothing more than miles of sand. There aren’t any exotic shells here just unattractive black ones which we know have washed out to sea from the swamps. We eventually get there and everyone is in the sea, fully clothed, some men in shorts, others in long trousers wading in knee deep in the shallow water or just sitting and lying down, the women sitting in groups, swathed in wet saris, it just looks so uncomfortable, particularly having to walk that long distance dripping wet, we give this bizarre activity a miss. Why would you lay in the sea fully clothed.?! It’s noticeable in a quirky kind of way that as these weekenders hit the beach, they bring nothing with them; no change of clothes, no cossies, no beach bag, no towels, nothing! A rented plastic chair is all they need.
We head back and find that an army of food vendors have now joined these plastic chairs and are setting up their tiny stalls ready for the apparent hordes of people which are soon to arrive. We watch the evening unravel with amusement. The sun begins to set, the stalls switch on their single lightbulb, the masses of people are arriving, some already taking their seats others milling around the food stalls and as darkness falls the constant chatter of the unfamiliar Bengali language becomes deafening, and for us the strange ritual of the previous two nights starts to make perfect sense; now that it is this much busier, this business of sitting facing the sea after dark seems less odd, as the beach is now a hugely convivial place, milling with people in weekend mood, chattering in family groups, snacking on cheap fresh fish and just generally being sociable. What seemed odd to us two days ago now seems entirely civilised.
We wander amongst the people, and the stalls selling an array of food, fresh fish from todays catch, corn on the cob, puff balls stuffed with curry, green coconuts, icecream, chai, we are absorbed in the atmosphere and decide to stay and let ourselves be drawn in. We start with green coconuts, the top chopped off by a machette, then handed to us, the milk so refreshing, the flesh soft and delicious. We move to a fish stall, Phil approaches a family to ask what the process is,he is lucky, one of them can speak a little English and helps us. We choose a plate of fish each, one of enormous Tiger prawns and the other a fish called Lottee. A lady sits on the sand to prepare them, shelling the prawns on a lethal looking blade. Her husband then dips the fish in what looks like a batter mixed with spices and then proceeds to fry them in a wok on an open flame in a cupboard under his stall. Delicious fresh fish in spicy batter, love it! It is then served in a metal dish with a squeeze of lime, salt, raw red onion and a splash of mustard sauce, was absolutely delicious!! We decide to join the masses and sit for a while on the plastic chairs looking into the darkness listening to the surf we can’t see, a lady appears from nowhere and charges us 10 rupees each for the luxury. We fancy chai, we call the chai man but the minute he hands us the little cup, we smell the bad water and have to tip the chai away, oh well.
Just as we listen to the mix of Bengali babble and swishing surf, the word “massage” drifts out from the noise and we realise the beach masseur is making a bee line for us. Well, you have to, don’t you, so we both go for it, he’s almost definitely a charlatan but parts of it are good, Michaela enjoys the head and feet most, though not the greasy oil in the hair, whereas Phil’s calf muscles purr most for him. It’s a bit of fun and another thing we said we’d do whilst here.
During the course of the evening we actually spy, for the first time since Kolkata, other white people. They turn out to be a young Finnish couple just finding their Bakkhali bearings so we are able to give advice, and now they join us for dinner back at last night’s open kitchen venue. It’s a good feeling to exchange tips with fellow travellers. Once again the food is delicious, all vegetarian again, and the cooks are great to watch; they are very pleased to see us return and we exchange lots of smiles and sign language.
Three days into our time here, and we are now known by just about everyone, we are so instantly recognisable and as such we remain a novelty. We get smiles and greetings everywhere, and last night one of the villagers used a city visitor as his interpreter to say “we are very pleased to welcome you here”. This feeling of notoriety ticks our box of wanting to go where Brits rarely go, but even better is the feeling that we’ve ingratiated ourselves and are being welcomed by this oh so unfamiliar community.
We drift off to sleep very happy indeed and feeling hugely edified.
Oh so THAT’S what’s going on, now we get it. In watching the city dwellers arrive in numbers for the weekend, and seeing Bakkhali totally change character, the fact that had totally passed us by is that today is New Years Day in Bengal, and this is a big holiday weekend; yesterday (Friday) was a public holiday, no wonder so many were arriving during the day! And suddenly everything falls into place
It’s haircut time this morning, so we do another thing we always pictured doing in India, a visit to the barbers for a trim and open blade shave with cut throat razor. For Phil only, of course! It’s a fun experience, a mix of skilled worker and old fashioned techniques, the result being a closer shave than Phil ever manages himself.
After breakfast we take a long walk on the beach, the sea is already crowded and the chatter loud. We decide not to join in, the thought of sitting in wet clothes still doesn’t appeal, instead we walk at the waters edge away from the crowd on this seemingly endless beach. In the distance we see another crowd gathering, we presume it’s another group gone to sit in the sea, but as we draw closer we see clouds of smoke, are they having a barbecue? No too early in the day. Closer still, we see a pile of wood, surely not, it can’t be a cremation pyre on the beach, can it? Yes it can! A replica of the sights in Varanasi, a shrouded body laid in the middle, reeds starting the fire right at the waters edge, a stream of people paying their respects, adding another piece of wood, blessing the ground next to the pyre then walking back down the beach or through the trees to their village. The only difference here is that women were present. A woman came over to us, she smiles, held Michaela’s hand then hugged her, then the man who cooked our fish last night came to say hello and shook hands with Phil, it was a relative of his on the pyre. Cremating a family member on a public beach; imagine THAT back in England
By the time we return to the main part of the beach the heat is searing so we decide on another refreshing green coconut before taking a Toto to Frasergunj harbour. This harbour is a little way inland along the creek and it is enormous. All sizes and colours of fishing boats moored at the bank as far as the eye can see, neither of us have ever seen a fishing fleet this big in the U.K. or anywhere on our travels. The fishing for the day clearly finished, fishermen sitting in the shade, some folding nets, some trying to sell us a trip in their vessel. Clearly the fish on sale on the beach every night is just a tiny fraction of the catch, the haul from this fleet would be big enough to feed the whole of Bengal. Talking of fish, a small amount of research has revealed that the Lottee, or Loti, which we ate last night, its melt in the mouth jelly texture coated in spicy batter, is in fact the famous Indian dish of Bombay Duck, we didn’t realise that’s what we were eating.
The influx of city dwellers has brought with it more people who have some English, meaning that now when we have a language issue, there is always someone who steps into the role of interpreter between us and the villagers, making life just that bit easier. Walking home through the village tonight after another very good meal, we are stopped so many times, by villagers who’ve met us already, by visitors we’re bumping into for a second time, and by visitors eager to know where we’re from and why we’re here. It’s brilliant. One Kolkata guy says, “how did you even know about Bakkhali, no foreigners come here?”. Equally brilliant, this is just what we wanted to find, after the mad hustle of the cities, a place away from the tourist trail, somewhere different. It’s been worth every tiny bit of culture shock and language barrier to have this experience.
Tomorrow is our last day in Bakkhali, we’ve decided to go back to the harbour and accept one of those offers of a trip out to sea…
Our last day in Bakkhali, and, although we have some time in Kolkata tomorrow, the journey to Kolkata marks the start of the long trek home and this trip is nearing its end, sadly. Since we left the cities and moved into more rural surroundings, the tropical bird calls have been a constant soundtrack, many of them those unusual booming calls you associate with the jungle environment. Their constant presence is yet another continuous reminder that we are somewhere very different from home. We’ve also caught two glimpses of an animal running stealthily through the village during our time here, it looks a bit like a polecat from distance, we haven’t yet discovered its true identity.
Time for a catch up on food and drink too. We’ve adapted quickly to the somewhat earthy eateries here, soon being less timid and able to take our lead from the locals and consequently be much more adventurous; the result has been some terrifically tasty meals, and of course with a lot more variation. Our description earlier in the blog on the difference between curry here and curry at home was on reflection a bit premature. The thing is, if you order the dish they actually call “curry”, often spelt “carry” or “cury”, you will be served a plate with the main item (meat or veg), a heap of rice, some further veg items, and raw red onion. The curry itself comes in the form of a gravy in a separate bowl, which you pour over your dinner in whatever quantity you choose. Both the curry and the rice will be topped up as much as you like, as you eat, and then sweet mango chutney will arrive around half way through. Curry Bengal style. We’ve almost exclusively gone for the veggie options, meat seems superfluous when the veg meals are so tasty. With no alcohol, the staple drink is just water, though we’ve developed quite a taste for a gloopy mango drink called Maaza, very refreshing if chilled, plus of course the teas, chai and that delicious coconut milk straight from the coconut itself. On the odd occasion that we have strayed from our vegetarian diet, the chicken here is delicious, so succulent and it is clear to see why, they are extremely fresh and killed to order. There are a number of caged chickens at the roadside and one odd thing we witnessed last night was that they had an electric fan pointing at the chickens to keep them cool, slightly bizarre that they care for them as when we went to breakfast this morning they were bludgeoning those same chickens to death (well just short of death) with a lump of wood ready for plucking and the days cooking pot!! Almost enough to put you off your breakfast, but not quite.
So today we grab a Toto straight after breakfast and head back to Frasergunj fishing harbour, also known as Benfish, to investigate a boat ride out to Jambu Dwip as our last Bakkhali adventure. Yesterday this harbour was quiet as the fishermen’s day came to an end and the nets were spread out; today it is alive with activity as the catch is being unloaded, and what a spectacle it is. Tons of fish are in crates, in ice (where did they get THAT from??!), and on deck waiting to be unloaded, dozens of types of fish, some of them enormous, tuna maybe. It’s a fabulous sight. The boat trip is along the creek past the fishing fleet and out into the open sea in the Bay Of Bengal, and across to the uninhabited island of Jambu Dwip, the last of the mangrove islands before the Indian Ocean begins in earnest. It’s a pleasant and peaceful trip, not at all the white knuckle ride that the guide books suggest.
After another great veg curry lunch at yet another scrubby venue, we hit the beach for one last time, walking away from the village and out on to the sandbank the other side of the lagoon. We sit for a while, we snooze, we have a paddle, but walk for ages along the water’s edge, not another soul around, the beach stretching for miles each side of us. It’s a lovely, peaceful, romantic way to spend our last hours on this beach. The crabs scurry into their holes as we approach, some run like spiders, some move like crabs should, some cartwheel, but some move at such a smooth speed, constantly changing direction, looking for all the world like a miniature tumbleweed blowing in the wind. We see sea anemones and a starfish, and marvel again at the stretches of sand here which have grains which sparkle in the sunlight, like fools’ gold.
Our last night starts back on the beach and we eat fresh fish and the biggest prawns ever for our starter again then we head to our favourite restaurant one last time. We can’t make a recommendation for anyone to visit, as the name, and all other writing, is not written in our alphabet and only in Bengal script, like the menu in the photograph, so we don’t actually know its name. As we take our seats at the table, the ladies who have been cooking for us for the past 3 nights rush out of he kitchen and come and sit with us, giggling like children so excited to see us. It would appear that they have had as much fun cooking for these strange white people as we have had watching them. The meal is simply delicious again. We say our goodbyes amidst a load more smiling and photographs on all sides, then head back to pack ready for tomorrow.
Last morning in Bakkhali and we wake again to the sound of tropical birds and rickety aircon.
Time to tie up a few loose ends. We now know that the animal we said looked like a polecat is actually a Bengal Mongoose; the early issue of being unable to change a 2000 rupee note was resolved by a) changing one at our hotel, b) changing one at a grocery store (although it was a customer and not the store who helped out) but c) and mostly by the fact that everything is so unbelievably, incredibly cheap that we didn’t need to change any more. Prices are so low, cups of tea are 5p each, and every meal, be it lunch or evening meal, is less than £5 for two people, and of course with no alcohol to buy, we seem to have spent very little money whilst here in Bakkhali. All of India has been cheap, but here is a new level.
And the final loose end is the hotel, which, whilst it got a bit busier over the holiday weekend, remained a strange place with no apparent management. It really is as if the investors lost interest part way through; there is ornate gold painted coving on the stairwell, which is in turn strewn with builders’ rubble; our room has some concealed blue mood lighting around ceiling level, yet there are huge sections of repaired plaster where something has ben ripped out of the wall and no attempt made to paint over. And of course there are no cleaners. We didn’t make another attempt at breakfast after the first day; Cafe Toothless filled that gap adequately, at about 80p per day.
And it does again today, one final breakfast and goodbye to the old couple, and off back to Kolkata, just over four hours by car. The journey uneventful apart from the even more crazy driving than we have already experienced, weaving in and out of tuk-tuks, and cyclists, people jumping out of the way as we speed up, seemingly aiming at them. Overtaking trucks, oh no, an oncoming bus, we swerve in just in time, horns hooting all the way. Dogs laying in the road, just missed them, mind that cow!!! It’s not just us driving like this, it’s everyone and miraculously we arrive in Kolkata safe and in one piece. Before we came to India we intended to hire a car and drive ourselves to the coast, how relieved we are that it is near impossible to actually hire a car without a driver, there is really no way we could have attempted driving in the rural villages let alone Kolkata itself.
Back in the city, the noise and heat once again intense, total chaos on the streets. We venture out for our last taste of Kolkata and one last lunch in Nizams, where they welcomed us like long lost friends, proud that we had returned even though we only went there once about a week ago, clearly we are remembered. We head to the jewellery quarter, a road the length of Oxford street full of jewellers, customers in just about all of them; evidently there are some here with disposable income, despite all the poverty. Michaela buys some gold Indian earrings and a charm, what seems like a straight forward purchase ends up being over an hour of agreeing a price, having the new jewellery polished, drinking tea, being told to sit down and filling out export forms, all rather painful really.
Kolkata actually feels good, we weren’t sure about returning to a city after being so peaceful, but we are pleased to find that it is stimulating to be back in the heat, the noise, the chaos, the atmosphere. It feels like a good way to end this wonderful trip.
And so we end our first experience of India just where we were last Tuesday, on the roof, having a beer, this time reflecting on an awesome experience.