India Backpacking 2017-18

Kolkata & The Sunderbans

21 Nov. Kolkata
The train kept getting delayed more and more as the night wore on until the 13010 Doon Express finally pulled in about 3:15 a.m.—11 hours late. No reason was ever given for the delay, though the announcement recordings kept saying “the delay is deeply regretted.” Most of the train cars were three-tier sleepers without air-conditioning, but I had the best class, two-tier air-conditioned. No more breathing clouds of dust! On boarding, a steward gave me bedding and I settled in for what little remained of the night. I had a lower berth, which is best because it has a window and I could fold it back up into seats when I chose to in the morning. Scenery on the northern plains tends to be of dull fields and trash-strewn villages, but there’s a picturesque region of hills about half way. Last night and on the train I relaxed and got in a lot of reading, finishing photography and travel magazines among other things. Vendors regularly passed down the train’s aisle selling snacks and simple meals, so life onboard was comfortable. If the train had been on schedule I would have arrived at Kolkata’s Howrah Station, located just west from the city across the Houghly River, bright and early at 6:55 a.m., but it wasn’t and took until nearly 8 p.m. after a slow crawl through a massive rail yard.
 
My Airbnb host had sent detailed directions, which began with getting a pre-paid taxi for 160 rupees, which seemed ridiculously cheap, though the driver was happy with a 50-rupee tip. Most Kolkata taxis are wonderful old Hindustani Ambasadors, based on the 1950s Morris Oxford series III of England and produced near Kolkata from 1958 to 2014; story at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindustan_Ambassador. My driver skillfully navigated the dense and chaotic traffic and took the immense 1943 Howrah Bridge over the Houghly River. It’s the sixth longest cantilever bridge in the world and probably the busiest with an estimated daily load of 100,000 vehicles and 150,000 pedestrians; history at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howrah_Bridge.
 
A downside to visiting Kolkata is that the less expensive hotels tend to be poor value and grimy. When looking online for accommodations, I didn’t find anything particularly promising on TripAdvisor or booking.com, but Airbnb listed rooms in homes or apartments that no doubt would be far nicer than a similarly priced hotel. I’d never used Airbnb before, so went through the process of signing up, which required submitting confirmation codes, identification (passport copy), and a self-portrait. It all seemed to work OK in the end, and I made a booking with the relatively central Kolkata Backpackers for the “Classical vintage Double room.” I would be staying three nights at a cost of about $16/night, paid through PayPal. (Kolkata Backpackers has a mention in Lonely Planet as a homestay hostel.) A lot of Kolkata listings on Airbnb and Booking.com are far from the center, and would have been extremely inconvenient with the city’s terrible traffic. My host showed me the upstairs room with its four-poster bed and plethora of semi-antiques, then took me on the back of his motorbike to Ajanta Hotel restaurant, where I had a good vegetarian thali.
 
I’ve visited Kolkata, India’s second largest city and the center of Bengali culture, many times since my first India trip in 1983-84. It’s full of wonderful Indian and colonial architecture, though many buildings crumble from neglect and the tropical climate. One sees many relics from the past—long gone in the rest of the world—such as the antique Ambassador taxis bumping along and the man-pulled rickshaws still popular on the back streets. On this visit I’ll be taking in the art scene at museums and galleries plus cultural performances. This is a great time of year to be in Kolkata with pleasantly warm days and cool nights. Also the air is a bit cleaner than in the Indian cities visited earlier on this trip.
 
22 Nov. Kolkata
My room included a nice breakfast of vegetables, omelet, banana, toast, and tea. I then headed north to the Sudder Street area—the most popular area for tourists—via the cheap and rattling metro. Here I checked in with Backpackers-Sunderban Tour, which runs the trip that I will take to the Sunderbans in two days time. Then to the post office to mail 14 postcards written in Varanasi, paying only 15 rupees (23 cents USD) each for stamps, probably the world’s cheapest international postage. So I don’t have any excuses not to write postcards now! A few men sat with typewriters atop tiny tables in front of the post office, ready to handle any paperwork for India’s bureaucracy. I did some shopping in the warren of lanes north of Sudder Street before settling down for a palak paneer dinner at the multi-cuisine Blue Sky Café, popular among both Indians and Westerners. Then, with nerve-wracking crossings of busy streets, I made a long walk south to Rabindra Savan, where I watched several groups of folk musicians, each with a soloist singing plaintive songs.
 
23 Nov. Kolkata
Another nice day began with a good breakfast. Kolkata Backpackers didn’t have a vacancy for the final four nights of my Kolkata stay, after the Sunderbans trip and before the flight to the Andaman Islands, so I made a hotel reservation with Booking.com. In the afternoon I headed north on foot to see some of Kolkata’s street life and quirky architecture. Ajuha Museum for Arts www.sdahujaart.com/index.aspx on Elgin Road presented a show of paintings that depict the human form in styles that ranged from surrealistic to naturalistic to semi-abstract. Farther north on Ho Chi Minh Sarani I dropped by the Harrington Street Arts Centre http://hstreetartscentre.com/index.php and although it didn’t have any shows today, a room displayed atmospheric watercolors of Kolkata street scenes. A bit to the west the art gallery of ICCR/Rabindranath Tagore Centre www.tagorecentreiccr.org/index.html offered a highly varied show of paintings and photographs by visual arts students. Then at 6 p.m. ICCR’s auditorium hosted “A Tribute to the Legends” with Bengali dancing accompanied by beautiful singing of women soloists. Just to the west I passed the American Consulate, which suffers the indignity of having its street address renamed after the one-time nemesis Ho Chi Minh! I stopped at the upscale cafeteria chain Haldiram for a very tasty North Indian vegetarian thali, then managed to avoid the temptations of the cake and Indian sweets counters.
 
24 Nov. Sunderbans
I had long been keen to visit the great expanse of the Brahmaputra River’s delta called the ‘Sunderbans,’ where tigers and crocodiles roam the mangroves. It’s southeast of Kolkata and extends eastward into Bangladesh. The Lonely Planet guidebook recommends going on a tour because of the complexity of arranging permits and transport. I would go on a three-day, two-night excursion with Backpackers-Sunderban Tour http://tourdesundarbans.com/ at a no-frills cost of 5,500 rupees ($84.82), much less than what other tour companies charge. The three brothers who run the tours know their stuff and did an excellent job of organizing everything.
 
The manager of Kolkata Backpackers gave me a ride on the back of his motorbike to the tour office on Tottee Lane, just off Sudder Street, for the 8 a.m.-ish departure. We got on a tour bus and staff gave each of us a vegetable sandwich and bottle of water. Getting out of central Kolkata took a long time, of course, and we stopped on the edge at Science City to pick up more passengers. Altogether our little group had two women from Italy, a young fellow from Australia, myself, a couple Indian couples, and a solo Indian fellow. The highway then followed a horribly filthy black river on our left and expansive wetlands on the right. Farther along we journeyed past vast rice fields and maneuvered through dusty villages, stopping once for a tea break. Nearing the end we crossed over a big river, then arrived at Godkali on an even bigger river. Here we got on a flat-topped boat (no seats, no lifejackets) powered by an ancient looking two-cylinder diesel engine for a ride across to a bustling market town on the island of Gosaba.
 
A rough ride on a three-wheeled contraption brought us across the island to another broad river, where a boat met us for a ride to our ‘eco village’ on the island of Satjelia and a late lunch. Our guide then led us on a short walk through the surrounding village and rice fields, stopping at the Friday afternoon cockfight, where a large group of men gathered around an open area to assess each other’s birds, then pair them off for fights. Sharp metal spurs tied to each rooster’s leg made some of the contests short and deadly. Other birds didn’t feel like fighting, no doubt embarrassing their owners. This wasn’t my cup of tea and I was relieved when the guide finally led us away to a small boat powered by a man with a single oar at the stern. We crossed the river to an area of mangroves and turned up a couple channels to look for wildlife. Our small and quiet boat let us get deep into the mangroves. A flock of lesser whistling ducks flew overhead and we saw three kinds of kingfishers—black-capped, white-throated, and brown-winged—of the seven species here. Herons also winged by. On the muddy shores we saw two dog-faced water snakes, said to be mildly poisonous.
 
We returned to our eco village as the last light faded from the sky. Village musicians sang and played their drums and harmonium for us before dinner. Food was very tasty with a variety of vegetable curries. Although my room with its attached bath looked good on first glance, I had bad luck with neighbors—a very chatty and loud couple on one side and party types who came home in the middle of the night on the other. The upper walls between us are merely woven bamboo, so there’s nothing to stop the noise. I slept poorly, not daring to use earplugs and miss the early morning departure of the boat tour.
 
25 Nov. Sunderbans
We got off about 6:30 a.m. on our Sunderbans tour boat, patterned like all the others here with an enclosed lower deck for the crew and a shaded open-sided upper deck for passengers. We first had to stop at a village on the other side of the river to fill plastic jugs with fuel, crossed to the park office for paperwork, all handled by the crew. Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) foraged on the muddy banks, and it turned out they were looking for bits of discarded vegetables that had washed down from villages far upriver. Then we began a very satisfying all-day loop through channels large and small among mangrove-covered islands. From the unseen kitchen on the lower deck emerged a breakfast of poori (puffed fried bread) and vegetables for breakfast, then a full lunch of vegetable curries. Glasses of tea appeared frequently.
 
A park guide joined us, and both he and our tour company guide were very enthusiastic and helpful in pointing out and telling us of the wildlife we saw. The mangroves comprise many species of trees and a palm, all in slightly different hues of green. Of course what everyone wished to see were tigers! It’s likely a royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) saw us. We only spotted tracks at two crossings where a tiger had come down a beach, swum across the river, then up the other shore. A large group of smooth Indian otters (Lutra perspicilatta) scampered along the mangroves, surprising our guides because these animals are a rare sight. We saw many axis deer or chitral (Axix axix), which keep their spots into adulthood. Most hung out in small groups or a mother with baby. A solitary Indian wild boar (Sus scrofa) stood on a shore. We began seeing estuarine crocodiles (Crocodilus porosus) swimming in the rivers, then later in the morning we saw them sunning on the shores. Although fish remained unseen in the muddy rivers, the birds knew where to find them. We saw a Brahminy kite, a lesser adjutant stork, kingfishers, and lots of common sandpipers. In the afternoon we got off the boat at two watchtowers, Dubanki and Sudhanyakhali, not so much to see wildlife as to stretch our legs. At the second site we saw a kill site where park staff found a deer killed by a tiger. Now only blood spots and impressions in the mud marked the struggle. As the sun sunk into the hazy horizon, we headed home. Most of the group had signed up for the two-day tour, and would be making the long trek back to Kolkata in the dark. Myself and the solo Indian tourist transferred to another tour boat for the ride back to the eco village and another good dinner. We enjoyed a very quiet and restful night!
 
26 Nov. Kolkata
Although the morning didn’t have any scheduled activities, after breakfast one of the tour company’s brothers took us around the large island on an electric autorickshaw to see village life, rice fields, and two areas of water lilies. One of the villagers then accompanied myself and the Indian tourist on a flat-topped ferry boat across the river and the three-wheeler across the island to the next ferry. We had to wait awhile at the road head for transport to get sorted out, then got on a tour bus for the long 106-kilometer grind back to central Kolkata.
 
I had reserved a single room through booking.com for my final four nights in Kolkata at Georgian Inn http://georgianin.com/ (1A Doctor Lane), mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide as a ‘backpacker guesthouse.’ Cost of the four nights was 5,000 rupees + 600 rupees tax, though I didn’t have to pay anything in advance. Unfortunately when I was in the Sunderbans the Georgian Inn sent an e-mail requesting payment to a bank account within 24 hours, then cancelled the reservation when this didn’t happen. When I got back to Kolkata, I phoned the Inn and was told I could have a double room (999 rupees) tonight, then move into a single room for 100 rupees less on the following three nights. It’s in the Talitala Market area, a bit over a kilometer northeast of Sudder Street, so I walked over. The room was on the noisy side, but had a little table, hot water, and good wi-fi. As it turned out I stayed in the same room yet still got the 100-rupee discount on the last three nights. The location isn’t the best, and perhaps I should have tried more hotels in the more convenient Sudder Street area, but those I did check didn’t have vacancies.
 
After checking in I got a taxi through the slow thick traffic south to Elgin Road and the Akhra, a small cultural center where I sat in an outdoor theater for a concert of folk music by two groups, one with a female soloist and the other with a male singer. The songs were very pretty even though I didn’t understand the words, which I assumed were Bengali. Afterward I wandered to nearby Kewpies, a long-running Bengali restaurant, and ordered the special vegetarian thali. Besides the standard items, I could choose three items from the vegetarian menu, and went with banana flower (mochar tarkari), gram flower cakes in tomato sauce (dhokar dalna), and spinach-wrapped cottage cheese balls in coconut gravy (palong channar kofta). All the dishes, served in little clay bowls, proved very tasty, yet the flavors were unlike the more common North Indian cuisine.
 
27 Nov. Kolkata
Today I mostly hung out in my room and surfed the internet. In late afternoon I caught a taxi for a ride south to the ICCR/Rabindranath Tagore Centre, where a different group show of paintings had just opened. Then in the auditorium I watched a fast-paced dance and music program from Zimbabwe by the Hwamanda Dance Troupe. Part of the group of men and women would dance while the others beat drums and chanted, then some would trade places for the next performance. The dances reflected village life with thoughts for rain, celebrating the harvest, and of youth when boys and girls get together.
 
28 Nov. Kolkata
I strolled over to Blue Sky Café for a good breakfast, then continued on foot to Victoria Memorial Hall, a very beautiful domed structure of white marble. Lord Curzon, Viceroy of British India, proposed the memorial to Queen Victoria in 1901 and it opened twenty years later. Indians have less sentiment toward the long-ago monarch and exhibits inside offer an illustrated history of Kolkata from its founding by the British to the Bengali cultural awakening and finally the modern city. Other rooms have wonderful paintings and prints of India from past centuries. Queen Victoria still ‘reigns’ in her youth under the rotunda and in old age on a throne outside in front. A series of 12 paintings inside the dome depict major events of her long life as queen. A temporary exhibit by Swayam, a Kolkata-based feminist organization, had an exhibit “Voices of Courage and Sorrow, Women in the Dark Speak Out” about finding refuge from domestic violence faced by Indian women. Lastly I walked around the exterior to admire the architectural details and the 16-foot high, 3-ton bronze Angel of Victory statue atop the dome.
 
A path led out the east side of the park-like grounds to a busy street, where I crossed to the Nandan-Rabindra Sadan Complex to see an excellent group show of paintings, photos, and sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts. Another busy street crossing to the east led to Haldiram and a super tasty vegetarian thali.
 
29 Nov. Kolkata
Breakfast at Blue Sky Café again, then I headed over to the nearby Indian Museum https://indianmuseumkolkata.org/. It’s the oldest and largest in the country, established in 1814 and now housed in a grand 1875 white building that wraps around a grassy courtyard. On my previous visit to Kolkata four years ago the museum was closed for a major renovation, so I was happy to find it reopened. Admission is now a steep 500 rupees, but rare for Indian museums, photography is freely allowed (except for the Egyptian mummy and Buddha relics). The 2nd-century-B.C. Barhut Stupa is the museum’s star attraction and includes the highly decorated east gate and many railings of the stupa built to honor the Buddha. In those days artists used symbols, such as footprints or an elephant, to portray the Buddha. Devotional scenes predominate along with portraits and depictions of everyday life.

Natural history exhibits tend to be old-fashioned and some would appeal only to specialists. The Siwalik Vertebrate Fossil room contained several huge creatures, as did the amphibian, reptile, bird, and fish galleries. A mummy is the centerpiece of the compact Egypt exhibition, from where I continued into a massive hall of textiles and decorative arts—a place I hadn’t seen before. Stairs led up to the second floor and a large collection of colorful masks. There’s a painting collection too, with a hall of works by miniature schools and a room containing works mainly from the first half of the 20th century. I’m also fond of visiting the galleries of ancient stone sculptures that depict gods and teachers of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions. By closing time I had been wandering the halls for six hours—with breaks—a very satisfying visit. Then to Blue Sky Café for a paneer mushroom masala dinner followed by a walk back to my hotel.

On to the Andaman Islands