Calcutta India - Kolkata
Calcutta India is since 2001 again called Kolkata reflecting the Bengali pronunciation. The city is also known as the "City of Joy". With a population of over 5 million it is one of the bigger cities in India.
During the British Raj, Calcutta India was the capital until 1911. Over the years Kolkata has seen its share of violence (Bangladesh is nearby) and got it's share of problems of urbanization, pollution and overpopulation combined with extreme poverty.
It's an amazing city, still breathing some of the day of the British colonial days.
Local transport goes not only by taxi, bus and train but there is also an extensive metro and tram network. And the city hosts the only descendants of the so called "human horses", disappeared almost everywhere else but still in use in Calcutta India.
There is so much to tell about Kolkata that a whole website can easily be dedicated to it. Therefore I will only give you some of my own experiences, some good, some awful.
I have never been a fan of big cities, and in India the cities are not just big, they're massive! I find it hard to believe people actually want to live in such an environment.
The Human Horse
The "Human Horse" is named after the hand-pulled rickshaws. The government has imposed a ban on them, because it is INHUMAN. And it is.
The life span of these guys is very limited, many don't live older then their early 30's. Yet, in some areas in Kolkata they're still work. It may be inhuman to use them (I fully agree with that) but many of these guys have no other means to earn a living.
The choice seems to live a short live as a rickshaw puller or die in the gutter. And many live anyway in extremely poor conditions.
Kalighat Home for the Dying, the Hospital of the Dying
The visit to the Home of the Dying was one of the most emotional days in my life. It's not a place for tourists, but if you want to understand something what defines dignity of being a human being, this is a good place to start.
The hospital was founded by the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta India in 1950, by Mother Theresa. Those without anything left in life were welcome to die here in peace, regardless religion or sex.
Muslims were read the Quran, Christians the Bible, Hindus the Vedas. Over the years Mother Theresa founded many hospitals like this further in Kolkata and India and even abroad.
I had visited one of Mother Theresa's home for the elderly in Chittagong, Bangladesh. That had been en emotional experience as I had spoken to people who were literally picked up from the street and where now given the chance to have a meaningful last part of their lives.
The hospital in Calcutta India was solely for those who were to die within days. I had no idea how the staff, all volunteers and missionary nurses could handle the fact someone comes in, and will die within a few days, a week or a little longer.
No one of the patients would ever leave the home of the dying alive. They knew it but they were also happy they had given the chance to die in dignity, with love and happiness around them
A few weeks after my visit to Calcutta Mother Theresa would die. The Indian newspapers however had more interest in the death of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa was removed to page 7 of the Indian newspapers! So far for respect!
I didn't make any photos in the hospital, I just couldn't do it. The people here, they made me even more realize how lucky I had been to be born in the Netherlands with our facilities, level of education and welfare.
Here in Calcutta, the poorest of the poor, had to depend on the charity of some missionary sisters and the voluntary work of many others.
It was again hard to believe that a country would prefer to build a nuclear device but let their own people live in such poverty.
Howrath Bridge and Howrath Railway Station
The railway station in Howrath, twin sister city at the west border of the river is connected to the east bank of the river with a massive bridge. Even if you are not interested in anything in Calcutta India, the bridge alone is worth a visit.
Everyday about 80.000 vehicles and more then 1 million pedestrians cross the bridge. Some even live on the bridge. It is the sixth longest bridge of its type in the world.
The Howrath Railway Station is equally impressive and indoctrinating! It dates back to 1854 and is a city within a city.
The waiting hall is so enormously populated that it's hard to find a ticket counter, let alone a platform. For someone like me who don't like overcrowded places, this was the ultimate nightmare.
But then I looked at the beggars around. Some were born at the railway station and had never ever left it!
Books books books
On of the pleasures of Calcutta (and some other big Indian cities) was the availability of books.
There are many book shops, especially in and around Sudder Street.
Here you can get virtually ever book you can imagine. Like Connaught Place in Delhi, this is a gold mine for cheap (Penguin) books.
A must read is Dominique Lapierre's "City of Joy". The book is filmed too but the book is far superior to the movie. Everyone thinking about Kolkata should read this book to get an idea what Calcutta India is about. It was one of the most intense books I ever read.
This area is also well known for it's dirt cheap guesthouses.
Getting there and stay in Calcutta India
Calcutta is easy to reach. It is connected by air, rail and road from every place in India. Make sure if you fly in to make clear how much you pay for your ride into town.
The taxies might claim their meter has never been adjusted and charge you anything from 20 to 100% more for the ride.
If at the airport, take a prepaid taxi from the taxi booth although you might pay a little more, it certainly is safer and faster.
Kolkata has a range of hotels and guesthouses in every price range. The dirt cheap ones are usually for a reason dirt cheap and... dirty. But for a little more you can have an excellent room in the center of the city.
The Andaman Islands
By the time I arrived in Kolkata, I was quite worn out, I was tired of traveling. After 5 months through China, east Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, north east India and Bangladesh I needed a holiday. I needed a recharge. So I choose the Andaman Islands. The main idea originally was to visit the Nicobar islands but as they're military zone, it's off limits (or better, only accessible with special permits).
So I figured out a ferry (I could fly but didn't want that) which would take 5 days, 4 nights and went from Kolkata to Port Blair at the Andaman Islands.
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