I have just returned from an amazing trip to Kolkata and Bangkok and I thought we would start off the new year with something a little different, and something that is not Dorset. This was my first visit to Asia and the contrast in cultures was something of a surprise, bearing in mind that I knew what to expect before I went. The thing is, I knew about Indian culture but I didn’t really know it at all! These are my first impressions, written after being in Kolkata just a day or two.
Leaving the airport, the first impact was the HEAT, even though it was winter there. Having come from the UK’s winter temperatures, it was a shock to the system despite the preparations for it. It was like a wall of heat that hit you as you left the air conditioned airport behind. Day time felt temperatures in the 30’s and night time temperatures of nearly 20 degrees Celsius, compared to zero degrees in the UK.
The somewhat heavy and mist filled atmosphere hanging in the air – we could see this from the plane before we landed. This of course was not so much mist as polluted air that at times gets in your throat. To me, it seemed like it lifted slightly in the heat of the day but came down again as the day wore on and the temperature dropped. I never saw a clear sunset while I was there!
The noise, hustle and bustle, of the city streets. The crazy rush hour traffic, horns constantly and continuously being blown. Cars, buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, walking-rickshaws, all fighting for every inch of road and squeezing into the tiniest gap in traffic – if there was a gap 1 mm wider than the vehicle, you just know someone is going to drive into it! I should say here that horn blowing in Kolkata is a requisite – in the UK, a horn probably means anger or aggression, but in Kolkata it simply says, ‘Hi, I’m here’. In fact many vehicles have the phrase, ‘sound your horn’ written on the back.
The constant chopping and changing of lanes. To a westerner from a culture of giving way, it seems a crazy and even dangerous way to drive and yet, it felt safe because everyone drives that way and everyone is alert to the fact that vehicles could come from any direction at any time and they react accordingly.
The state of the roads, humps, bumps and potholes everywhere.
The state of the vehicles, dirty, damaged, dented and scratched from many scrapes.
Rickshaws of all kinds, some loaded up with huge piles of cargo!
The seeming deprivation – I say ‘seeming’ because that is what it appears to be to a westerner’s eyes although it is hard to separate deprivation from what is simply cultural. This applied straight from the airport. Certainly there are many slum areas and great poverty in this city and it is sad to see! It makes you realise how much we really have!
Unfinished! A strange choice of word but everything appears to be ‘unfinished’. Houses in an incomplete state by UK standards where everything has to be neatly finished off in order to be acceptable. One wonders who has got it right. Does plaster have to be perfectly smooth or is it ok to have things slightly rough around the edges? Does it really matter in the grand scale of things? The roads are similar, not neatly edged with kerb stones and grass verges but mostly left ‘rough and ready’. Everything seems higgledy piggledy rather than neat and orderly. Oh, and there are few flower beds in Kolkata!
People often seemingly doing nothing, living a slower pace of life, being much less slaves to the 21st century’s demands for instant response. There always seem to be men just standing around, although of course this is a city that comes alive at night.
Dirt and rubbish all around, even in the river which is a tributary of the Ganges, a holy river. Mind you, the rubbish provides an income for some as there are constantly litter pickers sifting through it looking for things to recycle/sell for a few rupees – such is the level of poverty.
Wires! So many overhead cables!
Little ‘shanty shops’, made up of anything that was at hand, corrugated iron, sheets of plastic, tarpaulins etc. Some of these are bike and motorbike repair shops, some sell food which of course leads to another major part of Kolkata…….Street Food!
Stray animals. I had expected cows of course but there were goats, sheep, monkeys in places, and of course dogs – so many wild dogs wherever you go. For the most part, these animals are skinny and find food wherever they can, mostly from rubbish dumps.
Bamboo scaffolding poles. Strange but I noticed this straight away, bamboo is used for lots of things including the ‘shanty shops’, scaffolding, even ladders, such is the strength of this natural resource.
People washing outside, either in the river, beside a bucket, or by one of the stand pipes along the city streets.
Men peeing in the street. Whatever you think of this, it is just an accepted part of city culture.
Rust! There seems to be so much rust caused probably by the constant wet/dry of the monsoon season. And dirty buildings too – things don’t stay clean very long in a polluted atmosphere.
Nice and not so nice buildings all in the same area. A comparatively nice, up-together building can stand next to a ramshackle one. This is a city of contrasts.
Count-down traffic lights – these count down the seconds to the time they change.
Beggars – especially in the touristy parts. Really sad! Heart breaking! Children, very young children, coming up asking for money. It seems that teams of these work for adults and they have to deliver their takings at the end of the day.
The people, friendly and content.
If you follow my blog, you know that I love to walk in the open countryside, the lanes, and the coast of my beautiful county of Dorset. I love to breathe the clean, fresh air. I love to photograph the landscape. I love the quiet tranquility of the rural areas and to listen to the wildlife. Kolkata offers none of this so you might think that it wouldn’t be my kind of place but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. I fell in love with this city and the people almost immediately. It is hard to define why but it has a wonderful atmosphere, it is vibrant and alive, it is gritty and real with lovely people, it has community.
In fact, it truly is a City of Joy!
This blog entry has been just a snapshot of first impressions of Kolkata. Over the coming weeks I will post more and perhaps relate something of the deeper impact that this city had on me. It is not a place that you can visit and leave again without being changed in some way.
I hope you have enjoyed walking the streets with me today.
Thanks for stopping by.
Until next time,
The Dorset Rambler
If you would like to contact me, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org – comments and feedback are always welcomed.
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