Kolkata – West Bengal
I suppose I should start with a description of our train travel from Varanasi to Kolkata. The most amazing part of it were the porters. From our chartered bus we walked at least 10 minutes to arrive at the train platform – through a crowded station, up some stairs, then down some more. Of course, pampered Americans that we are, we couldn’t be expected or even allowed to carry our own luggage that far, so our program coordinators arranged for porters to carry our large bags for us – on their heads!! We are a group of 16 people, with varying amounts of really large luggage. I’m on the lighter end of the spectrum, and I know that my big bag weighs 50 pounds, and these tiny men in flip-flops were carrying 2 or 3 of our bags on their heads at a time.
We were a ridiculous spectacle getting situated on the train, and I exchanged smiling shakings of the head with the Indian man sitting in the aisle across from us. Eventually, we settled in for the night. The train was just like other trains I’ve taken in Russia and Thailand, with an open corridor, and foldable berths for sleeping. As always, the most interesting part of the journey is navigating a squat toilet in a moving train, and it feels much too much like a red-eye flight. I’m not young and spry enough anymore to sleep well enough on board a train or plane for it to be quite worth it.
Our bags in Kolkata
When we arrived in Kolkata, we checked into the Oberoi Grand Hotel, the nicest one yet in a series of very nice hotels on this trip. Kolkata itself was quite welcoming. The people were very nice, and the city has a Western feel that made us feel much more comfortable there than some of the other places we have visited. Cars drive in actual lanes, and in places there are even cobblestones.
Kolkata is the largest city in West Bengal on the eastern side of India next to Bangladesh. People speak Bengali and there is distinctive Bengali food that emphasizes seafood. This is true of both West Bengal and Bangladesh, but Bangladesh became a separate country when India was partitioned in 1947 to create the Muslim countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In Kolkata, we had quite a bit of free time, which allowed us to explore the city on our own and gave us flexibility that we hadn’t had up to that point. One night, Elizabeth and I went to a concert with sarod and tabla, which was really nice. The sarod is a stringed instrument that is a lot like a smaller sitar, to my uninformed eyes.
Another night, the USEFI office had arranged for some Bengali folk artists who do paintings on scrolls to bring in some of their work for us. Not only do their paintings themselves tell beautiful stories, but the painters also sing the paintings. The highlight of our stay in Kolkata was definitely a school visit that we made to a village outside of the city. I’m posting a couple of pictures below of the school, including the school bus driver, a rickshaw driver who carries a carriage that fits 6 to 8 little children inside. At the school, we were treated like celebrities, with children clamoring to shake our hands or ask for our autographs. We also went on a walk around the village and could see the rice paddies and tiny homes of the villagers.
A village school bus
Inside a village school