Kolkata is India’s third largest city, located in the northeast of India near the border with Bangladesh. I should have checked a map or a weather app before I left Mumbai because I failed to realize that it’s at least ten degrees colder here in January. I felt pretty stupid wearing a summer dress while everyone else was in winter coats. Then again, the thick cardigan I brought is really all I need to stay warm.
Kolkata was the first capital of British India and is still famous for its colonial architecture, cathedrals and charming old city streets. It’s also known for literature, science and arts—five Nobel laureates came from this city. On the flipside, Kolkata is highly polluted and the economy has been stagnant for a long time. As one tour guide bluntly put it: “Kolkata is dying, if not already dead.”
The royal (colonial?) treatment
I felt lucky as I jetted off to Kolkata for a 2-week stint at the consulate. There are five U.S. diplomatic missions in India (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad) and this is the fourth one I get to visit. An added bonus is that they put me up in the Oberoi—a five star hotel with considerable curb appeal and wonderful service.
I was surprised to be met at the baggage claim by an airport representative who led me to the hotel taxi, and that the taxi driver called the hotel to announce my imminent arrival. I wondered if they perhaps mistook me for someone else—the ambassador perhaps? I never found an explanation for this over the top welcome, but the hotel itself was a clue; a grand colonial structure, rooms with four poster beds, and twice-a-day housekeeping. It attracts older British tourists and fancy businessmen.
It appears that all the modern restaurants and most of the nightlife is centralized around Park Street, a ten minute walk from the Oberoi hotel. With the help of Lonely Planet and recommendations from local tour guides I’d compiled a list of upscale restaurants and soon found out that, very conveniently, they’re all nearby.
In terms of global cuisine and western style places to eat, I liked every place I’ve eaten at so far: Peter Cat, Macombo, Pa Pa Ya (Asian), Hard Rock Cafe (beef hamburgers), Baan Thai, Mehico, Soriano, Monkey Bar/Fatty Bao and Scrapyard Brewing (rooftop bars). Just like in Mumbai, the food is always good even if what you ordered seems really different from what they put in front of you sometimes.
But the best local food is never in tourist restaurants. Local delicacies like kathi rolls, fish fry, pakoras, mutton and biryani are found in far less attractive looking locales. Places I don’t necessarily dare to try by myself. The solution? Food tours! I did one in New Delhi last year and I enjoyed it so much I wanted to do it again. The Bengali Nights Chef’s tour was only $35 and took almost five hours. It was fun.
The first couple of days I looked around by myself. I shopped extremely affordable clothing in Westside, which is the Indian answer to H&M (owned by the Tata Group, of course). I drank cocktails with colleagues at Someplace Else. I visited the Indian Museum. I even watched a military parade, because I had the luck to be here on Republic Day.
I wanted to see much more of Kolkata, but I knew my own limits; I can’t motivate myself to explore multiple neighborhoods on some kind of self guided tour, even with the help of Lonely Planet. So, for the first time in my life, I went online and bought a comprehensive private tour. Of the multiple options I found I selected the most expensive one. I wanted a good experience and more often than not, you get what you pay for, right?
On Saturday, at 9 AM sharp, my tour guide showed up at the hotel with an SUV and driver. He spoke impeccable English and although he was dressed like a mobster, I immediately felt comfortable with him. He had a nice deep voice and within minutes I found out he was a former actor. For the next six hours, he regaled me with stories about his Bollywood experience and working on the set of Eat, Pray, Love with Julia Roberts.
The tour guide was also extremely knowledgeable about the sights. A summary of the tour:
Mother Theresa house/ museum. I shed some tears sitting in the room with her tomb, thinking about her incredible work with the poor in India, the street children in India in general, my own catholic grandmother who died at the same age as Mother Theresa (87), and my other grandma who passed away last year at age 98.
Kumarthuli neighborhood, where hundreds of skilled artisans work in a maze of workshops. You can always tell which festival is next by looking at what they’re making. In this case, they were making straw-clay statues of Goddess Saraswati, who is one of the three main goddesses revered in Kolkata.
College Street, which is lined with book stalls as far as you can see. I bought some books by contemporary Indian writers as well as an Indian high school history book (it’s a thing I do). We had coffee at the Indian Coffee House, where revolutionaries and intellectuals historically congregate.
Two cathedrals: St. John’s (1787), called the “old” cathedral for being the first Anglican Church in India and the place where all British colonizers spent their Sunday mornings until the community grew to over 4,000 and they built the “new” cathedral—a white, gothic structure called St. Paul (1847).
Victoria Memorial. Built to commemorate the British monarch, this massive Jaipur-marble building became somewhat obsolete when the capital of the British Raj had already moved to New Delhi by the time of its completion in 1921. It’s controversial in the sense that the exhibitions now exclusively focus on Indian independence—we declined to go inside because I agreed with my tour guide when he said we shouldn’t try to alter history for political gain.
Flower Market and Howrah Bridge. The flower market left me underwhelmed. For me, there’s some excitement in seeing flowers growing in fields and gardens, but here the flowers are cut and many of them are decapitated and turned into garlands. The garlands are beautiful, sure, but there’s something about the instant decaying of them that makes me somber. The Howrah bridge felt more dynamic—200,000 people cross it daily. It reminded me of the Brooklyn bridge, and the view is of another bridge which closely resembles Golden Gate Bridge.
About the work/TDY
There are basically two types of temporary duty assignment (TDY). One is for crisis situations, which are adventurous and one-of-a-kind. Like when I went to Ramstein Airbase to assist with the Afghan evacuation. The other type is what I’m doing now: filling in for someone who is temporarily out of office. It’s basically doing my regular job elsewhere, but the benefit is that I see a new place, meet more colleagues in the field, and get a break from my regular office responsibilities.
On the first day I was basically useless because I couldn’t log in the consular software applications no matter what we tried. In the past—and it’s happened many times before—this annoyed me to no end. But I took it as an opportunity to catch up with email and just think, observe, and ask questions. This felt like an entirely new sensation. Maybe a sign of self-growth? That’s another good thing about travel: it’s a great time to check yourself in how you’re doing.
The two weeks flew by and I felt like I got a lot done. Personally and professionally a rewarding experience!