Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sweets in Calcutta

Arriving into Calcutta’s domestic terminal is all fairly efficient – the plane docks at the terminal building, we’re out quick, luggage is fast, then I’m careful to not leave the building. You see airports in India generally are restricted to passengers only – so if I leave, I potentially won’t be allowed back in, and I’ve got about four hours till Thuzar arrives, which I don’t want to spend outside. Calcutta is noticeably hotter than Bombay, possibly connected with the sun being out, whereas it’s drizzled or been overcast the whole time in Bombay. I think the airports are restricted in this way because in such a poor country, if people had the opportunity they’d probably just sleep in the airport all the time – I’m sure air-conditioning is a luxury most don’t have access to at home – indeed home for many here is outside on the street.

Darjeeling – here we come

I wimp out whilst waiting and decide to reserve somewhere in town rather than traipsing around looking for somewhere. I book an LP suggested place around Sudder Street, the backpacker area of Calcutta. They push really hard to provide a hotel pickup from the airport, which I politely refuse several times, despite it being more expensive than a pre-paid taxi from the airport! Why on earth would I want to use them exactly? Doesn’t bode well though.

Using the telephone is a chore in itself. I queue up for an “Airtel” booth but when I get to the front, the chap tells me they’re expensive, and are really for calling Airtel mobile customers – I’m better off using the coin payphones. I ask where I’m going to get change from here – he helps me out. As I use the dirty phones I am reminded of the Newton Hotel in HK, which proclaimed in the lift that the buttons were anti-bacterially cleaned hourly.

So next, after a snack of an Indian puff pastry and some unsweetened (!) tea, I go researching flight tickets. The Indigo flight I’ve just come off has convinced me that flights are almost inviarably the way forward in India – they generally cost about 20 pounds, and can save you a two day train journey. I ask about flights to Leh in Ladakh but they seem expensive and booked up already for a month ahead. Then for Bagdogra, the airport near Darjeeling, to Delhi. This seems more do-able. The cheapest is still Air Deccan. I tried to book them in Bombay, especially as they had a 60 rupees per ticket offer, but they rejected foreign credit cards on their website. Here I find their sales booth outside, so join the scrum to purchase.

It’s hot, but eventually I get to the front with my purchase requisition form, something you always seem to have to fill out here, whether for train tickets, flights, anything involving tickets. I suppose it avoids confusion, especially in a country with so many languages. The chap tells me that there is now only one ticket available at the 60 rupees rate, which is slightly annoying, but the deal is still very reasonable for the other ticket. So now I have ticket from Delhi to Calcutta on the 6th September, then flight on the 7th with BA to the UK!

Next conundrum: where is International Arrivals? I’m given conflicting information, and sent back and forth a few times before finally working out myself that the building is completely separate and round the corner. I walk there. It’s so hot. Of course I’m not allowed in, but then I notice a small booth selling entry tickets. Yes, for 60 rupees I could go in and wait in a small arrivals room! What a privilege! It’s air-conditioned though, so I wasn’t going to debate the morals for long.

The arrivals board had Thuzar’s flight, which was scheduled to arrive at 4:10pm listed as being scheduled for 3:15pm but currently delayed until 5:05pm. It does arrive close to their estimate. Whilst waiting I wander up to the Viewing Gallery on the third floor, but bizarrely they don’t allow one to take photos! In the airport viewing gallery! I don’t suppose I would have been caught, but as there was nothing to take a photo of anyway I wandered back down to the air-conditioning!

When Thuzar finally comes out, we take a taxi to town which costs 2-3 hundred rupees. It’s her first experience of the chaos and dirt of India. It seems to take an age, negotiating Calcutta’s notorious traffic. I don’t have a feel for the geography of the place yet, but the thing that struck me was that we spent the majority of the journey on small back streets. Now whether the driver, who had been pre-payed, was avoiding tolls, or following a creative route, I don’t know, but we soon arrived in the run down streets of Sudder Street and Chowinghee Lane, at the Capital Guest House that I telephoned earlier.

Watch your wallet

I don’t like the guys on front desk, which is always a bad sign with a hotel. Still, they show us a room, and I decide it will do. I carry my bag up the four flights of stairs, then head down for Thuzar’s, but she’s let a porter take it, so tip. When we’re finally settled in the room we realise the air-con isn’t switched on. It’s hot. There also aren’t towels or toilet paper. There are about 12 switched all next to each other by the door, none labelled, and none seem to operate the AC. Downstairs I ask, and it is explained that reception have to switch it on for you. Well why the hell haven’t you done so already? A chap also agrees to bring me the towels, then tells me he will sell me toilet paper!! I resolve to change hotels the following morning.

We head out and round the corner to the Blue Sky Café, which we go into because it looks busy – in fact it is recommended by LP. The food’s good, though they bring more than I ordered.

Hungry customers

After eating, we walk around the area. It’s noisy, very run down, and we’re frequently hassled. Cars and jeeps whizz along the narrow streets far too fast, clearing the way ahead using their horns. The roadside and buildings are filthy – one would not like to fall over into some of the black sludge which seems to cake the pavement.

Note Hilson Hotel. There’s also a sHilton!

The first mission is to look for another hotel. Unfortunately after walking around for a while, we realise that there is not really any better on offer. The whole area is a pit. Better the devil you know.. Finally something appeals – a sweet shop!

Haldiram Sweet Shop

Apparently Calcutta is known for sweets, which are more like bite-sized cakes to us, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for having the most sweet shops in the world. Bengali people are famous sweet tooths and their sweets, usually milk, sugar, honey and nuts blended together, come in hundreds of varieties.

Choices choices

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