|So we set off from Roxaul heading for Calcutta on the 'express' train ... I hate to think what the regular train speed was like as we seemed to crawl along for ages then stop in the middle of nowhere. This happened more times than I can remember and every time, everyone piled off the train onto the tracks and vendors appeared from fields with tea, spices, biscuits and fruit.
We were in a 6 berth sleeper section and had some polite conversations with the Indians in the carriage ... then once word got around there were westerners on the train, people from other carriages came along and I was unable to escape being led by the hand by an Indian guy who had me meet all his family on their way to a wedding ... they even asked me and Jason to go along with them for a 2 day wedding!! It was taken as impolite to refuse, but they seemed appeased when I said I'd try some of mother's home baked cookies ... called 'milk sweets'. I was oblivious to the fact that these should be avoided at all costs as the milk isn't too safe ... and therefore the evening and night was spent doubled over the hole in the floor on the Indian train floor with exploding body functions ... welcome to India!
Arriving in Calcutta the next morning feeling groggy we were amazed to see hardly any traffic ... this was a phenomenon as the streets of Calcutta are normally jammed with yellow taxi's, bashed cars and even more bashed buses. We were told there was a general strike and everything was closed but this wasn't as bad as it sounds as we took advantage of the situation and decided to do our city trip in one day with no traffic to contend with :-) We located a friendly motorized rickshaw driver who was happy to charge a quid per hour for his services ... unfortunately when we asked to see the sights of Calcutta he was stumped!! Using our guidebook and the driver we saw lots of Calcutta and not only the Victoria Palace and St Paul's Cathedral (not quite as impressive as London) which were the most impressive, but also saw the remains of the British collonial buildings which provided the basic infrastructure of hospitals, police, prisons etc. Whilst the buildings were clearly once quite grand in their style of architecture, the whole city seems to have been left, the buildings aren't cleaned and the city has rubbish piled up on many streets.
I found the majority of people quite friendly and when asking for directions, local people wouldn't just point but they'd accompany us quite a way and have polite conversation and seemed genuinely interested about where we were from and why we were there ... on the other hand the number of beggars hassling you and having to contend with taxi and rickshaw drivers trying to overcharge constantly gets right on your nerves whereby after days of this you see people losing their temper and shouting at beggars who won't let go of their sleeves.
One thing I was looking forward to was the food but I was pretty disappointed by the standard food and despite trying a few different local restaurants, the results were always the same ... a small bowl of curry with a plate of rice and some sort of naan, chapati or roti. It tasted OK but Indian food in the UK is much better than in India ... be warned! Also, curry for 3 meals a day can have devastating side effects!!!!
After our day sightseeing, the majority of the time was spent on our rooftop balcony avoiding the hoards of beggars outside and enjoying the sun. It was during this time when I decided heading to the south of India for Christmas seemed like a long way so myself and Jason decided Bangladesh was an interesting option so a few trips back and forth to the embassy resulted in us being able to break free from Calcutta and head for somewhere more exotic.
The morning of our bus to the Bangladesh border, it took over 2 hours to get out of the Calcutta city limits as we passed shops after shops and roadside houses, vendors and the chaotic life which seems to envelope Calcutta with its millions of people, cars, rickshaws and bikes. The vivid colours of the people and their wares contrasted with the dirty brown of the buildings and roads whilst still in the city but once we were in the flat countryside surrounded by fields, everything brightened up as the sky was an intense blue with fields of varying greens and golds being worked by people and animals the entire way to the border at Benapole.
Unfortunately I wasn't in India long enough or indeed deep enough to have any real conclusions apart from the fact that I hear there are many beautiful and interesting places in India to visit ... I'll choose more carefully next time ;-)