Friday, 12 July 2013

Travel Tips to remember when in Kolkata Part 1

Blending In in Kolkata

So you find yourself in Kolkata on your spiritual awakening tour of India or because you talked back to your boss and got a transfer that no amount of headbanging changed... Regardless of how you got here, you are or will soon be in Kolkata. What do you do? How do you get around?

The people of Kolkata are inherently curious. We still haven't learnt the detached efficiency in that you see in Delhi or the overwhelming and focussed busy-ness that you see on the streets of Mumbai. We are relaxed creatures, yes we have somewhere to go, but it can wait - being on time is of secondary importance to offering some unsolicited advice to a tourist. Yes, we are inherently curious, sometimes to the point of being nosy - what do you do, where do you come from, what kind of food do you feed your two dogs and so on.

If you know how to handle us, it is most likely that you will find your stay in Kolkata pleasant. 


Kolkata for Indian non-Kolkatans/Bengalis is easy. There is a multicultural presence in the city, much as any other Indian metropolitans. Unlike in Chennai, people will speak Hindi readily and you can comfortably get around without speaking Bengali. Infact, most of the taxi drivers these days are from the neighbouring state of Bihar and speak mainly Hindi.

For foreigners, being in Kolkata, as any other Indian cities, need a bit of prepping. If you are White, people will stare. There is nothing you can do about it. It is our long obsession with white folks since the days of the Raj. If you are Black (I think it is now politically correct to use Black), people will stare and there is nothing you can do about it. If you are Yellow (the kind Americans refer to as Asian and Indians brand as Chinese no matter which country you are from), people will stare and you could probably stare back a little or not wear that camera around your neck all the time and pass off as people from north-east India. We stare because Kolkata is still not as international as Delhi and Mumbai. We stare because you are not like us. 

Once I saw a Jamaican guy get very worked up that someone stared at him. So, this Jamaican goes all "What maan? You think I am funny maan?" right in the poor bespectacled guy's face. You know how everything Jamaican folks do look cool? The scene was pretty cool to watch, I wish Mr. India didn't run  off mumbling something so that Mr. Jamaica would keep talking... they have the best accent or what? But I digress, my point is you can't come all cool and rastafarian with your swagger and your dreadlocks and not expect us to stare.

You will find that locals anywhere are more likely to help if you make an effort at blending in. The one travel tip that applies world over and that all travellers know is to study the actions of the locals. When in Kolkata, do as the Kolkatans do. 

I have seen a group of American tourists surrounded by street urchins in Kolkata. Most Americans who come to Kolkata or India in general, feel the need to hand out candy or large bills of money to beggars. Do understand that most of the beggars especially the kids are placed there by slum-lords who get the major share of all their earnings. Giving them money only encourages these people to force more children into begging. There are lot of charitable organisations and NGOs that are working for the benefit of the poor. Donate to them, not to those on the streets. There are always more beggars around and if you give money to one, chances are you will get mobbed by others. Do not pay the beggars. You will see most locals ignoring them. Just walk by, do not establish eye contact and say a firm "no" if they approach you.

Dress like a local. I don't mean you must wear the local dress but see how the locals dress and dress accordingly while keeping your individual style. And this is especially true for the female international travels. People in my city do not wear spaghetti tops and shorts on the streets. If you wear that, you will draw unwanted attention. 

Kolkata is much safer compared to many other Indian mega cities but even so, it pays to be alert. When in need of help, do not take help from people who seem overly eager. Pickpockets and frauds are not uncommon. Be wary of allowing someone else to hold your belongings on the street or on public transport. Use your judgement in choosing the person to approach for help. The police in white will be able to help more than the nervous home guard in Khaki. Kolkata is by nature a helpful place and people will approach you if they see you need assistance. Take help but do not trust anyone blindly and always keep a tab on your valuables.

Finally, what gets the locals to immediately warm up to you is to try and speak their language. People of Kolkata are always flattered when an outsider tries to speak Bengali. It is not necessary of course, most Kolkatans speak good English and workable Hindi but it is nice if you learn a few phrases in Bengali and use them. You will be amazed to see how much friendlier people become, just because you tried.

In Kolkata, you will find warm people, good music and better food. You will find a generous spirit and spirituality.  Yes, people will stare at you but they will also come forward with a smile to help. 
We stare because we care.