Cray Cray Calcutta

Finally I made it to India, for a dear friend’s nuptial, a country that intrigued and intimidated me at the same time. Intriguing – due to its vast cultures and vibrant colors and the famous, glamorous, long Indian weddings. Intimidating – due to its established reputations of unsavory business practices and violent bursts towards the feminine gender (foreign and local), and my experience taking SBS bus no 167 heading towards Little India in Singapore (I got off after one stop as I could not stand the spice mixed with body odor smell).  My motto has always been “traveling breaks stereotypes” and it is proven again on my Kolkata trip.

Pre-Trip

I was most excited about buying the saris for the wedding events. I love India for its clothing and vibrant color and embroidery work. I love the gaudy, bling-bling, and gold jewelries they all seem to fancy.  I met a lady who has a shop next to my office building and we tried on so many saris before I settled on two I love, and we chatted about the various Indian clothing: lenga, saris, USD6,000 kashmiri handiwork. That was the fun part.  The stressful part is the other items we have to consider to bring (given of our stereotypes): ointment oil to mask the various smell, fully packed medicine pack including carbon pills allocation for about 40 pills per person for four-day trip, a set of clothes for everyday in case the city is that dirty!  This is on top of the stress of packing for a two-day dress-up parties!!! Yes, it’s tough being a girl!

During The Trip

So this trip is really so far so good. The restrooms in the City Centre shopping centre were clean. The people were clean. They were mindful of personal space as the place got more and more crowded. The sales guys at Shopper’s Stop were polite and helpful. The shopping was great! I wanted all the jewelry they sell. I had to exercise all self control from not buying too much!

Our experience in Kolkata is very positive.  The men were polite. My sister and I did not receive any impolite stares.  We did not feel uncomfortable just being the two of us (inside the mall – we did not try it outside on public streets).  I suppose India is a big country with 30 provinces and many subcultures. What we read on the newspaper has been bad when it comes to violation against women (locals and otherwise), but I suppose we did not know the full picture and context of the incidents.

Peculiarly, we also noticed that people loves to give recommendations here, even for something as simple as choosing which Dhal (lentils) dish to order.  Upon our arrival at the hotel, we decided to order room service for dinner. A minute after calling in our order, the staff called me back and told me “Miss, I have been giving your order some thoughts. I think it would be better if you order the black dhal, instead of the other one”.  We thought it was quite hilarious!  That he gave even our order an afterthought and we appreciated the service of course!  We were told that it is quite an Indian culture to give advise.  In India, they rather say something as to being thought stupid by staying quiet, while is most other cultures, it is best to stay quiet instead of saying something stupid and be thought stupid by others.

The Wedding

As foreigners, we have heard and read about the famous Indian weddings, where the celebrations last from two days to one week long and there are many dancing and singing, fantastic food, and special appearances on the mighty elephants or beautiful white horses. And it really was true!  We had such an amazing time attending and participating our friend’s wedding. His family was super hospitable. They really took care of our well-being and made sure we had everything we needed.  They really appreciated and expressed that appreciation for our efforts of wearing saris (for girls) and kurtas (for guys).  All his relatives danced and sang for him.  Everyone is so talented!  As guests, we really had an amazing time.  They also went all out with the decorations, such as small pyrotechnics for the groom’s and bride ceremonies. And the mehendi (putting on henna) is also an experience in a lifetime.

Bride's mehendi
Bride’s mehendi

One of the most memorable experience is of course, the Bharat, where as part of the groom’s entourage, we danced and celebrated with the Groom on the white horse and a marching band playing the festive music.  In the old days, where the Groom and Bride came from different villages, the Groom and his entourage would go to the Bride’s village and pick her up.

Getting ready for the Bharat
Getting ready for the Bharat

The Real Taste of Kolkata

On our first day, we got a taste of Kolkata from the comfort of our car. We drove past slums, Victoria Memorial, Mother Theresa’s house, and Chinatown.  The slums in India is pretty bad. Some people really does not have the basic necessities of life when it comes to shelter.

One of the huts we passed by
One of the huts we passed by

On this one street, we saw the Goddess of Calcutta in every alley and every 10 metres or so. And most are decorated with bright lights and loud Bollywood music.

Goddess Kali
Goddess Kali

We also rode on the famous aircon-less Ambassador taxi! It was a pleasant ride!

Our Ambassador taxi ride arriving at our hotel
Our Ambassador taxi ride arriving at our hotel

We got our 10 minute taste of real India when we visited Kolkata’s New Market. When one goes to India, photos do not do it justice.  One needs to take a video to capture all the honking and the noise.
I had a migraine after five minutes. I felt a little verge of panic attacks as we walked through the crowded areas (it was not even that packed).  I actually had to puke out our beautiful lunch at the Oberoi’s La Terrace after the day’s city trip.  It is a combination of the migraine and the motion sickness.  People really drives like crazy there. They do not follow their lanes. They swerve. They honk continuously.
I still did not hate it though.

New Market Kolkata - Full of people and car honking
New Market Kolkata – Full of people and car honking

The Food

Lamb! in Peshawri in ITC Sonar…oh God!  I am drooling even as I am writing this a week later. Every bite was so juicy and full of flavor (thanks to the 24-hr marinade).  And the bread! The fish!  Everything! Wow, truly the best meal we had in Kolkata, and we snuck out in between the wedding events to make it there.  The best decision we made.  Not to say the other meals were not great.  As a matter of fact, the meals we had were amazing throughout the trip, and that included our hotel’s in-room dining. The ‘kosha mangsho’ (lamb dish typical of West Bengal) is to-die for as well.  The meat melted in your mouth.  The spice thrilled your nose.  And the marrow in the bone may clog up your arteries, but man, it was wonderful to slurp on the bones.   In truth, we were worried about eating curry from morning to night four days in a row – that it might be too much for our stomach to take.  However, we just could not stay away from Indian food while we were there. Even as we cautiously bit into our food, we forgot all about our worries the moment our tongue tasted the food and our brain processed the yummi-ness of each bite.  One advise on food: when in Rome, do what the Romans do!  Eat local specialities.  Chicken tikka masala can be found anywhere!  But ‘kosha mangsho’ and ‘dal makhanwala” can’t.

Lamb at Peshawri restaurant in ITC Sonar
Lamb at Peshawri restaurant in ITC Sonar

PS. for those who have sweet tooth and are foodies, you might have notice that this discussion section does not touch on desserts at all.  This is because Indian desserts are just cloyingly sweet and heavy.  The milk based desserts are also too heavy for my personal taste.  Go ahead and try a bite and decide for yourself.

Due to hygiene issue possibilities, we also skipped the famous street food.  However, we did manage to try Phuchka. Check out what it is and other street food here.

Finale

Surprisingly we adapted well to India. Yes, we were in our own world most of the time due to the wedding program, but it really is not as what I expected. As I was leaving, I actually was already looking forward planning a return trip to India for a real adventure.  No one got ill from food poisoning and other digestive issues. Thank goodness! No one met any bodily and verbally harm during the trip.  It all went smoothly.  Well, the airport of India is an experience of its own as one departs. Luckily a friend who left earlier gave us all the tips and everything went smoothly.  It is amazing the number of people they employ to do redundant work though. I received three security check stamp on the boarding pass. Although the boarding pass was issued electronically (obviously), they wrote down the details manually in a lined big notebook after security check.  As we leave the waiting gate towards the plane, we have four people checking our passport and/or boarding pass within 10 meters of each other (and they can see each other as well).  All-in-all, it was an experience!  I never saw that before and I had been to 46 other countries prior to India.  As I mentioned that to others who have been to India, I was told that it happens country-wide. Interesting. Well, I admire the government’s noble intention to create jobs for its 1 billion plus citizens.  We have definitely been surprised on many level, but we have barely tasted India and we are looking forward to more.

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