Leaving Andaman Islands­čî┤ / Calcutta and on to Darjeeling

This morning was my last full day on Havelock island, so after breakfast and getting last weeks blog posted, I walked down to the main junction and managed to find an Indian USB adapter then took the bus over to Radhanagar beach for one last time. Whilst walking along the beach I thought it might be nice to try to find a beach to top Radhanagar during my travels I mean what else can I do with my life ! I might compile my own top 10 beaches.

Another observation occurred to me as I walked along, if you come down the hill onto the beach and turn right, all the excavations made by the crabs are uniform and symmetrical as if they have been working together to create an attractive community for themselves, but if you turn left along the beach it’s as if your descending into a crab ghetto, the further along you go the more it deteriorated into chaos until near the end they were just piling up sand outside their homes. I thought maybe it’s something to do with the sand quality being different but it seems the same, I then thought back to the other week when I noticed the hermit crabs all going in one direction ( they were going away from the ghetto ! ) perhaps they needed to put as much distance between themselves and the ghetto before it got dark in case they got mugged for their shells ! Or maybe I’m just cracking up with all this time on my hands. If you ever find yourself on Radhanagar beach have a look at the crab community on the right side ( West side ) and compare it to the left side ( East side ).

I got the bus back after a few hours to start sorting a few things out ready for leaving tomorrow but will miss my walks along the beach’s here in Havelock.

Another thing of note recently was when your buying things and get your change they tend to have a separate roll of 10 rupee notes just for tourists as a lot of the small denomination notes tend to get written on or torn though use and this makes them non legal tender so when you then go to spend them they get refused, which is annoying as they are the most useful notes although not of great value. So I’ll have to start checking my change more closely in future.

This morning I could give myself a bit of a lie in as I wasn’t going to run on my last day here, and got up around 7 to finish my packing ready for a 8.30 check out, as I was just finishing the owner came along and said I could keep the room till I left around 1 to catch the 3 o’clock ferry so that was a bonus, I had settled the bill the night before and it was less than 20,000 rupees about 200 pounds for the 18 days which for somewhere like the Andaman Islands I think is very good. If your willing to rough it a little bit you can actually travel very cheaply.

After breakfast in my usual place my plan was to avoid the beach, sand and heat today and just chill out at the resort until I was ready to go.

I managed to relax on the porch of my hut for a couple of hours thinking, well I’ve been lucky enough to spend 18 days here, I suppose I’ve got to leave sometime. I decided that I would get the bus to the jetty and got to the bus stop knowing I’d have about 15 mins to wait but 40 mins later nothing had appeared and I was about to give up and get a Tuk Tuk when 1 of the older style non A/C buses turned up.

Whilst waiting for the ferry two guys from Delhi got talking to me, it turned out one worked for the Indian prison service training inmates in the kitchens/bakery we had a laugh about us being in the same job, and the other guy was a lecturer at the university in Delhi, they were interested in my travels and surprised that I had been in Havelock for so long.

I had a little bit of a wait at the Jetty but got checked in ok, this process seems to cause some confusion amongst us foreigners as even though you have your ticket for the ferry you still need to check in an hour before and get it stamped, there were a couple of groups that got turned back to get there tickets stamped when trying to board the ferry.

I was surprised that we boarded and left on time and even arrived in Port Blair ahead of schedule, there was then almost a fight amongst the taxi drivers to see my phone when I showed them the address I wanted to go too. But I arrived safely at Dutta’s Residency and after a bit of confusion and a wait for someone to arrive that could understand me I got a room and arranged for a 5.30 taxi to the airport in the morning.

I was awake before the alarm and someone woke the owner so that I could pay him and then he gave me a lift to the airport in his car but the entrance gates were locked so we ended up along with a few others driving down to the exit gates and entering though those, After some confusion as to weather I had a lighter in my luggage they finally passed my hold baggage to be sealed and check in went without a problem after my concerns over the ticket.

Port Blair is a fairly small airport with only 3 gates and quite efficient with security and boarding procedures. The indiGo flight to Calcutta was ready with everyone on board ahead of schedule so we actually took off and landed early, so everything had gone pretty smoothly up to the point of leaving the airport, I had expected my phone service to come back as soon as we were back on mainland India as I had topped it up in Havelock but didn’t receive any service when I got here so had to rely on the taxi driver to know where my hotel was from the address I had. I showed him the address on the phone and he said follow me which I did to a car driven by some else and he told him the address and price ( 450 rupees ), of course this guy didn’t know where he was going and as I had no phone service couldn’t get directions up for him so we had to stop and use his phones WiFi to connect to mine and eventually got directions working so he could get me to the hotel and I did end up paying him an extra 500 rupees but at least I got here.

Flying into Calcutta it looks like quite a modern city but once your on the ground it feels very different, it’s difficult to walk around, quite dirty ( I didn’t expect clean city’s here but this is much worse than Mysore, Bangalore and Chenni ) and more poverty than I expected.

After dropping my bags I decided to go and try to find an Airtel shop to get service on my phone again being careful to try and remember the way I went so I could find the hotel again, after asking in a few phone shops eventually found one only to be told the number had been deactivated as it hadn’t been used recently ( because for 18 days I was out of service range on the Andaman Islands) although they had let me top it up for an extra 2 months, and said unless I knew someone in Calcutta with a number couldn’t get a new SIM card, I was not happy but he insisted there was nothing they could do. I ended up going into a Vodafone shop I had seen and of course they found a way around the Calcutta contact problem by using a ” dummy SIM card ” ? But of course I had to take out s new contract, it was pretty annoying but at least I got it working again and having enough data to use maps in the city’s has been pretty important to get around.

I then made my way back to the hotel ok and thought I’d try and make it to The Maidan park which is near to a lot of Calcutta’s tourist attractions, it was a walk of about 6 miles there and back and that,s when I realised how difficult it was to get around Calcutta on foot, the traffic is very bad which I expected but it’s the lack of paths and sidewalks and what there is have been taken over by stalls and markets, I eventually got down to the park but didn’t stay too long as I didn’t fancy the same walk back in the dark. There were some interesting sights along the sides of the road though with engineering shops with lathes, people making head gaskets and manifold gaskets for cars and bikes by hand, barbers set up at the side of the road and one guy doing dentistry although I think he only did extractions as I didn’t see a drill to do fillings, he was pulling a guys tooth with pliers and had at least 3 other people waiting. I got back just as it was getting dark but will probably go down again tomorrow when I’ve got more time as there’s a couple of places I want to visit.

One thing I don’t think I’ll be doing in Calcutta at the moment is running as I haven’t seen anywhere that I would feel safe enough yet, I had thought about extending my time here before I arrived but will probably just do the 3 nights at the moment ( I’m struggling with the big busy cities )

I could could hear the traffic start to build up around 6 but as I hadn’t planned a run here did a bit of research on going to Darjeeling and how I would go about it and also what I wanted to see here in Calcutta over the next couple of days. Breakfast at the hotel started at 8 and although I have been in India for over 3 months I’ve never never tried Puri for breakfast which seems very popular, it is like a light chappatti that when fried puffs up and is served with a vegetable curry and it was very good, although curry for breakfast might not be for everyone I feel I’m blessed with a stomach that can handle most things at anytime.

After breakfast I tried my Uber app and was able to book a ride over to Howrah railway station to get my train ticket for going to Darjeeling on Thursday. The ride over takes you across the Howrah bridge which is a massive steel bridge which spans the river Hugli and is usually grid locked with traffic. I’d decided the train would be better than flying to Darjeeling even though New Jalpaiguri train station is 100 km from Darjeeling then you need to get a taxi, I found out that if I stayed near the train station for 1 night ( the train doesn’t get in till 22.30 anyway ) I could get what they call the Toy train to Darjeeling the next day even though it takes six hours to cover the 100 kilometres it sounds like fun.

Once I had the train ticket for Thursday I went ahead and booked the hotels for 1 night on Thursday near New Jalpaiguri and 4 nights in Darjeeling.

Coming back I decided to get one of the ubiquitous yellow cabs here ( HM Ambassadors ) to the Victoria Memorial, on the way I was watching some of what goes on along the street and saw probably thousands of people just trying to make a living at the side of the road and that was a journey of only a few miles, thoughout Calcutta it must be millions of people. I gave a small amount to a few people here which may help that individual a tiny bit but it literally feels like a drop in the ocean in Calcutta.

The Victoria Memorial and museum are set in wonderful grounds that feel like they take you away from the noise of the city and you could spend all day in there as there is so much information but in a nut shell it takes you though the history of Calcutta and the exploration of West Bengal by the British and the resistance put up by the Bengalis ultimately forcing them to move the Capital from Calcutta to Delhi.

Afterwards I walked round to the fine arts gallery that was close by and was pleasantly surprised, I was the only one there but some of the art work was fantastic and more than I expected.

Afterwards I tried my Uber app but must of been in a bad area for a signal so decided to get my excerise for the day by trying to find my way back to the hotel, it was 5 miles but I had lots of time and had already done the 3 things I had hoped to do today, the walk back felt a lot better than last nights as I wasn’t worried about it getting dark and I could take my time and observe a bit more of Calcutta, my maps app worked ok and it probably took me about 2 hours to walk back to the hotel though the city. When I did get back I had to wash my left shoe off as I had stepped in some poo !, what sort I’m not sure.

It was about 2.30 when I got back so decided to go and find a mall I had seen mentioned on trip advisor that was only about 1.5 miles away, the route took me down some back streets with hardly any traffic which was nice and with people just going about their day to day lives in Calcutta, I had a look around the mall ( there always lots of security controlling who goes in ) and grabbed a snack from the food court, on the way in I had noticed the cinema and saw that Cats was playing in the afternoons so on the way out decided to get a ticket, so that’s tomorrow afternoon sorted.

Had another meal in the hotel restaurant here this evening and really love the staff here, last night Indian football was on the tele and although the standard was woeful it was still entertaining to watch while having dinner, tonight cricket was on and I love to see the Indians passion for the game, reminds me of Canadians and ice hockey, the fans just go crazy and as it was a restricted over match they just swing at everything which makes it quite exciting, the staff stand round and watch but don’t neglect the customers so it feels like a good atmosphere in there, although only a few customers.

After breakfast the next day I decided to walk over to Mother Theresa’s house which was around an hour away, before I came to Calcutta it was on my possibly visit place but once I’d seen Calcutta it became a definitely visit place. The route there took me along a heavily policed road that had been closed off for a protest march, it turned out to be a workers union march and appeared to be peaceful which I’m not surprised with police out in force. Google maps had taken me to the wrong place around a half mile further on but someone told me where the house was and as I got close to it a woman tapped me on the arm and lead me the rest of the way.

Now I’m not an overly religious person and never have been but have always had total respect for people like Mother Theresa who devote their entire lives to helping others.

The house in Calcutta where she lived from 1950 till she passed away in 1997 is one of those places that as soon as I walked in felt emotional ( and like an idiot forgot to bring any tissues ) so had to compose myself when signing the visitors book as I couldn’t see the page.

It felt like a humbling place to be and showed you the room she lived and died in as well as a small but excellent museum of her life’s work and finally her tomb which is the only place that you were allowed to take pictures.

It really was an amazing visit and something I’ll never forget, I’m so glad I decided to go and see it and would recommend it to anyone that comes to Calcutta. Mother Theresa really was a gift to humanity.

Afterwards I decided that I’d walk from there to the mall I had visited the previous day which took around an hour and a half and took me though different parts of Calcutta, by the time I’d made it there my phone was down to 5% charge so I continued on to the hotel to pickup by power bank as I knew I’d be walking back in the dark after the cinema.

When I got to the mall I had time for some lunch before seeing Cats.

I’m so glad that I decided to go and see it, I know that reviews slated it but I really enjoyed the dance and blend of different styles, I thought the casting was brilliant loved Judy Dench and Ian Mckellan together, the costumes, The railroad cat scene was great as well, and as soon as I saw Ray Winston even before he spoke he reminded me of an inmate I had worked with in prison, The music, I found myself singing along to Magical Mr Mistoffelees fortunately the cinema was pretty empty and I don’t think anyone noticed, l know it would be fantastic to see on stage with a real cast but it’s safe to say I enjoyed the film and will be looking to see it in the theatre when I return to the UK.

So that was my last full day here in Calcutta and after a bit of a culture shock to start with it really has been a wonderful experience and given me some fantastic memories that I will always remember, I even think I’m starting to remember my way around now as I’ve walked a good few miles whilst here now but I’m glad I did because I wouldn’t of seen anywhere near what I have of the people here from a Tuk Tuk or taxi.

On my last morning in Calcutta I went for my final walk around the city to take a few photographs after breakfast then back to the hotel to pack up ready to check out and start my journey onwards towards Darjeeling.

Eventful Uber trip though traffic to Howrah railway station, accidents ( driver hit a bike ), fires, and much shouting and arguing but got here ok and managed to book a ticket on the Toy Train for the final leg to Darjeeling tomorrow saving me time by not having to do it in the morning.

I had a couple of hours to sit and watch life happening under the roof of Howrah railway station, I had read that not everyone here is traveling and that is the case with whole families seemingly living here, as I sat and waited for my train to appear on the board hoping it wasn’t going to be one of the cancellations or diverted ones that were appearing and as time got on and it still hadn’t appeared on the board I decided to go and buy some food for the train, as I did I had a moment of panic as I thought I had lost my passport and ticket, I had them together in the same pocket as my wallet and when I took my wallet out to give a woman and child some money it must of got between my wallet when I put it back in my pocket, I returned to where I was sitting thinking it may of fallen out there and when I didn’t see it spent a couple of minutes searching my bag before realising what had happened and found it on about the 4th check of my pocket wedged in my wallet to my great relief.

The train had not appeared on the board with around 15 mins to departure and I began to think perhaps I had made a mistake and come to the wrong station and went to enquires to check but as I was trying to make my way though the crowd at the desk the train appeared on the board,

I found the platform and boarded the train, settling into my seat without any further dramas and we pulled out of the station only a few minutes behind schedule.

I was surprised to find them bringing food around soon after departing the station, it’s the first time I’ve traveled 1 class chair as previously it was first class sleeper, so I had to turn down the main course as I wasn’t hungry but took a banana and ice cream offered to me.

Feeling very privileged on this train, 2 hours into the journey and they’ve just been round with the second meal ( High Tea ) and a copy of the Indian Telegraph and The Times of India to read ( printed in English ) and I don’t think it will be long before another meal appears.

My suspicions were correct, they’ve just been round with the soup course ( and breadsticks ) start of third meal within 5 hours.

I’ve just finished a 4 course meal and unless they come round with a cheese course I think we’re finished, it feels very strange after the leaving the streets of Calcutta hours ago, there are around 80 seats in this first class carriage and I think there are 2 first class carriages, I’m the only westerner I’ve seen today ( even at Howrah railway station ) so this seems the other side of life here, although it’s not expensive to travel 1 first class here by our standards ( around ┬ú 20 pounds for a six hour train ride ) but for a lot of Indians it is probably out of their reach unfortunately, but as we know every society has some people more fortunate than others and I’ve seen how hard the Indian people will work to provide a good life for their families not just here but in the UK and in Canada, it’s just a shame that there’s such a large gap between those at the top and those at the bottom.

I arrived at New Jalpaiguri station at 23.00 about 30 minutes behind schedule which wasn’t too bad and there was the usual scrum of taxi drivers and although I knew the hotel was close by decided to get a taxi that knew where it was rather than carry my bag round looking for it. They were waiting for me when I got there and got checked in quickly and shown to my room.

I was in bed for 12 and slept quite well and glad that there was a good thick blanket as it definitely feels colder up here.

As it was only half a mile to the station I decided to walk with my bags and it was easy enough to get there, I found out what platform it left from ( it was easy enough as it’s the only 2 foot wide track ). It was quite cold on the platform and I’m glad I at least had a thin jacket, I may need to pick up something warmer in Darjeeling. Especially as we’ll be gaining a far bit of altitude from here.

The train was a hour and a half leaving the station which was a bit annoying as it was already going to be around 17.30 when we got to Darjeeling even if we’d left on time.

Once we got away from Siligari and it’s suburbs we began to see tea plantations and followed national highway 55 crossing it frequently as we slalomed across it up the hills at one point passing though a large wild life sanctuary with signs for elephant crossings but unfortunately saw no wildlife.

At a few places as it gets steep there are sheds that contain a man who switches the points manually, so the engine ends up pushing up you up backwards for short sections rather than pulling you.

I’m glad I had the experience of getting the Toy Train from New Jalpaiguri station as I had heard that the shorter journey from Darjeeling to Ghoom and back was disappointing with very little to see. Unfortunately I think I just got a bad day with the late start then various problems on the way that meant we got in to Darjeeling three hours late and the last four hours were in the dark and on a very cold train, I could see how cold it was from the train as there was ice on the cars as we came out of Ghoom and everyone was dressed for winter with big coats and woolly hats on and as the route follows the road though towns and villages people were huddled around fires for warmth which looked very inviting. I will definitely need to pick up some warmer clothes tomorrow as my India wardrobe consists of mainly of shorts and T shirts.

Luckily for me I seemed to pick a good hotel this time as when they realised I was going to be late rang me to see where I was so they could estimate my arrival time and take my order for dinner.

When we finally got into Darjeeling station I got the first taxi that said he knew where the hotel was and when I arrived they were waiting to take my bags, I was that cold I was shivering as I tried to fill out the guest register ( even the guy in reception had woolly gloves on ). They then showed me to my room and had put a portable heater on to warm it up a bit and the electric blanket so I was pleased about that and sat in front of the heater having dinner which they bought to my room.

I eventually warmed up last night once I got into bed, leaving the electric blanket on at first. I got up briefly to have a look at the mountains at 6 o’clock but couldn’t be sure if in the distance it was snow covered mountains or clouds but I turned the heater up again and quickly got back into bed to keep warm.

I got up to have breakfast at 8 and sure enough they were the snow covered Himalayas in the distance, an amazing sight. The hotel Villa Everest is very good and the breakfast was brilliant and as the name would suggest run by Nepalese people who are in the majority by far in this area, I’ve only seen a small part of Darjeeling so far but think I’m going to like it, I’m off to find some more suitable clothing this morning and explore Darjeeling so want to wrap this up and see if I can get it posted.

I’m really looking forward to my time here and may do longer than the 4 nights I’ve booked so far, I did look into flying to Varanasi after this but the smog and air quality are so bad in some parts of the North most flights are getting cancelled so will probably default to the train system.

Well I’ll say good bye for now and go look for some warm clothes.

Take care everyone

Until next time

Regards Chris