Good morning kids and readers. Good morning teachers and dreamers.
Welcome to our journeys through India. At least through a small part of this diverse land. Together we will be exploring West Bengal. In particular its capital region, Kolkata and its suburbs.
Each, and every one of us that has ever been outside their hometown (/village/city/cave?) is aware that in order to travel, we need at least some kind of infrastructure, and transport. Whether it’s walking or hover crafting, we need the means to move. And that is where we shall begin our journey.
By European standards, India is considered a developing country. Since we usually take into account only material development, this also applies to Indian infrastructure. To an average European the infrastructure here would appear obsolete, chaotic, and sadly lacking.
Nevertheless, it is just one of the unique characteristics of this diverse land. Even though the whole way of life here may be pretty overwhelming and confusing to an European (being used to order, a LOT of space, and technological perfection), the locals have developed their own sense of how to travel, and move in crowds that would leave our infrastructure planners bitting the dirt under their feet.
First of all, the traffic here is ruled by apparent anarchy. That is, to unknowing foreigners like me. In reality there are a lot of silent rules, passed down through the cultural environment. But if you keep your eyes open on the streets, observe a bit how people move, and have at least a decent guide, it can all become pretty simple and clear quite fast.
There are a few such rules – or rather traditions – that help you move around as an uncivilised outlander. The most important thing – people walk, and drive anywhere, and everywhere there’s space. No waiting, it’s first come, first serve. The only recognised signal is honking. I’m starting my car, honk, I’m turning left, honk, I’m behind you, honk, I’m passing you, honk, you honk, I honk. After a while on a main road, it is honk honk honk honk honk honk honk honk honk. No reason to get intimidated or annoyed though, it is just a form of communication.
As a remnant from the British occupation of India, the people here also move on the left side of the road. Mostly. It is still up to you to find your own space. There are also almost no traffic lights, and even so, only about one in ten is actually working. If you want to cross the road, you have to make an opening – but never jump in front of a moving car, they won’t stop!
In crowds, touching and gentle pushing is common place. There is no personal space in the city or on public transport and if you’re here, you better get used to it, or you’re never getting anywhere. Everybody is walking at their own pace, and if you want to get ahead, you just gently nudge the people out of the way. If you get used to it, it actually becomes quite awesome, because you almost never have to stop. For anyone.
There is another thing that is good to know about roads and traffic in Kolkata. There is traffic police literally on every corner, and every street in the city. They don’t do much, except occasionally direct the traffic on more crowded streets – by Indian standards. Even there they usually just look for openings to help the drivers, and sometimes pedestrians to get through a particularly difficult crossroad.
The infrastructure here is majorly undeveloped, but even so there are many more transport options available here than in any European capital. In Kolkata you can travel by train, metro, busses, taxis, auto-rikshas, bicycle rikshas, hand rikshas, or even tram.
For rich, and unadventurous visitors the most obvious choice would be the taxi. There’s a ton of them, they’re cheap (compared to Europe), and the cars are straight from the sixties. It’s also the most comfortable way to explore Kolkata. The price starts at 25 Rs and up to 300-400, if you don’t leave the city, or circle around for a while. Just roll down your window, take some pictures, and enjoy.
Rikshas are the Asian version of a taxi. In Kolkata you’ve got three different kinds. Auto-riksha is the motorised one, and is basically just a smaller (and a more fun!) version of a taxi. It’s on three wheels, partially covered, with three seats in the back, and one in front, besides the driver. It’s about a third the cost of the taxi.
Then there’s also the bicycle, and hand rikshas. The first is a miniature chariot pulled by a bike, and the second by a walking/running man. They are even cheaper – and also look the part.
One of the cheapest – and most confusing – ways to travel through Kolkata is by bus. There’s tons of them, some with AC, some without, and of course with different prices. The difference is 5 Rs. And it’s almost impossible for an outlander like me to figure out what bus is going where. They all look the same. The only recognisable difference I’ve seen so far is the colour and how trashed does the bus itself look. I wouldn’t recommend them for beginners without a local guide you can trust.
My all time favourite in India is the train. Trains like this went out of service in our part of the world at least 50 years ago and wouldn’t satisfy even half the safety, and comfort standards we have now. That is why they’re awesome. They’re almost completely metal, with doors open for the entire ride. You can hang through the door, and feel the wind on your face. It’s the perfect way to enjoy a long trip on an overly crowded train. They also have separate wagons for women, but it’s not a rule for them to be there. When they travel with a man at least.
The pride of Kolkata’s public transport is the ‘newly’ built single metro line. It covers the city centre, and runs down south to New Garia. The construction was started in 1984, and every few years they add another stop to the line. Even though the wagons themselves look little better than the train, it is still a recent, and an unfinished project. The best part? Magnet coins used for tickets! Just be careful you don’t lose it, or you’re not leaving the metro station!
There is much more to getting around in Kolkata, but I’ll leave the rest up to you, if you ever decide to visit. It is constantly changing anyway, so get to it and explore!