With a heavy heart, we bid adieu to Dubai and boarded the plane. Four and a half hours later, we were in Kolkata, the city of joy (apparently). Kolkata was once the capital of India and in today’s world, it’s known as the cultural capital of India because of its major contributions in the world of literature, art and cinema.
The immigration process took a loooooonnnngggg time, no joke, at one point I started wondering if I’d be able to get to the hotel on the same day. Once that was over, getting a taxi took even longer because of the complicated process involved; you exit the airport (and once you’re out, you can’t get back in unless you have another flight booked for the same day), cross the road with your luggage in tow, queue up outside the taxi booth, pay for the ride following which they give you a token with the registration number for the taxi you should take, you find it and off you go. Well, ok it’s not that complicated on paper but trust me, doing this in India is a different story altogether with people pushing into the queue and the booth closing down every couple of minutes, and then being pulled across by a dupe who tries to make money by misleading people into believing they offer a complimentary service of helping people carry their luggage for free, when they actually demand money for doing so afterwards. We eventually boarded the famous yellow taxi of Kolkata and that was the moment we were able to take a sigh of relief as we were finally headed to our hotel. The ride to our hotel took about 2 hours because of the traffic (Kolkata is known to be one crowded place) but we eventually arrived at our hotel located on Park Street, which is known as the London of the East because of the colonial buildings, shopping outlets and pulsating night clubs that are located there. After checking in, we decided to have biryani and kebabs at the famous Arsalan Restaurant located on Park Circus (how was the food you ask? Delicious!).
We got up early on the following morning and ventured out to visit all the main tourist attractions including Victoria Memorial, St Paul’s Cathedral, Maidan, Princep ghat, Marble Palace, Howrah bridge and Eden Garden. We were so underwhelmed by what we saw; the landmarks don’t look half as extravagant in real life as they do in the photos I’d seen prior to my visit, Howrah bridge is just an ordinary bridge and the surrounding areas are so overly crowded and polluted that we decided to give Princep ghat and Eden Garden a miss and headed straight over to the Royal Indian Hotel located in Bara Bazaar to have their famous biryani (you must have gathered by now that Kolkata really enjoys Mughlai cuisines) only to find a nail in the rice (yes, you heard that right!). We ended the day with a visit to New Market, which is the main shopping location in Kolkata and decided to try out KC Das, a landmark indian sweet shop located in the Esplanade area to have their humongous rasgullas (dumplings made from cottage cheese which are cooked in sugar syrup) and Bengali shondesh (a dessert made from milk and sugar), and we ended the meal with cups of tea served in clay cups, something Kolkata is well known for. The second day in Kolkata was special because we visited my great-grandfather’s grave from the 1940s. We spent a good amount of time there and it was an emotional moment for all of us as it almost felt surreal to be able to see his grave, to touch it and to realise that my grandfather had buried his father there at a tender young age. We then went back to New Market to shop around and have kathi rolls (wraps stuffed with grilled chicken/ meat or vegetables) at Nizam’s, the place this dish was invented. Kolkata is a very well-known place and many people love going there, but it just wasn’t for me. I have been to India before and I know what to expect but even then, I found Kolkata to be way too crowded and unsanitary for my liking and I especially hated how poorly maintained the main landmarks of the city were.
We had an early morning flight to visit my relatives and we spent two weeks there which I loved! Apart from spending quality time with my family, I also got to do things out of the ordinary. Most notably, we had sticky rice which was cooked inside bamboo sticks and also rode a boat at the nearby river which was so scenic and climbed the rocky plane in the middle (in high heels, mind you!). We were initially going to visit Delhi and Jaipur but had to cancel our plans last minute owing to the swine flu outbreak there so we decided to take a detour to Northeast India, and boy, that was probably the best decision we took during our holiday!
We took a 14 hour train journey to Guwahati, which is the largest city in Assam (a state in India – I’m pretty sure you must’ve heard of Assam tea). One of the engines of the train broke down which resulted in a 2.5 hour break about an hour after boarding the train. I felt like I couldn’t fully take in the scenic views as the dusk had fallen soon after but alighting the train in the middle of nowhere was fun! Anyways, we arrived in Guwahati at about 2am and left for Shillong (which is located in the neighbouring state of Meghalaya in northeast India) early in the morning!
Shillong is known as the Scotland of the East because its landscapes have a striking similarity to those in Scotland. The 3.5 hour journey from Guwahati to Shillong was so breath-taking, it’s almost as though the road leading to Shillong transports you out of India and into a fantastical world. We stopped for a break at the Jiva Veg restaurant where we had delicious masala dosa (a South Indian cuisine where rice and lentils are ground into a batter to make a huge pancake which is stuffed with potato curry, and is usually served with chutneys and sambar which is a stew made with lentils and vegetables). We then stopped by the beautiful Umiam Lake which is a reservoir in the hills about 9.3 miles north of Shillong and then headed towards The Shillong Peak, the highest point of Shillong from which we were able to experience the beautiful panoramic views of Shillong. From there we went to Elephant Falls and descended the steep steps (little did we know that steep steps would haunt us for the rest of the trip) towards the first of the three falls (fun fact: the local name for the waterfall was Ka kshaid lai pateng khohsiew which translates into three steps waterfalls because the water falls in three stages, however the British later named it the Elephant Falls because a stone found near the water falls resembled an elephant). We then descended more steps to reach the second fall which had dried up because it was winter and the water levels had receded, but the third waterfall was the biggest and most breath-taking of them all! Climbing back up the steps to reach the car park was a task but on the bright side, I’m sure we must’ve burned off all the calories we gained from the masala dosa! We browsed through the souvenir shops that surrounded the parking place and made our way towards our hotel, with a quick stop at ML 05 café which is located amidst tall pine trees that make for an amazing photo stop.
Our hotel was located in the heart of Shillong, police bazaar. Police Bazaar is packed with shops, restaurants and entertainment and is perhaps the busiest place in Shillong. You’ll find both modern shops and malls as well as smaller traditional stalls selling handicrafts from Meghalaya. After wandering around the area, we decided to dine at the 3 Olives restaurant which was situated in our hotel and we were very pleased with the food and ambience that surrounded us.
Shillong and the surrounding areas in Meghalaya are very unlike most other parts of India in that they are far more westernised, yet are able to keep their traditions alive at the same time. Meghalaya is predominantly inhabited by Khasi people, who are known for their cleanliness and that really shows! In fact, that may be why they have Asia’s cleanest village (make sure you read my next post where I will write about that)! What’s also striking about them is that they still follow matrilineality where kinship is traced though the female line. Unlike the majority of the Indian population who follow patrilineality, Khasi men move into their mother-in-law’s house once married, children take up their mother’s surname and the youngest daughter inherits everything. Though this may sound like a feminist’s paradise, it isn’t. Decisions that are made by women must first be approved by their maternal uncle, and former tribe rulers left their throne to the youngest sister’s son. In fact, if you look at the make-up of their government, it is primarily composed of men. These are facts I learnt from our driver who chauffeured us during our trip in northeast India and I conducted further research to confirm his statements, and though part of me does feel good about the fact that women are given rights in the Khasi community, what is the point of it if they are unable to hold power? I am a feminist but I also strongly believe in equality, so witnessing men being side lined and made to feel useless (their expressions said it all) was not a nice sight. And this leads to the bigger question of, why can’t we ALL be treated equally and why can’t we ALL contribute towards making decisions? The world is far from perfect and I really hope that our quest to equality is fulfilled one day, and that we realise that no gender, caste, religion, shape, size or culture is inferior to another!
When I started writing this post, I thought I would be able to finish writing my account from my holiday in India in a single post. However, I was wrong because I didn’t realise how much I had experienced there! I don’t want to bore you guys by writing a very long post so I will finish this off in part 2 which will hit your screens this Saturday!
Bye For Now!
N.B I know that the topic of equality is a controversial one so I would be very interested to know how you guys feel about the Khasi system of matrilineality in the comments below.