We hopped of the train in Kolkata at the crack of dawn, couldn't find an auto rickshaw driver who wasn't going to rip us off, so headed for the bus station. Although it is confusing trying to work out which bus you need, where it stops and where you can and can't sit on the bus, the buses in India are a great way to get around - and you're treated no different than the locals! The fare is around 1 rupee per kilometre, the bus conductor is patient while you hunt around for the right change and will usually let you know when your stop is the next stop (although there are no designated stops, you can hop on and off wherever you want) which is great when you're not entirely sure where you need to get off.
We weren't sure which bus we needed to get to the backpacker hub - Sudder Street - but a local guy was more than happy to help us and walk us to the right bus, and tell the bus conductor where we wanted to go. Policemen nearly always know which bus, direction, or road to take, if they understand your accent, and you're not too scared to approach their semi-automatic gun that you can clearly see is loaded. We hopped on the bus and it filled with morning commuters and off we went. The bus conductor kept his eye on us, and when it was time to get off he let us know and pointed us in the right direction. Three local guys, carrying huge gas bottles on their heads, who had also gotten off he bus, and motioned for us to follow them, and led us right to the street we needed to get to.
Then came the fun part - finding a place to stay. Although we didn't book any accommodation, we didn't have any trouble finding a place to stay. We'd turn up in the street or area we wanted to stay, look at a one or two rooms in a guest house, ask if they have hot water, towels, and if the windows open, negotiate a price, and if it was okay, take the room. If not, we'd walk to the next guest house and have a look there. Some rooms are overpriced, some are tiny with not windows, and some are downright dirty, but for the most part, finding a clean room wasn't hard. I was expecting a lot worse, and was pleasantly surprised. Sure, I lowered my standards, but for, on average, R600 (AUD10, GBP7, EURO8) you realise that as long as the shower delivers some water, you can flush the toilet and sleep comfortably, luxuries don't matter as much as they did before you backpacked. I do have to admit that the turning-up-and-finding-a-room was one of the most challenging aspects of this trip for me, and that often I got frustrated, upset, and even angry, and lost my cool. I was tired and hungry, and was being harassed by touts - they are extremely persistent (out of desperation) and don't take no for an answer and will follow you - and I let it all get to me. I had an awesome travel buddy who, firstly, put up with a moody, hungry, and tired me, and also managed to find us somewhere to stay.
We arrived early in the morning and not a lot was open. Even the chai wallah was still setting up his stall, and these guys are up early! We sat down on the makeshift seat beside the chai stall and ordered two chais - the perfect pick me. We watched the street come to life as we drank our chai, and decided to have breakfast before we checked out guesthouses. We wandered into The Blue Sky Cafe and I don't think we ate anywhere else the whole four days we were in Kolkata. Seriously, just go there. We then began our search for a room, and because the touts just don't leave you alone when you're carrying a backpack, I sat down with our bags while my travel buddy went looking. It took a little longer than usual, as lots of the guest houses were full, but we eventually found a room. We showered, changed, and headed out to explore the city.
It's really easy to get around for Kolkata as a backpacker. Taxi's are available - and you can convince then to take you on the meter - the metro (although we didn't use it) runs directly around the main points of interest, but best of all, the streets are laid out in a grid (unlike the higgledy piggeldy layout of Delhi) and it's easy to get around the city on foot. After Independence, the Indian government changed any street name that had Raj era connotations so today most major Kolkata streets have two names. Locals and taxi drivers still go by the old names but maps, street signs and business cards use new names.
We spent a day wandering around the city and it's surrounding park lands - where there were at least 20 games of cricket going on - and found our way to the Victoria Memorial.The memorial is an impressive building - the best views are actually from the outside, or from beside the reflection pool - and the museum inside is worth a look if you can stand the hoards of India tourists yelling, screaming, and taking pictures of you. Across the road from the Victoria Memorial is the planetarium which, if you've never been to a planetarium (me!) is worth a visit. The show itself isn't that impressive, but it's quite entertaining when the narrator stops to tell people off for using their mobile phones - she was quite angry by the end of the show. Also worth checking out is the Park Street Cemetery. Park Street is one of Kolkata's main commercial avenues, but about halfway down the busy street sits this vast cemetery overrun by nature. We spent an hour or so wandering through the rows of mausoleums, rotundas and ornate statues reading the graves, where we could - it's spooky but beautiful. It's free to enter but you are expected to leave a donation. We found that in this scenario R10 is enough. Have your donation ready as you leave to avoid the awkward question as you leave.
While in Kolkata we also headed to the Roxy - a beautiful old theatre - to check out a Bollywood flick. The blockbuster Anybody Can Dance was currently playing and I have to say I was dancing in my seat by the time the movie finished. At most theatres they show films in English, but to be honest watching it in Hindi is pretty cool too. Sure, you don't know exactly what's going on, but you get the general plot (Bollywood films usually follow the same plot - guy meets girl, they fall in love, there's a conflict that stops them from being together, but they work it out) and the jokes still make you laugh.