A Bike Tour of Kolkata

 

For the past few years I have suffered from a bad case of wanderlust. Really bad. Thinking back to my time at university and hearing of people’s travels I would never long for the same thing. I felt that I was already abroad, having moved to the UK from Sweden. Although I was always interested in the world and wanted to see it, I didn’t have the urge. And now I do. In some ways I feel that I missed out on something, some kind of a formative experience. Instead I spent time within the hallowed halls of academia, reading dusty books and getting lost in libraries. I don’t regret it for a second, but I do regret taking it so seriously. I really should’ve taken a break once in a while.

Anyway, recently I had a glimpse of that experience I hear so many people describe. It may be nothing for some but for me it was a big deal. I arrived at Kolkata airport on an early morning and first thing I did was get into one of those iconic yellow cabs. It was a thrill to sit in the backseat with my bag and see the craziness of Kolkata whizz by, not knowing exactly where I was going or when I would arrive. I had that wonderful outside of the comfort zone feeling, otherwise known as adventure. I believe it’s a must in life.

I spent two days on my own in the centre of Kolkata before I joined the Yoga Medicine team with whom I fundraised for a local NGO in Kolkata, Women’s Interlink Foundation. Those two days were my official “I am travelling alone” days and I loved it! Centre of Kolkata is like nothing I’ve experienced before – a sensory overload. In order to navigate this madness I found a great company called Calcutta Walks.

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I contacted the company via email from UK as they have such a huge variety of walks and I wasn’t sure I could join as they all take place in the morning and I would be arriving later. Even though I would be missing out on the walk in the morning, Iftekar, the owner of the business, suggested that he could take me on a motorbike tour of the city. And of course I agreed!

Iftekar picked me up in the evening outside my little hostel. The sun was still up but it was that beautiful orange colour that you only get in India, it makes all the other colours more vivid and bright. I have to say, I was particularly happy that he had an Enfield, what else would you want to ride in India?

And off we went. We whizzed past the Victoria memorial, the Maidan, past a racetrack and off to the other side of the river. There is nothing like a motorbike to feel part of the place that you’re in. (This is something I felt when we rented a bike in Burma, we felt much more connected to our environment.) We stopped on the other side of the river to look over the city and it’s historical buildings, trying to grasp the different points of development in Kolkata’s history. We went off to the buzzing loading and trading area around the train station full of smells and men carrying loads that were about ten times their size, then to an area by the river where we stopped for coconut water and some delicious cha (cha in Kolkata, chai elsewhere), which we drank looking over the water and chatting about all the world’s problems.

Iftekar was the best guide you can imagine. He is very intelligent and knowledgeable about the city, but more than anything, he is passionate and loves his city. This is a person whose business works to make the city better, more accessible to others and who has a great vision. I loved the conversations we had over cha about Indian literature, and of course, Arundhati Roy who is a phenomenal woman, writer and activist fighting for human rights in India. (I read her book “The Cost of Living” when I was younger and it really opened my eyes to how dams in India affect people living in the area, something I knew nothing about. It is so beautifully written.) Iftekar showed me his latest project – refurbishing an old colonial building into a new B&B for tourists. This is not just a place to sleep but a way of opening up the city to new visitors and showing them the gems of this great city. Seeing his passion I am in no doubt of its success, and would love to visit one day again.

 

One of my favourite places we visited was a whole area dedicated to making sculptures. Each shed that we looked into had a talented craftsman making a Kali sculpture and sometimes a Ganesh. Most were made from clay but there were other materials too. I couldn’t believe it, so many talented craftsmen in one place. Usually we get everything from a factory where things are generally made from moulds and little talent is applied. I love how in Asian countries you often get whole streets dedicated to one thing: a street selling tyres, a street selling metal poles, a street selling glass, a street selling spices, a street selling bed linen etc. I wonder how competition works in these conditions?

I can’t say that I had a good grasp of where I had been or where I was on the map, but I did get a true sense and a feel of the city and its people. It was magical and my favourite part of the trip. Actually, it was so good that I booked on to go on another walk of the city the next day! (But that’s another post…)

Check out Calcutta Walks on their website: calcuttawalks.com