Family Past and Future Hope in Calcutta

Kolkata (Calcutta) was me and my Dad’s seventh and final stop together.

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We arrived into Howrah Station in the morning, and took an Ambassador taxi to our hotel. I’ve done a lot of travelling now, but I still don’t think I’ve ever seen traffic like in Calcutta! We were merging with a queue of traffic and a tram came round the corner and whacked into the side of us!

Going to Calcutta was part of the purpose of our trip to India. You see, his Dad is buried there.

Rewind to the time of the British occupancy in India. My grandfather (Dad’s father) was in the army in Calcutta, and waiting to go and fight in Burma. My Granny was living in Lahore in the west (now Pakistan) and was pregnant with my Dad, so when she was contacted to say her husband (my grandfather) had contracted polio and was seriously ill she couldn’t travel the hundreds of miles across northern India to see him. It was just too difficult at the time of the war to travel that distance – it wouldn’t have been safe either. Of course she didn’t know that by the time she heard of his illness he was very close to dying, if not passed already. She couldn’t travel to Calcutta for the funeral, or to see the grave. It must have been horrible for her – twenty three, pregnant and widowed at the other side of the country.

She has never made it to the grave which I think is really sad, but Dad has been quite a few times and now was my turn to go.

We took a taxi to the graveyard which had civilian graves in it as well as the war graves. The corner of the graveyard that has the war graves is shady, green and peaceful. The groundskeeper (if that’s the right word for him) had been told to expect us and was very smily, friendly and helpful. He picked some flowers for us to lay beside the grave. Coincidentally, my Dad had found some shells from Barra (a special place for his Dad’s family, and now ours) in his backpack, and so we put those in front of the grave too. We took some photos at the grave – I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to smile in them or not, but because it’s been something we’ve talked about visiting for years I think it was.

The hotel we were staying in was quite bizarre. It was an old colonial era hotel with the walls covered in old family photos. Unfortunately the menu was clearly last updated with the decor and so we didn’t really enjoy anything on it – especially when you ask for something not spicy and it blows your head off, and when you ask if something has no meat in it and they say ‘no meat, just vegetables and egg’ and then it has chicken and prawns right through it!

The following morning we made a decision that it was time for me to find a doctor. There was one recommended in the guide book, which we cross checked with the hotel manager and she agreed it was a good one. At the doctors we waited for fifteen or twenty minutes until I was seen. Once I was in the consultation room the doctor spent at least five minutes on the phone before talking to me. Apparently he has studies in London at at hospital in Hammersmith. He made a quick diagnosis of an abdominal infection, and was shocked that I’d waited for six days before seeking help. He prescribed me a list of drugs and sent me on my way.

In the afternoon of that day we visited a fantastic NGO called Future Hope. Future Hope takes street children, gives them a home, an education and a life. Some children travel from nearby slums to attend the school there, and others live there as they have nowhere else. It was started in 1987 by a guy (Tim) then working for HSBC, and we heard from one of the volunteers that it began by children breaking into his car. He saw how unwell they were so offered to get them medical help, and let them stay in his nice flat. It grew from there – the next day kids turned up at his flat asking to see a doctor. Now they have over 300 children, seven different homes for the children across the city, and one school from the age of five, though many of the children don’t know how old they are because of their backgrounds. Children can start at the right level for them, meaning a ten year old coming in from living in the street can end up in the lowest grade having had no education before. It also goes the other way too. Children in India do not tend to leave home until they’re married, and so man come back after university to help within the school and the homes. Future Hope will pay for them to attend university, and also aims to start some vocational courses too, for the non academic children. It was such an honour to see round this place briefly and meet the guy who started it all. If we’d had more time I would have stayed and volunteered, though they have a huge waiting list for volunteers so it may not have been possible.

We met one guy, Jehangir, who works at Future Hope now. He was interested in how we knew about it, and where we were staying. When we told him our hotel was on Sudder Street he said he feels different each time he goes there as he began life in the Salvation Army right on that street. We also met two guys who were best friends, and home from their jobs in London and Mumbai for just a few days. They had grown up together in the home there and look at Tim like their own Dad. They seemed such well rounded happy guys, and it’s so hard to think of the many other children who just don’t get the chance to develop into people like this.

Click here to look at the website for Future Hope for more details about fundraising and donations.

http://www.futurehope.net

Unfortunately my Dad got sick the next day, and so the final two days of our three weeks together were very low key and relaxed.

We did, however, make it over to the Botanical Gardens where we saw The Giant Banyan Tree. It’s a type of a fig tree that climbs on other trees and wraps around them until the suffocate, and so they die. The Banyan Tree then hangs down roots which then turn into trunks. This one tree now has 3618 trunks, and covers 450 square metres. The original tree died off 250 years ago.

And that was our last day of our journey together! Three weeks, seven places, buses, trains, taxis and planes, it all came to an end the following morning at Calcutta airport.

We had used a lovely taxi driver called Hari for the past couple of days. He was desperate for his son to go to Canada. As soon as he heard that we were from the UK he wanted us to tell him all about Canada. Yes, we were just as confused as you are right now!

He took us to the airport early the final morning where we checked in for our different flights, Dad, to Bangalore, to see an old colleague from the Botanics, and me to Kochi, via Mumbai, to join a tour of the South!

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Varanasi And The Ganges River

Our overnight train pulled into Mughal Sarai an hour and forty minutes late. We were met on the platform right outside our carriage by a man employed by the hotel to collect us, with Dad’s name held up for us to see.

I felt a bit better by this point, but really still not great. I sat in the front of the car as we drove toward Varanasi. We crossed over the River Ganges on a huge big bridge, then followed some poorly made up roads into the city.

The taxi man stopped and said that he couldn’t drive any closer but that he’d help us with our bags. From the road it was about ten minutes walk through narrow alleys full of cows, shrines, temples, people, bicycles, litter and cowpats to our hotel. As we walked up the slightly sloped final alley to our hotel the Ganges came into view, and our hotel looked right out over it.

Our bedroom was big, bright and cool, with a balcony over looking the Ganges. The balcony had wire netting enclosing it, and we couldn’t quite understand what it would be for until later some monkeys came swinging past. Nobody wants a monkey in their room!! From the balcony I could see boats ferrying people to the sand on the other side of the river, boats taking people up and down the river, children playing marble in the dirt by the hotel, buffalo being brought down to the river, and right below the hotel I could see a group of buffalo soaking in the water as if it were a nice hot bath. They looked so happy and content, some of them just had their heads above the surface of the river.

After a while my Dad went for a walk to scope out a place he’d heard took people on the river for a reasonable price, while I showered and then had a very broken Skype conversation with my Mum and nephews.

It turned out that this nice German bakery and cafe’s boat rides were quite expensive and so we went through the hotel for a little less. We met a guy down in the reception area of our hotel at half five, and he lead us down the steps to the river and a small wooden rowing boat. There was an old man there too. The younger guy didn’t even try to help the older guy as he struggled to paddle our boat upstream, nor did her alert him when there was a boat coming toward us. Neither of them spoke any English at all, so we didn’t learn much about the Ganges, the ghats (buildings, steps and platforms leading down to the river) or events that were going on at the side of the river.

We saw the burning ghat where bodies are cremated, and we saw a ceremony of some sort, which had clearly once been a ritual for something but is now just a big show for tourists. The two boat men couldn’t explain anything and as many questions we asked they just kept saying “ceremony” and pointing.

We did put some floating candles into the water and watched them float away, although there were too many boats around so we didn’t really see them go far.

We felt pretty disappointed with our boat trip, and decided that the morning’s boat trip would have to have an English speaking guide of some kind, or it would be a waste of a trip.

Success! At the crack of dawn there was a loud banging on the hotel door. It was our guide. He lead us down to the same boat, but with a different rower, and off we went. It was a very hazy morning and so the sunrise wasn’t so much a sunRISE as the place just got a bit brighter.

He explained that the burning ghat is used to cremate Hindus, but they must only have been dead for three or four hours. The wood is carefully weighed for each body and the people doing the burning know exactly how much wood is needed to burn the body completely. There are five types of body that they will not cremate here: died from a snakebite, died from leprosy, a pregnant woman, a child under twelve and… I’m sure he only told us four – unless the body dead longer than three or four hours counts as the fifth. Those five (or four) get wrapped in straw, taken out to the middle of the river by boat and dropped into the water.

There used to be hostels beside the burning that’s where older people who knew they were going to die soon would come and wait for their own death, so they could be close to the cremation site – but not anymore. It’s the aim of every Hindu for their ashes to go into the Ganges river, especially at Varanasi. If they live too far away then their ashes will be kept until a time when their family can go together to Varanasi and the oldest son will throw the ashes backwards into the river. He can not look back again – that is the final separation and when the spirit will move on to the next life.

Later in the morning, we took a walk along the ghats, just having a look and seeing what was happening. There are many miles of small alleys like a maze leading down to the river and we spent some time finding this baker/ cafe where Dad had visited the day before.

Once we found it we had some lunch. I was still feeling pretty horrible after my food poisoning so didn’t eat it all. Luckily the cafe had take away boxes and so I took the rest of my dinner for the train that afternoon. The train ride was set to be a long one at over fourteen hours, so it was lucky I didn’t feel as bad as I had a few days before or it could’ve been a lot worse!

AGRA-vation In My Tum

We arrived into Agra late at night – we arrived ten minutes earlier than schedule even though the train had left Sawai Madhopur quite late. It was funny getting off the train and seeing so many more tourists than anywhere else we’d been so far, but then again Agra undoubtedly the most visited place in India for the Taj Mahal. We headed out of the station and took a prepaid taxi into the city. I found it quite exciting seeing all the road signs to the Taj Mahal and its different gates, and when we arrived at the hotel our room was at the side of the rooftop restaurant, which had a fantastic view of the Taj itself! Unfortunately for me it wasn’t floodlit and we could just see the silhouette. Like a kid on Christmas Eve I’d have to wait till the morning for my first sight of it.

After lots of consecutive very early mornings we decided that morning was going to be a no-alarm morning, though our room being at the side of the rooftop restaurant we woke pretty early from the noise, not just of the diners having breakfast but also of the mosques and the call to prayer at 5am. Dad thought putting the aircon on would cover the noise, it didn’t and I lay there shivering!

When we finally rose, I opened the curtains and said “There it is!”. The Taj Mahal was gleaming in the sunshine so close to us and I was desperate to go. We had decided that we’d visit at sunrise, a real bucket list thing to do, so that day was too late as the sun had already risen, the next day was a Friday and the Taj Mahal would be closed as it is also a mosque, so we set our sunrise visit for the Saturday.

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Neither of us were particularly happy with our room at the hotel, it was too hot, too noisy, and we could get something quite a bit better for only a little extra, so Dad went looking at some other hotels and came back successful. We were checked into another place, just as close to the Taj Mahal but with a view from a different angle.

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It was that evening that my belly started to misbehave, and I was back and forward to the loo ALL. NIGHT. LONG.

The following morning, having hardly slept and feeling pretty horrible, I was less than keen to get up early and sit in a car for an hour to visit an old Mughal city called Fatehpur Sikri. I tried to be optimistic thinking the feeling would just wear off and having taken a ton of Imodium I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be an incident!

I sat in the front seat of the car on the way to Fatephur Sikri and dozed, really not feeling great at all. I had to stop the car once feeling really unwell, and on arrival at our destination’s car park I got out of the car and burst into tears. I felt really horrible and the thought of walking round in the sun all day feeling like that was more than I could bear the thought of. In the end, Dad stayed there and the car took me all the way back to the hotel in Agra.

We both thought that by the time he got back early afternoon I would have slept it off and be fine. We were both wrong. When Dad got back I had been sleeping solidly for over 4 hours, and went back to sleep afterwards. He woke me in the evening to try something to eat down in the restaurant, but walking down three floors of stairs and sitting up for more than two minutes was far more than I could manage. The heat, and the noise of the restaurant all closed in around me, I went sheet white and started shaking. I’ve fainted before and that’s how it begun. Somehow, having not eaten for almost twenty four hours and feeling very weak I managed to climb the stairs back to my bed on the third floor, where I slept until the morning.

The morning I talk of was the special early morning we had planned. The alarm went off bright and early (well, not so bright – it was before sunrise). Going to the Taj Mahal at sunrise has been something I’ve wanted to do for years, and sadly, it didn’t happen. I couldn’t sit up for more than a couple of minutes at a time, never mind stand. I was never going to manage to walk the ten minutes there and spend an hour or so looking round. Such a fantastic opportunity missed and I couldn’t do it. My Dad left me at the hotel and went himself to see the sunrise. I’m bitterly jealous and not afraid to admit it.

When he returned two hours later I was still fast asleep. In fact, I select most of that day sleeping too. I managed some toast at lunch but otherwise just slept.

I’d missed any chance of seeing the Taj Mahal at sunrise but had to TRY and see it at any time before we left Agra- that evening.

Late afternoon I struggled out of bed and downstairs. We took a cycle rickshaw to get our tickets for the Taj Mahal and he then took us to the East Gate. I felt horrific. Once inside, before the big main gate, I had to sit down for almost ten minutes. I only managed to walk for five minutes at a time before sitting down, exhausted. In the end I spent most of the time there hovering round the toilets. I didn’t even make it to the building itself. I didn’t even stand in the middle and take a picture of the reflection. I didn’t even get to feel the cold marble under my feet, and I’m totally gutted. I didn’t even have the energy to leave on my own two feet, and had to be taken back to the East Gate in a wheelchair.

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Late at night we took a car for an hour to a station outside Agra called Tundla. It was a really dirty, smelly station, full of homeless people, rats and litter. We had a while to wait there, luckily I slept on my bag waiting for our sleeper train to Varanasi.

My time in Agra DID NOT go to plan. I am thoroughly disappointed that I didn’t experience the Taj Mahal properly. I feel annoyed at Agra, and particularly at the hotel for giving me food poisoning and spoiling my time there. Who knows if I’ll have a chance to go back to the Taj Mahal again? No one can tell.

The Tiger’s Roar Of Ranthambhore

The next stop on our train tour of northern India was a small town in Rajasthan called Sawai Madhopur. Sawai Madhopur is a very small, dusty and dirty town which attracts huge numbers of tourists each year – not for the pigs eating from the open sewers, not for the funny faces the camels pull when they pull their carts along, or for the terrible driving and road conditions. Tourists travel from around the world to Sawai Madhopur for one thing and one thing only… Ranthambhore National Park.

Ranthambhore National Park is world famous for its tigers. Royal Bengal Tigers to be precise. I saw a documentary about it a few years ago, and when we decided we were coming to Rajasthan, I just knew we had to go!

Ranthambhore is a huge park of 1,400km2, with only 392km2 open to the public. It has 59 tigers including cubs, which roam between the ten safari zones and outside into the rest of the park.

We arrived at the station in the late afternoon, and were met by several tuktuk drivers claiming to be the collection for our hotel. After deciding which one was most likely (and we were right), we followed him to the tuktuk. He didn’t seem very impressed about anything, or help with the bags or anything, which most tuktuk drivers usually do. There were loads of grubby street children outside the station – and they kept squeezing the cushion I have on the outside of my backpack. Eventually I managed to make them stop begging for ten rupees and go away.

Our evening at the hotel was nothing exciting and we had an early night as the next two mornings we would be up with the sun before six.

The following morning we were in the dining room having a cup of tea by quarter past six, ready for our collection between half six and seven. At about twenty to seven our gypsy arrived. A gypsy in this sense is a 4×4 Subaru roofless jeep – perfect for off road driving in the national park. It has two rows in the back, suitable for three people in each row. There were an Italian couple in the back row and an American couple in the front – went in the front and my Dad in the back, and off we went!

I have to admit I had very high hopes for seeing a tiger and didn’t quite realise how difficult they are to find, so in entrance to the park I thought I’d see one within a few minutes. Every time we saw another gypsy stopped and looking at something. Heart least with excitement. Can you imagine how I felt when we saw six or seven gypsies one after another and drivers calling between one and other “mother and cub, mother and cub”? I will tell you – bloody excited, that’s how!!

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