Kolkata. There’s just so much to take in. So how can you prepare yourself for the impending Kolkata culture shock?
Things to Know Before You Go to Kolkata
1. Old cliches and life on the streets
Men bathing on the streets. Obviously, this doesn’t take place everywhere in Kolkata, but it’s not something you see every day so it had to go on my list. Still, I just happened upon it because it was going on in front of my hotel each day. I suspected it has something to do with the fact my hotel is on a street with a mass amount of food hawker stalls. Some hawkers you’ll find, sleep in their stalls. Workers in India don’t always have a home to go to. For the poorer working class, it’s easier to sleep outside or on the rooftop of their workplace (now this, you’ll see common in India in places like Paharganj in Delhi; after curfew, the bed cots come out on the sidewalks!). They save money and send it home to their families.
There are also old Indian cliches such as street barbers, a letter writer on the street servicing customers who need a form filled out or a letter written, a street seamstress. Much is visible from the streets and I being a traditionalist, who loves cultural preservation and to witness what history might have been in the older days, I fell in love with it all.
Yes, there’s a modern side to India, huge shopping malls and swank hotels, … but I’ve already live that 24/7 in my own country.
2. Kolkata will awaken you (and its traffic might intimidate you at first)
My first impression is that Kolkata awakens you and you kind of feel alive. There’s just so much going on.
You can pretty much stand in one spot and there’s honking going on constantly 24 and 7. There’s people and activity everywhere. Stories are everywhere you look, from workers transporting mountains of goods on their heads, to a motorbike weaving and dodging traffic while talking on his mobile to rickshaws and four wheeled wagons. You don’t really have to do anything because they just cross paths with you. Every street you go down is like a visual feast.
3. Kolkata has lots of car honking
I was at a hotel near the street and when I checked in, the hotel reception advised me that I might want a room in the back. Stubborn and wanting a window view to the streets, I didn’t not listen to them. Within an hour, I was back to the back room they recommended. From the furthest end of the hotel I still heard honking at all times of the night and morning (I think you’ll hear it in my Kolkata hotel video).
Although everything and everyone converges on the streets, surprisingly there’s order out of the chaos. But there’s also honking. Lots of honking. I asked whether or not Kolkatian drivers are kinda crazy cause of the honking and weaving. I was told that the drivers at least have a license or permit to be on the road. Pedestrians and everyone else don’t have permits to be on the road. Everyone kinda goes where they see openings in the traffic, so the honking is to warn other vehicles and people.
4. Crossing the street in Kolkata
The kinda of nutty thing about crossing a street in India and the traffic or dodging the traffic is that everyone and everything converges on the streets. There’s not always traffic signals either, so people cross the streets and you’ll have push your way through with all the rest of the pedestrians.
It’s always helpful to cross with a group. At least for your first try. Eventually you get used to the weaving and dodging. Wait for traffic to subside, then you find the pockets of open space to scurry into. That’s how you cross the street in Kolkata.
5. The streets are a walking bazaar
All along the streets you’ll find it’s like a walking bazaar of fast food and products. Vendors like doing business on the streets, because they don’t have to pay rent or taxes.
6. Expect taxes on your food and hotel
Kolkata dons a surcharge taxes for all and it adds up to around 8%. That’s not cheap.
7. People can perform worship on the streets
Periodically you’ll find on the streets, there’s shrines and altars. This might be India in general, but people actually worship at these altars, do their prayers, light incense, ring bells and all that stuff.
8. Your nails will get dirty in Kolkata (but anywhere in India, actually)
It’s not like I was digging my hands in dirt or anything, but a little unsightly dirt under my nails is part of the day’s collection. There’s can be dirt road dust, exhaust and pollution kicked up in the air in heavy trafficked areas, so it might collect under your nails and on your face. In some cases, traveling in India, I’ve blown near black boogers. Ever experienced that before?
9. Kolkata has an old face and a new
Before visiting Kolkata, I had this impression that it was an old and run-down city. That idea scared me into putting it off until my third trip to India! Then just before leaving, friends told me there were diseased people there (due to Mother Theresa’s home), which scared me more. I wasn’t thrilled about my visit.
Upon arrival, I knew I should’ve booked longer! I immediately fell in love with the city. The age adds to its character, distinction and history and you’ll find this demeanor in its people.
I saw no more diseased people than a normal street in India. True, India has some anomalies, but I didn’t notice any here.
For those against age, there is a more modern aspect around Esplanade and a beautiful colonial architecture in the government area of BBD Bagh. I suspect a more modern lifestyle exists in the suburbs and the extended parts of Kolkata, but I wanted to be in the “heart of Kolkata” where all the fun, car honking and sightseeing landmarks were.
10. Kolkatans are friendly and gentlemanly
Kolkata is actually known as the “City of Joy”. I’m not sure but I think it has to do with what I experienced as Kolkatans having a light inside them that burns through the darkness. People are open, friendly, helpful and of a gentlemanly nature, such that you can relax your guard as a traveler. I collected many smiles along the way. In fact, I once asked an Indian to define the stereotypes of the biggest Indian cities; according to him, Delhi was a city of scammers and Kolkata was known for its friendly people.
You also wont find hawkers or touts as aggressive as you will in other urban Indian cities. You get the vibe that Indians here aren’t only out to make a buck on you as a tourist. It’s somehow mellower here and while the traffic is incessant, life feels a tad slower here and a bit more innocent. I felt very safe in Kolkata, even walking around at night. People didn’t stare at me as much (… okay, they stared when I brought out my mirrorless selfie camera, but they were only curious).
Watch my video for a better insight into the city!
8 Things to Know Before you go to Kolkata: Kolkata Culture Shock