The Blind Tourist
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
– the Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost.
That may be a strange way to start an article about an experience I had in the city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) on my recent trip to India. Yet, it sums up my experience of the Calcutta Capsule Alleys and Street Food Walking Tour so perfectly that it felt right to use the quote.
There’s a couple of things you ought to know before I dive into the story. First, that visitors to Kolkata are warned not to drink tap water or eat street food. Second, that if you’re looking for a guided tour of the most famous tourist sites in Kolkata in an air-conditioned vehicle, then this isn’t for you. But, if you’re willing to take the road less travelled, you’ll love this experience, just as I did.
By now you’re probably wondering what on earth I’m talking about.
The Alley and Street Food Walking Tour is one of several walking tours offered by Soham, of the Calcutta Capsule. His aim is to show tourists the authentic Kolkata that he loves so much. And, since he grew up in the area, he knows all the secret gems of destinations and shows you a side of Kolkata that tourists generally don’t get to experience.
The Alleys and Street Food Tour takes you on a 3-hour journey through historic narrow alleys in the heart of Kolkata where Soham shares stories of life in Kolkata, as well as tales of history, myth and fables. Along the way, you get to sample some truly delicious Bengali food from street food vendors and tiny eateries, experience Kolkata from the rooftops, and walk through some amazing local markets selling a rich diversity of produce.
The walking tour took me on a rich journey of the senses. From listening intently to the changes in sound as we weaved our way through a series of twisting narrow alleys with buildings soaring high above our heads; smelling the intoxicating scent of incense from the local religious shrines and spices from street food vendors. Listening to the chaotic yet friendly hubbub of a city of 10 million people – cars hooting, people haggling prices in the many informal stalls on the streets and markets that we passed. Feeling my way cautiously up three flights of uneven spiral stairs to emerge onto a rooftop that felt like we were on top of the world peering down on the busy streets below. Walking past local businesses ranging from a multi-generational family goldsmith to a sweet shop that had been in operation for more than 250 years. From start to finish, the tour was a wonderful riot of sensations that appealed to my every sense.
And then there was the food – starting with a small cup of chai tea loaded with sugar, through various types of curries and traditional local dishes, to a variety of Bengali sweets, for which the area is famous. I should clarify that Bengali sweets aren’t like candy – they’re more like small cakes, donuts, or biscuits made from loads and loads of sugar of one kind or another. Even the ones that don’t taste sweet are deceptively so, so be warned! And, despite eating only small portions, you won’t leave hungry. Even if you’re a fussy vegetarian like me.
You’re probably wondering why I’m speaking so rapturously about street food considering the warning at the start of the article. Weren’t we worried about eating street food? Not at all. You see, we’d done our research– the tour received such high ratings and glowing reviews on both Trip Advisor and Airbnb that we figured the food must be okay. And we didn’t see a single review mentioning … shall we say negative consequences from eating it.
From what I’ve said, obviously I’d recommend the walking tour for anyone who happens to be visiting Kolkata. But, seeing as I doubt too many of you will be doing so in the near future, I hope giving you a tiny taste of my incredible experience will encourage you to look beyond the popular tourist experiences and take the road less traveled next time you’re on holiday. You never know what you’ll experience!
As the 90 000 crowd surged to their feet with a mighty roar, I found myself wondering if I’d somehow slipped from one dimension to another. While it might have felt like it, we weren’t at a rock concert. We were at a cricket match – but a cricket match unlike any I’d seen before.
Neither my husband nor I are avid sport watchers, but friends and family told us that we shouldn’t miss the opportunity of going to an IPL cricket match while we were in India. They told us it’d be unlike anything we’d experienced before. And they were right!
So that’s why we found ourselves sitting high up in the stadium amongst 89998 cheering cricket fans supporting the home team, Kolkata Knight Riders in a match against the team from New Delhi. Okay, maybe not 89998 KKR supporters exactly. I’m sure I heard a few people yelling for the visiting team as well – but only a scattered few.
The match got off to an electric start, with the opening batter from the KKR team going out on the very first ball. And that was when the crowd went absolutely wild with excitement.
Somehow it seemed that cricket had changed totally from when I last watched a game. Gone were the prim and proper fan responses, when people would clap politely and say something inane like Öh, jolly good shot!” when a batsman struck a 4. Instead, we had the entire crowd leaping to their feet with cries of jubilation, waving KKR flags wildly and with sexy cheerleaders executing complicated dance routines to thumping music. And that was just when a batsman hit a 4. Can you imagine the response when they hit a 6!
I’ll admit I was a little lost during the game. I don’t know why I’d expected there to be a commentary of what was happening on the pitch, but no such luck. So I had to make do with the odd sound of a cricket ball hitting a cricket bat, and then trying to figure out what had just happened by listening to the crowd’s response. Craig would fill in details for me when he could, but it was at best a less than ideal way to experience a cricket match.
Still, listening to the crowd’s response was entertainment in itself. So I left the stadium in high spirits.
And I swear I’ll never think of cricket in quite the same way. Like we were told by friends and family before our trip – it was most certainly an unforgettable experience.
Several people told Craig and I that the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata was a “must-see” site. One of them told us to allocate an entire day since it was far from our hotel and there was just so much to see. Another told us we’d probably only need an hour to take in the site. I guess it really comes down to personal preference when visiting museums.
The Victoria Memorial was built as a memorial to the English queen, Victoria, after her death in 1901. The memorial is a large and stately white Makrana Marble building whose design has echoes of the Taj Mahal. It’s now a museum housing around 30 000 items and is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. The building is surrounded by beautifully tended gardens which span 64 hectares.
So, that’s what the Victoria Memorial is. But what were my impressions of it?
Admittedly, it was our first full day in Kolkata, and I was still tired from the long flight. I was also struggling to adjust to the intense 34 degrees Celsius heat. And the site was crowded – it felt like there were people everywhere. So I wasn’t at my best as we wove our way through the throngs of people towards the entrance.
I was saddened to discover that the Victoria Memorial museum is what I’d consider an “old style museum”, where everything’s kept protectively roped off or hidden behind glass. I know I’ve been spoiled by the highly interactive museums in Poland which I’ve been to in the past few years.
Even though I’m sure I would have ben fascinated by the historic exhibitions at the Victoria Memorial, as a visually impaired visitor the whole experience was a lot like walking round a vast empty building. With the exception of a cannon, which I declined to touch. Like I said, I wasn’t at my best.
I did enjoy climbing the precarious spiral staircase leading up to the balcony overlooking the main hall of the museum. It gave me a good sense of the size of the building and the height of its vast dome.
We had a few minutes to walk round some of the beautifully manicured gardens and laugh at the antics of the busy grey and white striped squirrels
As they dashed around amongst the tree branches. I’d have like to investigate the gardens a little more, but the unrelenting heat of the day chased us back to the comfort of our air-conditioned car all too soon.
It probably doesn’t sound like it, but I was glad I was able to visit the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata and experience what it was like. But I’d love to ask the person who advised us to make our visit a day trip what they found that kept them so engaged for such a long time. Maybe I just missed out a whole lot of exhibits that would have captured my attention had I known they were there.
No, I’m not turning my hand to writing mystery books Rather, this is my attempt to describe an unexpected challenge of not using tap water in India, which we’d been warned against by countless people.
Washing our hands with liquid sanitiser was no hardship – we’ve been doing it for ages with the severe drought in Cape Town. But can you imagine how tricky it is to brush your teeth with bottled water?
Obviously, it would be easy with four hands – one for the toothbrush, one for the toothpaste, one for the bottle of water and one to actually do what’s required. Sadly, like most humans, I had to make do with only two.
At the risk of over-sharing, here’s how I did it:
1 Open the bottle of water and the toothpaste.
2 Pour a small amount of water from the bottle into a glass and set aside for the moment – you’ll need it later.
3 Add toothpaste to the toothbrush and proceed to brush teeth as usual.
Up to now, you could manage with only 2 hands, but this is where it starts getting complicated…
4 With toothbrush in one hand, rinse mouth with water from the glass using your other hand. If you skipped steps 1 and 2, this is where you’d need the other two hands to open the water and pour some into a glass.
5 Then pour the remainder of the water from the glass over the toothbrush to rinse it.
It was by no means an ideal solution, and required a little juggling of various items from one hand to the other, but generally I found it worked okay.
Right up to the final day of our trip.
As I brushed my teeth on our final morning in Kolkata, I was contemplating how long it would take me to become re-accustomed to rinsing my toothbrush with tap water… and absentmindedly did just that!
From the title of this post you might suspect I’ve switched genres and started writing bad science fiction. I promise that isn’t the case.
The Mother House is the name given by locals to refer to Mother Theresa’s home in Kolkata, India. And that was the first site we visited on a day out in the vast and busy city.
When you enter the Mother House you’re enfolded in a marked sense of peace and tranquility. Considering the bustling nature of Kolkata – with bustling being quite a euphemism, believe me – the quiet is decidedly startling. I almost felt like breaking that quiet with a sudden noise or movement would earn me a reproving frown from some unknown person. Which isn’t to say the site is forbidding or unwelcoming. It’s not. Far from it. But it feels enclosed in a wonderful sense of calm.
The Mother House is neither large nor grand. Yet it contains an interesting range of rooms – a small chapel, the tomb of Mother Theresa, a tiny museum containing a few artefacts from Mother Theresa’s life and work, including an ancient wheelchair that she used for several years towards the end of her life before she passed away, after which it was given to another person in need.
Then, up a flight of stone stairs is Mother Theresa’s room, behind a locked gate so you can see the room in which she worked for many years, without disturbing anything. The room is small and simply furnished, yet is filled with filing cabinets and paperwork from the hundreds of correspondents and causes supported by Mother Theresa and her order.
At no time were we asked for financial donations. Certainly, if you wish to make a contribution to assist their work, it will be gratefully received, but there’s no overt requests anywhere in the Mother House.
When We’d spent a little time taking in the tranquility of the site, we started to walk towards the exit. We were approached by one of the nun’s, who wanted to know where we were from and asked us a little about ourselves. She is pictured with us in the image above. I can’t say whether this was usual, whether it was because we were overseas visitors, or due to my blindness, but it was interesting to have the opportunity to take a moment to talk to the nuns.
It was only much later that I found myself wondering how Mother Theresa had navigated that flight of stone stairs in her later years. I guess I could have asked one of the nuns, but sadly the question only occurred to me much later. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to go back to The Mother House and ask my question sometime in the future.
“Don’t drink the water – don’t even brush your teeth with it unless it’s from a bottle!”
“It’s a very dirty city, and you’ll see signs of abject poverty every time you step outside your hotel!”
These were just two of a multitude of cautionary messages that came our way when we started talking about a trip to Kolkata in India.
Sure, there were also positive messages –you’ll love the food, the people are great, and it’s a city of complexities and contrasts… though admittedly that last one could be either positive or cautionary, depending on your interpretation.
So, it was with a little trepidation that I settled into my cramped airline seat on the long flight from Cape Town to Dubai on our first leg of our trip to Kolkata.
A little trepidation… and a whole lot of excitement!
I know that part of the anxiety about traveling to a new place is the uncertainty of what you’re going to find when you get there. But, for me, that’s what creates the excitement – the potential, the not-knowing, and the opportunity of discovering new places, experiencing new cultures and learning about different experiences.
Which is why excitement will always win out over trepidation for me.
As the plane taxied down the runway, I settled back sure in the knowledge that I was in for another grand adventure.
I hope you’ll join me as my journey to Kolkata unfolds. I’ll share my experiences, my thoughts, a few of the places we visited, and my version of the reality we discovered about those cautionary statements from friends and family.
So, buckle up and let’s go – Kolkata’s waiting!!
You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me why I travel. The assumption seems to be that there’s no value in going to destinations because I can’t “sightsee” with my eyes.
If I were to ask a sighted person why they travel I’d probably get an answer along the lines of “I travel to see new places and different cultures,” or “To broaden my mind”. I travel for exactly the same reason, with the very subtle difference that I go to experience new places and cultures – in other words, all that’s different is that I use senses other than my sight to do so.
When people ask why I travel what they’re actually asking is *how* do I travel. Which is a totally different question and is about the techniques I use.
If you’d like to know the answer to that question, here’s a brief presentation I gave where I look at some of the preparation I do before a trip, and a little about how I create a sensory experience when I “site-experience” – hope you enjoy it!
Sometimes we receive the gift of insight from the most unexpected places…
Before I started the Accessible South Africa Travel Podcast, I researched what other accessible travel podcasts were out there. My research led me to the Have Disability, Will Travel Podcast. Once I found it, I started chatting to the host, Josh. And he asked if he could interview me for his show.
Even though I’ve only been podcasting for a few months, it felt really weird having questions fired at me rather than doing the firing myself. But what was really interesting to me was how much I learned from the process. As Josh took me through my own travel experiences and my thoughts on the travel industry, he really got me thinking about the broader concept of accessible travel. And how much I still have to learn.
One thing that really stood out for me was when Josh pointed out how many of the online resources for accessible travel focus on physical access. Sure, I’d noticed it in my own research, but I thought it was just me. So it was kind of gratifying to realize I’m not the only one who’s noticed it.
I guess it’s only natural for us to approach accessible travel from the perspective of our own disability. And, admittedly, what I need when I’m traveling is very different from what someone in a wheelchair needs. Accessibility is a complex issue, which may make it challenging for those in the hospitality and tourism industries who are trying to meet our needs. Which makes it even more important for us to share our experiences and educate people on how to accommodate us.
Which is why platforms like Josh’s accessible Travel Forum and his podcast Have Disability, Will Travel and my own work here in the Beyond Sight Blog and the Accessible South Africa Travel podcast and our parent platform Accessible South Africa are necessary. But I’d love to see accessible travel getting more exposure in mainstream media as well.
I’m definitely going to write more on accessible travel in the future. But Fiji’s just reminded me that it’s her turn to publish an article so I guess mine will have to wait!
In the meantime, I’d love for you to listen to and share my interview with Josh: https://www.accessibletravelforum.com/atf-admin/lois-strachan-s01-e09/
As some of you know, I’m getting more and more involved in accessible travel, both through my writing and the Accessible South Africa Travel Podcast.
I’ve now written seven articles on travel as a blind tourist for the Blind Perspective e-newsletter. These articles are written for a visually impaired audience to inspire them to go out and see the beautiful and diverse world we live in. I also try to answer some of the questions and concerns that blind and visually impaired travelers may have. But, my point is, I’m writing for a visually impaired audience.
A few months ago I spoke to a sighted audience and shared a little about how I use my other senses to experience travel and places I’ve never been before. I was completely amazed at how many people came up and spoke to me afterwards saying how fascinated they were to hear what I had to tell them.
Which makes me wonder if other sighted people might also be interested.
So I’m asking for your help – I’d like to find out the names of magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs, podcasts, and any other publications that have articles about travel. Obviously, if you can give me contact details of who at the publication I should approach, that’d be great, but it’s not a necessity – I can do that myself.
Can you help me take accessible travel into the mainstream? I really hope you can!
So, this is 2019. Can you believe it?
Like I’ve done over the past few years, one of my final acts of 2018 was to read my first post for last year and reflect on whether or not I’d met the intentions I’d set. I was thrilled to realize I’d done fairly well – with one very notable exception.
Rather than summarizing what happened last year and comparing it to the intentions I’d set, let’s just say I felt I managed to build my profile within the disability sector through my speaking, writing and through the Accessible South Africa Travel podcast I host twice a month. It’s been a real pleasure to work with organisations like the SA Guide-Dog Association, Cape Town Society for the Blind, The Unmute Dance Theatre Company and with Accessible South Africa. And, as I play with new technologies, I find it easier and easier to improve all I do. All of which reflected what I’d hoped would happen in 2018.
To my chagrin, one of the primary intentions I set for 2018 was to start my new book. And, what with one thing and another, it just didn’t happen…
As I do each year, here’s where I set my intentions for the coming year:
- Write another book – okay, I know I said that a year ago and did nothing about it, but I already have 2 writing projects lined up for 2019 so hopefully I’ll get it right this time.
- Accessible travel– broadening the markets for the podcast and my travel writing into the mainstream market.
- Employability – building strategic relationships to help me shift the mainstream thinking on employment of persons with disabilities.
- • Speaking – much of the work I’ve done this year has been in the disability sector; over the coming year I’d like to branch out as a speaker to inspire a more diverse audience with my story.
- Music – I’d like to steal a bit more time out of my schedule in the coming year to focus on music and perform live at least once in 2019.
Finally, I’d like to challenge myself a little more to try new things – be it accessible ziplining, adaptive surfing, horse-riding, exploring more of the tourist experiences that Cape Town and South Africa have to offer. Basically, I want to challenge myself to get out and play more in our beautiful city and beyond! And, of course, to travel!
Whatever your intentions for the coming year, I wish you a wonder-filled 2019. I look forward to sharing my adventures with you during the year!