India

Kolkata: A few Thoughts on accessibility

Cds IMG 3950

I’m always keen to discover how accessible a destination is, not only for me as The Blind Tourist, but for those with other disabilities.

As I’ve said before, each disability faces different challenges when traveling. As a simple example, a person in a wheelchair may have difficulty getting around a tourist site, if insufficient work has been done to create the correct accommodations like wider door access, ramps with the correct gradients, and accessible restroom facilities.

As a visually impaired tourist, I most often find the challenge is around access to information, which is why I do so much research about places I’m visiting before I even leave home. When it comes down to it, that research can only give me an overview. It doesn’t always help with the details and, as the famous saying goes, the devil is in the details.

So, what were my impressions of the accessibility of Kolkata,

For me, the hardest part of spending time in Kolkata was getting used to the sensory overload that is Kolkata – the vast numbers of vehicles on the roads, including their seemingly incessant hooting,; the amount of people on the sidewalks, especially at tourist sites and events like the IPL Cricket; and my lack of familiarity of the social norms in the country.

I’m sure I could have learned how to navigate around independently given time. But since I was trying to adjust to the dynamic, vibrant, and diverse new place in which I found myself, I didn’t really have the time to start developing techniques to get around on my own. Except within the hotel, which doesn’t really count.

Although I’m no expert when it comes to what may or may not constitute accessibility for someone in a wheelchair, or with other mobility challenges, my impression is that physical accessibility is great in some areas, less so in others. Certainly, I found myself wondering how someone in a wheelchair might navigate the amazing Alleys and Street Food Walking Tour we did while in the city. I’m doubtful the tour would have been accessible in its current form. But I’m sure our host would have been willing and able to adjust the tour to find more accessible options.

Which brings me to one of my favourite aspects of my trip to Kolkata – the people. No matter what barrier I encountered, I discovered that people were always willing to help find or implement a solution. And I’m sure a traveler with a mobility impairment would find the same.

Having said that, I believe there is value in communicating with others who have experienced the accessibility of the place you’re planning on traveling to – whether another traveler with a similar reality, or an accessible travel professional. They can give you invaluable advice on your options.

By chance, a few days after returning home I came across an article, written by such a professional, that deals, in part, with accessibility in India. I’ve included the link below as I feel the article is a great resource for anyone considering traveling to India, regardless of whether or not you have a disability.

Did you know that India is surprisingly accessible?

I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on parts of my journey to Kolkata. India is a country I hope to visit again – either for a return trip to Kolkata or to discover a different city or region.

Hooting in Kolkata – Warning Signal or Unique Form of Communication?

Do you have any idea how nervous I felt crossing the multi-lane roads in Kolkata? And that was with sighted assistance. Doing so independently would have made me a nervous wreck!

It wasn’t that the roads were busy. Well, it was partially that, because I’ve never experienced such high volumes of traffic, even in the few times I’ve driven in rush-hour traffic in Johannesburg. Rather, what kept me in this heightened sense of anxiety was the constant hooting.

In South Africa hooting is generally used as a warning of imminent danger. So, if I’m walking with my guide dog and a nearby car hoots, I’m going to be on high alert.

in Kolkata, hooting seems to be more of a form of communication. It’s a way of letting the others on the road know you’re about to do something – like overtaking them, turning a corner, or parallel parking. And, with the vast numbers of vehicles on the road, it just seems to work.

To the uninitiated like me it seemed at first that the roads in Kolkata were crazy. The hooting only added to that perception, because I kept expecting danger to leap out from somewhere and devour us. So I was on a razor’s edge of anxiety anytime we were out and about in Kolkata those first few days.

But, it soon became my new normal, and it wasn’t long before I was happily walking across roads without even blinking when a driver hooted to let us know he was passing immediately behind us in the lane we’d just crossed.

In fact, I was unnerved by the almost total silence when we drove home from the airport on our return to Cape Town. I almost felt relieved when I heard a car hoot. It took another day or two for me to adapt back to our South African way of hooting… or not hooting, as the case may be. Which wasn’t a bad thing, since my initial anxiety kept me on high alert on my first walk with my guide dog after I got back. Although, I wonder if I’d just have waved if a driver had hooted. Or checked around me to ensure I wasn’t in danger.

The short video clip is of Craig and I on an auto-rickshaw navigating the streets of Kolkata.

Kolkata: My Impressions of Poverty

Cds IMG 3970

When we chatted to friends before our trip to India, we were cautioned that the extreme levels of abject poverty would hit us every time we ventured out of the hotel. I know how much I’m affected by seeing people experiencing hardships. So I was concerned that my visit to Kolkata would be overshadowed by my response to the poverty.

Yet, walking round Kolkata I didn’t get a sense of abject poverty. Please don’t think I’m trying to say that it wasn’t there – it was. But it was nowhere near as bad as the images I’d conjured after the warnings.

What I did experience was the reality that people in Kolkata would find innovative ways to earn even a small wage to contribute to their family’s survival. We passed countless informal shops selling everything under the sun. We passed people shelling pistachio nuts and selling them. And we saw people selling street food off banana leaf plates. It felt like almost everyone was engaged in some form of work, no matter how seemingly menial – to stay alive.

Yes, every now an then we encountered beggars, but we only came into contact with two. And I’d been led to believe there would be beggars surrounding us at every turn. A child caught hold of my arm as we were queueing to visit the Victoria Memorial. And a woman tried to separate Craig and I as we navigated our way through the crowds entering Eden Park for the IPL cricket match. Those were the only beggars I encountered.

Yes, I’m aware that my blindness may have protected me from seeing more of the poverty, especially since Craig knows how sensitive I am to the suffering of others. So it’s entirely possible my perception of the situation’s flawed.

When I checked online to see what the stats would tell me about my impression of the poverty in India, I learned that unemployment in India in 2018 was a mere 3.53%, compared to 27.2% in South Africa (2018) and around 6% in both USA and UK, although these last figures are now 6 years old.
I know employment doesn’t automatically equate to wealth, but I do feel that the statistic is interesting when placed against the comments we heard before our trip. I wonder how many of those comments were made based on movies like Shantaram and Slumdog Millionaire? I guess I’ll never know for sure.

What did almost break my heart was the number of unhealthy malnourished stray dogs that seemed to be everywhere we went. We even passed one curled up asleep on the stadium steps during the IPL cricket match. I’m sure he managed to find himself a good meal from scraps left behind by the 90 000 cricket fans after the match. I’m just amazed he was able to sleep through the noise of the game, but it didn’t seem to worry him one bit. Which made me smile despite feeling heartsore at his condition.

Finding a New Way to Communicate

Cds IMG 8261

For years I’ve believed that people with a disability have strong problem-solving skills. This was proven yet again when I was visiting India recently.

One of the maintenance staff on our floor of the hotel was hearing impaired and non-verbal. Which wasn’t a challenge until he arrived to service our room and I was on my own. In case you haven’t realized where the challenge lay, he could only communicate in writing or using gestures. Which I couldn’t see. In turn, I could only communicate with gestures, since my usual default – the spoken word – wasn’t going to be of help.

I suppose it must have looked funny to an observer, but our initial interaction was intensely frustrating to us both, standing in the doorway trying to figure out how we could communicate what we needed to say. Eventually, in sheer frustration, he turned and left, returning ten minutes later with his supervisor.

Over the next 24 hours I tried to figure out a better way for us to communicate. And, when he knocked on the door the next day, I was ready. I smiled and waved him inside.

But it looked like I wasn’t the only one who’d been giving the matter some thought. He entered the room, tapped his fingers on the bathroom door, the bed and the counter where the tea and coffee were, and then tapped his equipment trolley.

I nodded and smiled, indicating his communication had been received loud and clear. Then I picked up my white mobility cane and my room keycard, and left him to do his job. And returned 30 minutes later to a spotless room.

As a person who is visually impaired, I tend to rely on the spoken word to express my needs. As a professional speaker that’s my trade. This experience taught me the importance of including different types of communications in my presentations so my message can reach more people in my audience.

It also reinforced my belief that we, as persons who are differently abled, are great at solving problems since we have to do it on an almost daily basis. And that’s a skill that is highly sought after in the business world today.

Kolkata: The Road less Traveled

“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.

Cds IMG 1216

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.

Cds NCPJ2803

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.

Cds IMG 6462

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!

Kolkata: Cricket Match or Rock Concert?

Cds IMG 7005

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.

Cds IMG 7004

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.

Kolkata: The Victoria Memorial

Cds IMG 8145 Pano

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.

Cds IMG 8152

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.

The Curious Puzzle of the Toothbrush and the Bottled Water

Toothbrush

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!

Sigh.

A Visit to The Mother House

Cds IMG 3909

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.

Cautionary Messages – Trepidation or Excitement?

NewImage

“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!!

Email updates
Lois shares updates on her book, speaking and the reality of living with blindness. Find out what Lois is up to – subscribe here.

Facebook