“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!
Cape Town is a beautiful place. Anyone who’s been here will tell you that. And it’s not just visitors who feel that way – as residents we know it, too! But sometimes it’s easy for us to take that beauty for granted since we’re constantly surrounded by it.
Unlike Durban (the city I grew up in), which has a fairly uniform climate, Cape Town has very distinct seasons which impacts on life in Cape Town– in both what we wear and what we do. Naturally, the change of the seasons affects Fiji and I as much as it does everyone else.
Now that the autumn coolness has started settling into Cape Town my morning walks with Fiji have taken on a slightly different character. Gone are the unpleasantly warm summertime walks that see both Fiji and myself heading for a long cool drink of water on our return home. Gone are the days we dash from one teensy piece of shade to another, desperately trying to stay out of the blazing sun as much as possible. Gone too are the days of gusting wind that make it hard for us to walk since we can’t hear the sounds of approaching cars.
Thankfully those problems generally pass with the summer. Instead we’re able to walk down the road with comfort and ease. In fact, the walks are so pleasant that I often find my mind wondering as we progress, with the gorgeous scents of the lush vegetation enveloping us as we pass. Of course, every now and then my mind is snatched back from whatever pleasant reverie it’s stolen off to because Fiji has seen, scented or heard The Dreaded Enemy – yes, autumn is a busy time for squirrels in our neighbourhood – but even Fiji doesn’t seem to be as manic about trying to chase them as she does earlier in the season.
Today as I was breathing in the scent of a lavender bush I took a moment to reflect on the beauty of the moment – standing there with a keen and happily wagging young guide dog, the scents and sounds of nature all around us… despite the occasional car or train that flashed past us – and I was once again reminded that Cape Town truly is an extraordinary place to live! Now, if only the winter rains would come and break the drought…