Forgetting to Feel Foreign

I recently stumbled on a post about finding space to relax in London on a blog called The Beauty of Everywhere, and what Grace had to say really resonated with me. I started thinking about what kinds of places made me feel like I could relax, and why, and the importance of finding these kinds of places here in Kolkata.

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Somebody found a space to relax in Kolkata! but I don’t think there’s room for me in there…

Anthony & I made the transition from an American city of 60,000 people to an Indian metropolis with 14 million residents seven months ago, and I’ve discovered that life as a foreigner here in Kolkata can be a lot to process sometimes, from little annoyances to serious issues. Sticking out like a sore thumb everywhere I go and constantly drawing the stares and comments from people on the streets; the merciless car horns that seem to pierce straight through the brain like a laser beam with their incessant honking; the anxious feeling that I’m always about to get run over by a guy on a bicycle covered in chickens when trying to cross the street or trip over someone sleeping on the sidewalk; the stifling heat and the smoky trash bonfires in the gutters adding to the dusty cloud of pollution that hangs over the city; the juxtaposition of life and death, the harsh reality of the poverty that exists here and our own relative wealth and privilege – these things are all part of my daily life in Kolkata, and they can make it hard to feel relaxed.

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I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining about the chicken bikes, they’re actually one of my FAVORITE things about Kolkata.

There are a lot of things India and I don’t know or understand about each other, and I’m okay with that! I enjoy trying to learn, communicate, and understand as much as I can while I’m here. But sometimes, I feel like my differentness gets in the way of that by bringing everything around me to a halt, as everyone stops to stare at the Foreign Woman in their midst. I’ve come to find that the places I like best in Kolkata and find the most relaxing are those that let me in, let me be a part of them, without feeling like I’m in the way or being scrutinized. I’ve found that when I can minimize the effect of my own presence on my surroundings, I get to experience a whole new side of the place, and see it and the people that live there as they honestly are. While I’ve been able to create some of these places for myself, achieving a level of normalcy in some places by prolonged exposure and interaction with people, there’s no way I’ll ever get all 14 million of the people in Kolkata used to me! Well, I’ve been lucky enough to discover a few places that just naturally made me I feel like I belonged there instead making me feel like an intruding foreigner, and I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you.

1. Indian Coffee House

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View from the second floor of the Indian Coffee House

This coffee house is located right in the College Street neighborhood, tucked in between a couple of bookstores, you might walk right by without knowing it was there. It’s been around since 1846, when it was known as the Albert Hall, and has been a meeting place for students, artists and intellectuals of all kinds, whether they are looking for someone to hang out and argue with or somewhere to sit and smoke a cigarette while they drink coffee alone and write poetry. The hall is huge and it sounds like a beehive when you walk in, with the hum and buzz of hundreds of conversations making your own voice feel like a small drop in the bucket. When I first walked into this place, I realized that everyone was so wrapped up in their own dreams and debates that no one even noticed we were there. I loved it right away for its interesting cultural and historical significance, and for giving me my first taste of anonymity in India.

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Emerging from the Indian Coffee House at night, onto a street full of books! It’s like heaven.

2. Park Street Cemetery

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Park Street is a very modern, busy area, with crowds of pedestrians and street vendors, traffic, chain restaurants, bars, and general hubbub. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a little time capsule like this cemetery in its midst. It opened in 1767 and is now a heritage site; a quiet oasis of greenery and crumbly old tombs in the middle of central Kolkata. I love wandering around in the shade reading the old inscriptions on the stones, some of which are so elaborate you feel like you are wandering through an abandoned palace. You’ll see other people walking the mossy paths, but everyone seems to follow the same unwritten rule of respecting the peace.

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3. Rabindra Sarobar

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This park is just a short walk from our apartment in south Kolkata. In the morning, people jog around the lake or sit and meditate or do yoga, while crew teams row across the water. When it gets hot in the afternoon, people jump in for a bathe, and in the evening you’ll find lots of young couples staking out benches under the banyan trees trying to find a little alone time. It’s a nice place to walk around without worrying about falling into holes in the sidewalk, as it has two very nice footpaths around the lake. Anthony does have to watch out for branches though, since he’s a bit too tall.

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There’s also a mosque on one of the islands in the middle of the lake!

4. Howrah Bridge

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Watching the pedestrian traffic on Howrah Bridge. You can see the Vidyasagar Setu in the background.

This might seem like a strange place to find peace and relaxation in Kolkata, since it connects one of the busiest railway stations in India (Howrah Station) to the city and carries an average of nearly 150,000 pedestrians and 100,000 vehicles daily. It’s also right next to the famous flower market at Mallick Ghat, which is one of the busiest marketplaces I know. But once you walk out into the middle of the bridge, you’ll find dozens of people standing there looking out onto the Hooghly River, pausing in the middle of all the hustle and bustle to feel a cool breeze on a hot day and observe whatever might be floating by below. Everybody there is either in a hurry on their way somewhere else or just trying to catch a moment of peace themselves, so it’s a nice place to stop, relax, and collect your thoughts without intrusion.

5. The Calcutta Local to Prinsep Ghat

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They say that you should enjoy the journey instead of being impatient to reach your destination. We wholly agree.

This particular train only runs once a day from Tollygunge Station at 3:45 pm and has invariably been nearly empty on the occasions that we have taken it. This is great because I love to stand in the door and watch the scenery of the city flying by, and it’s hard to get a spot by the door if the train is crowded. Hanging out the door of a moving train is a pretty popular sport in India. As foreigners, riding the train gives us a sort of fly-on-the-wall point of view of parts of the city that I could never achieve in person walking through those neighborhoods. Because we’re moving through so quickly, usually nobody has time to notice that there are Foreign People on the train, and we are granted a quick snapshot of the daily lives of Calcuttans without the “observer effect.”

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Daily life in a community on the train tracks in Kolkata

The train takes us past the harbor and along the river to Prinsep Ghat where there is a large public waterfront park. Most of the riverfront is calm, peaceful, and largely undeveloped or being used for industrial purposes, so that it almost feels village-like in some places, with people working, bathing, and washing clothes on the numerous ghats (steps that lead down into the water). However, there are also several public parks like this one scattered up and down the river.

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Prinsep Ghat monument and Vidasagar Setu

6. Boats on the Hooghly River

From Prinsep Ghat you can hire a boatman to take you on a private boat ride on the river (for about Rs. 600/- per hour). Being on a boat is the closest you can get to being physically alone (well, except for the boatman) and unnoticed while being out in public in Kolkata as a foreigner, and taking the Calcutta Local train from Tollygunge gets you to Prinsep Ghat just in time to watch the sunset. I feel like I usually miss out on the sunset while I’m in the streets of the city, because it’s blocked out by buildings or I’m distracted by trying to keep up with the pace of life going on around me. Floating there quietly on the river watching the sun set is one of my favorite ways to end a day in Kolkata.

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A group of young people boarding a boat at Prinsep Ghat for a sunset tour of the Hooghly River

When we first started living here, I didn’t think I’d ever really be able to find a part of the city where I could relax and feel normal. I’m so glad we’ve stuck around long enough to learn how to carve out and discover those places where we can feel like we belong, become familiar with them, and forget for a little while that we’re foreigners.

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