Welcome to India

Welcome to India and the busy streets of Kolkata! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I could live a dozen lifetimes and not be able to accurately describe the smell of India.

When I stepped off the plane Kolkata this morning at the implausible hour of 4:55am, it hit me: a sickly-sweet aroma that camouflaged itself with the stillness of the morning air. A scent impossible to pin down. It’s curry powder rolled in with diesel fuel. It’s half-rancid garbage combined with musty old clothing. It’s ancient books and sewage.

To be clear, I don’t mean that as a knock on India. I’ve been here for a total of 12 hours as I write this, and I am entranced by this place. But there’s no glossing over that smell.

The city’s ubiquitous yellow taxis are everywhere. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

These are the first wee hours of my river cruise tour along India’s Ganges River with G Adventures. Departing from Kolkata, India (which you might remember by its former name, Calcutta), this nine-day Ganges River Experience combines a one-night pre-cruise stay at the HHI Kolkata with an eight-day voyage along the Ganges aboard the 24-passenger Varuna.

Around the World in 24 Hours

My journey to Kolkata took place in three legs, beginning first with a wonderful flight in KLM’s World Business Class from Canada to Amsterdam (a full review of KLM’s Business Class product will follow this report). But it didn’t end there. From Amsterdam, I flew with codeshare partner airline Jet Airways to Mumbai, and then onto Kolkata.

A Tale of Three Airplanes: my KLM Boeing 777-200 at Amsterdam Schiphol on February 28, 2017. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

My flights with Jet Airways, while not in Business Class, were comfortable, clean and efficient. Staff on both flights were exceedingly friendly, and it’s worth noting that the Pilots on both of my Jet Airways flights were female; an oddly progressive move for a country that still has Male and Female security lines at its airports.

Jet Airways 231 touched down in Mumbai at five minutes to midnight from Amsterdam. I’d snagged a seat at the front of the Economy Class section of the Boeing 777-300, and was glad I did: it turned out we’d be deplaning via air stairs and boarding busses to reach the terminal.

Jet Airways would take me from Amsterdam to Mumbai, and then on to Kolkata. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Since Mumbai was my first port of entry into India, I had to clear customs and immigration here. I’d pre-purchased an E-Visa that grants 30 day admission to India prior to my trip, and I easily found the line marked “E-Visa” in the customs area.

You know how the Caribbean operates on “Island Time”, and Mexico operates on “Mexican Time”? Well, India operates on something called “Indian Standard Time.”

“Indian Standard Time” is elastic. Five minutes can mean twenty. Ten can mean thirty. Or, as I discovered, it can take 20 minutes to clear the two people ahead of you in line at Customs. Give yourself lots of time on your arrival flights into India; everything takes far longer – and moves much slower – than you’d expect.

Disembarking my Jet Airways 777-300ER on the tarmac in Mumbai just after midnight on March 1, 2017. This was before I learned that you’re really not supposed to take any photos at airports in India. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Once I’d cleared Customs (after about a dozen fingerprint readings), I had to collect my baggage from the carousel, exit through the exit (which required placing my carry-on bag on an X-ray machine), and re-check it with Jet Airways at their connection desk.

Now, all my Indian friends told me to avoid Air India like the plague. And I feel I know what they’re talking about: the Jet Airways connection desk was serene and orderly. The line for the Air India baggage drop was probably a hundred deep. I don’t know how or if they were going to make their flights, as even with two hours between flights, I was pushing the limits of what is possible in Mumbai.

The last flight to Kolkata, departing at 2:55am. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I then had the longest bus ride of my life from the terminal to my waiting Jet Airways 737-800. Normally, these bus rides take five or so minutes, if that. This one took an astonishing 42 minutes from end to end (I know – I timed it.) I seriously thought we were driving to Kolkata at 20 kilometres per hour. We had to wait for four aircraft to push back before continuing on to a deserted service road that, half an hour later, took us to our very, very remotely parked, 737.

Jet Airways 484 for Kolkata took off just after 2:40am, and I closed my eyes for some much-needed rest.

I Take A Mad Max-ian Uber Ride Into Town

Good morning, India! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

My bag came off the carousel straight away at Kolkata’s airport, and I proceeded outside to discover my pre-arranged, pre-paid for transfer provided by G Adventures wasn’t there. I waited five minutes, then thirty. No transfer.

This is exactly what I wanted to avoid. I’ve no shame in telling you that I’d read horror stories about the taxis here and I was quite nervous about getting into one, fearing I’d be led on a Groundhog Day-esque loop around the city until I parted with all my available cash.

And then I remembered Uber. Yes, Uber is here in Kolkata, and for 349 Indian Rupees (about $6 Canadian), I could travel from the airport to the HHI Kolkata. I clicked my way through, and my Uber driver arrived moments later, in a reasonably undented white Suzuki Swift.

Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, as seen from my Uber. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I’ve been to a lot of places in the world. I’ve set foot on every continent. But I have never seen anything like the Mad Max, Death Race 2000-style of driving I saw here. Laws mean nothing; we blew through a dozen red lights. We tailgated cars. We nearly hit, in order, an old man, two dogs, a couple on a scooter, and a metal barricade. Not because my driver was bad; he was amazing. No, we drove like that because that’s how people here drive: with reckless abandon.

The entire 45-minute ride to the hotel, I was entranced. Everyone’s hammering down on their horns and flipping their high-beams at problem drivers. The smog is crushing; ‘the smell’ intensifying. Buildings are in various states of built and unbuilt. Metal barricades in the middle of the road loom up out of nowhere, and with a flick of the wheel, my stereotypically-named driver Sanjay races around them at high speed. You don’t know whether you’re in the ride of your life or experiencing your last moments on earth. And it’s intoxicating as hell.

The HHI Kolkata. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

The ride in to the hotel left me exhausted. Forty-five minutes and six dollars later, I walked into the lobby of the Hotel Hindustan Kolkata. It was just after six in the morning but after “five minutes” (read: 40), the clerk at the desk found a freshly-cleaned room for me.

I showered, wrote, lunched, and then attended tonight’s briefing; our first get-together with G Adventures.

My room at the HHI Kolkata: comfortable and well-air conditioned. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our G Adventure representative, Karan (or “K” for short) introduced himself. Personable and friendly, he is the ideal guide, answering all our questions and then inviting us to our first group dinner together in the HHI Kolkata’s restaurant.

Tomorrow, our journey begins in earnest as we travel to Farakka to board our river cruise ship. And to get there, we’re taking that quintessentially Indian mode of transportation: the train.

Whatever may come over the next week, something tells me tomorrow will be one for the books!

Looking out over Kolkata. It’s going to be an exciting week here with G Adventures! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report aboard G Adventures’ Varuna along the Ganges continues tomorrow with our journey by rail to Farakka and the Varuna! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

On the Ganges with G Adventures

March 1, 2017Arrival in Kolkata, India
March 2Train to Farakka and embarkation of Varuna
March 3Guar, West Bengal
March 4Barangar & Murshidabad, West Bengal
March 5Plassey, West Bengal
March 6Matiari & Mayapur, West Bengal
March 7Kalna & Chinsura, West Bengal
March 8Barakpur, West Bengal
March 9, 2017Disembarkation in Kolkata

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