Encounters 2: Meeting Kolkata at Walking Speed: an intimate learning experience with people and places (Dale Misenhelter)

Arriving in Kolkata after a few days of introduction to India in Chennai, you expect some noise and traffic, and the city does not disappoint.  From the airport, the pre-paid cabs hapless newcomers like myself use for the short but memorable ride to the rail and subway station at Dum-Dum.  We quickly descend into the colorful neighborhoods and move slowly through the chaos – just another day in the city – winding our way around the throngs of people (and cows) wandering the busy street markets.  Arriving in the downtown area via the subway, the adventure of finding one’s way around in this colorful city begins.

A grape vendor on Chitpore Road

The good news was that I’d been in touch through the Heritage Walks website and email, and we’d arranged the walking tour in advance of my head-spinning arrival.  And so, early the very first morning of the first full day, meeting in the neighborhood where I was staying was a blessing – just a short walk down the street to the corner at Mira Mandir temple to where Tathagata was waiting.

From the real starting point of the walk (and after a chai from the corner street vendor), the sense of history Tathagata conveys was immediate and profound.  There’s a widely recognized sense of the colonial period in the city, but the realities of water distribution, development of the simplest of utilities and passable sanitation – indeed survival – takes shape before your eyes.  Walking the streets later, the original neighborhood, small water hydrants are suddenly evident.  Of course they were there all along – but I was oblivious. Now I notice a lot of folks brushing their teeth at these little street taps.

Kumartuli, the idol-maker quarters in North Kolkata

Wandering the backstreets, I learn that the ubiquitous street dogs are called “pariah dogs” and they are quite intelligent – and more often than not asleep in the middle of sidewalks everywhere during the day.  The potters quarter on our walk turns into a curious adventure in the muddy manufacture of the Hindu figures so common at temples and smaller shrines.  We pass curbside bakeries and endless flower, fruit, and veggie stands.  Overgrown mansions and monuments are hiding everywhere when someone shows you where to look.  Someone is singing in one of the oldest and biggest, overgrown with vines and with all the windows wide open.  It’s eye opening – totally fascinating if history is of serious interest.

Pariah Dogs resting in the middle of the road in Kolkata

A sense of reasonable comfort and safety accrues as we walked the streets and small alleys.  Recognizing the flow of people busy with their lives and the typical rhythm of the streets would generalize comfortably to later walks on my own.  Following up on the suggestions kindly offered over lunch (at a tiny restaurant in the Sikkim House, which I couldn’t have found on my own in 6 months of walking the city …) I was at ease in virtually every neighborhood visited thereafter.  Kolkata is one of the biggest cities on the planet, and I’d had the immeasurable good fortune to find kind and knowledgeable guidance to continue further explorations.  What more could one hope for?

About the Author: Dale Misenhelter is a professor at the University of Arkansas in the US, where he works with young teachers in training, and encourages his students about seeking their own adventures towards the true education, humility, and humanity travel can grant us.

Disclaimer: All images used in this post are clicked and owned by the author. 

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