A Kiwi Connection to the Oberoi Grand

October 3, 2009

Due to the length of our trip we are, by necessity, budget travelers. We arrange for periodic episodes of luxury from time to time to keep our spirits up, and to see how the other half lives in some of the places we’re visiting. We tend to do this when the opportunity presents itself or when we really need a break. Our friend Jackie recently provided such an opportunity. She is an executive at a company called ‘Kiwi Connection’ that provides a luxury hotel booking service. She is in no way from New Zealand, but she was our Kiwi connection to the Oberoi Grand, the finest hotel in Kolkatta.

We arrived by taxi from our 1-star guest house to this 5-star palace. It is an oasis in the middle of Calcutta, tucked away behind busy streets lined with hawkers and crowded with people.

We wrote about our experience for Kiwi Connection’s travel blog JetSetter. See the article we submitted below. Thanks Jackie!

A Kiwi Connection to the Oberoi Grand

I recently had the pleasure of staying at The Oberoi Grand in Kolkata, India. Kolkata, often referred to by its previous name Calcutta, is the capital of West Bengal state and was the original home of the British colonial government in India. Although it’s a large and vibrant city, it also has a rich culture and history. The Oberoi Grand is one of the landmark hotels of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, which has nineteen luxury properties across South Asia, the majority being in India, Egypt, and Indonesia. India has a reputation among some groups as an exotic travel destination but Oberoi offers luxury hotels and resorts throughout the country.

The Oberoi Grand is quite literally a breath of fresh air, accompanied by a hint of fragrance from the huge bouquet of fresh flowers in the lobby. The hotel is a haven in the middle of the city. Just stepping into the building provides one with a palpable sense of calm and tranquility.

My wife and I arrived by taxi and experienced a seamless transition from the entrance to the lobby to our guest room. In the process we received a traditional Indian greeting from no less than ten attentive staff. The Oberoi Grand takes the security of its guests seriously, discretely checking cars, people, and bags as they enter the hotel. Hotel staff instantly recognized our reservation through Kiwi Connection, and we received a complementary upgrade to a luxury room with high ceilings and a view over the central courtyard. Our room was elegantly furnished including a four post bed and large flat screen television, with fresh fruit and flowers.

The Oberoi Grand is conveniently located, close to the main business and shopping districts of Kolkata — Park Street, BBD Bagh, and Chowringhee. The hotel is over 125 years old with Victorian columned architecture. It is in impeccable condition, with interiors and rooms stylishly appointed and spotlessly clean. The hotel has a lounge, two restaurants, and an outstanding buffet breakfast was complementary. Our Indian dinner at the restaurant was one of the best we’ve had in India. The Oberoi Grand has a luxurious spa, modern fitness facility with terrific equipment, and a relaxing courtyard with pool. Wireless Internet access is available throughout the hotel.

Soon after we arrived at the The Oberoi Grand, senior staff introduced themselves, and then addressed us by name for the remainder of our visit. They inquired frequently and sincerely if we were enjoying ourselves and if there was anything else we required. They discreetly asked about our plans, without being intrusive, so as to better assist us. They politely and efficiently handled the special requests that we made, like scheduling an appointment at a recommended hairdresser for my wife. We visited Kolkata during the final days of a large and spectacular Indian festival, Durga Puja, and the staff were pleased to provide us with information about the festival and how best to participate.

The Oberoi Grand provided everything we expect of a luxury hotel, plus a little more. We would recommend it for any business or leisure traveler seeking an exceptional stay in the heart of Kolkata.

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Durga Puja

October 3, 2009

We spent most of last night wandering the streets of Calcutta. We had no idea
where we were or exactly where we were going. It was amazing.

We’re here during a major Indian festival called ‘Durga Puja’. It is celebrated in many places in India, but nowhere with the fervor of Calcutta. It is like Halloween, Mardi Gras, and New Year’s Eve combined.

Durga Puja celebrates the triumph of the Hindu goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasur who had taken over heaven and earth. The three main Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (all male) were unable to defeat him individually so they combined their powers to create Durga. This strong female goddess has ten arms carrying the signature weapons of each of her creators and rides upon a lion. Durga was able to defeat Mahishasur restoring heaven to the gods and earth to humanity, and the festival Durga Puja celebrates this triumph of good over evil. In Calcutta it is also believed that Durga leaves the home of her husband Shiva (yes, this bad-ass chick is married) once a year to her parental abode. She appears for only a four day period during the festival to eradicate all evil from the earth, after which she returns to her husband’s abode at Mount Kailash in the Himalayas.

People in Calcutta spend much of the year preparing for Durga Puja. Huge images of Durga and her children (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha, and Kartik) are prepared and placed in temporary structures called ‘pandals’ for public display during the period of festival. They are elaborate and beautiful, made primarily with painted clay over straw and bamboo.


The pandals that house them are the size of houses and both they and the streets around them are lit up with electric lights, often animated in displays superior to the best Christmas lights. The streets are full of vendors selling food and drink for the visitors and loud music is usually played about twenty hours a day. Neighborhood associations are generally responsible for putting the pandals together with the help of corporate sponsorships. They work all year, similar to the ‘crews’ of Mardi Gras. It is estimated that there are 2000 pandals throughout Calcutta, with many more across the state of West Bengal. On our trip to the Sunderbans we passed many of them in small villages.


People visit the pandals day and night during the festival. They’re open twenty four hours a day. The crowds are largest at night, when the pandals and streets are lit up. The most popular ones receive tens of thousands of visitors per day, filing past in huge lines. It is definitely a family event, and parents walk with or carry their children. The women seem to be wearing some of their finest clothes. Traffic comes to a virtual standstill and public transportation can be overwhelmed. The police are out in full force to control the pedestrians and vehicles. We don’t have anything quite so overwhelming in Canada. Perhaps if the Vancouver Canucks won the Stanley Cup on Halloween night it would come close. Although the idols are religious for Hindus, there is a definite party atmosphere and it doesn’t appear to be a particularly spiritual occasion. There is a lot of noise, children running around, and drunken men wandering the streets.


On the last evening of the festival, the idols are removed from the pandals, transported, and then carried into the river Hooghly and immersed. The idols are transported in trucks full of supporters cheering and dancing, then hoisted by groups of straining men to the river bank where there are spun around repeatedly before being carried into the river. Thousands of them float away into the darkness.

We visited about twenty pandals during the festival. Some were within walking distance of our guest house on our first night in Calcutta. It’s easy to find a pandal – just listen for the music, look for the lights, and follow the crowds. A couple of nights later, upon our return from the Sunderbans, we went ‘pandal hopping’ beginning at about 8 PM. We caught a cab to the south side of the city to see some of the most highly regarded pandals. All we had was their names on a scrap of paper. We started at Maddock Square and walked from there, reading the names of the places we wanted to get to, and asking people in the crowd to point us in the right direction. We walked for several miles through the streets, getting lost, then re-directed, then lost again. It was very hot, very humid, and very crowded.

We decided to head home at about 1 AM. We were both tired and Diane had a heat rash on her legs. The streets were still packed with people, as were the buses, but they were no help to us since we didn’t know where we were or which bus might take us where we wanted to go. We finally got a cab after about thirty minutes of trying, and made it back to our hotel at about 2 AM.

The next morning Diane was ill, perhaps overdoing it the night before, but she had sufficiently recovered by evening that we could walk down to the river to watch the immersions. The crowds were crazy, the drumming loud, and it wasn’t possible to get close to the water as the police were restricting anyone who wasn’t carrying an idol. We did get a few photos though.


Durga Puja was something that we’d heard about in Canada, and we’re so glad that we were able to be here when it took place. It was bit earlier this year than normal, usually occurring in October or November, so it worked out for us. It was absolutely one of the highlights of our trip to India.


Oh Calcutta

October 3, 2009

Leaving the South of India we returned to the North, catching a flight from Chennai to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state. Kolkata was previously known as Calcutta.

Diane was a bit apprehensive about coming to Calcutta. It is India’s second largest city with over 15 million people. In addition to being the source of the expression “the black hole of Calcutta”, its reputation is that of a poverty-stricken city. It is the location of Mother Teresa’s famous mission to help the sick and the dying. We expected it to be poor and a bit depressing, and while there definitely are these aspects to Calcutta, it also has many other virtues that surprised us.

We shared a cab from the airport with an American couple who were arriving to spend four months at a yoga ashram. It took almost two hours to make our way through the Calcutta traffic in the heat of the early afternoon. It was very hot. The streets were congested and the smog was thick, the worst we’ve experienced on this trip so far. Diane thought that we’d arrived in a hell hole.

After an hour of walking with our packs on due to Patrick’s navigation error, we found a cheap guest house just a couple of blocks off Park Street, home to many of Calcutta’s nice shops and restaurants (a bit like staying in the downtown east side and walking to India’s equivalent of Robson Street).

The next morning we went to a restaurant called Flury’s, a Calcutta institution since colonial days. We were amazed to find a nicely decorated and spotlessly clean café, as remarkable as anything in Vancouver. We drank good espresso and amazing Assam tea and enjoyed freshly baked goods. We had two peach danishes — the best we’ve ever had. We got into a pleasant conversation with a British lawyer at the next table and ended up spending a couple of hours over a lovely breakfast.

We then walked to the Victoria Memorial, built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1901. It wasn’t completed until 20 years after her death. It is a beautiful building and a grandiose example of colonial extravagance. It is surrounded by reflecting ponds and landscaped grounds, and it houses displays of paintings, photographs, and an interesting history of Calcutta.

The Victoria Memorial is located in the Maidan, a large park in the center of the city (like Central Park in New York). We started to walk across the park, but Diane decided to retreat because it had long grass which could mask any number of unpleasantries, was partially flooded, and contained a lot of homeless people. The Maidan is also the site of Fort William, which the British built to protect their trading outpost here. In 1756 Siraj-ud-Daula recaptured the city from the British, and imprisoned the colonial leadership in cramped rooms underneath Fort William. In one night about 40 British died from suffocation, and it became known as ‘the black hole of Calcutta’. When the British re-captured the city they cleared the land around the fort, including demolishing an entire village, so that they would have a clear line of sight for their cannons. It is this area that became The Maidan.


We caught the Metro (subway) to an area called BBD Bagh to purchase our onward train tickets. It is named after three men (Binoy, Badal, and Dinesh) who tried and failed to assassinate British Lieutenant-Governor Lord Dalhousie in 1930, an early step towards Indian Independence. BBD Bagh is home to many of the beautiful old colonial buildings in Calcutta and houses many of the government offices today. It’s ironic that the area of these colonial landmarks is now named after three men who tried to bring an end to colonialism.

The Metro was packed, and we were squished, but the mostly male passengers were helpful and polite. It wasn’t unlike riding the Skytrain in Vancouver during the peak of rush hour — perhaps a bit more crowded like New York, but not as bad as Tokyo. Diane is often the only woman (or one of the few) when we do certain things in India, like riding some buses or trains, going to a bar, etc.

BBD Bagh is home to the Foreign Tourist Office of the Eastern Railway. Calcutta is one of the few cities in India that reserves a small quota of train tickets that can be purchased only by tourists. This is so that travelers like us that want to have a flexible itinerary can get tickets on short notice. The downside is that the price is much higher than if we’d booked the normal way. However, we knew that we’d be leaving Calcutta the day after the end of a major festival, along with everyone else in town, and that all other train tickets had been booked weeks in advance. The tourist quota is very valuable to us in situations such as this.

We walked back through the part of town where most backpackers stay called Sudder Street. The wide sidewalks on the major thoroughfare of Chowringhee Road were packed with street vendors, shoppers, and pedestrians. It was the first time we’ve really felt the crush of humanity since arriving in India. Men were standing on their street stalls yelling about their wares and prices. We needed to literally squeeze through the crowd. Diane was fully stressed.

But we made it to a bar called Blue and Beyond, on the rooftop of a nine story building from where we could look over the city at night. After some time and a beer to relax, we went to one of Calcutta’s most popular restaurants called ‘Peter Cat’, a very strange name for a family restaurant with the feel of the 1970’s steak house. We arrived at 10 PM and there was a waiting list with people lined up outside.

Such was our introduction to Calcutta. It is a very hectic, exotic and fascinating place, and after a few days there, Diane was a bit sad to leave it.


The Last of the Man Eaters

September 29, 2009

We’ve come to the Sunderbans, the last place in India where people are regularly attacked and eaten by tigers. It is located on the north east border with Bangladesh, which is just a few kilometers from where we write this. Sunderbans is the world’s largest river delta, where the Ganges River enters the Bay of Bengal through an enormous maze of small islands, many of which flood at high tide. It is also the world’s largest mangrove forest. Due to the tidal action, the water is very salty here making mangroves one of the few plants that survive except on the highest patches of ground. It is an eerie place of silty rivers and canals winding between low islands covered in tangled mangrove limbs and strange roots that stick up through the muddy ground. Sunderbans has one of the highest concentrations of tigers anywhere in India. As of last census there were 274 Royal Bengal tigers here.

Here is one that we didn’t take a picture of…

The Sunderbans tigers are well adapted to this environment. They are slightly smaller and more agile than in other parts of India so as to better maneuver in the tangled and muddy swamps, and they live on smaller prey including spotted dear, fish, crabs, and humans. Although all tigers are comfortable with water, the Sunderbans tigers are required to regularly swim between the many small islands in search of prey, including across wide rivers. Their tracks can be seen on the muddy river banks where they enter and exit the water.

The local people are poor and subsist in small villages along the edge of the tiger habitat. The forest department has erected a fence on the bank across the river from the villages to discourage the tigers from crossing. Given its visible faults and low success rate it is clearly a psychological barrier only. Tigers periodically cross the river to take easy prey — domestic animals and villagers. As a species we’re slow, weak when unarmed, have poor eyesight at night when tigers generally hunt, and a weak sense of smell. Easy pickings for a tiger.


We’re staying right beside one of these villages at Sunderbans Tiger Camp. We arrived here after a four hour bus journey from Calcutta followed by a one hour boat ride. We tour the Tiger Reserve by boat, but the chances of seeing a tiger are slim. The mangrove trees are so dense that unless you meet a tiger swimming you’re unlikely to see one – unless you enter the small channels or the forest itself.

Local men enter the mangrove forests to fish, gather firewood, and harvest wild honey. This work is so dangerous that when their husbands leave for a trip into the forest, the women dress and act like widows until their return. Despite all reasonable precautions, about thirty people are eaten each year.

Tigers attack from behind, preferring to bite the neck or arms of the victim. For protection, the local men wear masks of human faces on the rear of their heads, to confuse the tigers as to which is their back side. This apparently reduced the number of tiger attacks until the tigers figured it out, and now probably has little effect, but the masks are still are worn nonetheless. Tiger census takers visit the shore of many islands to take imprints of tiger paw tracks. They do so armed like a SWAT team wearing helmets and protective vests with high hard collars to protect the back of their necks

There is a local legend where the goddess of the forest saved a small boy who had been left as a sacrifice to appease the tiger god Dakshin Roy. We were treated one evening to a re-enactment of this story by the local villagers, complete with music and traditional songs. All local people including Hindus, Muslims, and Christians worship the goddess Bon Bibi before venturing into the forest so that she will protect them from tigers. Small temples containing her idol exist at most forest entry points.

Once in the forest, the men try to stay on their boats wherever possible, but even this isn’t sufficient defense. Tigers here will attack people in their boats and drag them into the water. Then kill and eat them — hopefully in that order. Their remains are rarely found.

Tiger attacks are far more common in the Sunderbans that elsewhere in India and many theories have been advanced for why these tigers are so aggressive. Some thought it was because the tigers regularly drink salt water and may live in constant discomfort, so fresh water pools were dug, but the attacks continued unabated. Because the tigers’ scent markings are regularly washed away by the tides, they may need to be more aggressive to protect their territories. The most likely reason is that this is a learned behaviour, with cubs learning it from their mothers.

There used to be man-eating tigers across India and attacks were very common. It has been estimated that about 300,000 people were killed by tigers in the 19th Century alone. But the man-eating tigers were hunted down and killed everywhere else, along with the vast majority of all the tigers, leaving only those that were timid and afraid of humans. The reason that Sunderbans is the only place where attacks occur regularly now is that the mangrove swamp is so dense, and the ground so muddy, that it is not practical and far too dangerous to hunt the tigers, even man-eating ones, so they continue to not be afraid of humans and to consider us prey.

Here in Sunderbans, humans are not at the top of the food chain.