It’s the kick off of 2015 and they’re all doing it (the mainstream press that is). So, as a professional traveller I thought I’d add my pinch of salt – or spice. Culled from decades of travel, here’s my short-list of affordable destinations that give you the best of all worlds … in 2015.
It’s October 1st, new moon – and in Kolkata that means Durga Puja – yay! the start of five exhilarating days and nights of praying, eating, dancing, talking, drumming, flirting and more eating. All this is in honour of the indomitable mother-goddess Durga, wife of Shiva, blessed with ten arms and occasionally masquerading as the ferocious Kali. As this is India, the backstory is complex, even, let’s say, incomprehensible, but the bottom line is that during Durga Puja celebrations, all Kolkata comes out to play. It’s Bengal’s version of a Hindu Christmas.
Wandering the streets of north Kolkata, beyond the grand old colonial buildings of the British Raj heart, draws you into a maze of alleyways and a patchwork of religions where life fizzes as intensely as in any Bollywood movie. This was and still is Kolkata’s “grey zone”, neither black nor white, where Christian Anglo-Indians live beside Muslims and Zoroastrians, and tiny communities of Chinese Buddhists beside the last surviving Jews. And, oh joy, the city’s infamous traffic-jams are left behind.
Improvisation versus method. That`s how I`d define this crazy city (Calcutta – or Kolkata), almost out of control but not quite, with a seething, ever-expanding population of 15 + million or so (like Mexico City, the exact numbers are hard to pin down), battalions of yellow taxis, an all too visible class / caste system and endless visual shocks.
Finding your way anywhere is by trial and error, plus a bit of tribulation. Dodging honking auto-rickshaws, taxis and manic little Marutis, even hand-pulled rickshaws (yes, tragically they still ply their trade), negotiating the streets becomes an art. Even pavements can be hard-going, pockmarked as they are with mini craters and broken slabs, half occupied by rows of food-stalls where people chop, cook and eat, and sometimes fusing seamlessly with the street.
One of my greatest pleasures is flying over countries I know and pinpointing places I’ve been to. The next is spotting places I want to go to. Years ago I was flying back from somewhere in South-East Asia, or maybe it was Australia, when I spotted way down below, smack in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, a cluster of myriad islands. You probably know the kind – encircled by white then degrees of turquoise, seemingly afloat in endless ultramarine. Coral reefs anyone? Those islands stuck in my mind for years, somehow inaccessible yet always enticing. Now I’ve finally just been to them. They are India’s Andaman Islands, in other words – Paradise Found, to use a well-honed cliché.
Summer seems over and autumn truly here with a bleak sun that occasionally pokes a few warming rays through our traditional cloud-cover. Perfect tennis-weather. Talking of meteorological features, I’ve just marked the September 26th full moon in my diary. This is the extra-ordinary outsize ‘harvest’ moon, unique to this time of year, that looks like a giant UFO rolling across the skyline. I remember seeing it (knowingly) for the first time while driving through northern Italy in my misspent youth. Suddenly a huge pink globe powered upwards and seemed to block the end of the road. Nobody in the car could quite figure out what the phenomenon was but it inevitably generated a stream of animated comments. Mamma Mia!! hai VISTO??? che cos’e quella cosa gigantesca? mi fa paura! potrebbe essere un marziano? Etcetera. Very spooky indeed. But we drove on, no Martians appeared and we made it back to our pastasciutta in Padova.