At around 10am, I left the hotel and walked to Ballygunge station. I bought a ticket to BBD Bagh and caught a local train to Majerhat, where I changed to the Kolkata Circular Railway. The single track railway line runs along the bank of the Hooghly river; the short journey was quite interesting, passing by slums, shipyards and a massive drydock.
I alighted at BBD Bagh station, where Google Maps had suggested I would find a ferry wharf. I walked towards the river, and sure enough, I found the rickety wooden ferry wharf close by, with a small ferry sitting at the end of it. I bought a ticket for 5 rupees, and walked down the wooden gangway onto the ferry. The ferry consisted of a bare metal deck with 2 rows of double sided longitudinal seating. At the top of the ferry was a wheelhouse and at the front was a raised section where the deckhand stood, securing the ferry to the wharf. The roof was corrugated iron attached to a tubular steel frame, with long sections of tubular steel running along the length of the ferry, at about 190 cm off the deck (for standing passengers to hold onto). There was a 1m high tubular steel fence running along the edge of each side, with gaps to allow passengers to board.
There was no obvious timetable, but after some time had passed, the deckhand rang a bell and cast off. The ferry chugged across the wide river (dirty and polluted, with rubbish and small oil slicks moving randomly along the surface) toward the opposite bank. Despite the polluted water, it was pleasant on the river; the water cooling the hot, humid air. It was the middle of the day, and the ferry was lightly loaded. A vendor peddled his wares (some sort of dried fruit and nut mix) and a shoe shine man waited for a customer with closed leather shoes (unlikely in a city that loves sandals).
It took just under 10 minutes to cross the river, and although I wasn’t sure exactly where we would end up, I had a pretty good idea. As anticipated, we docked at the Howrah railway station wharf, and I walked through the subway towards the station. I knew that there was a railway museum nearby, so I walked along the road in the direction I though it would be. I found it easily, but my heart sank when I read the sign; “Eastern Railway rail museum. Visiting hours 13:00 to 20:00 hours. Closed Thursdays.” Today was Thursday.
I walked back to the ferry wharf, and bought a ticket for Bagbazar (further up the river on the other side). A number of ferries came and went before one came along with Bagbazar written on the side. I boarded and stood at the railing on the opposite side to the wharf. I noticed a ferry coming towards us at an alarming speed; I thought he would surely crash into us and braced for a collision. At the last minute, the ferry captain skilfully turned his ferry into the fast moving river current and gently brought it alongside ours, in effect double parking so the passengers on the adjacent ferry walked through my ferry and onto the wharf and the reverse occurred for boarding passengers.
As soon as the double parked ferry cast off, we were under way too, chugging sedately upstream. We zig-zagged across the river, stopping at ghats (wharves) on both sides. Near the ghats, people were bathing and swimming in the river. I couldn’t even imagine putting my little toe into the filthy water, much less immersing myself in it, but these people looked as if they had no option. I just wondered if they were actually any cleaner when they came out!
After about 20 minutes, we reached an unmarked ghat where everyone got off. I said to the deck hand “Bagbazar?” and he waggled his head in confirmation. Next to the wharf was a railway station on the Circular Railway, and next to the railway station was a narrow road with a tram line. I walked along the narrow road for about 20 minutes, until a tram came rumbling along, which I flagged down and climbed aboard. The conductor came up and gestured to me with a questioning look and I said “Esplanade”. He shook his head and said “no Esplanade” and mumbled something else. I didn’t really care where the tram was going, so I shrugged my shoulders and handed over 5 rupees.
The tram became more and more crowded, as did the surrounding roads and we were soon stuck in a traffic jam. I couldn’t work out why there was so much oncoming traffic in our way, until I realised that both the inbound and outbound tram tracks were laid in a one way street; we were going the wrong way down the one way street. Three lanes of traffic had to merge into 2 as we forced our way along, the tram driver almost constantly ringing his bell.
We finally reached the inner city area, and the tram turned onto some reserved tracks, and shortly after this, the tram turned down a single track in a narrow lane. We met a car coming in the other direction, who had to hastily back up to let the tram through. We ran through a large puddle which covered both tracks, and back out onto another street before emerging onto the reserved tracks in the opposite direction, this was obviously the terminus.
I left the tram and spent some time photographing other trams in the area, before catching a different route further in towards the inner city. We went two stops before stopping abruptly; the Driver exited his compartment and said something in Hindi and sat in one of the passenger seats. The other passengers groaned and half left the tram. I didn’t know what was happening until I looked ahead and saw that the tram in front of us had brought down the overhead wires. This was at 16:30 at the busiest terminus in the city (Esplanade), and all trams had ground to a halt.
Several tram conductors were trying unsuccessfully to untangle the tram’s trolley pole from the overhead wires with a bamboo sick and hook, but the tram was well and truly snagged. Thankfully, the 500v power supply had tripped a circuit breaker in the substation when it earthed so there was no danger of electrocution. Conductors, Drivers and supervisors looked, poked, prodded and gave unhelpful advice, until an ancient red truck with an hydraulic platform on the back appeared. All through the disruption, I was taking photographs of the chaos and repairs. I kept expecting to be told to stop, but no one seemed to care that I was shooting away, as long as I kept out of their way. The big red truck effortly pushed the stricken tram out of the way before the repair crew began rewiring the section by hand, stringing up new sections of contact wire and support wires.
The repairs took about an hour, and it looked as if things would soon be moving again. When the repairs had been completed, fresh disaster struck! The driver of the big red truck forgot to lower his platform before driving away and caught a support wire on the guard rail! The support wire snapped, and another overhead section came down. After a lot of laughing by the dozens of tramways staff now gathered and yelling by a supervisor, the repair gang went back up onto the platform and rewired the newly downed section.
Darkness fell as another hour passed, and the wires were finally fixed. The big red truck drove off (more carefully this time) and the power restored. I stood and watched the long parade of trams which had been delayed by the overhead disruption before walking to the nearby Esplanade metro station. I caught the metro to Rabindra Sarobar and changed to the Suburban train at Tollygunge station. I didn’t have long to wait before a suburban train came to take me the 2 stops back to Ballygunge.
I had been wearing closed shoes for the trip so far (very impractical in the Indian heat) and was sick of having sweaty feet, so I stopped at a shoe stall in the huge street market near my hotel. The store-holder had a little bit of trouble finding sandals to fit my size 11 feet, but he found a comfortable pair of very open sandals. As they only cost 300 rupees (about A$6.50), I don’t expect they’ll last much longer than this trip, but if they see me through India, I’ll be happy. I stopped in the street and changed out of my canvas shoes and socks and into the lightweight sandals; the relief was instant.
I returned to the same street vendor who had served me omelette and beans the night before. His eyes lit up when he saw me and I was treated like an old friend; he found me the best plastic stool in the house and gestured for me to sit down. He said “you like omelette again, sah?” I told him “exactly the same as last night, please”. He beamed and busily started to cook. I was the only customer when I arrived, and by the time I was halfway through my meal, there was quite a queue formed. Part of me likes to think it was because a Westerner was dining at the stall that had generated the interest (but it’s probably just timing). After another delicious meal, I returned to my hotel for a long shower, washing the mixture of sweat, grit and pollution of Kolkata off me.