Iftekhar and Manjit from The Calcutta City Walks are not guides. They are explorers. When questioned about the difference, they explain: “Guides pour out facts about sights, ’…this church is from 1856, that building is from 1760…’, etc. We decided right from the start that we didn’t want to do that. Instead we explore the city along with our guests and when they get curious about something we tell them stories, which give a deeper understanding of the city and its history.”
And stories are certainly told. Like the one about why the dead letter office was so important in the time when the sea voyage from London to Calcutta could take anything from three months to several years. Or the explanation as to why a man is sitting by the bus stop all day, providing change for bus conductors or that in communist Kolkata, the party newspaper is posted on the wall of the bus stop, so that the ordinary man can read it.
Their exploration always takes place on foot and is usually restricted to a certain neighbourhood, paired with a certain theme: Colonial Calcutta in around BBD Bagh, Confluence of Cultures in the neighbourhoods north of that, etc. The Guide is dead, long live the Explorer!
Calcutta Walks, walks. Therefore it doesn’t add to the pollution of the congested city, though they do sometimes cycle if there is a bandh (strike). Furthermore, the format of the tours is carefully planned. Groups are of maximum five people, so they never ‘invade’ the places they visit. The food bought is always local and visits to homes in the areas are planned as personal visits.
They are not a part of the commission racket, where tourists are lead to certain favoured shops for souvenirs. The explorers have no time for it and prefer to charge a little extra rather than tricking tourists into buying unnecessary items for rocket-high prices.
The explorers are conscious that Kolkata for many years has suffered under the tag of a ‘dirty city’. To counter this, they don’t just show the pretty side. Rather, they turn seemingly ordinary buildings, people and cultural practices into little wonders by telling their stories and showing them off as unique to their own corner of the world.
In the low season, Calcutta Walks initiated the Clean Up Calcutta campaign, where ordinary people collected refuse, in order to convey the desperate necessity civic sense amongst the people of the metropolis.
- The explorers don’t tell you what they know, they tell you what you want to know and make you curious about what you don’t know.
- No heavily accented English or poor communications skills.
- All explorers are from the city’s best universities and exhibit an academic interest in the history of the city, which supersedes what a two-hour walk can encompass.
- Traffic jams don’t matter for the walking tourist – plus it’s pollution free to walk.
- No commission to shops or restaurants. Visitors don’t have to worry about the monetary side, while they are trying to approach the city and its people.
- Kolkata can be hot, crowded and overwhelming, once you step out of the A/C of your hotel room. Have a nice meal and be sure you are up for walking around for a couple of hours before you embark on a walk.
- The fee for a walk matches the fee of a guide in a European capital, rather than an Indian one. The reason is that the explorers are so well-educated that their salary will have to match what they can get working for, say, a multinational company.
Calcutta Walks is run by a Muslim founder, a Hindu tour operator and a Sikh graphic designer-cum-explorer. Together they form a part of the city’s multicultural elite – a class of the well-educated young people who foreign tourists usually don’t have access to, unless they enroll at a university for a semester or two or live as expatriates in India for a long period of time. From their office in the Bow Barracks area, they continue to be curious enough to keep exploring new dimensions of the city – from Bengali rock music in South Kolkata to exhibitions of new photographic art – their spirit of exploration never dies.
Our guests have greatly appreciated the walk which encourages tourists to venture onto the streets to experience the culture, history and heritage. This walk helps explorers see Kolkata in a different light altogether and we highly recommend this experience! – Amitabh Rai, General Manager, The Oberoi Grand.
Ideal For Whom
People who hunger for a real understanding of a slice of India (rather than superficial commodification of Indian ‘heritage’) will love this walk. To get the full benefit, you need a reasonable level of English and physical fitness that allows walking around the city. In winter, it is a stroll, whereas during the monsoon, it is much more strenuous due to the heavy rains and the humid climate.
When To Visit
When in doubt, ask! Every explorer has enough insight into his/her own culture to provide you an in-depth understanding of local traditions, which is far more significant than just having knowledge about dress codes or social etiquette.
If you have a couple of days in the city, consider going on a weekend, when the traffic is less.
Things To Bring
A pair of good shoes, linen clothes to fight the humidity and a list of all the things you don’t understand about Kolkata. For warm days: water bottle, sunscreen and hat.
Pick-Up Location: your hotel
Pick-Up Time: by appointment
Drop-off Location: your hotel
Drop-off Time: by appointment
Normal Payment Policy: At time of booking a non-refundable deposit of 10% is charged to your credit card in Euro equivalent by Travel To Care on behalf of Calcutta Walks. The rest of the payment can be made online in advance or in cash at the end of the tour.
Normal Cancellation Policy: Initial deposit is non-refundable for any cancellations. Cancellations made with a one-week notice are liable for a full refund. No refund for cancellations made with less than a week’s.
Payment Options: Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express; Cash, PayPal. Bank Transfers
Period(s) tour is not operational: N/A