A Month in Kolkata

A month in Kolkata

It’s now been a month since I arrived in Kolkata – and I’m yet to write anything about it! I’ve dug myself into a blogging black hole, where I feel like I have to say so much to catch up, so I’m just going to roll with the punches on this post and verbal diarrhea (beats the several spells of actual diarrhea I’ve had this month) my way through some thoughts and rants about my first month living in India, aka, how did this happen and what the fuck am I doing here.

There’s two main reasons this post has taken so long: one, I have been overwhelmingly busy with settling in to the daily grind here, and two, it’s really difficult to write about the kind of life that falls between travelling and setting up a new life abroad.

Kolkata is now my permanent home, for the next twelve months. I still have moments walking down the street where it hits me, how did I possibly get here? What is my life right now? What am I doing? Why did I eat that samosa that I knew was going to make me poop all day? Life back home in Melbourne feels like a lifetime away.

It’s daunting, planting myself in one spot for a year that is so different from anything I’ve experienced in Australia. Travelling through Asia gave me a bit of an insight into the difference between a metropolitan city like Melbourne and being in developing countries, but nothing could prepare me for how exhilarating, and how exhausting living in one full time could be.

On one hand, this is a whole new experience, visiting places and meeting people that so much of the world is never given the chance to experience. On the other hand, I live here now. This is just life here. And even somewhere so exotic and different as Kolkata, it’s easy to start living a routine, monotonous life, full of daily responsibilities and chores, where all the points of difference melt away and I stop even noticing the enthralling details about life here that brought me back here permanently.

I’ve been here a month, and I’m already taking a little break next week to explore somewhere new. Like a good wine or cheese (or relationship), some places are so intense and full bodied, that stepping back to have a palate cleanser and refresh your mind can be so important. Next week I’m off to Sri Lanka to give myself that break!

A month here went by so quickly, quicker than I could have imagined, given I’m here so far from home, with none of comforts and no safety net. The first month has been flat out. As I’ve touched on just a tad here, I’m here starting a new job with Pollinate Energy, a social business working in getting clean energy & useful technology to the poorest of the poor here, those living in urban slums. It’s a very rewarding, if often exhausting job.

Solar Panels in a Slum Community
Solar panels, providing charge to lights for these slum houses, are set up on the pillars of the wire fence that separates their homes from the busy local road. Due to their location backing onto a local canal, this is the most electricity these families have access to.

I came into this job with an innate sense of faith in the universe – that everything would be fine and everything would always work out. And more than that, a warped sense of Murphy’s Law; that everything bad that could possibly happen has kind of happened, so if anything worse than that eventually does happen, it would be a refreshing surprise – I mean, to quote a distressed drunk friend, I am an orphan who’s house burnt down this year (more on that another day). How bad can it be to just up and move overseas for a year?

I haven’t regretted it at all. Which is surprising, as I put so little thought or consideration into deciding if I was actually going to come here.  I decided I was going to apply for the position while I was still travelling in South East Asia, and I decided if I got the job I would take it. There was never much of an internal debate about it (more so one from my bank account). Even my house burning down in February, the day before my final interview for the role didn’t put a damper on my enthusiasm to pack up and leave – if anything it just made me more determined to come here and pick a new direction in life, because if I had to rebuild and restart my life somewhere anyway, it might as well be in India! In the end, I came here because there was an opportunity there and I didn’t even want to consider reasons not to take it.

People I’ve talked to about moving here have often said, “that’s so cool! I wish I could do that! But I’m stuck here in X because of Y! “. I don’t want to be someone who ever says “I wish I could” about something that I 100% definitely can do. There was nothing stopping me, and there’s nothing stopping anyone else either for the most part. It’s all a matter of choice, and taking control over the path you want to take in life.

The simplicity of leaving my chaotic home life in Melbourne for a year was tempting, but as was the idea of a life of complete chaos, which is the ever changing dichotomy I deal with here in Kolkata.

The calm, quiet local fisheries, behind supplies and rubbish from local slums.

Kolkata is a cross between incredibly isolated, and one of the most densely packed places you could imagine. A city the size of any normal city – of Melbourne, or Sydney, or the general 10km radius that most major cities expand to (test it out in Sim City and get back to me), here holds 12 MILLION people. Half the population of Australia, shoved in an area the size of a standard capital city. You’d expect to see hundreds of 50 storey buildings all packing people in like sardines, but you don’t. It’s tough here to work out where all the people go. The answer is usually quite sad: a huge amount of the population (many sources saying a third of the city) live in slums – tiny shacks that fit one family to a western sized bedroom. Some amazing photos of what life in a slum in Kolkata is like are available in this In Focus article, The Slums & Homeless of Kolkata.

Kolkata has it’s challenges for westerners because of this isolation/metropolis dichotomy. It’s not easy to be anonymous here, speaking purely as a white skinned (bottle blonde) Westerner. People stare, people ask for pictures (“mam, mam, selfie!”), kids (and adults actually) follow you around. The good thing about Kolkata compared to other gigantic cities, and other cities in India (I’m looking at you, New Delhi), is that you don’t have a dollar sign floating above your head for simply obviously being foreign.

There are many objectively likeable cities I’ve been to that I’ve absolutely despised being in and checked out of quickly (literally and figuratively), because of this. Tuk tuks or street hawkers following me down the street.  Trying to talk my way out of paying 20 times the local price for food/market ware/travel. Kids pestering me at cafes selling their cheap tourist wares – the worst of being that their parents pull them out of school or deny them access to education, which comes with its own pile of guilt and anger at myself for bringing my tourist economy invisible dollar sign existence into their home (I’m looking at you Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, HCMC, and New Delhi  again!). But being here in Kolkata, working with Pollinate Energy, I do at least feel that for all of that, I am in a position to make some positive change here.


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An extended stopover in Kuala Lumpur

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I left Melbourne Wednesday night, straight from a goodbye dinner with my friends to the airport. I was initially not going to do anything in the way of goodbyes, and there are many people I didn’t get a chance to see before I left. I reached out to those who had wanted to see me off, and we had a small dinner and a few beers, before a good friend of mine drove me straight to the airport.

I flew with AirAsia, one of the major low budget Asian carriers. Last time I flew with them I swore off them…but $250 AUD tickets to Malaysia and a $100 AUD flight from KL to India (all before the $$$ bringing baggage cost me) was just too enticing.

My favourite thing about KL was that it was a city you could just “be” in. It’s a city that’s kind to travellers: there’s not an overwhelming presence of tourist scams and louts trying to rip you off or stuff you in their tuk tuk. Everyone (literally everyone I met) speaks English, there’s no fiddling around with guidebooks. There’s enough wonderful stuff to do (e.g. the Batu Caves are a must), that you can excusably spend a few days here, but there’s not an overwhelming pressure to constantly be in tourist mode with your camera ready to go. You can stop, you can have a few days off the road, and you can relax with travellers who are all there for the same reason.

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A view of the Batu caves (from a great little view spot in the monorail station) – unfortunately the surrounding area is dominated by tourist bus stops and car parks.

If you want to head out of the rat race, there are gorgeous forests both in the city central (a mini eco park at the foot of KL Tower), and short bus trips outside (though I didn’t make it there, the Cameron Highlands were something other travellers I met gushed about).

It had one of the greatest public transport networks I’ve ever experienced. After 5 days there, I never once got into a taxi, and the most I spent on a train or bus ticket was 11 MYR (~$3.60 AUD) to go to the airport (an hour long bus trip). Major tourist spots had their own free busses or monorail stops, and everything was just refreshingly easy.

KL, due to AirAsia’s dominance of the budget Asian air carriers, is a major stop over city. This parallels Bangkok, another common stopover city for those coming into Asia from Europe or many far away countries. If given the choice between Bangkok and KL, after doing Bangkok a few times, and Khao San Rd enough times over, I would definitely recommend KL as a stopping point or a starting point in your travels – or even somewhere to have a mid trip break from the hustle and bustle of the rest of Asia, or to save some money before trekking on to Singapore or other pricier Asian cities.

The biggest letdown of KL was the alcohol prices – however, any weekday you’ll be able to hit the main Bintang bar street and find somewhere with some “GIRLS DRINK FREE” signs plastered all over, or a very enthusiastic promoter outside convincing you he’ll wave your entry/get you free drinks for just existing as a female in their bar. Boys unfortunately, or any party goers on weekends, will need to fork out at least 15 MYR a beer (quite dear for Asian backpacker cities), or up to 50 MYR for cocktails (albeit, often with “buy one get one free” deals).

The view from KL Tower. Unfortunately a hazy day, which created an optical illusion that I was on the wrong side of the barrier...
The view from KL Tower. Unfortunately a hazy day, which created an optical illusion that I was on the wrong side of the barrier…

I stayed in the Bukit Bintang district, at Sunshine Bedz. One of my favourite hostels I’ve visited, free breakfast, and beer for sale in the hostel lobby for prices cheaper than literally any liquor or convenience store we found anywhere. A friendly place, with quiet dorms but a great social atmosphere. If I came back to KL, I would definitely stay there again. A 2 minute walk from a monorail station, the free tourist busses, 5 minutes from the main food street, bar street, and a McDonalds (never overestimate the draw of a drunk cheeseburger) one stumbled, hungover step away.

Overall, KL was a perfect break from the comfortable familiarity of Melbourne, before jumping right into life in Kolkata, India.


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Broken/breaking hearts


So when I travel, I love travel flings. I dive into them.


My most successful (read: least destructive) relationships have been travel flings.
Somehow, my intense personality is conveniently matched by the intensity of the situation. Hardly sleeping, moving on every few days to new locations, spending a couple of hours building trust with friends you’ve just met, enough to go out and get drunk in a foreign country with them, knowing they’ll have your back.

There’s no “wrong” amount of energy to pour into a travel romance. There’s a ticking time bomb as to one of you leaving the country (or falling head over heels enough to change or create plans to follow your new beau, which, in the heightened emotion environment of long term travel, somehow doesn’t seem that scary sometimes), which takes all the pressure off appearing clingy, or having to wait an appropriate amount of time to text, or to worry about how they’ll fit in your lives or whether you’ve got a future together. If anything goes wrong, if it doesn’t work out, worst comes to worst you have an awkward stay in a shared hostel dorm room before one of you hops on the next bus and checks outta there.

The people I’ve met travelling, in hostels, have such an intense curiosity of the world mixed with a beautiful trust that they can go where they want and do what they like without fear. I find that so intoxicating in a person, that it was hard to go back to the normies I was dating back in Melbourne.

More than that, they’ve often made me realise new qualities I do and don’t want in a partner. It’s refreshing, to me at least, to travel and meet someone who can offer so much of what I want out of a partner. Often at home I seek out the same archetype of a +1, and will fall into the age old trap of repeating the same mistakes, going for the same guys who don’t make me happy. The logic brained scientist and/or engineer, with a love of fitness, with a love of animals, could easily describe the last handful (at least) of my ex boyfriends. And when those relationships don’t work out, I end up finding a carbon copy of what I think will make me happy, and have another roll of the dice trying to make it work. Or maybe it’s that the only ones still up at 3am when I’m on tinder who can hold a functionable conversation are scientists and engineers.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself this trip – I am more carefree than I give myself credit for. I am resilient and social but quiet and reserved and I need time to myself to reboot. I can be the quietest person in the room or the absolute centre of the party. How do I find someone to match that? What I’ve learnt the most about how I interact with other people, and actually from meeting someone this weekend just past, was that I need someone who will match my humor and ridiculous more than I need anyone with a steady life plan, good body (which, boy who inspired this post, if you’re reading this, you do have, I swear), and 500 cats. The rest will come, in time (note: not the 500 cats). My fear of dating another “boy” (definition: someone yet to get their life together and happy mooching of their girlfriend), has held me back from ending up with someone who can match my energy and enthusiasm. And that the best physical connection I have with someone isn’t going to come from whoever has the most visible abdominal muscles. That I will choose being able to lay around and talk shit with someone for hours over any of that other stuff, anyway.

The hardest thing about meeting the people who initiate these changes in mindset is how fleeting these moments can be. For many people, it’s possible to change the plan and suddenly head to a new city or country to follow someone. But somehow, living out of a backpack and moving city to city, life can still weigh down on those sparked moments. You’ve got friends you can’t abandon. Or (in my case) you have a job and new destination you can’t turn away from. It’s a shame. It’s hard. But it’s more than that too, because under all that, there’s the fear of missing out. That you’re choosing the wrong thing, that you’re turning down an opportunity that could turn out to be the best thing (or person) to ever happen to you. It’s a feeling that you’re leaving something unfinished, and losing out on something that could redefine your future. But it’s a regular feeling the longer you travel, and for me at least, sometimes it’s impossible to  distinguish between really liking someone and just having mad FOMO.

The only way I’ve found to cope with this overwhelming weltschmerz is to attempt to trick myself (my logic, sensible brained self), into the belief that if someone is meant to be in your life, the universe will do its ~*~magic~*~ and somehow they will be and everything will be fine. So far it’s not working too well. I still have mad FOMO for every fork in the road I’ve gotten to, even when what I’ve chosen has been fucking amazing (which at this point, writing from my bedroom in Kolkata 6 months after initially leaving Melbourne, it kind of fucking is).


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“Oh, like in that movie?”

My trip to India in 2015, and my subsequent plan to move there this year, is something I decided to do based on the work I can do there, and the love I have for the country after spending time there.

A view down the road from my house in Kolkata

“Oh like, Eat Pray Love?” was a question I heard many times. Honestly, I never read the book. I’ve read other books on India; Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure and The White Tiger: A Novel are two favourites of mine. But truly, I wasn’t traveling to India to fulfil any wanderlust dream or itchy feet for travel.

I was initially over there to work with Pollinate Energy, a social business that tied in well with my background in engineering. I hoped to grow my experience in that field, and honestly, after three internships in what should have been great positions (which I didn’t enjoy) I was feeling burnt out looking for the “usual” job. If you gave me $20,000 and a map of the world, there would probably have easily been 30 countries I would have picked before landing on India. I’d only really considered travelling to non-immersive “backpacker capitals”, or European countries. India was far down on my list. Why?

I think, if anything influenced my opinion of India for travel, it was news reports more than any book or movie. Reading about women being raped, murdered, attacked in the streets, on buses full of witnesses – as someone who is a passionate and vocal feminist, I found this hard to reconcile. I try to make informed choices about where my time and money goes. I found the idea of visiting a country and enjoying the company of people where something like this could be as commonplace as the media made it out to be, really tough to deal with in my mind. I don’t know if I ever would have travelled to India had I not had a professional reason that led me there.

Of course though, I’m going back. Because, turns out, the depiction of the country and the people is so far from what I experienced. It was a rare, rare thing for me to meet anyone who wasn’t respectful or interested in my story being there. There were tough moments – the biggest issue coming from being the centre of attention and being the number one photographic attraction in many towns I visited, but I never felt uncomfortable or at risk in India. There were plenty more western travelers in hostels around Asia who made me feel uncomfortable, hit on me when I made it clear I wasn’t interested, or didn’t respect personal boundaries.

The reality of travelling alone, is that no one can reproduce the story of the life you live and the things you experience. Some of the things that live on in my memories of India, are not the best things – not the Taj Mahal or temples, but the little things, like the smell of diesel fuel on busy streets, or cow poo, or fresh chai. In terms of consuming media relating to the places I went, I found myself more drawn to books and movies about India when I returned home than before I left. I re-read White Tiger while I was travelling Vietnam, and it was so nice to be able to rekindle some of the memories of the culture I experienced over there.

My advice: if you have an inkling to travel somewhere, just itchy feet for the sake of it, or because of a book or movie’s influence on your life, follow it (it’s how I ended up in Vietnam too!), but the opportunity to travel somewhere completely unexpected jumps at you, do it! Just don’t let your expectations of a place cloud how you experience it.

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A Girl’s Guide to Traveling Asia Solo: Part Two

Continuing my last post on how to travel alone as a female. Check out part one here!

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Posing for Photos

If you’re a white girl, if you stand out as “different” or “exotic” in a country or city that is maybe not on the regular tourist map, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to pose in photos. By far, the worst I experienced this was in India. This didn’t just happen in small cities, but even at the Taj Mahal, and huge tourist locations. For some reason, though we were standing metres from one of the seven wonders of the modern world, it was more important to bug a blonde white girl to pose in a photo with them, than the giant slab of marble right in front of us. I was pretty forgiving if kids wanted a “selfie” or a “click” (two common words for photo in Asia) with me, but when you have a guy in his 30s or 40s asking to pose with him alone it feels pretty uncomfortable and objectifying. Again, a lot of people agree to taking these photos to be polite, or because they’re so persistent about asking. If you give in to everyone who asks – it’s very tiring. Saying yes to one person taking one photo can end up with another 10 people around you all asking for photos as well. Again, be confident, say no, and if you’re uncomfortable, remove yourself from the situation.

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A Girl’s Guide to Traveling Asia Solo: Part One

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Happy International Women’s Day!

for yourwedding

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I’m going to talk about some things that I think are relevant to women travelling on their own. Of course, there’s a lot of positives and negatives to solo travel. For most people, the fear of the negatives keeps them from exploring a lot of the world alone, especially a lot of Asian countries where gender seems like it could be a bigger deal than in our arguably more equal western society.

The biggest problems I faced travelling alone, had nothing to do with my gender. There is no perfect combination of existing that will make you not a target for scams, pick-pocketing, harassment by locals (including police), or just dodgy salesmen and hawkers.  Whether it was walking down the streets in Cambodia with white male friends & seeing locals chase them trying to sell them drugs, or walking alone in Bangkok being followed by tuk tuk drivers looking to show me around the city and take me to all their exclusive (read: their friends places & commission earning shops and attractions) city landmarks, if you stood out at all, there was someone trying to make a buck off you being there.

Most of the tips I could give you about travelling alone as a woman, would not be specific to you, and could apply to anyone being anywhere, ever. For example: keep an eye on your stuff, don’t tell strangers where you’re staying, don’t eat the local street food (advice I was given but NOT advice I would ever follow! Seriously! Eat the local street food! It’s almost always the greatest things you’ll ever get a chance to try, and you’ll spend weeks at home afterwards wondering how you can recreate a snack you ate on a street corner in the middle of the night). I’ve tried to think of some specific things that I found useful when I was stressing out about being alone in a foreign country, or what I stressed about before I left.

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Seven reasons to write on the road

When I left to travel last year, one thing I got gifted a few times over was a notebook to journal in.

I really didn’t think I’d use any of them. I am usually a horrific procrastinator, and I’m terrible a writing essays, reports, or doing anything mildly academic without a constant feeling of pressure and approaching deadlines. To my own detriment, I thrive under pressure. The idea of writing for pleasure or personal interest seemed like an impossible task, like something I’d just end up procrastinating as soon as I had anything else to occupy my time.


But in the end, journalling was one of the consistent things in my life as I changed hostels, houses, cities and countries, made friends and fell for boys, and said goodbye to all of them. These books became my best mates amongst constantly changing scenery.

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Journal number one

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Last year I ventured off into the world on my own for the first time. In November, after many months of being a cheap, absentee & flakey friend, of keeping all my coins in a jar, of saving all my paychecks, of overdrawn credit cards (whoops), and working three jobs I hated (and two I didn’t), I saved enough to book my flights, buy all my travel impulse buys, and finally jump on a plane to Bangkok.

When I left home, I had my whole trip planned out. A perfect itinerary, that saw me dip my feet into Asia – volunteer abroad, be #spiritual and #blessed, get some backpacker drinking in, and come home just in time for festival season and New Years with my very patient friends in Melbourne. Well, turns out I’m a great planner, and terrible at actioning plans. During my trip, I no showed to 3 different flights, altered 2 others for both departure date and arrival city, and extended my trip by a month for no other reason than I wasn’t completely broke (only to panic book literally the cheapest ticket I could back home, arriving back in Melbourne with $9 AUD in my bank account).

This blog will cover this now completed trip, planning and executing massive life changes, house fires, abandoning your life to follow your itchy feet, and having that life forced upon you by a series of unfortunate events.

In closing, here’s a collage of selfies of me looking fed up in airports.

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