Kolkata, India Report of what it's like to live there - 05/06/08

Personal Experiences from Kolkata, India

Kolkata, India 05/06/08

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No...I've lived extensively in Euruope, Asia and Latin America.

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2. How long have you lived here?

2 years.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

I work for the U.S. Government.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

9 hours to Frankfurt, then 9 hours to Calcutta.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Almost all housing is in apartments, some of which might have a shared yard. Newer compounds have gated communities, shared yards and pools, but are often located far outside the city. Housing is the among the top morale issues in Calcutta and should be thoroughly investigated when planning to move here.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Groceries are very cheap -- the produce and fish are excellent. You can find beef here, though the quality varies. Outbreaks of bird flu occasionally have people skittish about chicken and eggs (depending on the status of the latest outbreaks). You can buy cheese and cold cuts at the Oberoi Hotel (at a price). The commissary can send items (for consulate staff), but the hefty air shipment prices really adds to the cost. I'd recommend making full use of your consumable shipments (note: you can only import $500/worth of consumables per quarter, so you have to make repeat shipments) and buy things on Amazon.com and Netgrocer.com to supplement the few things you can buy locally.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Toilet paper (the local brand is very stiff), mosquito repellent, sunscreen, and more comfort food.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Fast food: Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut and Dominos. A new restaurant opened in 2007, Blue Potato, which dramatically changed the lives of expats who long for non-Indian/Chinese food. The same owner will soon open a Tapas bar as well. There's an excellent Italian/pizzeria place and several outstanding restaurants in the hotels (La Cuccina in the Hyatt, Pan Asia and West View in the ITC Sonar Bangla, among others). There are wonderful Indian and Chinese restaurants as well, but since Indian and Chinese food are generally served at every event and function, most foreigners typically seek other options when dining out.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

FedEx, DHL and trips back home.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

VERY cheap and plentiful. A maid/cook costs about US$110 a month, as does a babysitter, while a driver will ask for anything between US$130-$170. Having a driver is very necessary in Calcutta with chaotic traffic patterns and horrific traffic.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

You can generally only use credit cards in hotels, the most upscale restaurants and some stores. It's still a cash economy.

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4. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Calcutta has a large Christian population so there are Catholic and Church of England masses/services. An Armenian Church and a still-occasionally-functioning synagogue also have members.

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5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Lots of English newspapers, very cheap, but the quality is at the level of tablois. SKY cable is available -- it costs US$100 to install and the monthly fees are about US$10.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Having Bengali and/or Hindi is helpful (especially when communicating with household staff), but not needed.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

It would be nearly impossible to explore the city on your own.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Left.

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2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Busses are not safe -- drivers try to race each other and generally ignore traffic rules (to the extent that any driver in Calcutta adheres to them).

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3. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

The roads here are really rough. Monsoon season also means waterlogged days when only the high clearance vehicles can dare to attempt driving. We bought a (low clearance) car locally and have generally been pleased. India drives on the left side and spare parts of U.S./European-made cars won't be readily available here. We even have had difficulty locating spare parts for our locally made Ford!

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, broadband is available and costs about US$50/month. The service is spotty and the service often goes down on weekends (when we're most apt to use the internet).

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Everyone here communicates via cell phone. People you meet once will ask for your cell number upon meeting you.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

Skype.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Those who have pets like their veterinarians.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

There are some jobs available, but networking is key. The local chambers are very responsive to foreigners and generally help them to meet other companies and contacts in order to network.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

The dress code at work is business, though during the summer months you can get by with business casual. In public, people are very casual though no one wears shorts, even in the summer heat. Calcuttans aren't pretentious and you often see industrialists in short-sleeved shirts. It's definitely a place where you can define your own dress code and people will generally accept you. A lot of foreign women occasionally adopt Indian dress.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Very unhealthy -- Calcutta has the worst pollution index of all the major cities in India.

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

No, it's a very safe city.

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

The pollution is atrocious and many foreigners have an intermittent cough/breathing problems. You have to be careful with the food and produce, but experienced household staff will take care of that for you. The medical care here is generally sub-par. I've found the doctors to be excellent, but the nurses seem to be only trained to take blood pressure and your temperature. So you're 100% reliant on your doctor.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The monsoon generally lasts from June/July through September/October, which breaks the monstrous heat, which stretches from March through June. November-February are generally very pleasant months and you occasionally might need a sweater or a light jacket.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

The American School opened in August 2007 with 5 kids, K-4. The Calcutta International School has K-12, but focuses on an Indian curriculum and has a predominantly Indian student body.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Plentiful domestic help is available, but there are preschools available, including Montessori and other options. Each neighborhood has several preschools, so it's best to find the most suitable option for you and your family.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Very small, though it is growing.

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2. Morale among expats:

Morale varies widely -- there are those who hate Calcutta and others who are quite taken by the city. I fall in-between. It can be a difficult city for expats, with the lack of amenities and foreign foods. However, if you look beyond shopping and food, it can be a charming place. Calcuttans are extremely warm, gracious, hospitable, humble and non-materialistic. It is very easy to befriend people here.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Calcuttans are compulsive socializers and love to party every night.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

This post would be extremely difficult for singles. Calcuttans are extremely friendly, but also very curious by nature, and it would be impossible to try to date here without a peanut gallery of observers hovering over you. The expat population is very small, so that's another factor. Calcutta can be a good post for families, as nannies are very affordable. It would be a better place for younger kids than older kids - older kids would be bored here.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

If you're in a relationship, it could be ok. Many people here seem relatively tolerant. However, if you're looking to date, I would recommend Mumbai or Delhi (for some of the reasons mentioned above).

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Working women can find it extremely tough here. In some ways Calcutta is very conservative. People are generally very curious here and often ask very un-PC questions (such as asking an African-American visitor where his family was from in Africa -- they don't have the same historical context as Americans and Europeans might have). That said, Calcutta, as other places in India, occasionally has flare-ups between the Muslim and Hindu populations (though it is a very peaceful city, given its very diverse population). Those of Indian/Pakistani descent might find it difficult.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Explore the city (Calcutta is India's most historical, interesting and charming city with amazing architecture), visit art galleries, attend book readings and lectures/speeches by visiting dignitaries (Calcutta does attract high caliber people/celebrities). The museums are very disappointing. There is a water park, a renewable energy theme park and several boating areas for kids. Calcutta has several holiday seasons, especially in the fall, when the entire city comes alive and celebrates like a carnival. Travel within India is expensive and there aren't many daytrips or weekend trips from Calcutta. It's often cheaper to go to Thailand or Singapore than other Indian destinations. From Calcutta, one should visit Darjeeling (tea plantations), Assam (Kaziranga National Forest) and Puri (beach and Konark Sun Temple).

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

There are a lot of local handicrafts and artwork, but the quality really varies.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, but only if you don't travel too much or indulge in too much sympathy shopping.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, but it's been a very difficult post in many ways. The secret to enjoying life in Calcutta is managing expectations. Then again, someone told me when I arrived that foreigners cry twice when coming here: once as they arrive, then again when they leave. Already I can relate to that. Calcutta is a very special place, even if (or because) it's enmeshed in a time warp.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Books -- there are lots of bookstores here (but with a heavy Indian selection and not much avant-garde material). You can buy very nice cotton shirts/pants for the brutal summer months and nice leather items.

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3. But don't forget your:

Except for the items mentioned above, bring everything else with you!

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh), Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri), Chowringee (Sankar), Weekenders: Essays on Calcutta (anthology) and anything by Tagore/

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh), Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri), Chowringee (Sankar), Weekenders: Essays on Calcutta (anthology) and anything by Tagore/

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

The Namesake, anything by Satayjit Ray.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Calcutta, like many other places, is what you make of it. It can be difficult to carve a life for yourself and find your niche, since opportunities aren't readily available as they are in other places. But seek out what you enjoy doing and you'll find like-minded people to join you.

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