Kolkata, India Report of what it's like to live there - 08/13/21

Personal Experiences from Kolkata, India

Kolkata, India 08/13/21

Background:

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

No, have also lived in South America and Asia.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, DC. 21 hours approx. to arrive. DC to Newark to New Delhi to Kolkata. Due to pandemic we had to add an additional stop in between Delhi and Kolkata. Kolkata was not allowing direct flights from Delhi or international locations.

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3. What years did you live here?

2020 to present.

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4. How long have you lived here?

One year.

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

Diplomatic Mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

There are two complexes in which the consulate leases apartments. There is also some on-compound housing. One complex, which is older, has spacious bedrooms, kitchen, laundry, bathrooms and a combined living/dining area. Is in a more walkable area of the city, near veg. markets and some shops. It is about a 10-minute drive with no traffic and a 20-30 minute walk. The other complex, which is newer, has apartments that are much smaller especially in the kitchen (think small, galley kitchen with virtually no storage space), bedrooms, living space, and laundry.

The second complex is in the middle of an 'up and coming' area that still has some ways to go. There are no sidewalks and honestly no place you would want to walk to with the amount of traffic and people on the sides of the streets. It is a 20-minute drive to the mission depending on time of day traffic. It is not advisable to walk to the consulate from the second complex. There are air quality issues being addressed in the housing, by sealing the windows shut, however the larger slider doors and front doors have to remain unsealed so the sensor readings in those areas of the apartments can reach 200+ AQI at times. The on-compound housing has no elevator, so would pose problems to people with mobility issues.

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

It is easy to get everything you need at the grocery stores. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful in the markets and stores. There are several nice stores that carry a wide variety of international foods and products. Food delivery services are available for take-out, fresh foods, grocery items, milk, eggs, etc. Just find the 'guy', WhatsApp them what you want, and see it within 12-24 hours. Nice bakery items can also be found. Bleach all your veggies and fruit.

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

Bread machine supplies, canned evaporated milk, Bug spray with Deet, sauces that I liked, gum.

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

Indian, SouthEast Asian, Faux Thai, Faux Chinese, Pizza, Fast food, the selection is really wide, but the quality varies. You’ve got Chili’s type places, authentic Indian (mostly Bengali) type places, Hipster type places, some nice coffee shops, etc. Don’t eat salads from reputable restaurants.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Not in our building.

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Daily Life:

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

Pouch. Local postal facilities don't really function properly. Most household deliveries and local mail are done are via courier. DHL and FedEx international deliveries have gone missing in the past.

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

$150-200 monthly for full time cleaning (5.5 days a week), $200-250 monthly for full time driver (6 days a week). There are curfews currently that restrict movement before and after a certain time of day so that may result in helpers not being able to work a full day.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Both apartment complexes have gyms and pools (but it's not recommended to swim in the pools due to lack of confidence in upkeep), Consulate has a very nice gym and lovely pool (truly an oasis), There are lots of gyms in town as well as crossfit, karate, swimming (ref: comment above about pools), country clubs ($$$$$$$$). There is no lack for facilities to exercise, however the cleanliness could be an issue at times for these places, as well as the pandemic. Most have been closed and have recently opened back up.

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

Indian credit cards are widely accepted, but it is difficult to obtain one. Banks are very difficult to navigate. The opening of banks accounts need to be done through the consulate, even then it takes several months to process. International card acceptance is hit or miss. Amazon India won't even take an American Amazon credit card. The best bet is to get an American Express. Most of the online delivery services will accept the American Express. ATMs are common, but I never used one. Can't say on the safety side, but it's probably better not to use one.

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

Some churches – Mostly Catholic - have an English service, but it's mostly Bengali. Mosques - Arabic and Bengali, Hindu Temples - Bengali and Hindi. I am pleasantly surprised at the amount of tolerance for other religions here. Most people are either Christian, Hindu, or Muslim. You can find within one block all three religious centers. It very nice.

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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?

Not much, most people speak English, but it's nice to know some phrases. There are a lot of tutors available, they will bombard you with learning opportunities. Never used one so cannot say how much they charge.

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

Absolutely YES. Do not come here if you have mobility issues. Not only is the local infrastructure not set up for it, but there are concerns about adequate medical specialists being available.

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Transportation:

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

It is not recommended to use the buses (for obvious reasons). Taxi's are safe and affordable, but you will get the gringo price if you get one off the street. Better to use Uber and the other online taxi services. None of them are really clean (like exiting the taxi with dirt and grime imbedded in your clothes) and most don't have functioning seatbelts. There is a metro, but we never used it due to the pandemic and ability to social distance on it.

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2. 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?

Don't bring one. Buy one there. It's right-hand driving, so most folks buy cars from departing personnel. YOU WILL NEED A DRIVER. Don't think you can get along fine. You can't. The roads change directions in some places at some random appointed hour during the day. There is no signage that outlines what streets change and at what time. Your driver will be with the car when you are not, or it will be parked in a gated garage at other times, so burglary is not a super concern. It's more about the gangs of children, severely injured adults, elderly, and other unique groups banging and begging at each stop light. Keep your windows rolled up.

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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?

There are a few companies that provide high-speed home internet. Generally, it is inexpensive compared to the US and Europe. We used two companies in tandem to cover any unexpected outages as we were working from home during the pandemic. Consulate staff assisted in getting the access through both companies because (as it was explained to us) in West Bengal people with local IDs couldn’t get certain services. In fact, when we tried to upgrade the internet to the next package we were told that we couldn’t because it wasn’t offered to people without Local IDs (they would not accept passports). The consulate had to write letters for us. Same with the bank.

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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?

We used a local provider (Jio). It was very inexpensive, but we had to get support in initiating cell service through the consulate since we didn’t have local IDs (passports were not accepted). We used Google Fi to fill the gap.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

Don’t bring dogs here. Cats are better since the housing situation is the way it is. There are street dogs everywhere outside of the apartment complexes so you really can’t walk them. Some folks have smaller breed dogs, but if you are in an apartment complex you will get the stink eye from the other residents when you take your dog out to walk. I am aware of some residents getting ok vet services for cats, but there haven’t been any good words for the vet services for dogs. Not sure about pet food availability. Everyone that has a pet here orders food and litter via pouch.

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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 plenty of positions in the consulate for EFMs. I am not aware of anyone else working outside of the consulate. I can’t imagine that the compensation would be attractive enough to take a local job. There have been EFMs that telecommuted successfully.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Not sure as we weren't really supposed to go out during the pandemic.

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

Work: Business casual with suits for higher up meetings. Public Places: Women don’t wear shorts or above the knee skirts generally. Very rare to see shorts here. This is a conservative and very traditional dress area. So, lots of kurtas, saris, etc. Men :
slacks and short-sleeved shirts.

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Health & Safety:

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

Lots of stares if you are a woman alone and don’t look like a local. The population likes to think of children as community property, so there’s a lot of trying to touch kids’ faces and shoulders/necks and unwanted selfies (mostly by men). It’s very awkward. There is a definite lack of consideration of personal space, so if you are trying to find something in your bag, a person standing next to you will sometimes ‘help’ you look for it. There have been some pick pocketing instances reported and verbal altercations with more forceful beggars in the streets. Generally, not as bad as a regular major city.

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

This is a hard question to answer given the pandemic. As we stayed in our apartment most of the time due to quarantining/curfews/bad air quality, the biggest issue we found was the lack of socialization. However, air quality is a big issue here for people as well as the poor water quality.

Street food is not recommended to eat due to the lack of clean water to wash plates and cooking utensils off with. Additionally, the stomach issues are no joke. They say you get Delhi Belly, but here you get Kolkata Squatta; dysentery is real. The quality of available medical care seems okay. The Consulate Med Unit is great, however there is only so much they can do. Mid to major issues will result in a medevac to Singapore, but his is not possible right now due to the pandemic. This is not a place to come if you have recurring mid to serious medical needs. Medications can be ordered via pouch and many meds can be found on the local market. The med unit is very helpful is supporting that.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The air quality is bad (90-350 avg. AQI depending on the time of day) throughout the winter months due to people burning trash for warmth, coal burning fires, etc. Then the monsoon season begins and the air is clear-ish, but it’s raining so sewage is floating on top of the water. The AQI during this time is around 50-150 during the day even with the rain. If you have lung issues, the air quality and persistent humidity will impact you.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Not usually, but as a result of the pandemic there is some concern about social isolation and a bit of depression. Food allergies are a thing if you are gluten intolerant or have nut allergies.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Not usually, but as a result of the pandemic there is some concern about social isolation and a bit of depression.

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

Kolkata has a tropical wet-and-dry climate. The annual mean temperature is 26.8 °C (80 °F); monthly mean temperatures range from 15 °C to 30 °C (59 °F to 86 °F). Summers are hot and humid with temperatures in the low 30s and during dry spells the maximum temperatures often exceed 40 °C (104 °F) during May and June. Winter tends to last for only about two and a half months, with seasonal lows dipping to 9 °C – 11 °C (48.2 °F – 51.8 °F) between December and January.

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Schools & Children:

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

Although there are several schools listed as being acceptable, I would recommend to not bid here if you have school-aged children. If you must come here, I would encourage you to consider boarding school. Most of the other expats send their children to boarding school or leave their family at home. It’s okay if you have younger kids, but the schools once starting K-12 are not comparable to other international schools in my opinion. So that being said, here are some personal reviews of the four “International” schools in Kolkata. Due to the pandemic, schools in West Bengal are not going to open for the rest of the 2021-2022 school year, and it’s unlikely at the moment that it will open for in-person classes in the 2022-2023 school year.

South City International School - Most comparable campus to international schools visited in other countries in the past. Administration was up front, helpful, and answered questions honestly. Very warm and inviting. Facilities were very nice, classroom sizes seemed comparable to US standards (~25-30 students per classroom). Very active online instruction process (during COVID). Very little international representation. At the time of writing there were maybe nine international students in the entire school. This is an international school using an international curriculum (Cambridge) until the close of elementary grades. High School grades follow an Indian curriculum and is no longer considered an international curriculum. Administration indicated that there had not been enough interest from the parents, attendees, and school management to continue the Cambridge/International curriculum into the upper grades. However, if there were enough interest and monetary support, they could begin an IB program again in the future.

Calcutta International School (CIS) – Considered the most popular among expats. Unfortunately, there is very little international representation, at the time of writing there were about 15 international students (this number does not include dual passport holders such as Indian/Canadian, Indian/US, India/British, etc.). School administration is very difficult to work with in our experience, particularly during the registration process. From issues with getting a response from the registration office (for several months) to issues paying a bill (not getting a response from the accounting office). It seems very clear that the people applying are not important to the school. It is very much about keeping their "standards". It takes approximately six weeks to get children registered for school, and that is after you have contacted them via email, submitted an application, and paid the fees. There are no fewer than four in-person appointments required for parents and children in addition to individual testing. This is a parent-run school, so there are complications with that as well. This is a type of school where if you ask administration questions, you are essentially yelled at by the principals in my experience.

(During Pandemic Online Schooling) While the teachers seem nice, there is very little control shown during online classes of the students and the programming. It was explained that the classes are ‘student-led’ so that’s why there was so much chatter and interruption during classes.The platform for school assignment, homework submission, and interaction with teachers is cumbersome and glitchy. All classes are in-person all the time so that results in six hours of straight sitting in a chair with a video screen on your student.

The Heritage School - Very large campus with extensive sports, arts, and extracurricular facilities. Quite a distance from the consulate. Administration was up front, helpful, and answered questions honestly. Very warm and inviting. No international students as of the time of writing.This is an international school using several curriculums (IB/Cambridge/Indian) for the upper grades. The elementary grades do not prescribe to a particular curriculum, but does meet Indian standards. It was explained by administration during a campus tour that the elementary grades used various forms of instruction instead of a set curriculum. Unfortunately, this school has no slots available for incoming students at this time, but you can be placed on a waiting list. It seems to me that this school is very much focused on the extra-curricular activities.

The Cambridge School - Very small campus. It is unlikely that Consulate children would be allowed to attend this school due to the physical structure of the building, lack of fire safety equipment, lack of egress in emergency situations, and overall class size versus physical room size. That being said, the administration was up front, helpful, and answered questions honestly. The administration is very warm and inviting. No international students on the rolls as of the time of writing. This school follows the Cambridge curriculum.

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

None.

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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?

Not knowledgeable in this area. However, there are preschools around the consulate that other families have used. They were generally happy with them. Not sure about the languages the preschools are conducted in. CIS, Heritage, and South City all have English speaking preschools.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, They are difficult to find. You must ask around to other parents for recommendations. This is a very Word of Mouth type of city. There are clubs you can go to, but they are prohibitively expensive for some people. Like a $5,000.00 entry fee (with multiple recommendations for lifetime members) and then another $1,500.00 per month out of pocket and that doesn’t allow you to bring in guests to use the facilities. That is for you and your family only.

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Expat Life:

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

It is not big. Kolkata doesn’t have a large expat presence and it is rare to see foreigners out and about. Overall morale is not great right now with the pandemic, but may be slightly better when restrictions ease. There’s little to do in and around Kolkata. Once you do the tour of the city and see the highlights, it’s better to fly to Thailand or just somewhere else to decompress and get back into the right headspace.

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

Not much socialization going on right now with the pandemic. There is the Kolkata International Women’s Club that has regular meetings (online right now), there are sport and leisure clubs, but as mentioned before they are restrictive and very expensive, other than that there’s not much else that I am aware of.

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

This is a good city for singles and couples. Not good for families.

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4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

Can’t say how hard it is befriending locals as we’ve been inside for a long time. I can say that the people who live in the area our apartment buildings are in are notoriously difficult to get along with. For the question, are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here? The caste system was outlawed but feelings persist.

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

This is a hard question to answer. There is a very large and notorious transgender street beggar group who are tolerated in Kolkata that wait at stop lights and beg for money. There are several articles online if you interested in reading about it. On the whole, I feel like this is not the best place for openly LGBT people. This is a conservative part of the country with one of the largest muslim populations in India. I have not heard of people getting targeted, but you also don’t hear there being very many LGBT people here (besides the aforementioned transgender street beggars). Not sure if this is the best place to be Out.

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

Yes, the caste system was outlawed but feelings persist. There is gender inequality in India.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

We went to the Taj Mahal. It was a nice place to visit, but getting there and back was dismal. We went to Goa. It was nice to visit, but the ocean was very dirty with lots of refuse. Can’t say much else because of the lockdowns and curfews. We were not able to go very many places as a result.

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

No

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

There is one place in Kolkata that is a semi-open air market with state sponsored stores from all over India that sell their state specific handicrafts (Kashmiri painted paper mache items, carved wood, fabrics, paintings, copper, etc.). That’s about it.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

It's close to Darjeeling and there are inexpensive direct flights to Thailand and Sri Lanka.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

I wish I had known more about the schools. I was prepared for the condition of the city and the other environmental factors, but the school situation was very disappointing.

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

Absolutely not.

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

EAT/PRAY/LOVE expectations

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4. But don't forget your:

Bug Spray with Deet, handiwipes, knee high rain boots

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

No.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

This is not a place to come if you have school-aged children. If you do come, please consider homeschooling or boarding school.

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