Thursday 22 December 2016

Oh, Kolkata: Big yellow taxis and solar slums

I didn't expect to love Kolkata. It was the surprise highlight of 2016 for me. After my first trip to India in 2009 I'd longed to return - to see the beaches and houseboats of Kerala in the south, the Taj Mahal, Darjeeling's tea plantations and Himalayan views, but not the city nicknamed the "Black Hole of Calcutta".

Kolkata's earthy chai cups
But I soon learned Kolkata has another nickname: City of Joy, after a 1985 novel by French writer Dominique Lapierre (later made into a Patrick Swayze movie).

And that's how I remember it now, because I fell hard for this city of 14 million on the Ganges in far eastern India. It was a brief affair, just two days.

That's how it is with some places (and people). That's all you need.

I loved Kolkata's friendliness, its big-crowded-city-but-everyone-just-gets-on-with-it buzz and its bookishness: there are bookshops everywhere, even booksellers on trains. I went to the world's largest book market, where you can buy anything from a doorstopper on anatomy to the latest shade of grey at a roadside stall; I bought a book about Kolkata's writer-hero, Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1913.

Brightness at the Indian Museum
I loved how untouristy it is; I barely saw another Westerner. At landmarks like the stately Indian Museum, girls in pink saris swirled along marble corridors and asked to take selfies with me (making me wish I'd worn something pretty too).

There's more in this Three-minute guide to Kolkata, the first of four (!) stories I've now written about the city.

But my three favourite things about the city were:

1. Chai in clay cups. Milky sweet tea spiced with ginger and cardamom is an Indian institution, but in Kolkata it's served in espresso-sized clay cups called "khuli" (pictured above). They're hand-made and completely biodegradable. In fact when you finish your tea, you just toss your cup on the ground - if it smashes, it's good luck - returning it to the earth.

Taxi driver-surfers waiting
for their next fare
2. Big yellow Ambassador taxis. Nothing says "I'm in Kolkata" like riding in the back of a rattling old Ambassador taxi with the windows down, seatbelts optional.

Modelled on the UK's Morris Oxford, they were first made in India in 1957. The last Ambassador rolled off the production line in 2014, but they're still going strong, keeping mechanics in business and resisting the siren song of the scrap heap.

I loved them so much I put some of my pics together for this photoessay, An Ode to Kolkata's Ambassadors. It includes my favourite photo (above): taxi drivers lounging on their cars like Californian surfers circa 1960 hanging at the beach between waves.

King of the world
Pic by Urban Adventures
3. The solar slum tour. My first night in the city, I visited a community living near the river on a new tour run by Urban Adventures.

It's not "slum tourism"; the tours help an Indian-Australian social enterprise called Pollinate Energy provide portable solar lights to slum dwellers in Kolkata (and other Indian cities), which improves their lives and reduces air pollution and carbon emissions at the same time.

It was inspirational to meet people working together to make a difference to others and to the planet. My story about the tours and the project, Lighting up Kolkata's slums, went live this week.

Back seat of an Ambassador:
my new happy place
(There's one more Kolkata story still to come.)

Oh, Kolkata. I missed you as soon as I saw your lights dissolve into the night from the plane that brought me home. But I'll see you again, I promise.

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