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Bus to the high Himalayas by Felipe Skroski on Flickr
I am perched on the metal bar that has been revealed from worn away vinyl long gone. I’m not really sitting. I’m on the balls of my feet, ready to spring up and jump off this bus if I feel any wheels leave the ground. How many buses have I sat on while the driver has had to finally back down to someone bigger and reverse over a drop that seems a kilometre deep to let the winner pass? Why would I keep getting on these damn buses, I ask myself. This is it. This is the last one. I’m done with this. My heart can’t take it. My partner points out that we also have to get back down off the mountain, and since there aren’t many car hire companies in small Himalayan villages, we’ll have to entrust our lives again into the hands of a bus driver whose vehicle has brakes that are cooled only by a pipe of water leading from a tank on the roof. I always watch the bubbles in the tube behind the driver get bigger and bigger until I know there is no more water in there and hope for a water station to appear around the next sickening bend. I often wish I’d grown up in a more fatalistic culture so I wouldn’t be so fine tuned to imagining what could happen.
No more bubbles. Thank god, a stop. A small chai stand saves my nerves because holding a hot cuppa is the closest I’m going to get to a shot of vodka up here. The scent of the tea masala helps me forget that I have to get back on the bus in a minute, but only until the driver starts shouting and everyone starts running to secure their coveted seats on cold, uncovered bars. OK, I can do this.
“When we get there, let’s stay an extra day or two”, I suggest, “We could tramp to the next village”.
I really don’t want to get on another bus for a while. Mountains have always been calming to me and sitting in thin, crisp air, wrapped in down and wool, helps me remember why I have this never ending goal to get up high.
“Samosa?”, he asks me holding out a couple of triangles splotched in chutney.
Hmm, maybe some food would settle my stomach. In the very least, I can certainly lose myself in a sharp mouthful of chillies. A nice distraction. I think of the young woman I saw him buy these from and wonder about her. What time did she get up to make this dough? What did she roll it out on? Is she sick of eating samosas herself? Did she grow these potatoes?
The edge of the village. Is this it, I wonder hopefully without trying to get too excited. I ask the woman next to me who has only recently stopped vomiting in red plastic bags and tossing them out the window.
“Yes, yes, here!”, she smiles. She’s obviously as relieved as I am .
By the time we climb up to get our bags off the roof, the driver is already filling the water tank for the trip back down and inside the bus, a young boy is punching fresh red plastic bags into the backs of each seat. My blood pressure starts to go down as I enjoy standing in my boots.
This is not Indian pizza
Apart from having one German-speaking relative and hearing the French versions of the skits on Sesame Street*, one of my earliest foreign language experiences was at a friend’s birthday party. I must’ve been around 9 or 10 years old and something was already drawing me to the few children in my, mainly white, school who were of non-European origin. Most of the time we all ate the school lunches as, back then, they were still cheaper than bringing your own and were made with real ingredients. But, on the occasions that Zahra brought her lunch from home I was fascinated. I guess we weren’t old enough for other kids to start teasing her for being different like they do in middle school because she had all these strange orange and yellow foods that she ate with what I thought at first were pancakes. Turned out they were roti. It was all very matter-of-fact to her. “You don’t eat bread at home?” I thought bread came in slices at that juncture in my life, but I was keen to try it. It tasted nothing like pancakes.
When Zahra came to school one day with a stack of small envelopes, I couldn’t wait to find out what they were for. I was one of the lucky recipients, but I managed to wait until I got home to open it. I guess it is a ‘kid thing’, to wait until one of the authority figures in your life looks at any correspondence. Since that’s what happens with report cards and field trip permission slips, why would it be any different for other mysterious envelopes?
A birthday party invitation.
I was dropped off at the address on the invitation and invited inside. While I was busy trying to decipher food smells and interpret various decorations, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t got past the front entryway. My eyes focused on an elderly woman, hair tied back in a long grey plait, right in front of me saying, “Go on. Get your shoes off so you can go and play with the other children.” A shoes-off house. I was, no doubt, wearing boots and a long dress as that was what I thought the phrase dressing up meant back then so I probably struggled a bit before I was lead to the basement stairway. I had only seen a bunch of adults rushing around by this point so I was getting pretty nervous that there weren’t even any other kids there. I sort of stalled at the top of the stairs until the woman next to me switched from Hindi to English and said, “Go down! They are all there.” What a relief it was when I got to the bottom and found that yes, in fact, they were “all there”. Actually, there were kids running amok all over the basement. I remember scanning to see if there was anyone I knew when the lights flickered and all the kids screamed.
In through a side door that I hadn’t noticed earlier entered a group of adults carrying big trays of something. I was wondering if it was going to be the bread that Zahra brought to school, but when they set it down on the tables I noticed it was pizza. Pizza?! Well, it looked and smelled, like pizza but it wasn’t round. I should set the record straight in that my parents did actually cook other real food, but pizza came frozen from the supermarket. That’s just how it was in Northville, Michigan before Dominoes had arrived on the scene. But this. They made this. By hand. Not having been on the Earth for a decade yet, this was very exotic to me. I didn’t know you could just make pizza from scratch like that. I thought it was a supermarket thing, like Twinkies. And I had certainly never had square pizza. I still remember how delicious it was.
The pizza episode was followed by more running around until, once again, the lights went out and all the kids screamed. The same group of women in their saris stood in the shadows until someone managed to get a match to light all of the candles on Zahra’s birthday cake and we all began to sing the Happy Birthday song. By the time we finished, Zahra’s grandmother was sitting next to me and she said, “Come on! The second verse!” and all the Indians in the room chimed in for the Hindi version. I felt so nervous for not knowing the words that I tried to pretend I was singing it. I’m sure my face went bright red when the grandmother said, “Oh, good girl. You know the Hindi part.”
*Whereas Sesame Street in other parts of the States would switch back and forth between Spanish and English, in Michigan they used to have French instead of Spanish supposedly because of the proximity to Quebec. I wonder if anyone else remembers this.
Flour, water, salt. It seems like a recipe would need more than this. Are my readers going to believe that this is all it takes? Perhaps I’ll add something at the end. Nothing tastes exactly the same as it does in situ, but the anticipation I feel during this meditative action of kneading certainly takes me back to a cold hillside where nothing is more welcoming than steaming, hot bread. Are three simple ingredients enough to transport my readers?
Although my eyes took a while to adjust to the darkness of the room, and I immediately had to get my layers of down off for fear of melting in the smoky warmth, I knew my husband and I had happened upon one of the best places in Darjeeling. I could just sense it. Nothing was pretentious. The walls were wooden, the floor too. Even the tables and chairs were made of wood which, of course is not very unusual, but I’m guessing they were handmade. And then, the all-encompassing wool. Wool embroidered with wool became oval-shaped, carpets on the floor. The same carpets were used as chair covers or formed into cushions in the window seat for lounging on. The draughts from the door were caught by the felted woollen blanket that was tacked up haphazardly with rusty drawing pins so that you had to open the door from the outside while simultaneously pushing through the musty curtain in order to enter. What else? Buddhas. The end wall had a thanka, the Mahayana Buddhist tapestry, which just about covered it while exchanging grain for golden threads.
As I was looking for a tissue for my, now running unstoppably, nose came the deliverance of flatbreads to our table by a woman with very old looking turquoise and amber hanging from her ears and around her neck and just about everywhere else. In her free hand was a bowl of something white.
“Do you like yak cheese? Put inside, you’ll like it.”
That we did. And we did.
The next day, while visiting a Tibetan women’s collective I spotted a woollen rug that would fit nicely in my backpack. I couldn’t take home a kind-faced Tibetan woman, or fresh bread and yak cheese, nor a smoky, wooden room but a lightweight rug would be just right. It would be a souvenir that would not only serve as a good memory for me, but also as a donation to the collective.
I carried that little rug all the way home from the Himalayas and now it’s covered in flour. The only reason I can think of for keeping my treasured rug on the floor of my kitchen rather than preserved somewhere safe is that I wanted it to be alive and used as a part of my life like it would’ve been in its ancestral home. What good is it preserved forever if I can’t look at it and enjoy it and drop flour on it? A lesson in impermanence.
My water highly treated, straight from the tap and the flour bought pre-ground from a supermarket. I don’t even know where the salt came from, perhaps the New Zealand briny.
Her water fetched from the well and boiled, flour brought up from the Indian plains on over-decorated noisy trucks threatening to tip over the edge at every turn. Himalayan salt, a very grey variety.
Flour, water, salt. Wood, wool, Buddhas. Most of the recipes I write have more details, but I don’t think I’ll add anything.
You can find another version of this story as well as the recipe here.
One of those things that just comes to you one day and you wonder why you’d never thought of it before.
Here’s what I did:
In a pan over medium heat, I lightly roasted (about a minute or until getting fragrant but not burnt) a few spices. These included a couple of pieces of cinnamon bark, five cloves, two smashed green cardamon pods and about an eighth teaspoon of mixed spice because I was afraid that it wouldn’t be spicy enough. Just experiment.
Then I added about a tablespoon of cocoa powder and let it heat through with the spices in the dry pan. You’ll be tempted to add more cocoa as if you are making hot chocolate, but think of the cocoa as just another spice in the chai. You don’t want anything overpowering anything else and upsetting the balance.
Finally I added 2 mugs full of milk and three teabags or three teaspoons of loose tea. I used semi-skimmed (half fat) but if you use full fat it will be creamy and lovely. You might want to substitute a bit of water for some of the milk if you go the full fat route.
If you want to add sugar, add it at this point so that it melts in the tea. I waited until after it was made and served the sugar on the side s people could have as much or as little as they liked.
Be sure it doesn’t scald. When heated, strain and pour into cups to enjoy, MMmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.