Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Home stays in Spiti

Simplicity, surrealism, splendor and scare! Frightful even..That’s the surge of emotions that the Kinnaur-Spiti has up its sleeve. Go behold and attempt. A drive through the valley is a bold initiative; the trans-Himalayan belt has the most treacherous curves and notorious patches of roads to offer, 13,000 feet above mean sea-level. From the perspective of tourism, one of the virgin lands, nestled in the northern state of Him-Achal, this heavenly abode, also known as Little Tibet, will not fail to enchant you. A fantastic blend of Buddhism and Hinduism with the former reigning for obvious reasons, the green lushes of Kinnaur, followed by the sudden change of topography, to that of a cold desert in the Spiti valley leaves you utterly speechless!

Drive down on your own provided you have the required skillsets (here, these will be much required) and the passion to cover these 800-1000 odd kilometers within a span of a few days. For travelers coming from coastal areas or having little experience with high altitudes, carry the necessary medicines to fight breathing trouble and other associated ailments. Unless you plan to spend a longer time, these preparations for a week-to-two-long travel will also prove to be a morale booster. Whatever the carrier (if on a bike, avoid a pillion), Lahaul Spiti will surprise and inspire you, both at the same time!

Variety in topography is the main spice here!

Such scenic vistas are in abundance!

Homestays in Spiti

The heart of any region lies within the local cultures, beliefs and traditions of its populace. For a region as tucked away from mass tourism as Spiti, this could not be any truer. Most of the villages ornamenting the Spiti valley like Tabo, Dhankar, Kaza, Losaar have homestays. A homestay is literally a ‘home stay’ where you can accommodate yourself with a local Spitian family, either in their own house or a guesthouse, if they have catered for one, for tourists. It’s one of the best ways to closely connect with the cultural and religious vein that ticks in the valley. Bigger towns like Kaza do have hotels but luxury and comfort is all that you can look for there. For a heartfelt connect, go for homestays over the usual commercialized accommodations. I will talk about 3 in Tabo, Kaza and Losaar where we (husband and self whilst on a road trip) tried to capture the real essence of the region thanks to the hospitality of the families we stayed put with.

Tabo – One of the bigger villages in Spiti, we could hardly spot it as there was no electricity. We drove past the entirety of it in a couple of minutes and decided to take a U to stay put. Came across a few homestays and chose Namsay Homestay at the farther corner of the village towards Dhankad.
The entrance!
The guest room!

The Indian seatee!
Mr. Schchot Tchering, Mrs. Tchering and their daughter Suman (the other 3 children were away for studies etc..) welcomed us. A tastefully-done up garden (we could spot this only in the morning but what a sight!) with a cemented entryway led to guestrooms right adjacent to the house. Even in complete darkness, they served us tea and promised a great dinner in their living room with the family. This was to be a thrill! The homestay was nothing short of a well maintained hotel room (for those used only to these) with a comfortable bed and warm bedding. Much required. Solar lamps are a savior (ecologically too) in the region that often plunges into darkness. Although ill-lit, we could see and manage ourselves so as to freshen up after the tiring drive.
Mr. Schchot Tchering, our host!

By around 6.30-7 pm, we were seated in the garden below a star-lit sky and a fantastic full moon that looked so big and close enough to be up for grabs! The silence and the fragrance of flowers was so eerie and soothing at the same time that we soon felt at home. Mr. Tchering fixed dinner and served us Timok, the Spitian homemade bread with fresh cauliflower vegetable, straight from the garden. Add to that the dash of lemon pickle and we were in seventh heaven. We were joined for dinner by their boy-servants, a trait you will notice quite commonly in Spiti. Lot of young boys from Bihar have migrated to this part of the country and work in the fields of the locals and live with Spitian families as house help.
Timok, the Spitian homemade bread with a dash of pickle by the side!
What followed took us by surprise. Mr. Tchering strung his Khoppo (a smaller sitar-like instrument) and sung a local melody transpiring us to some other universe, or so it felt by the time he had finished the song. His wife then made me wear the local bridal costume and offered a white pearls necklace as a fond souvenir. Upon inquiring about the price, I was stunned to know that the real pearls (red in colour) cost around 30 to 40 thousand a pearl and are inherited by the eldest girl of the family!
Spitian weddings are a very expensive affair and the daughter-in-law too is gifted in gold and pearls by the groom’s family. A surprising revelation was the fact that this affair was felt less expensive by the Spitians as compared to their Kinnauri counterparts. Their elder son was however sent to the local monastery for life, a practice followed by one and all under the Tibetan Buddhist faith. Mr. Tchering too worked in the same monastery as a care-taker and showed us around the following morning. 
Mrs. Tchering, busy with her beads, making pieces of lovely jewellery!

Before departing, he prepared Thinthuk, Spitian homemade pasta and vegetables! All gone within minutes! We then saw his ‘mandir’ upstairs which was an amalgamation of what looked like Buddhist statues and Hindu deities. Goodbyes are never good but we had to leave, with tad too heavy a heart!

The local staple breakfast, Thinthuk!

{Namsay Homestay – Mr. Schchot Tchering (drsuresh72@gmail.com)}

Kaza – Proceeded Dhankar onwards and the next night halt was at Kaza. A lesser homestay and more of a guest house by the name of Nyingma Guest House. One of the very few places with a wi-fi and a hot water connection. After a complete cut-off for 4 days, this being a welcome change could not be denied. This place owned by Urgian Chhering is managed by a caretaker who has shifted base from Solan. He not only cooked for us but also offered help with a bit of car maintenance. The homestay is located in the heart of Kaza with the local market a few steps away and if you are lucky to meet a few travelers along the way, this can be a good crash pad. Also, with the Internet connectivity, you can better plan your upcoming journey and get information about current weather conditions as you scale higher up in the valley towards Kumzun La.
We met Urgian the following morning and he generously offered help with planning the itinerary for the rest of our day, over breakfast. A visit to Kye, Kibber and Komik villages followed by a tip on homestay in Losaar was all chalked out by him and we couldn’t thank him enough! A sumptuous sandwich-coffee breakfast at the typical Spitian low-lying tables’ set-up was a perfect start to the day!
{ Nyingma Guest House – Mr. Urgian Chhering
Urgian – 9459909191 / Indu – 9418609191 / Kusang – 9418556344)}

Losaar – Losaar is a smaller village as compared to Kaza. You scale altitude Kaza onwards and might have to fight altitude sickness here. We looked for Shambala Guest House as suggested by Urgiang in Kaza and soon found it. Located in central market place, the owner is a local couple who stay in the same building. They have built twin-sharing and single rooms and offer just a bed too for travelers running on pocket string budgets! We met a Taiwanese girl here who had rented a bed for as little as Rs. 100 a night. Hot water for washing up was made available on request and local cuisine, as anywhere else, was heartily prepared.
The owners also ran a café downstairs. This was a great place to meet travelers as they come for meals and catching up. We met a few Israelians and some fellow Indians here and shared experiences. A cozy little place with all essentials and good meal options. Fight the cold, meet like-minded (or preferably not) people and bathe in the sun on the terrasse during daytime! This was one place where we had a 2 hour-long conversation with the 22 year old Taiwanese girl who was so intrigued by India that she had travelled across the length and breadth of the country for over 6 months by then! All in all, great ambience, pocket-friendly, local food and some long-lasting exchanges with people!
Jia Ling, our Tiwanese counterpart thereon!
{Shambala Guest House – Mr. Angdui}

Friday, 7 August 2015

The Steamin' Mugs Part 4


Chapter 7 : February
Chapter 8 : The D-Day!

Chapter 7 : FEBRUARY

The new year brought in resolutions. Sid tried to write a short story for a producer friend but his schedule wasn’t as light. Besides, the mood would not kick in when he had time. Finally, he resolved to not resolve. He hadn’t heard from Ananya since the book launch a few months ago and he finally felt like he was moving on. After almost a year and a half.

Pritha added a new Suggestions and Blog corner to the coffee house and comments had started pouring in. So people were welcome to share travel experiences. She had ordered a travel journal and named it “Worldviewer”. A couple of times that Sid was there, he saw people scribbling at their tables. The matter was to be proofread, typed and printed by Pritha and only the best entries got on into the journal. The start of the year had already seen 3. Not bad for a period of 45 days.

As the month end was approaching, Sid was getting anxious. His bucket list had only two things. One, to make Pritha’s birthday one of the most memorable ones of her life and two, telling her how he felt for her. He had also decided to show and gift her his travelogue, something he had cautiously avoided telling her for want of surprise. Also, a beautiful silk saree that he had bought in town someplace chic, he often forgot names but the translucent blue would make her look so serene…the thought of it soothed him. It was crazy, he was aware. He had colleagues who had shown interest in dating him and maybe more, but he had neither the time nor the inclination to take it forward. 

It wasn’t that Sid was expecting anything. On the contrary, he was worried how she might take it and whether or not, it would ruin their equation for good. That she might have something to say in his favour is a thought that scared him. For want of not getting disappointed, he had chosen to remain pessimistic when it came to him confessing his true feelings for her. But he could not, not tell her. Not any longer. His conscience was guilt ridden for he came to see her in the capacity of someone more than a friend. Was it infatuation, attraction, love, lust!? Could not be lust…that, Sid was sure of. Her physical attributes did have the highest appeal but the person that she was, was what he admired the most. In a much rather innocent, platonic way. At times, he felt foolish and childish, like literally, given the age difference but the effort required, to sound normal and hide his true feelings, was getting tad too much. 

Her closest friends were throwing her a party on the eve of the 29th and Sid chose to not be there. Given his agenda, he wanted to be alone with her, as long as she was willing. “Well sure, I am not doing anything particular that evening so a dinner would be a good idea!” She seemed excited about it! He had confided in Abdul for all the arrangements and had ordered a dark cherry forest cake, her favorite from The Cake Shop and arranged for it to be delivered at the coffee house, at around 4. Before she reopened it after the lunch break. 3 to 5 was cool off and cleaning time and he decided to turn that into an opportunity. The champagne, he would personally carry that along with his cherished work, the travelogue.
The previous night, he could hardly sleep. His excitement knew no bounds and as much as he had confessed his love to women before, this seemed like out of the ordinary. Hell, it was. The Ananya chapter had consumed him emotionally and after a long while was he feeling secure and clear in his thoughts again. It was love. Period. And it was going to be an honest confession. The outcome? He had not let his mind wander there.

12am and he placed the call. As the call got through, there sounded what was like a screech and the familiar “Hey!” on the phone. She wasn’t sounding her normal self and it amused him. 

“You are sounding a little different! May this be a great day and a year ahead Pritha! Happy birthday and have a good one! Love you!” He tried to sound nonchalant.

There was no reason she could have taken it in any other way! “Thanks Sid! You are up! You should join us! We are at my place and……” Screech! 

“What! Hellooo….??”

“Hellloo…Sid, you there? Sorry, there is a lot of commotion here. Before the line goes crazy again, thanks a ton Sid for calling me at this hour! Waiting to celebrate with you tomorrow. Go to sleep ya and have a good one, you too! Thanks again!” she chuckled!

“Sure! Byee!”

Chapter 8 : D DAY!

He could hardly catch sleep that night. It was going to be a long day. He had to work but he had asked for permission to start and wrap up early. Heartily granted at that. Sid was great with his work. His interpersonal relationships had ensured him a smooth transition into the team and a dedicated worker that he was, nobody cared with a simple request like that once in a blue moon. As long as work did not get affected. 

He had put on his best attire to work today. Denims with a formal shirt. Friday, so a semi-formal day. Sid was in luck. He looked at his watch as it clocked 3. He pressed the elevator button thrice. As the door opened, he darted inside and pressed L1. The liftman winked at him. “Sab mera kaam karte to asaan padta”. He awkwardly got up from the bar-like stool given to him to rest his buttocks on once a while and switched on the fan. Sid was glancing nervously as the lift sped down and within less than 20 seconds, he was out. 

“Sahab”, Mikesh called out. 

“Mikesh! Kya hua?” Sid spun around and started pacing backwards. 

“Shirt pe ink utara hai! Pocket..pocket…” he managed as the lift doors closed shut. Shit! Sid had no time to buy a new one on the way. There were showrooms but time was critical here. To hell with it! He thought.
He took a cab and picked up the champagne bottle on his way. It had already been arranged for, nicely wrapped with a birthday note and a box of salted cookies. The likes of which Pritha had a taste for. Abdul had been instructed to get a bouquet of white orchids. Elegant and not over the board. A small one with a green ribbon woven around. Just as Sid had instructed. This was from Ferns and Petals, luckily on the same street as Pritha’s café and her adjacent house was. Abdul seemed intrigued but refrained from asking questions. Over the years, he had been a silent worker. Good for Sid.

As the taxi turned around the curb, he could now see the coffee house at a distance. Pritha was to come downstairs around 4 for trying out a new specials menu, something she had reserved for this particular day and Abdul had already managed the cake and the bouquet and had arranged it on a corner chair, next to one of the tables near the far end of the wall, not visible to her as she entered. He also had another packet received and opened and kept ready for her to see on the same table since he thought gifts could all go there.
The taxi halted a few meters from the café.  Pritha had no knowledge that Sid was showing up early. She was busy inside baking or so Sid guessed as he scanned the place from outside. Carefully, he took the bottle , the box of cookies, the sari wrapped in a beautiful paper folder and his own travelogue tied with a red ribbon. He had already paid the taxiwala as he knew he would be hands full. He looked at the ink stain once and sighed. What a mess!

As he climbed the two baby steps that led to the café, Abdul came out beaming. That meant victory. So he had managed everything! Sid was thrilled! 

“Sab le aaye Abdul?”

“Sahab sab kuch us table pe rakha hai! Cake ko jaldi kaato sahab, pighal jaayega aur bouquet bhi hai aur….” His voice trailed off as he saw the travelogue. “Yehi toh rakha hun!”

“Kya!?” Sid had opened his mouth to say something else but just a Hindi monosyllable came out. “Matlab!?”

“Sahab yehi kitaab toh rakha hun thodi der pehle!” he took the gifts and shot a nervous glance inside fearing that Pritha might come out. 

Sid let him take the gifts and walked towards the table that Abdul had indicated. 

“How did Pritha know that it was my travelogue?  Had I mentioned it to her in my drunk state the other night? Had she read about it someplace? Had Abdul blurted it out to her…no wait, Abdul did not know I was getting the book…”  numerous thoughts as Sid walked towards the table. His pensive mode continued….“Maybe she wanted to surprise me!! Ahaa..that could be it!”

His work was sitting there all right! Without a thought, he opened the cover and felt multiple tiny stabs near his chest as he read..

“A book am sure you will love and which will go well in your café! Sorry, could not make it yesterday. Happy birthday Maa. Love you. Ananya.”

The place began to swirl and Sid walked out the entrance. Now an exit for him, he again looked at his shirt and departed without a second glance thinking the same thing “What a mess!”. 


The Steamin' Mugs Part 3


Chapter 5 : Winters 

Chapter 6 : New Years'

Chapter 5 : Winters

It’s almost criminal to call the cold season of Bombay, Winter. But well, by local standards, it is. Coming from where he did, this season just about seemed pleasant to him. 

“You seem to have taken a liking for this place haven’t you!?” She smiled and gave a wink. It was a Saturday afternoon and though most first days of Sid’s weekends were unofficially working, today was a day off. It had been 3 days since he hadn’t visited the coffee house. It sounded obnoxious but Sid had come to a full realization. He had fallen for her. At first, he thought it was just the attire, the way she carried herself and the outward personality. But they often caught up when there were fewer people at the café and time always flew. They talked about anything and everything under the sun and it seemed to make sense. He loved her wit, her sense of humour and the fact the she had seen a lot in life. Perspective. That’s what he got from her. On everything! 

“I have, yes. The collection of your books is too good. Tell you what, how about we go for a coffee some other place? Just for the fun of it. I have taken a treat a couple of times. Just as a thank you for the refreshing time that I have here, would you mind joining me for a coffee someplace else?”

She was taken aback a little but appreciated his honesty. In fact, she liked his company. Life had not been easy. She was in her early fiftees now though no one could tell. Her marriage had died a natural death many many years ago and she decided to part ways with what life had offered her up until that point. A mixed marriage, her parents were shocked. It hadn’t yet become a practice with social acceptance tagged to it and she had had a tough time convincing them. Pa was cool and though initially worried, had understood her point.

“I know I love him and so does he”. 

“He loves himself!?” Pa queered. That made Pritha laugh. “Quit making a joke out of it Pa. You know I won’t like it if you and Ma were to look for someone else. I might as well stay single in that case.” 

Life took this part of her conversation way too seriously. Single she lived.  

“Will you take care of each other the way your Ma and me have? I won’t stand in your way if you have already made a decision. We just want you to be happy. The struggles thereon, the decisions, the consequences are all yours. We are there to help but it is you who got to lead it. If you think he understands you the way you need to be understood, I am all for it. Convincing Ma is my responsibility."

“Honestly Pa, I don’t know. How can I know now if we are okay for and with each other? Time will tell. But I think he is good for me and so am I for him. We support and trust each other and understand our needs. Most importantly Pa, I simply have never felt this way for anyone before. You might laugh at it now but it’s true.”

“Why would I? It’s one of the best feelings in the world. I am crazy for Ma till this day Pritha. She was my best decision of life. And I did the same thing when I was 20-something. So go on and get a coffee. Ask him to come meet us tomorrow morning.”

Pritha had had a non-conventional court marriage. Another reason to draw criticism and taunts amongst family and friends. Ma was not happy but she gave in for she loved Pritha too much. They had had her after over a decade of marriage and she was an apple of the eye. Brought up independently and with a lot of gut, she had turned out to be fiercely opinionated and quite perspective of an individual. A reader by night and sleeper by day, she had dreamt with her eyes open and scaled the hierarchy at her organization with much more ease than any of her other female counterparts.  

The wedlock unfortunately turned out to be a disaster. And slow at that. It took life away from her. The birth of their child was not particularly a happy time. Trouble had taken deeper roots much earlier. She lost Ma and Pa within a period of two years and that crippled her psychologically and emotionally. She decided to raise the child on her own but unfortunately for her, her husband was a very well settled-man. Ma and Pa had taken good care of her with leaving a small family bungalow in her name and some jewellery but times were changing. Although managing a child was possible for her, she couldn’t convince the courts. The lawyer fees ripped away all savings and she had to hold on to whatever was left. At least to support herself. Over the years, she had quit her stressful job for want of time for her family and taken to volunteer work. This wasn’t getting her much now although it was enough for a single soul.

As courts swung the decision in her husband’s favour, Pritha waited eagerly to see their child every week.  A mixed breed at that, she had taken features of both of them, Pritha realized. Also, her father’s temperament and her mother’s creative vision. If anything troubled her, it was the fact that Pritha could never cultivate that bond with the being she had once shared the umbilical cord with. The physical distance, her husband’s clever maneuvers being the main culprits and the strong financial and social standing that he had did the rest. The interim 10 odd years of her life were spent brooding and questioning her decisions until she finally heard the inner voice. Although not very close, a stable relationship with her daughter, though hidden from her husband, made her feel like a new twig. More importantly, the real her celebrated victory somewhere when she decided to get out of her decade long slumber and move on with life! There had been no turning back since then. With whatever savings she had accumulated over the years, she renovated the verandah, had it covered and remodeled into The Steamin’ Mugs. Over the years, having grown and lived in the same neighborhood did her one big favour.  Friends. For life. Although they couldn’t do much in that darkened phase of her life, they did ensure that she would not collapse. 

And she didn’t all right. It had been almost 7 years now that she ran this place with such fervor and taste that she had started featuring in lifestyle magazines. The experimentation with food too earned her brownie points and she had recently got an offer to appear to talk about the House on a television show.

“I am so nervous about this Sid.” She jolted back to reality. “I mean, I have worked in marketing et al before but that was like ages ago. Things are different now.”

“And since when does someone like you worry about how different things are. All you have to do is talk about what you do, day in and out. You have built a portion of this place with your bare hands, the ambience, the warmth and the relaxation that anyone could get here is almost meditating. Do you know how many of us come here just to sit and introspect on life while those steaming coffee mugs with continental snacks come our way!? Abdul has been great and that’s solely because you have made this place. You have given it an identity. It can almost become a prototype…something like a coffee book house…a cook house! Hey that’s a brilliant idea! Why not invite people and share their recipes here. You keep a portion of the sales and they get to showcase their talent and go up your specials board once a weekl!”  

She was in splits now. “I had a little doubt. Don’t worry, I am all excited, was just a little apprehensive. Thanks for the idea though!”

“So have I earned my coffee now!?”

“Sure”. She got up as the chime announced another customer. Sid beamed and started wondering where to take her! 

Chapter 6 : NEW YEARS

Pritha had started enjoying Sid’s company. Just like she loved the company of a lot of other frequenters to the coffee house. The hustle bustle and the trade in itself, if that is what it can be called, had changed the monotony that her life had become. She found a new self and had finally understood the true sense of hitting rock bottom and bouncing back. Pa would be so happy today. She always spoke to Ma and Pa in those lonely hours, told them that she was doing okay even when life offered her the darkest of the miseries. Losing your biological and legal kin within questionable amount of time was lethal a blow but she sailed through. Today, upon looking back and smiling at some of the misfortunes of life, she was still grateful for all the people there were and are. 

Sid certainly could now be counted as one of the many good friends. She had told him about her life, bits and pieces and he had told her about his. At 25, he had yet to see a lot and a few broken relationships could not complicate life that much, she had told him. He agreed. Anything beyond was unimaginable for her. Pritha had lost too much and had finally regained control of her life. She was not looking for love anymore. That it could come her way was a different story but for the time being, there was no one. 

Sid had a different tale being woven. He had certainly fallen in deep love with her and would look for company and spending ‘quality time’. It never occurred to him as to where he was headed. Rather, he did not question anything. Living in the moment was what he was doing. Although his travelogue sales did not hit a high note, it certainly wasn’t a disappointment. Reading circles took it well. A few intellectual minds who were friends of friends found the work credible and the writing incredible! His job was going good too. Finally, he had found something with a learning curve and liked going to work everyday. His colleagues invited Sid to a throwback event on the 30th since most of them were married and spending New Years’ with their families. Sid was tempted and he said Yes. What followed was a drunken escapade and the worst hangover Sid had ever had! They dropped him, many times literally, while on their way back and finally to his home at 5 the next morning. 

He opened one groggy eye for he was getting incessant phone calls. Turned out it wasn’t a call after all. He had put an alarm in his inebriated state of mind and it was ringing creating this maddening fury inside him. He finally managed to switch it off and saw the clock. His body was aching and his head, spinning. It was almost late evening and he was a few hours away from greeting the New Year. If he would be in his senses to do that, that is. 

He managed to stand up. Popped an aspirin and washed his face. His face looked like it had taken a tight slap for Sid fell down and cut his right cheek the previous night. “What the hell!??” Sid thought. And then he remembered. He hurried, rather scurried back to the living room and picked up his dying phone. Plugged it into the charger and placed the call. 

“Heyy..was trying your number Sid. Where are you!?”

“I am so sorry Pritha. Had a rough night. Can I skip!?”

“Oh, of course! I just hope you are okay. I have a few friends and family over! But you don’t worry, take rest. I will see you in the new year I guess..” she sounded so thrilled. Family?? Sid wondered but his head was taking a thousand hammers. He managed apologies and crashed on to the sofa again. Within minutes, he was asleep.