Sunday, February 1, 2015

South Indian Flavours

During Darjeeling District's cold winter season, schools get a long, two month holiday. Having been in India for about a year now but not had the opportunity to see very much of the country, I was eager to explore a new area. Last spring two Couchsurfers, Nadirah and Jun, from Malaysia came and stayed with me. They are studying in Davangere, Karnataka state, and invited me to come and visit them. Once my holiday started, that was my first stop.

Nadirah, Jun and me

India is famous around the world for its mouth watering cuisine, and South India has its own particular flavours compared to the rest of the country. While traveling around Karnataka state, I sought out the most delicious (semi-vegetarian) dishes that the region has to offer. They weren't hard to find, especially starting in Davangere.

One famous dish in South India is dosa, which is essentially a fermented crepe made from rice batter. Davangere is famous for its benne dosa, which literally means "butter dosa." It is served with coconut chutney, and in this case, mashed potatoes.

The making of the delicious dish

I was surprised when told that bus stand restaurants have some of the best food around. But I found it to be completely true, and not only is the food delicious but it's also cheap and fast.

One of the most widely available dishes (especially at bus stands) is a thali -- rice, chapati, vegetables, dal (lentil soup), multiple curries, curd, and sometimes kheer (rice pudding). It can vary slightly but usually includes many of the same things. Always delicious, and quite cheap (less than US $1) at the bus stands.

Bus stand thali

Another essential South Indian dish is sambar, a lentil based stew made with tamarind, and often coconut, as well as various other vegetables. While visiting a temple in Hampi, Karnataka, my friend and I were invited to eat the food that was being served for lunch at a wedding. It was sambar with rice, along with a sweet lentil soup. Though simple, I have to admit it is one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted.

Wedding sambar

Sambar is also sometimes served with idli, a steamed savory cake that is a traditional breakfast in South India.

Idli Sambar
A variety of other delicious snacks and foods can be found...

Vegetable curry

Paratha (eaten in place or in addition to rice)

Avalakki (flattened rice) with egg

Gobi Manchurian - Indian Chinese dish of cauliflower dipped in batter and deep fried

And of course tea, an essential anywhere in India.

Served in an amusing and initially confusing way in Karnataka

Of course, this is just a very small sample of the many delicious flavours that can be found in South India...

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cycle Tour & the Traveling Tradesmen

In Germany, I met my childhood friend Julia for a two-week cycling tour through Germany and the Czech Republic. We bought bicycles in Hamburg and rode them all the way to the city of Plzen in the Czech Republic, for a total of around 1,000 kilometers. We also met up with another friend, Kili, for part of the journey.

Our main destinations were Erlangen in Germany and Brno in the Czech Republic (due to time restraints, we ended up taking the train from Plzen). In both places we stayed with friends that I met in Laos while volunteering at Saelao Project.

On the way, we slept in a variety of places. Sometimes, we simply pitched our tent on the side of the bike path, which is not technically allowed in Germany but wasn’t a problem. Other times, we stayed at legitimate campsites, and enjoyed use of the showers and a sink for washing clothes. We also used the website Warm Showers for the first time, which is like Couchsurfing, except only for cyclists.

One of our Warm Showers hosts, Tobias, lived with his family in a small village in the German state of Thuringia. He was a well-experienced cyclist, having completed an eight-month tour almost completely around the Mediterranean. Being a roofer, he had also spent four and a half years as a  traveling tradesmen, following a German tradition.

The tradition of the traveling tradesmen goes back to the Middle Ages. The goal is to learn about your profession from the perspective of different cultures of the world. They travel around Germany and the world, working in exchange for room and board. If they want to travel, they must earn the money to do so. Any tradesman can go so long as he or she is under 30 years old and has no debts or dependents. Carpenters, masons, tailors, blacksmiths, bookbinders, painters and more can choose to go on this journey. 

The rules for it are rather strict:

  • Must be gone for a minimum of three years and one day
  • Can’t go within 50 kilometers of hometown
  • Must constantly wear traditional clothes, and carry few possessions
  • Must carry a journal, and get stamps and comments from majors and employers
  • Start with only five euros

Tobias's Travel Journel

First page outlining rules and goals

On one of the first pages, a map with his hometown in the middle, illustrating where he wasn't allowed to go

The traveling tradesmen also follow a variety of traditions for their journey. Before leaving, they have a goodbye party, in which they often have their friends pierce their ears. They also symbolically climb over the sign for their hometown and take a photo (seen above on first page of the journal). Underneath the sign they bury two bottles: one bottle of wine for their homecoming party, and one bottle of notes from their family and friends, shown below.

It was very interesting to learn about this unique tradition. On our cycling tour, the best part was being able to stay with different people and gain knowledge from their perspectives.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Daragaon IV: Tea, Couchsurfers, and Buddha Purnima

I'm a big fan of the organization Couchsurfing and have been very lucky to have surfed in many countries. In Seattle I began to repay my debt, and hosted several times with my family. Since I first came to Daragaon I've wanted to host here as well. I was able to host just once last fall, and resolved to host more this time around. Coincidentally, my 'brother' in the village, Sobhit Daju, decided to start up a homestay around the time I came to live with him. So, we've been hosting Couchsurfers at his homestay. Unfortunately it is unrealistic to have them stay for free (the way proper Couchsurfing works), but Sobhit Daju and I have come to a compromise of 400 rupees per night for Couchsurfing guests, which is about six US dollars.

Since there are few hosts in the Darjeeling area, I've gotten a lot of requests. As there is very little internet in the village, I'm not able to get on the website often but have posted my number, so people can contact me via text or calls. Over the course of less than two months, we hosted five times. All were wonderful experiences, and each surfer brought unique skills to the table.

Kim, from Korea, stayed for a week and came to the school everyday. She taught the kids the Korean alphabet (at their request) and how to write their names. They absolutely loved it and the kids are still asking me about 'Kim Miss.'

Kim Miss in action - the Korean alphabet

Class five eagerly learning

Rahul in class six practices writing his name

Kaavya, from the US (with South Indian heritage), taught the kids fun songs.

Other surfers taught not just the kids, but me and the family as well. Nandan from Kolkata taught me some Hindi, as well as a new technique for rolling roti or chapatis.  Nadirah from Malaysia and her friends told us about what it's like to work at a hospital in India, and entertained us with crazy stories.

Rut, from Sweden, taught the family how to make friendship bracelets, and gave them as gifts.

Martha learns from 'Rut Didi'

Some of the surfers have done the Singalila Ridge Trek as well, and have hired Sobhit Daju as their guide.

With the rainy season around the corner, the number of surfers has lessened, but I look forward to hosting more in the fall, when the weather is beautiful and it is the high season for tourism again.

By the way, if anyone reading this is interesting in coming and staying with us, please feel free! All are welcome.

Couchsurfers have taught the family many things, and the family has taught them as well.


At this time there is a lot of tea to be picked. Tea is an essential part of life in the village, with multiple cups being consumed per day. Whenever you go to someone's house, they will give you at least one cup of tea. This can add up to a lot of tea in one day when you visit many houses (as I love to do). Currently, my record for the number of cups consumed in a single day is thirteen.

The first step of making a delicious cup of tea is picking it.

Kaavya, Amma and Rut picking tea

After that, it should be slightly dried...

...and then rolled....

...until it looks like so:

Then it sits overnight in a container. After that it must dry very thoroughly, for many days, until it turns black in colour.

Partially Dried

Then it is ready to be made into a cup of deliciousness!

May fourteenth was the birthday of the Buddha, or 'Buddha Purnima,' which means Buddha full moon. I had been hearing about the day for months before, from both Buddhists and Hindus. I was invited to go to a Rai Buddhist temple, in Daragaon, with some of my students.

When I arrived, I was surprised to see that I knew one of the monks, my neighbor, and the father of one of my students.

Prajwal (class three), and his father on the right

It was my first time to this temple, and it was very beautiful. 


People had brought many delicious edible offerings.

And many candles were lit.

There was a few hours of 'ceremony' - chanting in Tibetan, and prayer. Afterwards all were given a snack of tea, selroti, and alu dom (fried potatoes in a sauce).

Then, some students and I went to another Buddhist temple, my favorite one, in the neighbor village of Rammam. We stopped by some houses and a stone carving on the way...

Unfortunately we were late, and the ceremony was already over. But we still got to see some beautifully dressed people, and to have more selroti and tea.

Traditional Tamang Clothes
Both of the temples gave us goodybags to take home, filled with candy, popped rice, fruit, and other delicious treats. They are made up from the offerings that people bring to the temple.

Kids with their goodies at a cave temple on the way home

I finished the day off by going to a friend's house for evermore special snacks.

Keer (rice pudding), more selroti and tea

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Daragaon III: The life of a baby, adventures in cooking, piercings and given land!

The past month has been full-on, exciting, and surprising. Just as Sarah Didi from England left, Tory Boini ("younger sister") from Chicago came. Another addition to the family in the past month is that Sobhit's mother has moved back to the village and is living with us. She refers to Tory and I as her daughters, and we call her "Amma." The family has really taken us in, so much so that they actually gave us some LAND! Not a joke. They've instructed us to build a house and bring our parents here. We've agreed, though it will take many years to make it a reality.

Nice land, gotta say!

Have also learned many new things about Nepali and village culture in the past month, such as...


Living with ten-month-old Precious has provided a wonderful opportunity to be able to learn about the Nepali style of raising a baby. Of course, this is quite different from the style I've been exposed to in the US. The thing I am most amazed by is how quickly they potty train the children. This is done out of necessity. Diapers are available in town but they are expensive, and seem to be reserved for special occasions or traveling. Here, holding a baby hear means getting peed on at one point or another. When the baby goes, then the adults simply change the baby's (and possibly their own) pants. As a result, the baby's pants are changed many, many times a day (which also means a lot of laundry).

According to Sumi Baoju (Precious's mother), babies are started to be potty trained at the age of six months, if not before. It seems that the way they do this is by pulling down the baby's pants (outside) and then making the designated peeing sound: "shhhhh". At night, when the baby wakes up, they go "shhhhh" over a bowl. At one year, they start to "shhhh" over an actual toilet. At 15 to 16 months, the child will start to be able to tell their family members when they need to go to the toilet. And then, by one and a half, rumor has it they can use the toilet by themselves, and rarely or never have accidents.

A wonderful example is our neighbor, Prasancha, who at two years old is completely potty trained.

Talented Child

Another thing I've found quite interesting is the customs regarding breastfeeding. In the US this is a bit of a debate, and although we're not shy about showing women in lingerie on billboards, women feel shy to breastfeed in public. Here, nudity is VERY taboo and I will rarely even see women in capris or sleeveless shirts. But there's no shyness regarding breasfeeding: it happens anytime, anywhere.

At around six months, babies start to eat extra cooked rice that is very soft, made in a pressure cooker. It is often cooked together with lentils and light spices such as tumeric.

Baby Food

Starting about a month ago, occasional tea was also added to Precious's diet. He is truly a Nepali baby: he loves both rice and tea. Sometimes, in the morning when we're all sitting around having a cup of tea, he will whine until some is given to him as well. He drinks it quite happily and then will want seconds, and thirds. I find it most hilarious....


Building off of what Sarah Didi and I learned last month, Tory Boini and I have become quite proficient at Nepali cooking, and now can be trusted to make meals for the family almost exclusively by ourselves. I'll admit that the actual cooking is quite simple and easy to learn, but I do find it a challenge to control the fire and keep it roaring. Slowly but surely, getting the hang of it.

This month, we decided to try our hand at making some "American" food for the family. For our first "American" meal we made mashed potatoes, which were served with fried peas and cauliflower, and of course there was rice as well. Next, we attempted to make Mexican/American-style burritos. They turned out really well! The tortillas weren't too difficult, we made them in the same style as Nepali roti/chapati bread, except bigger. Fried some vegetables, made our favorite "ochhar" which is essentially pico de gallo, and added some leafy greens on top. That last part was the strangest for the family, as Nepali people seem to NEVER eat vegetables raw, except for maybe onion and tomato, but certainly not leafy greens.

Adventures in cooking

Although they took very few of the uncooked leafy greens, the family seemed to really enjoy the burritos. They even requested that we make them again the following week!

Martha Boini and Amma trying the strange foreign food
More food adventures to come...


Tory Boini is a lover of piercings so for her 21st birthday decided to have our neighbors (who have many ear piercings themselves) add a view more holes to her ear. We first came to their house for the piercing in the late afternoon, and they instructed us to come back in the morning, when it is colder and better for piercing. I had been considering getting a new hole myself, but they said that since the weather is getting warmer and the rainy season is coming, it is not a good time. Winter season, when it is dry and cold, is the time for piercings. We explained that Tory was going back to the US in a few days, and that it is cold there. They found this acceptable.

Sarda, with freshly washed hair, pierces an unafraid Tory
I'd been expecting it to be difficult, but the piercing was really as simple as just sticking a needle (cleaned with boiling water) into Tory's ear. It was quite smooth and she said it didn't hurt much at all. The only slightly difficult part was getting the earring in after the needle was taken out of the whole. The villagers would usually put a string in after the needle, and leave it in for three days before putting in an earring. But Tory opted to skip the string.

Needle In
To clean the fresh piercings, Sarda applied a mixture of tumeric and cooking oil.

What will the next month of village adventures hold?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Singalila Ridge Trek

The region where I am living, in the very northwest corner of Darjeeling District, in the Indian state of West Bengal, is well-known for trekking. The 'Singalila Ridge Trek,' which goes along the border with Nepal, and climaxes at Sandakpur (3,636 meters or nearly 12,000 feet), literally goes right outside of my house. I'd heard that this was a good season to do the trek, so while Sarah Didi was here, we decided to go for it. Our 'brother' Sobhit served as our guide (required for the trek).

DAY ONE (Kharka, Daragaon to Chitrey)

We walked from our house two hours to the nearest market, Rimbick, which is the usual ending point of the trek. Made multiple stops for tea along the way at various relatives' of Sobhit. From there, we took a jeep three hours to the town of Maney Bhanjyang, where we then walked for an hour up to Chitrey (2,400 m), where we spent our first night.

Leaving Maney Bhanjyang to go uphill

Chitrey Tibetan Buddhist Monestery
Chitrey Tibetan Buddhist Monestery

Kind Words from the Monestery

Loving the prayer flags

Sarah Didi amidst the flags

Our hotel, with the moon

DAY TWO (Chitrey to Kalpokari)

An early start in Chitrey, views of Kachenzonga--little did we know, it would be our only snow-capped mountain view. Walked through a rather barren land to our first check post, where the Indian Army asked to take pictures of us, but refused to let us take photos of them.Continued on to the famous Tonglu (3,070 meters), and then downhill to Jaubari, a cute little village. Two hours later reached the army base at Garibas, where they were eager to take a photo with us.

We continued down a bit further before heading back up to our destination for the evening, Kalpokhari (3,185 meters). During the last hour before we made it, we walked together with the Indian army through light rain and hail. Shortly after arriving in Kalpokhari, it began to snow...

DAY THREE (Kalpokari to Sandakphu)

After a long, 22 kilometer day, we took it "easy" and walked for just six kilometeres, but gained more than five hundred meters in order to reach our destination, the pinnacle of Sandakphu! Unfortunately, the clouds weren't going anywhere...

Sandakphu, in all it's foggy glory
DAY FOUR (Sandakphu to Phalut)

The next day, things looked slightly more alive...

With the Indian Army, also trekking. Check out the facial hair on the tall guy.

We continued on to Phalut and hoped that it wouldn't rain along the way.

Arrived in Phalut and were welcomed by yaks which provided the milk for our tea (not bad).

Spent the evening gathered around the fire in the kitchen warming ourselves and chatting.

DAY FIVE (Phalut to Home!)

Woke up to lots of fresh snow...

Our accommodation

Hitting it in the snow

Me Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) - use your imagination
Sobhit Daju and Sarah Didi
I thoroughly enjoyed playing in the snow, even if I didn't have clothes appropriate for it. As we walked on towards Gorkey and home, the snow lessened...

River near Gorkey
 After Gorkey, it was just three more hours...
Civilization! Sammanden, just past Gorkey

Tea stop at Sobhit's friend's in Sammanden

I was very excited when I saw Rammam School (flags above), signalling that we were as good as home!