One of my fondest chai memories comes from Bhuntar, Himachal Pradesh, Northern India. It was my first trip to India in 2003 and 2004 and little did I know she would pull me back again. By the time I left Delhi for Bhuntar, I was a seasoned Indian traveler, having had my share fare of pinches, flashings and toilet experiences. The trip to Bhuntar was an 18 hour bus ride through the mountains, on a winding road, with a rickety bus. Bathroom breaks were non-existent on this trip, so I feared every drop of mango juice I dripped on my parched tongue, would send rivers gushing down my leg. I was dehydrated, dreaming about ice cold cups of water, urging the bus driver along the bedraggled route. I held the urge to pee for hours and hours and hours and hours. Severe cramps lulled me into a delirious trance, as I concentrated on the passing scenery. It was dark, and I only saw the comforting dashes of golden light throughout the inky black mountains and ravines. It was nearly 3:00 AM, when the bus made one final lurch, belched black smoke in the air and stopped. Nobody moved, nobody really cared. The bus began to fill with smoke, and we clutched our dupattas to our faces, hoping to sway the smoke away from our noses. The scratchy polyester fabric did little to stave off the fumes. Finally, we made the first move, thinking it would be smart to get off the bus. Elsewhere in the world, say in China, the lurching and rolling and the sight of the nearby cliff may have caused mass panic. People may have thrown themselves forward, clawing their way off the bus, while simultaneously causing it to roll of the mountain. But alas, Indians never seem to be phased by the chaos around them and this was no exception. We got off and looked towards the back of the bus, seeing the whole underside of the bus hanging casually off the cliff. No big deal.
The bathroom break came at an unfortunate time, as now, we had no bus to take us down the mountain. But nevertheless, I was grateful to stretch my wobbly legs and relieve my aching bladder. Never have I had a more breathtaking bathroom trip outside. I walked far enough down the milky green and brown mountain to stay out of sight, and found myself above the mist, looking down the ravine, where a tiny river lay in the crook of the ravine. The rolls were sharp, random and etched with crispy patches of dry grass. The stars that night, they were brilliant in the blue-black sky. I had not seen stars for two months in Delhi, where a thick, sandy haze had covered the city for the past two months. I felt like bursting into a humming rendition of “Suite Bergmanesque” and weeping with relief. Delhi winters are exhausting and terrible. It was all damp smog, and an eerie yellow glow. Needless to say, I was thrilled to be leaving the big city. Here, here I could breathe and the clamber of men yakking up the hill, did nothing to mar my happiness. That experience saved my bladder from further ruin, though I suspect lasting damage may cause me to wear diapers in 60 years. I prefered that wilderness experience to any Indian “bathroom”. And as it turns out, there are more “bathrooms” than wilderness in India. I will never forget the unwelcome sight of my worst “bathroom” experience, also in Bhuntar. Two rickety planks lined a deep, bottomless pit, threatening to swallow me whole with one slip of my sandal. There was nothing but black and the murky daylight did little to mask the spiders darting around the room. Delhi belly could be my ruin. I had no choice but to unleash the lethal beast, or else I would have passed out. In fact, I am thankful for that decrepit bathroom, ridden with spiders and cobwebs, for it saved my life. We were hours away from home, and there is no way I would have survived the walk home through the village with, well, you know.
Bhuntar is an extremely exotic and enthralling place. I imagine Afghanistan would look something like Bhuntar. Dusty hills were scattered with crudely built market stalls, selling their wares: pounded silver earrings and necklaces, rich fabrics, blankets, carpets, itty bitty carved figurines of Shiva and Kali, saffron candy and canisters of tea. We never quite fit in, but crowd mentality managed to evade Bhuntar, and people simply stared at us, and quickly looked away. It was a peaceful haven from the chaos of Delhi, which is perhaps why it remains my favourite spot in India. It has storybook characteristics and manages to break all your preconceived notions about India. Bhuntar is a hilly town, scattered along a cinnamon brown river. The homes are taller, with porches wrapped around the perimeters. They are precariously perched on the humming river’s edge, painted minty green and chalk pink, and set against the backdrop of hills the color of onion skins. You can hear the wind rustle through the valley, and feel the sun beat down on you from the sharp blue sky. Winter is mild, and the days are long.
It was cold, cold enough for me to need four thick blanket pads and still shiver throughout the night. A frigid bucket shower in the morning did wonders to my sleepless mind and body. Thankfully breakfast was a dreamy affair, unlike the sugary pink “french” toast, samosas and cumin “pancakes” for breakfast in Delhi. In Bhuntar, we ate thin rice noodles, tossed in cream, honey, cardamom, cinnamon, golden raisins and nuts. The end result was a tapioca like consistency, and it was divine.
Tea time in Bhuntar came with the midday lull, a religious affair, with cookies and steaming tin cups of chai. Toothless old vendors selling vegetables on their cart would stop by the house, and their lips would curl revealing a shy, gummy smile as they were handed a cup of chai. They would gulp it down, tilting back their heads, bobbing their Adam’s apple up and down. Their lip smacks and nodding heads would thank us.
Joti, an Indian woman who ran the place we lived in, drew me into the kitchen one day before tea time. Her face was carved, like a lioness, her cheekbones high and prominent. Her eyes were golden brown slits, and her front tooth was chipped. She had a broad, smooth forehead, and a wide smile. She was from Nagaland, a state in India far east, near Burma. I had never met an Indian like Joti before. She grabbed my waist and pulled it into the crook of her arm. She pinched my hips and nuzzled her face into my shoulder. She was lovely, and she wanted to share her secrets of the kitchen with me. Her chai was delightful, laced with heavy lashings of sugar and cardamom. She pulled me to the stove, and winked at me, as she brought a large pot of milk to a boil. Just as the milk began to froth over the edge of the pot, she tossed in a handful of loose tea, some cracked cardamom pods and sugar. She pulled the pot off the heat and poured it through a sieve. Somehow, she managed to make the best chai, with the least amount of ingredients. She smiled slyly, as she grabbed two pounded tin cups between her fingers. She poured and handed me the cup, pressing the hot metal into my cold palm.
“You like? You learn and make at home, okay.” It was not a question.
Those sacred moments on the sun laden porch, with chai, and mounds of drying garlic pooled at my feet, saved me. Northern India is a gem, far away from the commercialized yellow curries, rickshaws and sounds of a city heaving with life. Meditation centres and yoga retreats are laced along the road that passes through Bhuntar, and I don’t blame them for choosing a place like Himachal Pradesh. However, experiencing life the way the locals do, is something wonderful. And the way the locals experience life, is enchanting.
All that to say, chai plays a large role in comforting me. I’ve had gallons of good chai in India. Never bad chai. Even on the trains, as chai is quickly thrown together with tea bags and milky water…somehow it emerges with a pure flavour. Some chai cups are smaller than two ounces, and leave you aching for more. Some is spicy and catches in the back of your throat. Some is better off without the coating of milk skin, and cups of sugar, yet still is drinkable and curses through your body, adding warmth, energy.
I have attempted to recreate Indian chai at home, but to no avail. Alas, I’ve created my own, healthy take on chai. And that recipe will come later!
The view from the porch: Mt. Shiva.