travel

A Nice Cup of Tea

Looking down on Durbar Square

I’m enjoying the food here in Nepal. The national meal, which everyone eats at least twice a day, is dal bhaat – rice with sloppy dal (lentils), vegetable curry and sometimes a bit of ‘pickle’ – potatoes or vegetables in a sharp or mustardy sauce. Very tasty. My favourite dal bhaat so far is happily served at a restaurant right around the corner from my guesthouse, Asmita’s B&B, in Kathmandu.

I was the only person in the restaurant when I was there, despite it being quite touristy-looking. In fact, they laid on a show. Just as I was leaving two nervous, giggling dancing girls came out from nowhere and started to perform to an audience of consisting of the waiters and myself. About two minutes in the show was brought to a halt by one of Kathmandu’s many power cuts. The waiters and I gave the girls a rapturous round of applause and that was that.

I’m back in Kathmandu now, after another bumpy and hair-raising bus trip. The other things you eat a lot of here are momos: little dumplings with vegetables, chicken or buff (buffalo) in them, that come either steamed or fried with a little pot of sauce to dip them in, either curry or tomato. You can also get a nice momo soup. My favourite place for this is a Tibetan restaurant called the Yak, which I have inevitably dubbed the Yak Shack. You can have a good dinner of vegetable momo soup for less than a quid. For lunch I often have vegetable pakodas, little fried vegetable things that are a lot like onion bhajis, again served with dipping sauce. I seem to have gone vegetarian here, although for my last night in Pokhara I had freshly-caught fish from the lake, served sizzling on a plate straight from the oven and smothered with spices.

They have nice tea here, not surprisingly for a country that is within spitting distance of Assam and Darjeeling. Nepali tea is made from tea dust, hot milk, an entire bag of sugar and spices- I’ve detected ginger, pepper, cardamom, and cloves in various cups. It’s rich and very sweet, so I’ve taken to having it as a sort of pudding.

Please excuse any typos that slip through. I’m using the world’s slowest computer and least responsive keyboard. Plus I keep spelling Kathmandu ‘Kathmandy’.

The most memorable cup of tea I’ve had since coming here was served to me in a single-room shack in the middle of a shanty town in Boudha on my first day here. I was wandering through Kath when someone popped up beside me and started chatting. I knew he was a guide because he insisted on saying straight away “I’m not a guide.” His name was Rahul, an Indian immigrant, and he’d been a shoe shiner until some scumbag stole his shoe shining box, reducing him to ad hoc tour guiding for a living. I liked him immediately and decided to hire him as a guide for the day.

We went round a load of temples while he patiently tried to explain the intricacies of the Hindu pantheon to me. I took a long time to get my head round the way there would be Buddhist shrines in a Hindu temple and vice versa. Rahul is indiscriminately devout in a way I haven’t encountered before coming here – he’d stop for blessings and to ring bells and leave offerings wherever we were. When he heard I wanted to go to Tibet he took me to Boudha, which has a large population of Tibetan refugees. We went around the massive stupa there, talking about karma, then to a working Tibetan monastery down a back street where we sat in on a prayer ceremony. I would never have been bold enough to intrude on the ceremony by myself, but it was fine – we were politely ignored as the monks got on with it.

The ceremony was amazing. Monks blew into long trumpets that stretched out several feet on the floor in front of them, hammered an enormous drum, rang bells or hooted a conch shell. In between these rousing musical interludes – which I have since read are designed to stop the mind going stale during prayers – they chanted guttural and rhythmic prayers. It was mesmerising.

Then, later, Rahul invited me round to his house to meet his wife and five-month-old baby. I’d heard a lot about both during the course or the day – Rahul is a very proud new dad, and knows his son’s age down to the day. I already suspected he was quite poor as he has a habit of darting forward to pick up stray plastic bags in the street to see if they had food left in them. I wasn’t prepared for quite how poor he is, though.

He led me down an increasingly roughshod and slippery trail of paths into what had been a field, and was now covered in ‘plastic tents’ – a small shanty town of pitiful structures made out of wooden poles covered in bits of plastic rubbish, with plastic sheeting for the roof. Part of Rahul’s front wall was made out of a sign advertising Coke. Everyone we met on the way down was very friendly – I kept having small children lifted up to me so I could pat their cheeks and comment on how pretty they were.

Rahul and family

Rahul’s wife Bina and baby Sachem were both asleep when we got there. I lingered in the doorway while Rahul chased a chicken out of the house and woke them. I was glad to have a moment to take in my surroundings. Bina woke up, saw me and leaped up to make tea, embarrassed to have been caught napping. Rahul and I played with Sachem while Bina kindled a small open fire in the corner of the room. Before I left London I’d been reading about the danger of these fires – over a billion people worldwide don’t have a proper safe cooking stove, leading to about a million preventable deaths each year, mainly women and small children. And now here was Bina squatting next to one.

One of the neighbour’s kids just happened to wander in to get a look at the weird foreigner, and was sent out to get some biscuits from the shanty town’s stall. All of us – next door’s child included – sat down for milky, ginger-y tea and chocolate biscuits and chatted, with Rahul translating. The weird thing was how normal it suddenly seemed – the slightly awkward formal feeling of having tea and making conversation with people you don’t know very well. I had a nice cuddle with little Sachem, who tried to nick my glasses. Rahul translated as Bina told me it had been a difficult pregnancy, with Sachem in breech, but luckily he turned around before the birth. I thought of my friend Stacey, who ended up having a caesarian after little Enna refused to turn; Stacey and Bina’s first experience of childbirth were so similar and so different at the same time that I struggled to make sense of it. Rahul told me that since he lost his shoe cleaning box there have been days when he and Bina have gone hungry but, he assured me proudly, he always found something for the baby. Sachem gave up on my glasses and started trying to steal my necklace instead. He has strong little arms.

An unsubtle necklace thief

Both Rahul and Bina are younger than me, and both are illiterate. It was a sobering experience, but one I feel lucky to have had. Rahul and Bina’s warmth, and the friendly curiosity of their neighbours, will stay with me for a long time.

For more information about the campaign for clean cook stoves, go here, or donate one to a family here.

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3 thoughts on “A Nice Cup of Tea

  1. Yum yum! This makes me hungry!! Good for you having highlighted the danger of the open cooking fires. Feels weird to know that you are there and actually witnessing it…xx

  2. The descriptions of your experiences are so evocative and stimulating that I can’t stop thinking about them. It’s all so completely different and makes me feel like jumping on a flight to somewhere far flung. Can’t wait for the next blog xxx

  3. You and Chris lead the world of bloggers with scrumptious descriptions of food. With each bite, I’m there… in my head. It was very humbling to read about Rahul and his famliy, and also to feel that I now have one degree of separation from them. As you say lives are so similar, and yet extraordinarily different at the same time. It’s hard to compute. Keep writing and keep well. xx

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