Stopping by the woods on a smoky morning

The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Robert Frost

During the drive to Mukteshwar I began to suspect that big data is only as good as the data. The drive took a little over two hours, just twenty per cent more than what the Mapapp told us it should. I thought it was slower than it should have been, but you can’t win if you argue against Google. Our slower than Google-average trip timing was now backed by all the phones in the car. When these numbers were crunched by Google’s hammer, it would increase the next prediction just slightly. Since the drivers are mostly locals for hire, and the phones mostly belong to tourists they ferry, the data is suspect. The charges for the hire are by hour, and the longer the drivers spend on a route, the better their profit margins. So it gives them a motive to drive slower than normal. I talked to someone who drives between Naini Tal and Devasthal quite often, and he confirmed that his next drive, which was done at his normal driving speed, took about fifteen per cent less time than Google’s prediction. This means that our driver took about forty percent longer than he might have.

That’s all to set the scene for the fact that by the time we were close to Mukteshwar, it was well past mid morning, and we needed our elevenses. A little cafe by the wayside presented itself. Nice wooden deck, elegant bare brick walls, possible view over a valley, space enough next to the road to squeeze in the car. We stopped. The main space was a large room with pinewood furniture. Warm colours, lots of light. There was a smaller side room for private parties. We opted to sit on the deck overlooking the valley. On a less smoky day we would have had a view of the high Himalayas from here, the kind of view that Mukteshwar is known for. Today, there was only a blue haze.

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.

Robert Frost

I’d noticed an espresso machine on our way in, so I asked for a shot. “Not possible. No electricity today,” the waiter replied. We got a masala chai instead. Some cakes. Not so bad. We were ready for a short walk. On the way out we met the owner, a red haired woman in her early 40s. It turned out that she had first come to Mukteshwar as a tourist, fallen in love with the place, and had pulled up her roots from Pune and moved here a few years ago. She’d built the place. Electricity? “Not so bad. It comes and goes.” About the same as Pune, then? “Not so predictable.” Does it rain a lot? “Not a lot. Not as much as Mumbai.” Maintenance? “Some. But the brick and wood holds up well.” I wondered about bare brick. It’s not so strong when it is soaked in water. While I totted up the reasons for not moving there, others were coming to the opposite conclusion.

Looking for chai on the road

On road trips I’ve got used to stopping at road-side shacks for a tea now and then. The trip to Kumaon last month was the first time I found this to be difficult. As we travelled north of Almora, traffic thinned out and the little shacks by the road where you can normally stop for a chai or an omelette were hardly visible.

We peered with fading hope at little stores. Some had fresh food, but all had the shiny packets of trans-fats loaded with either salt or high-fructose corn syrup (sometimes both), liberally doused in sulfite containing preservatives, which are consumed in large quantities by travellers, after which the non-biodegradable packaging is dumped into the hillside. All of them also stocked highly sugared drinks in large plastic containers, which leak bisphenols into your body, and into the environment, when the empties are dumped out of cars. Very seldom did we find a place with a working kitchen. This was very specific to this part of Kumaon; closer to the lakes one could find the normal density of roadside eateries. Nor was it the mountain-hugging roads which made such shops difficult; even inside the small towns and villages we passed, a chai or a fresh snack was not so easy to find.

Our best finds were always close to a town. Outside Almora, on the Binsar road we found a wonderful bakery and cafe. Little terraces with potted plants overlooked a valley. Someone recommended the almond butter cake; we added a pie because the waiter told us it had just been baked. Both were superb with the steaming cups of tea they gave us. Uttarakhand has begun to produce an interesting variety of cheeses, and I selected a few from the counter to eat over the next few days.

Eventually, the most relaxed place that I found for chai was the dining area of our hotel in Munsiyari. The cook had a way with the chai and omelettes, and the pleasantly chatty waiter knew when to leave you alone with the view. The window looked over the town at the nearby Panchachauli massif. Even though the air was not clear enough for the wonderful views which gives Munsiyari its reputation as a place to visit, the place was wonderfully relaxed.

Is it possible to brew good tea on a mountain?

It wasn’t exactly rain that we had that afternoon in Munsiyari, more of a heavy fog which slowly settled. We went back to the spot where we had seen the Koklass pheasant the previous day, but a Koklass never crosses the same road twice. The cold and the fog made the prospect of a chai somewhere a wonderful idea. But do you get a good cuppa on a mountain? School physics textbooks which pretended to answer the question did not emphasize that all theories should be put to test. In spite of such a deficient education, we decided to experiment.

As we climbed down towards Munsiyari we passed this odd looking restaurant. Could we get a chai here? It looked closed, but one of the huts behind had an open door. We investigated, and indeed it was possible. At an altitude of 2400 meters the air pressure is about 75% of what it is at sea level, and water should boil at about 92 degrees. The little calculator I carry at all times told me this as soon as I thought of asking (you probably carry the same calculator with you constantly). There were three of us, so we could even use the wisdom of crowds to judge the result. The conditions for the experiment were perfect.

We sat in a room which would have been marvelous if the day was clear. All the walls were made of clear sheets of glass. On three sides the view of the Panchachuli massif and neighbouring peaks would have been stunning. But the smoke and fog were dense. On the fourth side we could see the shed where this important experiment was running. So what if we’d not seen the Koklass? Here was a large painting of the Himalayan Monal and rhododendrons. The Family had carried several packets of biscuits in her backpack. We opened one for the wait.

The chai arrived soon enough. We declared that it was hot enough to warm us. The ginger added to the brew tasted great, and I loved the big jolt of caffeine. We got seconds. I think there is a point this answer to the question posed on Quora which I have used for the title of this post: “No. Not if you believe that there is only one good tea, and it requires water at 100 C. And if you believe that maybe you shouldn’t be on a mountain.” As for our experiment, it was successful. It gave a definite answer, which we had a consensus on: yes. All that remains is for others to do the experiment for themselves and check.

Food by Naini’s Tal

The lake district is easily the most popular part of Kumaon for tourists. Within easy reach of Delhi if you want a long weekend’s vacation, Naini Tal fills with crowds which are, if not madding, at least maddening enough for me to avoid. I prefer to stay near one of the fuddy-duddy Tals, any lakeside whose peace is not broken by unending crowds and late-night Bhangra discos. But in this second COVID-19 year, as our holiday drew to a close, and cases exploded in Delhi, tourists were staying away in droves. We had lunch on the terrace of a completely empty cafe overlooking the lake (featured photo). We could stand the music because we were outdoors, we weren’t trying to sleep, and the selection was largely from the 70s (with surprise appearances by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley).

Tal is the local word for lake. After lunch we took a short walk by the tal. At the street food vendors’ end I noticed that the most popular food seems to be chai with bread, or with some combination of eggs and bread. Naini Tal is part of the hills, so a bowl of Maggi is also common. The number of vendors selling corn on the cob was much smaller, and there was no chanawala in sight. The man selling sweet pastries out of a tin box was a whiff of the times when Buddy Holly was all the rage. In these times you might expect that street food vendors would be distanced and masked. Not so in Naini Tal. Masks, if they are seen at all, are used as chin guards. The stiff breeze from the lake is perhaps the only thing that has kept this place safe until now. I saw four other people whose masks covered both their mouth and nose. Of them, the cotton candy man is the only one who seemed to have discovered what I find in the hills: that a properly worn multi-layer mask is a wonderful face warmer.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

Eating on the road

Reading accounts of travel through Asia by Victorian and Edwardian writers, it would seem that they were planning trips through territories which no human had ever visited. They never took into account that food must be plentiful, because there were plenty of people living there. Of course, they were hamstrung by suppositions that they would not be able to eat the food that “natives” ate. When half the food of colonials in British India was Indian, and the spice trade was what had brought them there, this seems like a silly fear.

In actual fact there is seldom a lack of food. Ward says it well, “… since the geography books inform us with surprising unanimity that there are 400,000,000 Chinese there must be food somewhere in China.” Nevertheless he tells his readers to take along jam, Worcestershire sauce and a case of whisky. In the 21st century I think you’ll find these things even in the remotest islands of the Pacific. Whatever. I’m so glad I’m traveling again, and experiencing the romance of little roadside eateries. Chai at sunset, a plateful of steaming momo, fresh vegetables picked from the kitchen garden, a quick omelet, even a mood table with a view. I missed it.

Walking against the wind

The sky had been completely overcast since we left Latpanchar, but we couldn’t sit in a car the whole afternoon. We stopped and decided to cross the ridge on foot. A tea stall was rumoured to have been sighted on the far side, and we could meet up with the car there. A bitter wind began to push at us as soon as we stepped out. It felt as cold as if it was the middle of winter. We kept our heads down, hunched our shoulders and walked ahead. The road passed behind a little hill and the wind died down. As we crossed the pass, I took a photo of the rolling slopes, all covered with tea bushes. This is the home ground of Darjeeling tea.

Then the road turned around the hill and we were back in the grip of the cold wind. But the brief walk had warmed me, and I could actually look around. Ahead, where the road turned again, there was an oddity. All the branches and leaves of a spruce had been sheared off leaving only a little plug of a cone at the top. When I reached it I realized why. The wind blew parallel to the slope, and the top of this tree was just behind the base of the tree below it. But the wind would not have removed the branches of the tree after it had grown; the trunk was straight and was proof that the wind, strong for me, did not bother the tree. I found later that Cyclone Amphan had swept across this ridge; perhaps it had stripped the branches of this tree.

A little further on I saw a sight I’d never seen before. The fog we’d driven through was trying to roll down the ridge and into the valley. But the wind was driving it back. Their battle front see-sawed across the garden just in front of that big house on top of that small hill. There are strange artifacts of the terrain here. We walked into the windward side of a slope and suddenly the wind died down. I realized that the slope above us had turned into a four meter high cliff. The wind had changed direction to leap over that cliff. If I raised my hand high above my head I could feel it blowing between my fingers. It was like a giant natural hand drier!

It had been hard to tell how close we were to sunset. But the sky had just begun to darken when we got to the tea stall. The place was rather dark, but it was still wonderful to see the open door of the shop. We ordered our tea, and I took photos of the surroundings in the blue hour. There had been no golden hour that day, and the blue hour was about 10 minutes long. Bad weather is bad for photography.

Al fresco

I wonder where the phrase dining al fresco comes from. But that is what we did on our little workation. The first time was a shock. The Family ordered up chai with pakoras, and we sat out in the little garden waiting for it. When a man walked up to us with a full tray, I had a moment of confusion. Both of us were without our masks with a stranger near us. This had not happened in more than nine months. I curbed my instinct to dash in to get my mask. We were outdoor, with a nice breeze coming down from the hills behind us, and the server was wearing a mask and a shield. It was reasonably safe. A little chit chat as he set up the table stabilized my heart, and I was able to concentrate on the food. The perfect sweet and milky chai and a plate of hot pakodas with a spicy hot coriander and mint chutney, things we haven’t had for months! Time to take a photo of a world renormalizing, and dig in.

We were even more adventurous for dinner. The Family said we should go down to the restaurant. I’m still unsure about meeting more than two strangers at a time; when I go in to work I don’t take a lift if it has more than two people in it. I was a little reluctant. Our compromise was that we would sit outdoor. We need not have worried, the resort had set up its dining entirely in a garden, with tables distinctly more than two meters from each other. In the lovely glow of stars overhead, trees lit up, we relaxed into a mood where we could begin to come to terms with a changed world.

In the light of the little oil lamp on our table I began to put into practice the intellectual understanding that I had reached earlier, as we planned how to reopen during the pandemic. Similar thought had gone into the adaptation of this space. Guests, like us, were isolated islands in a large open space with a nice breeze coming through it. The weather was colder than I’m used to Mumbai, but everyone was prepared for it. People were put into tables according to the size of their bubbles; we were escorted to a two person table, larger family groups had tables of up to eight people. The service personnel wore masks and shields; they were more at risk than us, since they were forced to meet strangers. There was a singer on a little podium placed away on one side, about four meters from the nearest table. There was only a low bush between her and the edge of the cliff, so there was always a breeze around her. It was all very well thought out, and I could dismiss my concerns once I’d looked around and taken it all in. The rest of our time there was very relaxed. As we walked back to our cottage I looked up at the clear sky. We were not yet passing through the Geminid meteor shower. Perhaps next week, I remarked to The Family.

Breakfast in Jamnagar

Our train arrived in Jamnagar in time for breakfast. This is a big affair anywhere in Gujarat. Before we could get to the food I needed chai. Lots of it. There had been precious little of it on the train. It wasn’t a problem here at all. These guys were set up to serve the perfect Gujarati tea: milky, boiled with dust tea, lots of sugar and ginger, a perfect early morning drink really: the sweetness of fruit juice with a kick of caffeine.

A cup in hand, I was ready to look at the legendary cook who makes the best breakfast in the neighbourhood. He sat surrounded by his parapharnelia, kneading a twist of besan mixed with ajwain. In a short while he’d rolled out strips of fafra and thrown them into a kadhai full of hot oil. Thin strips of gathia followed. The fat chilis were already fried and waiting on a thali in front of him.

Jalebi and dhokla appeared from jars next to him. Unlike the north, where jalebi is eaten hot, Gujaratis eat jalebi cold. This cook is a specialist; he makes his living selling breakfast in this tiny but extremely popular stall. Our table was soon piled with plates full of all these things. “The chilis make this a high fibre breakfast compared to what we had in Hampi,” I remarked to The Family. It was going to be hard not to put on weight if our breakfasts continued to be like this.

A mid-morning break

The Family and I do not pass up a chance to have a chai wherever we go. In a little village 2 Kilometers above sea level we spotted a restaurant and headed there. Yes, chai was available, and there were biscuits to be had as well. The Young Niece couldn’t stop smiling at the idea of biscuits after a kilometer long walk. After we sat down I took a photo of our host making tea (below). Nice shop; clean, large windows to let in a lot of light, and uncluttered. There was lunch cooking, so there must be villagers who come here for lunch. This was the end of a long road, and I couldn’t imagine people climbing all the way up here to eat.

A very serious card game was in progress. Two kibitzers were in evidence (one outside the window). After a hand was played, the old man came in to give his opinion. The players took it all in their stride. The next hand was dealt out in silence, and the game resumed. Mountain men are known to be less than garrulous, and the four players were no exception. We finished our tea and biscuits in companionable silence and left.

One cutting parcel

A typical roadside tea stall in Mumbai serves a cutting as a default. You may ask for a chai, but the cashier will transmit your order as a cutting. You typically get this in a tiny glass. I guess at some point of time there must have been a full glass of chai, and a cutting would have been a half of that. The cheaper option must have been in more demand. So, farcically, now a “full chai” is no longer understood; I’ll often have two cuttings when I order a tea at such a stall.

I was at a busy roadside establishment last week. The small shop had an aluminium counter where people stood for a quick evening snack. I looked over their heads and called for a cutting. As I sipped it, someone else came in and called for “two cutting parcel, two glasses”. This was new to me. The cutting parcel was tea poured into a plastic bag for easy take-away. I learnt a new bit of Mumbai’s ever-evolving language. I wonder how warm it would remain when it got to its destination.

The notion of cutting extends to restaurant menus. A busy restaurant I’d walked into for lunch had a note at the bottom of the menu which said “Each plate half plate”. I guess the half portions of food were so popular that this became their new unit!