Oranges, chilis, and pink boots

The Rath of the Clan refused to budge from the parking place that it had found at the restaurant where we had lunch. So we decided to spend the last bit of the daylight hour walking around Shillong’s Police Bazaar. This crowded market was full of people and turned out to be quite a cheerful place. My attention was, as always, drawn to the fresh produce rather than the cheap factory made clothes heaped on the stalls of the bazaar.

There are very few of the picturesque old buildings left here, in the prime commercial location in Shillong. Among the many unlovely concrete piles I found one of the last remnants of the old style buildings that a long-time Shillong resident told me is called “Assam style”. Niece Mbili is studying to be an architect, and I stood with her, lost in admiration for this once-beautiful structure made in wood and corrugated metal sheets. Wood is not sustainable building material any longer, but this looked like it would be a wonderful place if only someone took care of it.

I loved the tangle of wires overhead so much that I climbed above them to take a photo from above. You can see the haphazard concrete buildings which have replaced the Assam-style houses that must have once lined these roads. Photos from the 1940s, 50s and 60s show these low houses and very few people, at least to our modern eyes. Today the narrow roads are filled with fashionably dressed urban young, tribal and non-tribal, looking to pick up something inexpensive. From this vantage I spotted the Gupta Restaurant where I had a nice pre-dinner snack.

But back to oranges. I’d missed this wonderful corner with the winter’s oranges and kiwi, so this photo comes from The Family’s camera (this post has a mixture of photos from the two of us). A couple of years ago, I saw kiwi orchards in nearby Arunachal Pradesh, and thought that the fruit had been imported recently. But now that I know that the Kiwi originates in China, I guess it must have come to this part of the country fairly long ago. Everything on display in these stalls is local: kiwis, bananas and oranges, certainly, but also the beautiful cane baskets. The Family thought it was good I hadn’t noticed them, because I might have tried to bring some of them back with me as cabin baggage. Maybe. Maybe packed with oranges!

This lady did exactly that: packed one of those woven conical baskets with oranges. The large oranges in the basket were very sweet, but the smaller ones (slightly more green) had a better flavour. I didn’t try the apples. Don’t miss that heap of pink boots in the background. I’ve never seen so many pink boots together before. This must be special to Shillong.

You can tell The Family’s photos in this post by her concentration on the person rather than the produce. I’d passed the stall with the chilis but not paid much attention to the lady selling them. In retrospect, maybe I should have paid more attention to the people. Meghalaya has a mixture of ethnicities, and I could have learnt more about the state by looking and talking. At the very least I would have seen these pink jackets which go with those pink boots. Maybe I would have also taken a closer look at the loofahs behind her.

It was less than a week after the winter solstice, and the days were short. The light faded very quickly in Shillong at this time. The bazaar took on a very festive look with the fairy lights complementing lit up signboards. Our Rath driver (should he be called a charioteer?) had phoned in his decision to move, and we had to leave just when the evening’s crowds began to pour in.

Himalayan Kiwi

As we drove up from the plains towards Tawang we realized that Edmund Hillary was not the only Kiwi in the Himalayas. There is also Kiwi, the fruit. As we crossed the first pass on the way, Nechi-Phu La at an altitude of 1708 meters, we began to notice bags of Kiwis being sold. The explanation of this wonderful collaboration between New Zealand genes and Himalayan climate came when we reached the beautiful valley of the Dirang river.

The road to Tibet passes through the crowded Dirang bazaar. If you drive down towards the Dirang river from the cross roads at the center of the bazaar, and take the first turn right immediately after, you’ll come to a stilt bridge across the river. Cross this, bear left, drive on until you think you are lost. Then drive a little longer, and you suddenly see an orchard full of Kiwis sloping down the hillside.

A harvest was on when we arrived. Crates of Kiwis were being loaded on to a truck. The workers were happy to talk to us. We were told that the crated fruits were harvested before they were ripe, so that they could ripen as they travelled. If we wanted good Kiwis, we were welcome to walk through the orchard. One of the ladies at the harvest told us that ripe fruit would have fallen off the branches, and we would do well to look for freshly fallen fruits.

We walked through the orchard, looking for ripe fruits on the branches, or on the ground. The Family found lots of small Kiwis on the ground, but they were not ripe. We saw a couple of large ripe ones, but they had been lying there for a while and insects had discovered it before us. As we returned, the workers told us that we could walk up to a house above the orchard, and could perhaps get some ripe Kiwis.

The four of us walked up to the house: clearly someone’s private bungalow. The Family and Mrs. Victor walked in, found a distinguished looking Monpa gentleman and asked him whether they could get some ripe Kiwis. The Victor and I stopped eyeing the fleet of SUVs which went with the house and followed the ladies. The gentleman farmer was very gracious, and told us that he could not sell us any ripe Kiwis, but invited us to sit down. He was proud of the fact that he had introduced Kiwi farming to the region. As we chatted about Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh, the roads, and Kiwis, a plate of peeled and sliced Kiwis appeared on the table.

I’m not very fond of Kiwis; each and every Kiwi I’ve eaten has been sour. So I did not reach for the plate. The Family tasted a slice and told me I should try it out. I did, and for the first time in my life I tasted ripe Kiwi. It was sweet and had the flavour I associated with Kiwi, but something about the consistency of the sweet green flesh reminded me of bananas. This was a Kiwi I could get to like. The conversation continued to the difficulty of getting crops across the mountains over the bad roads, the increased vagaries of the weather in recent years, and the interesting monasteries we would see on the way. Eventually we thanked the gentleman, and got up to leave. He wished us a good journey, and saw us off to our car. His two strong men had followed our conversation silently, but did not come down the steps with him.

We bought a bag of the fruits in the bazaar. They were the usual sour mess. I guess I need to visit New Zealand or go back to the same gentleman’s house to get a taste of real Kiwi.