December’s foggy freeze

You remember celebrations by the smiles, don’t you? And the convivial atmosphere. But doesn’t the weather also play a role? From my school days I’ve been conditioned to a long winter break. Those were years when only children had a long break in winter; the adults had a day off for Christmas, and another for New Year. So winter holidays came without travel. Ever since, taking a trip over Christmas has not been on top of my mind. If it happens, it is usually a last minute improvisation.

Kolkata, 2020. Our first flight after a hard lockdown involved masks and face shields, PPEs, enforced distancing in flight. But I was glad we took this trip. We decided to go to Park Street in the evening. Past experience told me that this would be incredibly crowded, but The Family had never been to Kolkata for Christmas. It was the best possible year for us at Park Street. It was festive, there was live music, there were people dressed up, but no crowds. We sat at Flury’s and had coffee and a chocolate rum ball before walking on.

Kochi 2019. We’d just recovered from a bad flu which left us drained for weeks after (we realized half a year later that we had come through a COVID-19 infection), and welcomed a recovery trip. The Nasrani Mappila of Kerala are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, tracing their roots to the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in 52 CE. The western church traditions are a much later, colonial, overlay. We loved the festive look of the ancient port city, and had a lovely time eating out.

Shillong 2018. This was one of our few well-planned Christmas trips. The Clan decided to take a holiday together. You can never get twenty people to agree on anything when you are traveling, so it was a week of delightful chaos. It all started with a discussion about whether to walk down to the neighbourhood church before tea or after. By the time the decision was reached, several rounds of tea were history. The mass was a long time away, but we stood with the throng of people and had the cake and wine. I think the older nieces made sure that the under-age got their sips of the terrible wine.

Mumbai 2017. The Family’s cousin had found a beach house for a party. It was a wonderful evening: a large number of people dressed to the nines, lots of food and drink, a dance floor. I stood with a knot of people watching the sun go down. Below us, on the beach, Christmas was on. A young couple had decided to bring a bag of goodies for the poor children playing there. Why hadn’t we thought of that?

Port Blair 2016. We hadn’t thought of Andaman as a Christmas holiday. We were there to watch birds. But on the eve of Christmas we decided to stay up late and go into the bazaar. Why was there a crowd at this temple? I asked a passerby, and he looked at me as if I was from Mars. “Christmas,” he grunted and went away. Religions are not so distinct; people will celebrate.

Mumbai 2015. “Let’s go to Bandra,” The Family proposed. She wouldn’t be deterred by visions of traffic jams that keeps bears like me at home. We walked through the festive lanes of Bandra, where the old villages of East Indians have become incorporated into the city. Parties were in progress and some spilled out into the lanes. The Family found someone making hampers of the traditional Christmas goodies: kolkol, several kinds of biscuits, mango jellies, marzipan, and the traditional fruit cake redolent of spices and rum. We had to get one.

Lava 2011. This was a birding trip gone wrong. But the day had been lovely, bitingly cold, but with grand views of Kanchenjunga all day. In the evening we reached the then-tiny village of Lava, and found a Christmas procession. A group of people singing carols went from house to house, and were welcomed with something to eat or drink at each. I don’t think they insisted on a figgy pudding.

Mumbai 2008. On Christmas Day the spell seemed to break. The streets had remained deserted even after the terrorists of November 26 were all killed or captured. No one wanted to be out. We went out for a walk late that morning, and found that large numbers of people had come out to exorcise the ghosts of the trauma. The media was clustered around the collapsed remnants of Chabad House. That’s what the photo shows. We walked round to the Taj and its blackened dome and exploded wings. We looked at stray bullet holes in buildings around it. The mood was somber.

Bremen 2005. We’d planned a Christmas holiday in Vienna. We/d bought tickets to two evenings of music, booked hotels and airlines. Then, at the airport The Family’s hand bag was stolen. It had her passport. We had to cancel the trip and stay in Germany. Between visits to the embassy and police, we made a few impromptu trips. One was to Bremen, and its warm Christmas market. The week was tense, but we had a lot of support, families I’d known for years invited us home every day, or met up at Christmas markets. Eventually, The Family got emergency papers for the return trip, and the police found her bag, with not much missing.

December 24, 2011

Why did we decide to go birding in the Himalayas in winter? When I think back, I believe the answer must have been that in the heat of May we could not think of the Himalayas as anything but pleasant. So we moved up for our vacation at a time when each and every bird seemed to have migrated in the opposite direction. As a birding trip it was a disaster. But there was compensation. I’ve never had a view of Kanchenjuga as good as that. The featured photo is the view we had from our cabin window on a freezing dawn.

We walked the same trails in and around Lava and Neora valley that we did again early in spring this year. In spring the birds begin to return and you see a lot of activity. In winter that year there was not a single bird to be seen. The ferns were just opening up though, and I had wonderful shots of the fronds unfolding.

It was hardly a good time for moths and butterflies either. We saw the hardy Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), a perennial sight at these middle heights. I spotted a single specimen of a fabulously patterned moth sitting one morning. I’ve never seen it again, and I can’t identify it. An expert lepidopterist refused to answer my question about it, so I assume she was also not sure of an ID.

We spent the day wandering around paths through the valley. Elsewhere I’ve written about the beautiful houses in this area. The traditional houses are either made of wood, or have a timber frame, filled in with woven mats and then plastered over. I love the beautiful contrasting colours that they paint the doors and windows in. Outside each house is either a small garden, or a row of flowers in planters. These hamlets are small and poor, but look beautiful. Although we saw no birds, it was a wonderful day.

Rara avis

When Juvenal wrote “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno”, I don’t know whether he had seen a black swan or not. But when a master birder pointed out a bunch of brown bullfinch (Pyrrhula nipalensis) I knew that I was seeing something rare and delightful. There were several on the tree right next to the Lava-Kolakham road, and the air filled with its characteristic twitter. The light was bad; sunset is very early here. I looked at the two-tone birds, a lifer and a very special one because of its rarity. As soon as I raised the camera to focus, they scattered. The light was bad and the best rescue that I could do just barely shows that halfway down the back the colour changes. The spot was half an hour out of Lava bazar, and I kept an ear out for it. Futile.

Lava bazar

My memory of Lava Bazar was quite different from what I saw this time. When I was there last, during Christmas almost a decade ago, we had walked through the town on Christmas eve after a bad day of bird watching. The little hamlet was full of lights and cheer, with wandering bands of carol singers roaming through its few roads. That sight could not fail to lift our spirit. Now it looked bigger, and more decidedly a town.

Up here it is easy to decide what is a village and what is not. Houses in a village each have their vegetable patch, and a few of them cluster together between fields terraced for agriculture, cleared from a forest which not only grows beyond the fields but straggles through the village. Houses in a town stand cheek-by-jowl, doors closed, no space for vegetable patches, no groves of trees. On these steep hillsides space seems to be at a premium even in such small towns.

The expansion was clear from this one space: a combination taxi stand and stop for regional buses. Three roads led out from this junction full of shops, restaurants, and a wall which contained an outpouring of local art (above and the featured photo). My camera batteries had run out in the morning, so I had to sit in a restaurant which allowed me to recharge it. The Family was unencumbered, and spent the wait walking around town taking photos. All photos in this post are hers.

I had the time to contemplate on how the great game in Asia had caused this change. After the disaster of the Himalayan war in the early 1960s, India fell into a policy of letting roads in the mountains deteriorate to slow future advance by China. Twenty years ago I noticed that the policy was changing, and the BRO was busy constructing roads again. The changes were imperceptible at first: more leisure activities up here, trekking, bird watching, weekenders. Local prosperity followed; the Eastern Himalayas have a variety of homestays, which we liked more than the regular hotels and resorts of the Western Himalayas. The result of this different model of development was a direct infusion of money into the local economy.

One result has been the rise of democratic politics. Now, just when a state election had been announced, certain well-used walls seemed to have received new attention. If we had come to Lava Bazar a month later, at the beginning of April, say, then many more walls would probably have had a new coat of paint. The multiple ethnicities in the hills will only be tamed with prosperity and self-determination, provided some generosity and good will is thrown into the mix.

The generational romance of the 19th and 20th century politics still shows on the walls here (Bob Dylan’s songs are anthems that local boys learn when they first start strumming a guitar). But a churn is quite clearly in the making. The locals who had the time to chat with us were quite aware of their place in the larger events of the era. Most of them were aware of the importance of conservation in the ever-expanding tourism industry. I had an illuminating discussion of the performance of electric cars on hill roads. How had he come by this information? Someone he knew, part of an extended family, had driven electric cars in Uttarakhand.

That day we were being driven by an older man. He seemed to know everyone on the road. He stopped briefly to ask a middle-aged couple whether their new house was to their liking, asked a young couple where they were off to, said hello to a couple of kids when he slowed at a turn, received replies from all, acknowledged waves from others. After a while I asked him to stop when he met someone he didn’t know so that I could take a photo of that person. He stopped at this wall, where two people were waiting for a bus. But no, he chatted with them. So I took a photo of the wall.

Meeting a master chef

One bite of the omelette that he had produced convinced me that the young man working away in the small kitchen was a master chef. The omelette was light and airy, creamy and fluffy. I had a strong desire to close my eyes as I savoured it. The ingredients were the usual Indian (I should say Nepali, because the cook was a Nepali speaking Indian) mix, chopped green chili and onion incorporated into the egg, but the fluffiness was one that I haven’t seen in any of the best breakfasts in India. Here in a little-regarded corner of the Himalayas, in a small restaurant in Lava Bazar, was the best omelette chef of the country!

The rest of the lunch was equally marvelous. Millennia of cultural exchange has made sure that the food of Nepal and India are not very different. So an inexperienced person like me cannot tell whether the simple but delicious food that was served to me was Bengali or Nepali. It was certainly served in the way that I know is Bengali or Odiya. A mound of rice on the plate, with a little green leafy vegetable as a starter. Then some dal (wonderfully light) and a mixed vegetable (again, light on the masala, and the freshness of the ingredients very evident). A plate of roasted papad was put on the table. Rice was topped up whenever you wanted. And finally the chicken arrived. Heavenly. You could just eat the potato which had been cooked into it, or even lick the gravy off your fingers, and be transported by the taste.

We went back the next day, of course, and the owner of the establishment had added a new experience for us. A plate of what looked like the puri of pani-puri. But when you bit into the crisp globe, you found that the thin shell was made of rice flour. A Nepali papad, I was told. It went down easy with a fiery paste of chili. Papad comes in so many different styles across the subcontinent that I’m still discovering new ones. Before leaving, I leaned across the counter to congratulate the cook. He smiled and asked me to come back. I will, and I hope the restaurant flourishes. I noticed the momos that he had made ready for the evening snack time. He saw me looking and pointed out one that he was proud of. “Rose,” he said and grinned. He was young, perhaps in his early or mid-twenties. I hope he is able to grow into his chosen profession. Because it is such a small establishment in a relatively unknown place, I’ll break a rule I set myself in this blog, and name the restaurant: it is called Sinchula. I may have the satisfaction of hearing from you about your experience there if you go, but nothing more.

And in the end …

Holidays are times when you make your memories. They are meant to produce those special moments that you string together into the story of your life. If I were to answer a casual question about what I enjoyed in our trip to the mountains, I would mention the fog, the cold wind blowing up mountainsides, the dense Himalayan rainforest resounding with bird calls. But after a month, my memories of those wonderfully rejuvenating feelings will become memories of memories. What will remain is the sight of The Family doing what she most loves to do.

In his last years, an uncle who suffered from Alzheimers had forgotten almost everything that was once dear to him. Everything we loved about him was stripped away slowly, and only a core of his being remained: the memories of his siblings. No one knew what images occurred in his mind when he heard their names, but there would always be a flicker of interest when another person was introduced as the son, daughter, or grand daughter of one of his brothers or sisters. We are social animals. In the end, the stories of our lives are the wonderful memories of the people we love.

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