When evening falls in Mahabaleshwar there is only one place that you can head to: the bazaar. Somehow all of these charming hill towns are known for leather accessories, fudge and chocolate, and the crisp peanut praline known as chikki. There was no dearth of leather shops. I could see some selling backpacks, belts, handbags or wallets, but it was mostly shoes. The shoes were mostly for women. I loitered while The Family examined some shoes. As you can guess from these photos, selecting a pair is not such a easy job.
While measuring the length of the street, I came across several doors. The one in the featured photo was really interesting. I wish it was open. I would have like to take a portrait of the versatile salesman who ran a tour agency along with a shop for handbags. What was it with leather anyway? Could it be because the town, when it started, was a British town (the Indian villages were on the other side of the plateau) and the sahib and mems who spent their time there were interested in the leather craft of the region? Their preferences would certainly explain the fudge and perhaps the chikki as well.
The only clear remnant of the British past here was the church, founded in 1831. I walked in for a dekko. One man had been sitting on a pew. I decided to rest for a while too, as I took in my surroundings. Life-sized plaster figures of Mary and Jesus flanked the cross over the altar. The painting on the wall looked colourful, but the light was too dim to see it clearly. The church was constructed with blocks of red laterite from the plateau. It would have weathered to a dark brown in the near couple of centuries since its completion. The colour of the facade was due to paint.
The Family was done with shoes. We strolled along the road, stopping to look for chana (roasted Bengal gram). That’s another specialty of this plateau. We found it in sixteen flavours! Elsewhere a cart was selling boiled corn. I didn’t remember that from before. I’d only seen roasted ears of corn earlier. I also hadn’t seen the “Crazy Chinese Food Best Cuisine” truck earlier. The Family vetoed my suggestion to taste their food. So I took a last photo of an interesting kiosk before leaving.
Past Trongsa we had entered eastern Bhutan. It had been a while since we had seen any tourists. Our experience in Chakhar Lhakhang told us that there are seldom any Indians who venture this far east. Dinesh was now our guide. He said he knew a hotel in Bumthang. We drove there, found three rooms, dumped our bags and decided to take a look at the town’s market before it closed down. We’d spent the whole day in the car and a little walk was welcome. Also, since we were going to stay in these rooms for two nights, we could eat in the market today, and try the hotel’s dinner the next day. Our rooms came with balconies. I opened the door, went out and took the photo you see alongside.
The market was close to shutting down. The evening’s last shoppers were hurrying in to finish shopping before dinner. We had a leisurely time doing some window shopping. Shoes were clearly in demand. So were recharge cards and SIMs for B-Mobile; strange considering that along most of the road we had no mobile signal. DVDs were another hot segment of the market. Most offers were current Bollywood hits, with a dash of very well known older ones. I could see a few Nepali movies, but there were no Bhutanese movies on display.
The Family and I watched two children for a while. They were busy jumping into a puddle, with their school books in hand. Their father came out of the shop behind them to tell them to sit and do their work. He had quite a few customers, so as soon as the two sat down he went back in. Instantly the girls were up and at the puddle again. We laughed, and I tried to take a photo. They realized this immediately and sat down in a big show of studying their books.
We turned round and realized that the Sullen Celt had disappeared. As we walked around looking for her, she emerged from a store with a brown bag in hand. It was a brandy from a smaller Bhutanese distillery. Bag in hand we began a search for a place to eat in. A small restaurant just off the main square had rainbow trout on the menu. This is another atrocity that the British left in this part of the world; they seeded trout in the local rivers, created a disaster and a class of people who love to “conserve” this monster for future generations of fly-fishers. Quite as much of an atrocity as the industrial product that passes for brandy in this part of the world. We had a satisfying dinner with two things which the Himalayas would have been better off without.
Everywhere we went in the hills we saw shoes being dried. In Tawang I saw these boots strung up spectacularly close to the sun. Lobsang started laughing when he saw what I’d stopped the car for. But this was only one of the many places where I found drying footwear.
These really colourful child’s slippers were drying on a sunny rafter beam in a house in the village in Sangti valley. You cannot pass through a village in the West Kameng and Tawang districts of Arunachal without coming across a few shoes or slippers drying conspicuously. Sometimes they are spectacular, and someties they add just a touch of whimsy to a balcony.
Eventually I learnt to look out for people washing shoes. Then I realized that this is a commonplace in the lives of the people in this place. Small boys and girls, grown men and women would be at a tap, or even a hillside spring washing shoes. Travelling largely by car, as we did, we clearly missed climbing the hills they did. The evidence was that our shoes never got muddy enough for us to have to wash them.
Half the month of Ramazan is over. Those who fast now begin to look forward to the end, and the festival of Id. How do the rest of us know? The signs of the approaching festival are visible on the street. A season of shopping has begun. The night food market near the Minara Masjid in Mumbai is now surrounded by stalls selling clothes and shoes. The shops are so crowded that it is difficult to take photos. I got to take the photo above only because the police started clearing the crowd as I stood there.
Then there are the specialty shops, the extreme end of which is this stall selling attar. The bottles are as much of a collector’s item as the perfume itself. Most of the items on display here are simpler flower extracts. One would have to buy only a small amount because they are highly concentrated. The main shop will have more exotic perfumes; I remember a subtle one extracted from a fungus. This stall was manned by two young boys who decided to play hide-and-seek with my camera. As you can see, I did manage to get one them eventually.