Stories from Sikkim

Where we last left off, dear readers, I was headed to Sikkim, the Buddhist state in the Himalayas bordering Nepal, Tiben amd Bhutan (the self proclaimed happiest country in the world). Sikkim, too, almost appears as a mini-utopia, peaceful, shy and friendly, identifying more with Nepal and Tibet than India. Nepali is the common language, with Tibetian not far behind. My early-to-bed, early-to-rise days have been complemented with hikes up to gompas (Buddhist monasteries) in the Himalayan hills, sometimes being invited inside by resident monks for a cup of chai and chat.

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chillin' with some chai with a monk and the gompa caretaker in his den

chillin' with some chai with a monk and the gompa caretaker in his den in Pelling, Sikkim. The gompa looks out onto Mt. Kanchendzonga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world at 8,598 meters! You'll have to google image those pics, though, because I didn't get any good ones.

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To add to my various region-appropriate caffeine addictions (in Bolivia it was chewing coca leaves, Argentina was sipping mate traditional style, Lao and Vietnam the delicious coffee), my daily chai consumption has skyrocketed to a requisite 8 glasses a day. But at 10 cents a glass for a delicious fresh ginger infused milk tea, who am I to deny this innocent pleasure? Plus, sitting in someone’s home is the best way to meet locals.

Waiting for my shared jeep (shared = 12 people) with a cup o' chai

Waiting for my shared jeep (shared = 12 people) with a cup o' chai

chai herbs and spices

chai herbs and spices

The massive tea consumption has also replaced the beloved beer, giving my liver a much needed break. Still, I had to make an exception for the Sikkim specialty, Tongba, a millet beer brewed by filling an ancient wooden barrel with seeds, then pouring hot water over it, allowing it to settle for five minutes before sipping through a bamboo straw. The best part is, it’s kind of an underground operation and you have to seek out speakeasies in the back of family homes in each town. “Tongba?” I inquire to a guy who looks like he knows he watering holes. He gives a slight nod and a wink and five minutes later, I’m in someone’s house tasting the local brew.

The Tongba speakeasy. Focus on the right bottome corner.

The Tongba speakeasy. Focus on the right bottome corner.

A funny thing happened to me once when I was sitting in my guesthouse here in Sikkim. A monk wandered in a struck up friendly conversation, then asked to take a picture with me, the American tourist (in Sikkim? What a novelty!) What a role reversal!

Sikkim gives me a similar feeling to that of Isla de Chiloe, where I spent a week some time ago off the Patagonian coast of Chile. Quiet, misty weather, alone amongst locals who are surprisingly somewhat oblivious to my presence (other than the monk) in an end-of-the-world setting, stuck in a twilight zone from yesteryear, eating and drinking in hamlets you can’t believe still exist.

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~ by ceciliabien on July 3, 2009.

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