At (somebody else's) home in India

At a tea plantation in Darjeeling, India, workers move along the hillsides plucking tea leaves and putting them in bamboo baskets.
At a tea plantation in Darjeeling, India, workers move along the hillsides plucking tea leaves and putting them in bamboo baskets. (Eye Ubiquitous/)
By Emily Wax
Sunday, October 31, 2010

I knew we were way off the five-star circuit when our four-wheeler, loaded with luggage and laptops, got stuck in the mud along a steep cliffside shard of mountain road near Sikkim, in a far-flung patch of northeastern India.

Under an inky, star-filled sky, we gazed at snow-capped Mount Kanchenjunga in the distance and waited while the driver piled stones behind the tires in an attempt to back his way out. It didn't work. The mud was too thick.

Luckily, workers at the country home where my translator, Rosyla Kalden, my husband and I were planning to stay the night heard the tires screech, breaking the usual hush of these hills near the border with Tibet. The young men guided us up the mountain with flashlights as we trudged through the goopy monsoon muck.

Welcoming us at the top of the mountain at Teen Taley home-stay was Chandra Maya Sharma, a teacher dressed in a traditional long skirt and a colorful layering of beads. She offered us each fresh yogurt in salmon-colored clay bowls.

"Good for your stomach after your journey," she said warmly, holding my hand as she led us to her family's living room, centered around a clay-and-mud fireplace.

We were still wobbly after the bumpy road, so Sharma sat with us and told us how she used to cook for foreigners who came to meditate at a famous Buddhist nunnery lower down the mountain. There was a lack of hotel space nearby, so she and her husband, a government engineer, would invite the visitors to stay with them at their organic farm at no charge. Then a visitor suggested that she turn her log cabin into a home-stay.

A home-stay is an Indian version of a bed-and-breakfast. But because this is India, where the home-cooked food, or any sampling of India's many cultural calories, is legendary, home-stays are really a bed-and-breakfast-lunch-and-dinner. Plus tea. Plus snacks. Plus sweets.

"After you rest, you can pick your dinner from our vegetable patch," Sharma said. She listed some of the choices: fresh ginger and gourd, lemon grass and lettuce. Organic eggs and cheese were also available.

I felt my energy rising. I couldn't wait to go the organic garden. But first, I wanted to warm up. We asked Sharma if she could light a fire while we waited for dinner, and she quickly hauled in some wood.

As a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, I've covered stories across India and stayed in places from Gujarati havelis - ancient royal homes converted into guesthouses - to ornate Kashmiri houseboats to austere vegetarian ashrams and dodgy Delhi backpacker crash pads.

I've set up my laptop and my life - at least for a week or two - in Mumbai's corporate five-star hotels, in Bangalore's boutiques and WiFi-enabled service apartments, and in Tibetan cultural lodges in the northern Indian hub of Dharamsala.

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