We left our lovely hosts in Turuk Village, who waved us goodbye until we were out of sight.
We are continuing to explore the Himalaya region of Southwestern Sikkim.
Most of Sikkim was off limits to foreigners for a long time, and only in the past three years have they loosened the restrictions.
Later in our journey, we will be going to North Sikkim, which is still restricted to foreigners in the upper northern parts.
The road took us to the small town of Rinchenpong via Jorthang to the tiny village of Hi Barmoik, where we planned to stay in a traditional farm house.
The distance was not so long, but the road was full of potholes and it was washed out by landslides and waterfalls in many places, which made the drive very slow.
It seemed like we were the only tourists on the road, but this was because Raju, our driver, chose to take the scenic dirt road and avoided the cars on the main narrow road.
The main road, like all other roads in this Himalaya region, is so narrow, that if a car comes in the opposite direction, you have to stop and inch your way, to make sure that both of you have room to pass at a part of the road that is a bit wider.
Sometimes, one of the cars has to back up a long way until it reaches a wide part of the road.
If it is the main road, and it happens very often, it makes for a stressful journey.
I guess Raju preferred the potholed dirt road to needing to deal with other vehicles.
The plus side was that the potholes made Raju drive slowly… When the road was good, he drove way too fast for the narrow mountain road that constantly curved and hugged the tall mountains.
At the Rinchenpong Bazaar, we stopped to walk in the the local bazaar which happens only once per week.
The traders laid their goods on tarps on the ground.
There was the poster seller, selling colorful posters of Hindu deities or of western children looking cute.
There were sellers of candy with only a few plastic containers of candy, many kinds of firecrackers, plastic shoes and sneakers, clothing, fabric, spices and vegetables, dried fish and soaps.
At the tiny village of Hi Barmoik, we walked up an impossibly steep path to a rural farmhouse called the Dongay house.
Our host Ganesh from the Chhetri family, met us by the road and guided us to the house.
The climb there was so steep, that I felt my leg muscles strain to walk up the slippery stone path.
Later I was told that the family’s grandfather, who was 95, walks up and down this steep path a few times per day.
Every morning he walks down to a small shop that he has in the village.
By noon, he walks up this steep and long path back to the house, where he eats a hot lunch of rice and organic vegetables, both grown on the farm.
After lunch he walks back to his shop and by sunset he walks back up to the house, takes his dinner, does his prayers and devotional rituals, and goes to bed.
He does this EVERY day…
If you were to walk this impossibly steep path, “paved” with sharp stones, you would understand why I admire him so much…
The entrance to the farmhouse was planted with a field of Cardamom.
It is an easy crop to grow, and it is very profitable.
This region is thickly planted with Cardamom, and many farms supplement their income by harvesting and selling Cardamom seeds.
Ganesh’s mother welcomed us when we arrived.
She wore traditional Sikkim dress, and wore gold jewelry in her nose.
She welcomed us in the traditional Nepali-Sikkim way, which is to say a prayer of gratitude and to bless us while placing a tikka on our third eye in our foreheads, made from pink-dyed rice.
They had prepared a country lunch for us, from vegetables and grains grown in their garden.
When I voiced my desire to try the beautiful purple radish that was growing in their garden, the mother, who was as fit as a teenager, pulled some long daikon-like radishes from her garden, took her machete and cut out the leaves, and peeled them with the long machete in a few seconds.
She washed the radishes with the hose from the spring, which is their water source.
The lunch included a curry dish of local round eggplants, sauté spinach, steamed rice, pickles, and chutney made from tree tomatoes (Tomatillo).
The lunch was served in the dining room, which has a low wooden table and wooden benches, walls smeared with adobe mud, and a floor fire pit.
It was adjacent to the kitchen, which looks nothing like our modern kitchen.
The kitchen has a floor fire pit, which is fed by wood, an open shelf for glasses and plates, and hooks from which the few pots and pans were hanging.
Our room was basic, but it had a large bed and a “real” toilet (not squat).
We had electricity, and a shower that was a plastic seat, and a large plastic bucket with a smaller plastic bucket, which you can use to pour water on yourself after you have soaped your body.
I cannot tell you that I tried it….
It was too cold, and we had no heater in the room, so we skipped the shower and showered the following day instead, at our next hotel.
Our bags were brought up from the car by a young local boy who was training to work for them in the fields, and help them when they had guests.
He carried the bags inside a bamboo basket, that has a band that is placed on their foreheads.
I was told that they prefer this method of carrying loads, and carry this way bricks and stones, firewood and hay for the animals, cardamom or anything else.
They said that it is better and easier than carrying a backpack, placing the weight on your back and shoulders.
Before sunset, we went for a village walk.
It was a fabulous opportunity to meet the various ethnic groups that live in the village.
Among the different ethnic groups are the Rais, Bhutias, Sherpaa, Gurung, Chhetri, Sanyashi and Bahun.
The village path led us right through the farmhouse properties, and we had to pass by their kitchens and living rooms.
Far from being protective of their privacy, all of the people in the houses we walked up to, welcomed us to their homes with warm smiles and a bow of Namaste, clasping their hands together.
We got a chance to meet many families, and to peep into their houses and lifestyles.
The young boy who carried our heavy bags from the road, was also the one who guided us on our walk through those farmhouses.
We walked by a small local temple with stone carved deities of Ganesh, the elephant-head god.
By early evening after we were back in our room and a quiet darkness had fallen over the whole mountain, I heard a knock on our door.
It was our host Ganesh, who told me that we were invited to drink Chang together in the lower room, which serves as a living room and as a place to share Chang.
The room had cushions to sit on and in front of each cushion was a low wooden stool which served as a small table.
The Chang was served in hollow wooden vessels with a lid and a bamboo straw.
The wooden container was filled with fermented cooked millet and hot water.
The process of making Chang is very different from how beer or other spirits are made.
We were told that every house makes it in their own way.
They all grow the millet almost solely for the purpose of making Chang.
The millet grains are cooked and then strained.
Then they mix it with some yeast, and let it sit for about a week or two.
When the millet and yeast ferment enough, they are ready to drink.
They fill the wooden vessels with the fermented millet, and then fill them to the top with boiling water.
The taste was mild and tangy.
Hot water was refilled often to keep the Chang warm.
Ganesh served us pickles made from wild apple “crest,” which is a tart fruit that is only eaten after it has been cooked or pickled.
Raju, our driver, and guide Sudesh got fried chicken gizzards to snack on, while we all sat and drank Chang, sharing stories and laughter.
Raju, who also drank whiskey along with the mild Chang, was moved by the spirit and sang for us a few traditional songs.
Sudesh recited poetry and all of them sang about love and luck….
Raju danced a little, and they told us that often if you leave the millet to ferment for a long time, thick maggots naturally appear.
Those maggots are “drunk” by breaking them into two, and sipping the alcohol from their bodies.
Sudesh said that he only tried it once, and that after three maggots he was too drunk to continue.
I had to erase the mental picture of the maggots from my mind… Because it was time for dinner.
Dinner consisted of fried prickly squash which grows on vines, and is used by every household in this region.
Prepared fried, it tasted like chips but a little better.
There were also dishes of cooked pumpkin, rice, chapattis and a salty fermented spinach soup.
Fermenting spinach is a way of preserving green spinach for the winter season.
It tasted a bit too salty for my taste, but it was very nourishing and pleasant.
That night I felt a buzz from the Chang and my sleep was filled with dreams.
Our room was a bit cold, but I was too far off in dreamland to be bothered by the cold.
I am adding a link to a short YouTube Video of our Chang infused night in the farmhouse in South Western Sikkim: