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Home away from Home - Story of how I found an extended family in Sikkim!

Day 1 - Gangtok

It was a lazy morning as I woke up from my hostel in Gangtok. I was all set to visit Dhuni Homestay at Yangang, South Sikkim.

Walls at Tag Along Hostel, Gangtok

Since the weather was clear, I visited Gangtok Ropeway first and then proceed towards Yangang. I checked out of the hostel and walked towards MG Marg where the rope-way started. The rope-way experience was wonderful and its so surprising how there's a rope-way in the middle of the city!! Just pure bliss.

Post the ropecar ride, I took a shared cab to Singtam and then to Yangang. Just before I reached Yangang, there was this beautiful board that welcomed me ! :) "Home for travellers" , it said!

Home for Travelers! <3

I went down the path and stumbled upon a worker . I came to know that Bhavna, who I was in touch with, works as a teacher in a neighbouring government school. I got excited instantly for the main fact that, even I work in a government school as a teacher. I was served warm tea by Anitha Baini, who is the care taker of the homestay. One thing about Sikkim culture is that, they always have their tea black or with salt. This was very surprising when people ask you, do you want tea with sugar or salt?

Tea with Sugar or Salt?

The homestay was a wonderful place indeed. Situated amongst the hills, it had a splendid view. I had a small chat with Bhavna ,post which Baini took me on a paddy field visit in the hills! The people were very welcoming and in fact the owner of the paddy fields insisted, I take a bigger tour of the field. Also, thats when I realised, I was the only guest in the homestay!

After we were back, Mandeep, who runs the homestay was back from Silguri. Mandeep is a very resourceful person and has great knowledge about backpacking, trekking and environment. Later that evening, He started sharing his own travel stories! He showed me photos of Sandakphu in Darjeeling to their treks in Nepal. Infact, Mandeep and Bhavna met during a trek, and fell in love. Such #TravelGoals I say!?

We had our dinner with Roti and home grown vegetables. Ah, the taste of home made food is just bliss, That too with home grown veggies? All the vegetables in my plate were actually grown in the garden around me. The idea of sustainability took a hit on me. According to my plan, I wanted to stay at Dhuni only for a day, and then proceed towards Pelling. Now when I started thinking, I was liking the experience , and I wanted to explore more of this place. Also the place was very comfortable and I felt like spending more time here. This is the best part of traveling solo. You can change your plans as you wish! So I asked them if I could extend for one more day, and they were more than happy. Mandeep asked me, if I liked momos, and then he promised for a momo party next day night! Wow, I was all excited! I told them I will help cooking as well. Something about me here- I work as a teacher in a government school in Chennai as part of Teach For India fellowship. Schools, education system and kids have always fascinated me, and from the time I heard Bhavna was a teacher in a nearby school, I had an itch to visit the school. That night, Bhavna slept early because she was sick, So me and Mandeep were talking about her school and I expressed my interest to visit the school tomorrow. He also made a plan to visit waterfalls post the school visit.

Day 2

I had a good night's sleep and the weather was clear next day morning! I was ready by 8.30 to go to school! Mandeep was up and was making millet pancakes for breakfast. Just then Bhavna comes up and the conversation goes like this- "Hey ! How are you going ? Is Mandeep dropping you?" I asked her if Mandeep didn't tell you anything? She was like no.. Then I told her , "Well , Hmm, I extended the stay by another day and I wanted to come with you to school today." She was surprised and felt very happy when she heard this. On the way to the school , Bhavna and I were talking about me, my work, etc. She was very shocked when I told her my age was 23. She double confirmed 2-3 times just to check if she heard it right! :P I think, its from this moment, that I was beginning to be pampered! :P We went to the school, just when the morning assembly was about to begin!

I had a conversation with the Head Master and he was very happy to welcome me at school. First when I was explaining to him about the fellowship model and the two year commitment , he was excited and asked me if I will be in staying in their school for two years! But then I clarified that I will be in school only for today. ( I wish I could stay longer though!!! ) We had a brief conversation of about 30 minutes where we discussed the challenges faced by the school. It was surprising that, even though both of our schools are more than 2000 kms away, the challenges faced are so similar to ours. The government does not spend much on infrastructure, parents are not invested in their kid's education ,etc. Most government schools lack basic infrastructures like, concrete classrooms , blackboards, etc. I was very happy to see that the school premises was clean and they had run campaigns to reduce plastic usage. Infact the school was moving towards a #ZeroWaste community. After the conversation, I went on to visit a few classrooms. Few teachers had less than 5 students in their class. But the children were very curious and were willing to learn new things. Some of them sang a song , drew pictures for me! I also went to Bhavna's class where she introduced me as her younger brother to everyone! She was an absolute joy to watch inside her classroom. That's a beautiful thing about teaching in a primary grade classroom. you can be a kid inside the classroom. Everyone needs a teacher like Bhavna Didi!

After spending my morning at school, I went back to the homestay where Mandeep was waiting with delicious food for lunch. We had Dal , Rice and Vegetables. We then we proceeded for the waterfalls. He asked me to carry a pair of extra clothes just incase, the water level was less , I could also get in the water. I regretted the fact that I didn't know swimming! The waterfalls was a 20 minute drive from the Homestay and when we went there the view was absolutely stunning. Guess what? We used the same water fall to wash our car as well! ????

Then we proceeded to trek upwards to reach a spot where we could take a dip. We then reached to the top point where there was a pool. Mandeep said, if we are lucky, sometimes we can see a rainbow here. Just when we were getting ready to get into the pool, The clouds slowly cleared , and the sun rays was falling directly on the falls and slowly and steadily, we witnessed a big rainbow in front of us. It was magical to see a rainbow, right in front of you! Last year when I visited the Rainbow falls in Nongriat, Meghalaya, I could not spot a rainbow! Finally, my wish had come true! The moment was very short-lived though. The rainbow vanished just as the clouds covered the sun! Mandeep told me, you're a very lucky person. Not always do you get to spot a rainbow here.!

We then dipped ourselves in water. I made a mental note to learn swimming as soon as possible! After a good bath in the natural waters, we started trekking downhill. Mandeep was explaining about various medicinal benefits of the plants around and how nature itself is a medicine to most problems. Somewhere during this time, Mandeep also asked my age, and he was also equally shocked. He's like you're just 23, and you're traveling solo, that's great. He kept motivating me. And started seeing me as his younger brother!??

We then had tea from a nearby shop and also Phaley, a local Sikkimese snack made of potato stuffing. The Phaley we had was amazing and tasted divine after the bath ! On our way back, Mandeep told me that we will be sourcing the ingredients for momo party tonight. Any normal person would think, sourcing ingredients means, to go to a shop and buy the required ingredients, Right? Oh boy, I was so wrong! Mandeep had other plans. We went to the market and bought a packet of Maida. But then we didn't buy any other veggies. As far as I knew , Mandeep didn't plant carrots, cabbage in his place. Cheese is the most important ingredient for a momo and now we're going to get local made cheese from a diary farm up there. I was so damn excited! We went to the diary farm. But to our bad luck, they did not have cheese stocked up for that day. :( We came out. Mandeep, as usual, brought back the energy saying, Don't worry there's another place, let's go and see there. Else plan B would be, to make pasta tonight. An Italian stayed here and he taught us to make pasta. Back of my mind, I knew I was not convinced. We drove to the other diary farm. It was an old wooden house with a shed in the backyard. The house was atleast 50 years old. We enquired if cheese was available, and YES, THEY WERE! Mandeep reassured saying , You're a lucky man. You got to see rainbows today and also you got homemade cheese. And bonus is that, we also got to see this old antique house. See how beautiful this house is built with just bamboo. I wanna make similar structures to our place as well.

He had great vision for his homestay and has a plan to make mud houses with kitchen, so travellers can cook to their convenience by sourcing the ingredients from the garden! He wants to make it a self sustainable enterprise! Now back to the momo party! After sourcing the cheese, we went to Bhavna's mothers place to get some vegetables and then to her first cousin's place to get a few more vegetables! :D I really felt home as I was hopping to the homes of their relatives! :) One thing that I noticed about Sikkim was, all the government schools were over a century old. When I asked Mandeep about it, it was mainly because, that time Sikkim was ruled by a king, and the kings wife was a British woman, who emphasised a lot on education. It's not surprising that the people here are well educated and also very socially conscious. After sourcing all the ingredients, we went back to the Homestay and began to cook. I was really excited to be a part of the momo cooking process. Mandeep and Bhavna explained how to roll the momos in a very explicit and clear way so that I don't forget. He also kept on pointing out where I'm going wrong, so that it helped me learn better. At first the momos I was making had a horrible shape, but then after few tries I managed to get to amateur level. Still couldn't become pro level at it :P The momos were kept to steam for 20 minutes and meanwhile Baini prepared some delicious chutney for the momos. After sometime, the delicious momos were ready. Free from any forms of extra taste enhancers or additives, completely cooked from home made ingredients! The taste was out of the world, and easily 2-3 plates of momos went inside my tummy! ????

Day 3

I got up early next day. I was excited about another important part of my stay. Mandeep and Bhavna, have this ritual where, whoever visits the homestay will plant a tree on their behalf. This day, I will plant trees on my memory. I planted two trees and then we were ready to leave. It was such a good feeling to plant trees. I think all of us should do it, keep doing it. And it was time for me to bid good bye to the lovely people and the homestay. Mandeep wrapped up a silk shawl as a token of love , We took some final photos and we were ready to leave. I bid goodbye to Bhavna and Baini and we went to the cab stand.

We went to the cab stand, only to find no cabs leaving for Pelling. Mandeep suggested we wait at Bhavna's mother's place until the cab comes. We can directly board the cab from their place. The climate was also a bit moody. We were waiting at her place when it suddenly struck me.

What is the hurry to be traveling to different places and checking off places from the bucket lists? Is traveling nothing but living the moment wherever you are? When you are enjoying what you are currently doing, why not continue doing the same?

Also, on the logical side, I was tired of too much traveling. Pelling would take another 4 hours and next day I should leave back to Silguri, that'll take another 5-6 hours. The weather also was not clear, and the most important point of going to Pelling was to get a view of Kangchenjunga mountains, which might not happen! So I told Mandeep, I will stay back here for one more day and leave to Silguri from Yangang. Hearing this Bhavna's mother was also happy and she invited us over for a family dinner that night. This is when I felt belonged to their family! :) Back to the homestay, I was really feeling tired and needed some good sleep. So I slept till around noon. It was still raining. I felt like I took the right decision. Then myself and Mandeep went for a village walk. This is one speciality about him. He always has a plan. We visited an old monastery that's frequented by the locals there. We went to the village where most of Lepcha (locals of Sikkim) stay. All of them were very welcoming when we visited their fields. We saw Temi tea estate from a far distance. Temi tea estate is the only tea estate of Sikkim and is a very popular brand. I made a mental note to buy Temi tea on my way back. After a tiresome yet rewarding village walk, we were back in the homestay.

The evening went in leisure, Bhavana and Mandeep were sharing their previous guest experiences and I was their third visitor from Chennai (if I'm not wrong ) . Bhavna and I were discussing new techniques to improve classroom learning experience and a lot of things under the stars. Oh! I also tried some night photography!

Day 4

Finally , it was my time to leave the homestay. I got a cab to Singtam and from Yangang and then to Silguri. I did purchase the Temi tea! :D It was hard for me to leave the homestay, because, I did feel "home" the entire time, And I was choked with love. When I was leaving, Mandeep was like , "This time don't come back halfway! :D" Mandeep and Bhavna, if you are reading this, Thank you very much for the love and care you guys showered me with. I am very grateful to have met you guys. It has changed a lot of perspectives about life , travel after meeting you both. :)


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