Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Mud-cracked roadways echo the thousands of foot-marks of journeys past, as the sounds of mantras reverberate through the jungle leaves. Fallen shrubbery pillow along the banks of these streets, providing a continuous stream of rest areas for bovine, goats, and wild canines alike. The animals found within the Dham are sacred and live among the bustling businesses of man, as though they too are part of the ever expanding commerce. In between the holy temples, hut after hut, you will encounter laboring hands working on carvings, textiles, metal workings, embroidery, and culinary delicacies. You have now entered the city of the birthplace of lord Chaitanya. Welcome to the city of Mayapur.
November 28th, 2019
My flight arrived to my destination of Kolkata, from Colombo, and I was both emotionally and physically exhausted. Upon entry, I made my way to the immigration counter and I officially received my visa. These mere smears of ink on a booklet represented the beginning of my journey. Every nerve ending within my body was responsive and alive. This was going to be an adventure and I could not wait to begin.
Our driver, Safik, pulled up to the arrival terminal in his compact car, and my travel companion and close friend, Dustin Hiles, and I proceeded to cram in our nine pieces of luggage - as well as ourselves - into what seemed like a toy car masquerading as a vehicle.
The road-trip from Kolkata to the city of Mayapur morphed into a four hour, near death experience, as I endured the streets of India. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of visiting this marvelous country, imagine the most nonsensical, falling through the rabbit hole shenanigans and spit them out onto a roadway. Now, multiply this by a million people on a stretch of asphalt. Welcome to the highways.
Kilometres of jungle foliage dissipated, bringing into view the stretched arms of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers as we approached our destination. Banana tree by banana tree, closer and closer we came to our new home, the Kshna Balaram located on Taranpour Road. As the last goats and chickens parted the streets, we arrived to the gates of our building.
At last, the journey would begin.
Having spent my entire life living in North America, I had a very commercial understanding of food, packaging, and grocery stores. Being an avid documentary connoisseur, I had seen clips of food markets from around the world; however, experiencing them in person was the most shocking aspect of rural life. These open street vendors, huts, and markets renewed my appreciation for farmers and gardening. They evoked within me the yearning to grow my own sustainable food source and to cook my own meal recipes from scratch, which I believe will only continue to flourish in the years to come.
Throughout the city, the vegetables came in zero packaging. The market food stalls created zero wrapping waste. Each fruit and vegetable was harvested from a local farm, thrown on the back of a rickshaw or a small truck, delivered to the huts, and placed into sorting bins. These organic, zero pesticide, imperfect foods did not come pre-washed nor waxed. Their crates were covered in loose soil, as were our shopping trays, and the surfaces of every counter top and flooring tile. Tiptoeing between the crates, your eyes feasted upon a parade of colors that would entice even the most health phobic man. It was glorious. Each morsel of legume to each sliver of fruit was packed with such intense and pure flavours, the likes of which I had not tasted before in Canada, and with the very first bite - I became a foodie.
Tiny, golden, clay chalices cup the country's national beloved drink, a sweet milk tea made with cardamom, cinnamon, and a plethora of spices, to result in a delectable shot of liquid happiness - chai tea. As an avid coffee drinker, I was surprised to realize that coffee was indeed a rarity in Mayapur; however, at almost every road corner you would
come across a quaint Muslim shop selling chai tea. Now, you might wonder, why did she mention the fact that the shops are owned by Muslim families? How is this information relevant? Well actually, it is extremely relevant because Mayapur is a Hindu holy city - the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya. And in Hinduism (that term is so general and actually not helpful to use as a religious descriptor but), specifically in the Hare Krishna movement, which dominates Mayapur, caffeine is considered a drug and their followers do not partake in consuming caffeinated beverages. Chai tea is in fact a caffeinated beverage; hence, one must locate a wonderful Muslim shop.
The store, in the image above, was my local hangout located at the corner of Mayapur Main Street and Taranpour Road, owned by Mustafa and his his incredible family. Shops were created by placing a gas burner on a counter. In extremely large, soup like pots, unpasteurized, fresh milk was poured. As the milk boiled, heaps of cardamom, cinnamon, and other spices, plus several heaps of jaggery sugar (made from dates) were mixed into the evolving concoction. The burners were reduced to a minimum heat keeping the tea warm throughout the day. The longer the liquid cooked, the better the taste. Time was an important factor in its quality.
The chai drinking community, which I quickly became an active and vocal member of, were at first quite shocked and stunned at the site of a foreign, white woman raising a chalice of tea with them. Almost all of the foreigners who come to Mayapur belong to the Hare Krishna movement. Believing that they are outside the force of karma, they try not to interact with people of other religious backgrounds which they refer to as karmies (people subject to karma); furthermore, they are unable to consume the beverage, for religious reasons.
After a few visits to the chai shop, the shock dissipated and I was wholeheartedly welcomed to the exclusive chai circle of Mayapur; I was even given my own corner bench, although almost rotted through and fearing an imminent disaster of peach-cheek proportions at any minute, it brought me great joy and the inclusion and kindness that was expressed was nothing short of a gem.
to be continued...