Diary of an Average Writer

When Assam Meets Belgium

When Assam Meets Belgium
How many times have you come across situations when you feel like asking God-
“WHY ME?”
My recent “Why Me” moment was when I was asked by my boss to go to an event & cover it. For reasons unknown, I was very much reluctant to go. I, even, asked my colleagues if anybody would like to go in lieu of me but all showed me their backs. I was left with no choice but to go.
Now… let me tell you..
If I hadn’t gone, I would have missed ALL that you are going to read now…!!!!!!!
.

The Encounter

Compelled by the push from work, I was sitting in an auditorium listening to lectures by some ’eminent’ speakers.  Boredom & restlessness was mushrooming inside me.

While I was questioning my presence in the auditorium, I came across an interesting couple. ‘Interesting’ because of three reasons.

First, they were from Belgium and we Indians are always intrigued by phoreners! 

Second, it’s their first visit to India and third and most important reason was that they are cyclists and have been cycling all the way from China to Guwahati.

I stopped questioning my presence and struck up a conversation with the two- Nicholas and Aurelie. They were young, enthusiatic & very much in love with each other. (Psst! They dated for 13 long years & have been married for 2 years). During our conversation, they informed me that they were loving the Indian food and would love to explore more if given the opportunity.
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Nicholas & Aurelie on their cycles
As I believe in the ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ concept, I decided to set up a food exploration for them. All I needed was an expert or connoisseur.
When you are in Guwahati, food is synonymous to Sisir Kumar. He runs and owns the largest online food community of the region ‘Guwahati Foodie‘ with more than 1 lakh members. Also, there have been cases in the past where some ‘food bloggers’ have misled foreigners about the food habits and culture of Assam and Northeast. Hence, Sisir with all his knowledge and experience was a perfect choice.
After a few texts and calls, a dinner plan was fixed.

Riders on the Storm

We were supposed to pick up Nicholas & Aurelie at 7pm from where they were staying.
And it started raining!
When we started it was pitter patter and by the time we reached their OYO, it was cats and dogs. After some inaudible (thanks to the heavy rain) interrogation by the owner of the OYO, we all hopped in, in Sisir’s Gypsy.
While we ladies took the back seat, the men took the front.

A rainy evening, floody Guwahati, a Gypsy, two Indians, two Belgians- the fun was for us.

Starting the vehicle, Sisir asked them what kind of cuisine they wanted to try to which they replied, “something that we won’t find anywhere else.” It didn’t take even a moment for Sisir to decide the destination which he didn’t even reveal to me then. As we drove splashing the flood water, Nicholas narrated how they started from China 9 months back and have been cycling through Lao, Cambodia, Myanmar and then entering India covering Manipur, Meghalaya till Guwahati.
Generally, in India, we begin something good with something sweet. But, Sisir had some hot and spicy plans to mark the beginning. He stopped in front of Lal Chana Bhandar which gave me a fair idea of his plan.
While he got down to bring the ‘hot’ stuff, I started telling our guests about Bihu and other festivals celebrated in Assam.
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Aloo Chaat containing Bhoot Jolokia from Lal Chana Bhandar
Within minutes, Sisir was back with Channa and Aloo chaat, of course with Bhoot Jolokia (Ghost Pepper).
The look in their eyes told us that they had never seen anything like this before.
Before offering them, Sisir informed them about Bhoot Jolokia, its impact and the consequences. Instead of worried, they seemed rather excited to try it. I warned them not to use their hands and offered the tiny pieces of paper, which are often given with street food here, to use as spoons. They were quite fascinated by the idea of paper spoons.
While they took the first morsel, Sisir & I looked at each other & waited for their reactions. As bhoot jolokia hits gradually, we could see them gradually sweating and their mouths burning. In a cracking voice Aurelie uttered “It’s hot’, yet took another mouthful. We realized that they would be fine and started the journey again.
The suspense about the dinner destination was finally broken when the Gypsy stopped in front of Heritage Khorika Cafe. By then, the rain had gone for a break.
We stepped inside Khorika Cafe and settled on a comfortable table. The owner of the Cafe and a very well known chef in Assam, Atul Lahkar, was also present at that time. Sisir introduced him to our guests and he told them to order anthing they would love to try.

Nicholas and Aurelie looked at the menu, talked between themselves in their own language and then slid the menu towards us saying,

“We trust you!”.

Without wasting a moment I slid the menu towards Sisir and said, “I trust you!”. 

Like always, Sisir knew HE had to order!

For starters, Pork with Bamboo Shoot and Chicken with Sesame was ordered which was served with mint & sesame chutney.
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Pork with Sesame & Chicken with Bamboo Shoot at Khorika Cafe
They shunned the knives & forks and chose to use their hands to relish the dishes.
One bite of the pork and they were mesmerized. There was no stopping. We started talking less and eating more.
While licking the fingers, Nicholas informed us that fries in Belgium are unmatchable yet he never understood why ‘French’ fries are more popular all over the world. Hearing ‘fries’, Sisir decided to make them try the Assamese fries which is nothing but Aloo bhaji. Along with Aloo bhaji, arrived our main course which consisted of Veg Thali, steamed fish, pork boiled with Mustard green and Fish Tenga.
So we had veggies, chicken, pork, fish, loads of side dishes and a happy Belgium couple.
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The Happy Couple with all the food
One by one, they tried all the dishes while Sisir explained the ingredients and recipes to them. They couldn’t eat much rice but they did try out everything on the table. Nicholas’ favourite was sesame pork while Aurelie loved the steamed fish (Paatot Diya Maas).
For dessert came payokh(kheer). Once again, our connoisseur explained to them what it is and how it’s prepared. They were surprised to know that rice can be eaten like this as well.
Dinner was done and we stepped out with full tummies and content faces.
The rain had stopped and it was quite late. So without wasting time we drove to drop them. Throughout the way, Nicholas and Aurelie thanked us for the wonderful time, ride, food and the experience.

The Gift

We chose the next day of our adventure on the day when Salman Khan’s movies are released. Yes! It was Eid.
So, the plan was to pick Nicholas & Aurelie at lunchtime and have an Eid feast together at a friend’s place (and not take them for a Salman Khan movie.)
But, things seldom go as planned in life. The couple was having some issues in getting their bicycles couriered to Delhi. (Yes, they decided to end their 9-month cycling trip in Guwahati. They shall start cycling again from Turkey after ‘touristing’ for sometime in India). The formalities were taking some time, however, with Sisir’s intrusion the issue was settled soon after.
By then it was already 3pm. So, we decided to postpone the Eid feast for dinner & had our lunch in a restaurant nearby.
Post lunch, we were left with ample time. Sisir recalled Nicholas saying the other day that they couldn’t see the one-horned rhinos, as Kaziranga National Park was closed when they crossed it.

“Do you really want to see the wild rhinos?”, asked Sisir.

Skeptical, the couple looked at each other & asked back,

“Is it possible?”

“Get in the car, we are going to see wild rhinos!!”, said Sisir.

So, another ride began…this time to Pobitora.
Oh Yes! This time we took my car (yet I gave the responsibility of driving to Sisir) instead of Sisir’s Gyspy as it was hot & we thought our guests would feel more comfortable in a car.
Unfortunately, our idea backlashed. We forgot to consider the fact that they were cyclists, hence, more used to heat & rough travelling. The AC & the comfort of the car was actually making them uncomfortable and motion-sick.
We put the windows down & Sisir reduced the speed of driving.
As we entered the threshold of Mayong, the greenery and the cool breeze welcomed us. Sisir informed the guests about Mayong and their history of practicing black magic.
Interestingly, rather than black magic, Nicholas and Aurelie were more surprised to see cows sitting in the middle of the roads without giving a shit to the approaching vehicles.

“If cows in our country come to know about this, they would start a rebellion!”, said a surprised Nicholas.

While we were laughing at the joke, Sisir spotted a rhino far away in the field. We drove a little ahead and there they were…. not one, not two, but too many one-horned rhinos..!!!
We stopped and jumped out of the car to get a wider view.
It was the time of sunset, the sky was being stroked with orange and yellow by the painter above, and down here the rhinos amidst the greenery. Aurelie was elated to see a baby rhino with its mother. It was just breathtaking. They took out their cameras & got engrossed in capturing the view. Although we didn’t understand their language, we did understand that they were really happy to be there.
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A one-horned Rhino at Pobitora
Everything was perfect apart from a group of teenagers to our left showing off their English speaking skills and a group of middle-aged men to our right standing & staring at what the couple was doing. We felt quite sane and matured in between them.
The sun finally set. Nicola & Aurelie turned towards us and said,
“Thank you so much for this gift”
We could see the happiness in their eyes which made us happier.

The ‘cool’ Family

After bidding farewell to the rhinos, it was time to go for the Eid feast. I requested Sisir to drive through the city instead of the highway as I was planning to take them to my place for some time. On informing my Maa about their visit, she panicked like a typical mother uttering “What will I cook, What will I wear, What will I talk, the house is not clean etc. I told maa to relax & to prepare just some lemon juice as we would not stay long. (Remember, the Eid feast is waiting)
On the way to my place, we thought of making them try Tamul (betel nuts). But, Nicolas told us that they had already tried it & didn’t quite like it.
“Chewing the betel nuts releases a lot of salivae. We didn’t know whether to throw it or swallow it”, said a confused Nicolas.
Being a ‘tamuli’ (Belet nut lover) I never thought that eating a tamul can be like rocket science for somebody.
Sisir explained to them the ‘mechanics’ of eating tamul and then they gave some epiphaneous nods.
We entered the campus of my house and I could sense many pairs of eyes gazing from behind the curtains of the apartments around as the ‘phorener’ couple stepped out of the car.
Tearing through the ‘gaze’ we were finally inside my home. After introducing them to my Maa & brother, Maa offered them lemon juice.
While some usual talk was going on our door rang and standing outside was our next door kid. While scanning our guests, he asked absent-mindedly if we had a printer. We sent him back as we didn’t have one.
Hearing the word ‘printer,’ Nicholas understood that the kid asked for a printer and said,”perhaps he has some school project.”
The Indians in the room giggled & informed them that the ‘printer’ was just an excuse. He just wanted to check out the ‘phoreners’..!!
“Tonight! You are the cool family in the campus”, referred Sisir to us in jest.
Before leaving, Maa gifted the couple with a Gamucha each. They were overwhelmed when Sisir explained to them the significance & the cultural value that a Gamucha holds in Assam. They thanked Maa for the gift and we left after taking a few pictures.
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Nicholas & Aurelie at my place with my mother & brother
They kept wearing the Gamucha for the rest of the evening.

The Grand Feast & Cricket

Finally, we were on our way to our friend’s place for the Eid dinner.
While driving, Sisir asked me to check the score of the World Cup match between India & South Africa.
Hearing about cricket, Nicholas told us that they have no idea about cricket as Belgium is more into football.
Aurelie too added that she tried really hard to understand the game but failed.
Once again, our guide Sisir started explaining cricket to them in a language like- One throws the ball and the other hits it with a bat!!
The sudden downpour disrupted the cricket lesson. Remember, this time we were not in Gypsy but in my car so, Sisir had to be extra careful as the roads were slippery.
We reached our friend’s place in a short while where he was waiting to receive us with a really huge umbrella. A little wet, we all were welcomed by our friend’s family.
Of course, the couple was getting more attention.
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Our friend serving Eid delicacies to the couple
Our wait for the feast was finally over as dinner was served soon after. On the table was Pulao, Dal, Chicken curry, Beef curry, Stir-fried cabbage with chicken liver, Bhoot Jolokia Pickle, Sweet & sour tamarind & berry chutney.
Once again they used hands instead of a knife & fork and tried each and every dish. Varieties of Indian sweets were on the table. Aurelie was trying them one by one. Seeing this, Sisir told her that the main sweet dish of Eid was yet to be served. Hearing that, Aurelie slyly kept the half-eaten sweet on Nicholas’ plate to make room for the main sweet dish.
We noticed her mischief and burst into laughter.
Our friend suggested that we sit in his room as the sweet dish would be served there itself. We went upstairs to his room and found that the TV was on with the match going on live with India needing 56 runs for 60 balls to beat South Africa. I suggested Sisir to resume his cricket lesson. With the match going on, the lesson was actually fun for me to watch & easy for them to understand.
When Dhoni was out, it broke our hearts but the silver lining was that Nicholas and Aurelie understood how a ‘catch’ works.
Our friend brought us the sweet dish Sewai, without which the Eid would have been incomplete.
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Sewai
We reached a point where India needed just 9 runs to win.
I had to pee but the washroom was downstairs. So, I chose to hold my bladder as I couldn’t have dared to miss seeing India winning. Just the moment India won I rushed to the washroom. Once the pressure was gone, I realized it was already 11pm and I had to drop them first before heading home.
But come on-

On the occasion of Eid, we were sitting in a friend’s room with bowls of sewai in our hands, watching and explaining cricket to a Belgian couple while India is winning…!!!! You don’t get an experience like this every day.

After clicking a few pictures, we bid farewell to our friend & his family & thanked them for the amazing food and hospitality.
We set out for the final ride with Nicolas & Aurelie (for this time) as they were leaving for Darjeeling the next day.
Once again, the happy couple thanked us for our company, the experience and the cultural exchange. We wished them luck for the rest of their journey & the adventure between two Assamese & two Belgians ended on a happy note.
Yes!! I would have missed all these if I hadn’t gone for that event. Sometimes, it’s good to let your destiny work against your will.

 



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