Tag Archives: Khasis

Traveling in India: Betel Nut Adventures

Indian people and many people of other Asian countries eat betel nut in one form or another. It is a hard oval nut that looks an awful lot like nutmeg. It’s true name is the areca nut, and it is almost always eaten with the betel leaf, part of the pepper family and therefore slightly peppery in taste. A special knife must be used to cut the nut because it’s like hardened wood when dry. Imagine trying to cut nutmeg. The nut, cut into small pieces, is placed on a betel leaf, along with lime paste, which is all rolled together and then chewed.

I first encountered the betel nut in Meghalaya. The Khasi people, like many other Asian people, chew this daily. It is called kwai in Meghalaya and the Khasis chew it in a fairly pure form. I imagine that it was something like smoking long before those countries ever had cigarettes. One Khasi woman smiled at me with her red lips and teeth and called it Khasi lipstick. Indeed in some of the Asian cultures it’s been seen as a sign of beauty. The red comes from a combination of the lime and the nut. Everywhere in India, even in government buildings, I would find corners stained red as if someone had been butchered. But this was just the spittle from chewing the nut. India’s idea of clean was much different than that of my western sensibilities.

At the time I was told that the leaf and the lime were needed to break down the hardness of the nut. Some Khasis swallowed the kwai after chomping away on it, while others would spit out the juices. In India proper they call it paan and often mix it with sugars and other spices, making it a sweet concoction.

For the longest time (I was in Meghalaya a month) I just watched everyone chewing it. My friend started to get back in the habit though she didn’t do it in Canada. And a good thing too. Habitual use of betel nut cause severe damage to the gums, eroding them down to the roots of teeth. Not to mention, recent studies have shown that there are fairly high carcinogenic properties in the areca nut. Many places also combine it with tobacco, increasing the carcinogens even more.

Meghalaya was interesting to explore during the days but during the evenings we all just sat around. Hanocia’s mother ran a bar and besides the one drink that was served, and the beef jerky, a lot of people chewed kwai. I finally asked to try it one night and popped a small piece with lime and wrapped in the pepper leaf into my mouth. I think I suffered severe pucker power from the caustic aspects of the lime paste and had to take some sugar to counteract it. I also did something that doesn’t happen to the Khasis. I turned beet red.

The areca nut is supposed to have mild narcotic properties that can sharpen clarity. How this works when one is drinking is more a mystery I think. Coupled with the pepper leaf and the lime, it heated me up. The Khasis sitting around thought it pretty funny to watch me chewing this. I did get into the hang of trying it, working past the bitterness and tasting the flavors of peppery woodiness. I probably chewed kwai for a week or two.

When I went back to Calcutta I bought some paan. There they have a collection of confections to be added. But I was used to the pure taste and didn’t like the sugary sweetness. In fact, Indian sweets in general were far too sweet for my palate, partly because of the use of rose water. So I tried a few varieties of paan, served in cones of pepperleaf but couldn’t develop a taste for it. It’s just as well too as there are many diseases and cancers of the mouth associated with long-term use, not to mention the hardness alone can damage teeth.

So I gave up my betel nut adventures and passed on the betel juice that gives alluring red lips to its users.

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Traveling in India: and the Berlin Wall

Twenty years ago today a wall that separated not only a city into east and west but an ideology came down. At that time I was in India, and had been there for about three weeks. I was in the tribal state of Meghalaya, far from the western world in many respects. Luckily the Khasis are fairly affluent and my girlfriend’s mother had a TV. It wasn’t state of the art but they did get several channels. Only a very few houses had fridges or showers/tubs. Most still heated water with an electric coil in a bucket, and sponge baths were the norm.

Yet everyone had flush toilets and most had TVs. So it was that one night I watched the Berlin Wall coming down as they sliced through the concrete in big chunks and bulldozers pushed the wall apart. It was surreal, already being divorced from the everyday world by being on a trip. But I remember we were all very surprised. There’d been no warning. There had been no publicized event of this eventuality. It just…came…down. I’m sure it was different for the people living in Berlin.

After a month in Meghalaya, I went traveling to Nepal and to northern India. Somewhere near southwest Nepal, I think Pokhara, I took a bus toward the Indian border. It turned out to be too expensive for the locals. That meant there was a lot of space, no chickens or goats, and the few people were all tourists. There were three people from Japan, one a Japanese Tibetan. There was a couple from Germany and me. The three from Japan didn’t speak much English and though the Germans did, we didn’t chat a lot.

However, at one point in conversation I mentioned the wall coming down. These Germans were obviously from the democratic side of Germany but I don’t know if they were from West Berlin. However, when I said the wall had come down they said absolutely not. I said, but yes it has come down and they adamantly said no way. But I saw it being cut down on TV.

They had been travelling for a few months and it was inconceivable that this could happen. It was such a quiet affair really, and so sudden. I don’t think these Germans believed me even then. They probably had a bit of culture shock going back to their own country.

Culture shock comes with a change from one’s norm of living. It can hit people traveling or living in foreign lands because it is so different to what they’re used to. I had my own culture shock while in India for those two months. For me it was mostly brought on by the dysentery and exhaustion I experienced, making every change and difference hard to take or understand.

The sicker I got the more I longed for home, wishing I could have a glass of cold water, a crisp salad and a glass of real wine, not the sickly sweet stuff they love in parts of India. I felt the culture differences most in the language barriers (the signs if there were any weren’t in the Roman alphabet so I didn’t have a chance of reading them), the sense of time (the “what to do” attitude in India is partly because of the rampant corruption-baksheesh system, so many don’t try hard; that and the heat of course) and communication (you’ll get directions, possibly five different ones if you ask five people but no one will say I don’t know so you spend all day trying to get someplace).

At times I was in an incomprehensible mire as I tried to figure out the culture enough for travelling. At times I realized how different my world was when I asked a group of men where I was on the map I had for a city (Varanasi I think) and as they discussed it in their own language I realized they had probably never seen a map and had no idea how to read it.

Our cultures are different and sometimes a change, whether sudden or by immersion can toss us into a sea of uncertainty. But in essence we are all dealing with our world though our traditions and the events and elements that shape us. Here’s to the wall coming down in Berlin and may we have more positive moves like this throughout the world of allowing people their freedoms.

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Traveling in India: Food Culture

Okay, maybe that title is slightly misleading. When I was in India I ended up with dysentery so bad that I couldn’t eat much at all. But I do remember some of the things I ate or chewed upon.

I was in Meghalaya for a month and the Khasis tend to eat their food fairly plainly. Rice, chicken, beef, with these green, little bullet peppers on the side. Begung was one particular dish I remember (and the spelling is more phonetic than anything else). It was a dark green leafy vegetable chopped into small pieces and fermented or aged with something savory. Think Asian sauerkraut but completely different. They also made a beef jerky over the fire used to distill the local rice drink, kyat. This was like drinking very very green saki.

Khasis also eat a lot of boiled eggs. This got to be too much for us on the second day. At one point we got takeout. There aren’t many restaurants and takeout involved getting some kind of noodle dish served in a banana leaf. All biodegradable but now days they put those dishes wrapped in banana into a plastic bag for carrying and once you’ve finished eating you toss the leaf and the bag. It was a sad thing to see that Western culture was encroaching all the bad aspects there as well.

The one other item in Megahlaya that I tried wasn’t really a food item. It would go more into the realm of entertainment, or a side, or like smoking. This was kwai, or betel nut. The Khasis eat theirs fairly pure. You take a peppercorn leave–it’s actually a betel leaf though they called it peppercorn because of the peppery taste, put a dab of lime paste on it (this is not made from fruit). Then you take chopped up betel nut (or areca nut, which is similar to nutmeg in hardness and texture) and fold the leaf over the the ingredients. Then you chew and chew and chew. It’s very hard and takes the lime and the leaf to help break it down.

Betel nut is also a slight stimulant (and has been found to be a carcinogen). It tended to make me turn beet red, which everyone found quite funny. I didn’t notice more than a little rush. Many Khasis eat it often and it tends to stain the spit and therefore the lips red. One woman called it Khasi lipstick. Betel nut is eaten throughout India but it may be sugared, have candy sprinkles, spices or a host of other items to sweeten it up as it is pretty harsh and bitter. In India it is called paan.

Although I got into the habit of trying it in Meghalaya I didn’t continue in the rest of India because it was too sweet. Just as well since it is known for destroying gums and teeth because it is so hard. I remember being in some government buildings in India and seeing corners in halls stained red as if someone had been stabbed to death. People would just spit into the corners and it was never cleaned up.

Through the rest of India, I actually didn’t get a chance to try as much as the food as I would have liked. Dhal (a lentil stew) was common but I can’t eat lentils. And I also had dysentery, which prevented me trying many of the dishes I wanted. I do remember the yogurt being remarkably creamy and not bitter like it is here. You could get a salty or a fruit lassi, made from yogurt and they were a lot of what I survived on when I was very sick.

I’m afraid I never got to try curries and other local dishes. By the end of the two months I was too sick to remember much about the food, except to stay away from the Campa Cola, which was made in Italy but shipped to India because it was carcinogenic. What fun. It’s one regret, that I never got to try more foods while there, especially because I love spicy.

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The Spice of Life

I grew up in a pretty whitebread Canadian family, where roast beef was served on Sundays with baked potato and frozen (but of course cooked) vegetables, which I always thought were gakky. Liver was also dished up once every couple of weeks, along with the ubiquitous brussels sprouts (which I do like). I figure this must have been one of the rare fresh vegetables of my youth.

Other delicacies included tongue, which indeed looked like a monster tongue, “beans I like,” which was an insipid concoction of watered down tomato soup, lima beans and wieners, and meatloaf with bacon laid across it. All of these things were liberally salted, beyond liberal really as my mother was a huge salt abuser, along with using some oregano, seasoning salt and other suspect spice blends. They made things salty but nothing was spicy.

Every set contains a salt and a pepper shaker and ours sat on the table like some iconic god, visible but unknowable. I’m sure the same shaker of pepper lasted ten years. Of course, the prepackaged pepper of yesteryear was mostly flavorless, like those little packets of pepper you get in fast food restaurants: mostly color and no taste.

So I knew nothing of spice. The closest my family ever moved towards spicy was chili powder in the chili. And lots of salt. Salty badness. My mother still puts salt on pizza, one of the saltiest foods out there. She’ll assault with salt before tasting.

When I was in art college, my boyfriend invited me for dinner to his place one night. It was student fare but tacos with a bottle of hot sauce. He didn’t warn me that it was “hot” hot sauce so I was a little overwhelmed with that first taste. But then…my tastebuds awoke and I began to experiment more with this. I also started drinking Caesars (for you Americans, it’s similar to a Bloody Mary but instead of tomato juice with the vodka you use clamato [tomato and clam juice and sugar–not as gross as it sounds] with Worcestershire and tabasco).

Then another of my friends talked about some manly man test they did which involved either drinking tabasco or putting a lot in the drinks. I think I particpated in the second part (I was never stupid enough to drink it straight) and my penchant for spice continued.

I then moved to Vancouver, where I met my friend Hanocia, from a tribal state in India. She carried a bag of chili or serrano peppers in her purse to eat with her food. We would go out and drink Caesars where we usually just asked for the bottle of tabasco. We returned an empty bottle to the bartender one night with at least two inches gone from it. His jaw dropped as he stuttered, “I’ve never seen anyone use so much.” And we weren’t even sweating the spice.

Then I moved in as a roommate with Hanocia and her boyfriend, where we would all sit eating the normally spiced food but with a bowl of chili peppers on the table. It wasn’t hot unless you were sweating and your nose dripping. By this time I had achieved the cast iron stomach needed for the truly ferocious peppers. I even had a poster of all the peppers on my kitchen ceiling (the only space for it) and it became my goal to try them all. When I went to India, Hanocia’s people, the Khasis, tend to eat their food plain but with a bowl of peppers. At the end of the evening I had more stems along the side of my plate than anyone else. Beau goggled and said, “Wait till I tell the girls at work, and you’re a white person too.” (A note: all peppers come from central America and did not originate in Asia.)

Over the years, I did sample as many peppers as I could find, right up to the scotch bonnets or habaneros, that rate 10 for hot on a scale of 10. They are so hot that few people can eat a whole one and they can blister you. Many people can’t eat these because the heat burns away any flavor, but I like habaneros because they have a fruity flavor under that atomic heat. (I”ve since found there are hotter peppers but I haven’t tasted them.)

I’ve made five pepper chili, which has included serranos, jalapenos, Thai chili, pequenos and habaneros. I don’t count or use bell peppers (I react to them) because though supposedly all peppers are of the nightshade family these are considered different. Maybe they’re nightshades but the others aren’t, but all are peppers.

My love affair with hot peppers has developed over the years and friends have gone to other countries and brought me back another bottle of hot sauce. I have about 15 in my fridge at any one time. It just goes to show that a white kid from the bland food sticks can attain heights of chili pepper hotness. But alas, my champion pepper chomping may have hit an end as rosacea is exacerbated by spicy foods. I’m still hoping though because I do love the taste way more than black pepper, though that will do in a pinch.

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Traveling in India: Memories of Meghalaya

When I went to India, I was poor. I saved up every penny, including sitting on the street corner and selling used books and ornaments (you could still do that in the West End at that point). My friends lent me the money for the plane ticket, which I paid back over the next year.

I was gone for two months and the first month was in the state of Meghalaya. There are seven autonomous states in northeastern India. They are: Assam, Meghalaya, Arunchal Pradesh, Mizoram (known for eating dog), Nagaland (known for eating these giant spiders I saw), Manipur. Meghalaya’s capital is Shillong, where I stayed but we did travel around some.

Hanocia, my friend from Meghalaya who had lived in Vancouver for years, was of an old family. There are last names, which denote some aspect of nobility or lineage that has carried on for generations. There are three major groups in Meghalaya; the Khasis, Garo and Jaintia with the Khasis being the largest. They are a rare thing in the world, a matrilineal society. Few cultures follow matriarchal culture and fewer matrilineal. Hanocia was the only daughter of a youngest daughter.

Instead of the oldest son of the oldest son it is the youngest daughter who traditionally inherits the family lands, partly because she will be around longest to take care of the aging parents. She also would oversee the family lands and riches. Children take their mothers’ last names and a divorced man moves back into the home of his mother. Clan leaders tend to be male but voted in by the women of the clan. Women handle the money a lot and men hunt. The Siyiem, equivalent to a king in their traditional society, will not see his son inherit but the son of his sister. The position does not have as much weight as it once did and Hanocia said one Siyiem lay in state, after he died, in the royal estates for a very long time because no one would take up the job, and he could not be buried until there was a successor.

The Khasis are a Himalayan hill tribe, traditional hunters with the bow and arrow. I saw the equivalent of horse races one day when we went out to a field where archery butts (stacks of sticks or reeds tied in an upright cylinder were set about a field. Then many men would kneel and shoot as many arrows as possible within a set time. I believe they then counted how many arrows were closest to the center (demarcated by lines or string) and the person who had bet closest to that number would win. Although the Indian government tried to discourage gambling, this was a very popular form for the Khasis.

They are a diminutive people, with the average height of women being under 5’4″ and men around 5’5″. There were a few taller people but often mixed with other blood and at 5’4″ myself, I towered above many of the people. Although many Khasis are now Christian, their traditional religious beliefs are animist. They believe there is a spirit in most things and we visited a scared grove of trees.

I was there in late October and November and was lucky enough to attend the seasonal festival. It ran three days and clan chieftains came from all over to meet. There was a dance that did not necessarily have prescribed steps and reminded me partly of Native American dances. In the sun, three Khasi women, sisters of the Siyiem I believe, danced very slowly, either holding parasols or someone holding one over their head (lighter skin is a sign of nobility). The women were done in the Khasis robes, (a nongkrem–this might actually be the name of a place and I’m misremembering), like a silk sari but folded in such a way to be pinned in a sheath over each shoulder. A longer sleeved top was worn beneath and on their heads stood tall and elaborate headdresses made of gold. Many Khasi women wear a gold necklace with a large ruby in it. In a circle around these dancing women men would dance running and moving quickly. It’s been a while so I don’t quite remember the details.

The animist Khasis also hold the rooster as a sacred animal as they believe that it conveys their messages back and forth to U Blei Ka Blei. U denotes masculine and Ka, feminine (spellings could be off a bit, so if I remember correctly it translates as “the god” or “he god she god”). At this festival there were men who did chicken divination, wringing the necks of the birds and using their fingers to pry the bodies open and remove the entrails. I’m not sure if the bodies were first cut or if they were actually pried apart.

I also went to a night festival that few women frequent but there was no rule against it. It took place in a building made completely of wood; even pegs and joins were of wood. Within was a fire and a tall pole. The men would get up and dance near or around the pole and high pitched pipes were played. I’m not sure what the purpose was and think that in some cases they were reluctant to tell me. It was probably something to do with fertility but I’m just guessing. I was also in some discomfort because I’d eaten some sort of preserved bamboo shoot and the preservative was causing a bad reaction (there was also no toilet on site so it was a bit of a conundrum).

I will write more on the Khasis of Meghalaya, but although Wiki says that permits were not needed by foreigners past 1955 this is not true. I went in 1989 and I had to get a permit. I was one of three white people that I saw, one other being Hanocia’s husband and one being a school child. I’m sure there were a few others but people tended to stare because tall white people were a rarity. Meghalaya is culturally protected, meaning that only Garo and Khasis can own land. They are not Hindu and in fact, eat beef quite regularly, which is cheaper than chicken. I believe that now permits are no longer needed though they may be for some of the neighboring states, which are also self-autonomous.

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Not Throwing in with the Crowd: Litter

Once upon a time, in my teenage years, I used to wander around with my friends. We’d go to school, we’d stroll to the University of Calgary lands, we’d go to the mall. And like most teenagers, we would buy our share of gum and chocolate bars. I never littered and this was before “Going Green” had ever been heard of. I’d take my wrapper and put it in my pocket.

One day a friend asked, “Why bother, everyone litters?” I replied, “Just because everyone does it, doesn’t mean it’s right. Today it might just be me. But tomorrow it might be me and someone else and then it might be four people who don’t litter. And someday maybe everyone will change.”

Well, not everyone changed but as years went by it became more of a concern; recycling wasn’t just a word for the conscientious few. Green meant more than just the colour of grass. Of course, I wasn’t the pioneer, but even as a kid I valued my world and I read about the Gaia hypothesis at a young enough age. I was also reading science fiction at twelve and the possibilities of what-if were already working in my mind.

Move to 1989 when I went to India. I was there when the Berlin wall came down. For the first month I was in the tribal state of Meghalaya, one of very few white people (maybe three) in the predominantly Khasi lands. My girlfriend was from this Himalayan hill tribe and her relatives would drive us around to different sites. The Khasis are traditionally of an animist religion though Christianity is also prevalent these days.

Overlooking the town of Shillong was a high point and a sacred grove. It was sad to see tetra packs, tin cans and plastic bottles littering their protected area. One day, Hanocia’s cousins took me to see this site. We had some “take-out” from a local restaurant. This consisted of a meal wrapped in a banana leaf and then put in a plastic bag. We ate our lunch overlooking this beautiful, small waterfall. When we were done we threw our banana leaves into the bush. And then the two cousins threw their plastic bags.

I gathered them up, aghast, and said, “You can’t do that.” They looked at me, puzzled, and asked why. How to explain it. These guys weren’t stupid but just lived a different way of life. Like many Indians, they saw pictures from magazines or a few movies that revealed fairy tale glamour lives and ways. They wanted what North America had; the riches, the lifestyle. How can anyone deny what they already have? But how can you get across that it’s okay to try and achieve that life without making all the same mistakes?

I tried to explain it this way: If you throw the plastic on the ground, it will go into the plants and the water. The cows will eat it and it will make them ill and then you’ll eat the cows. (Khasis are not Hindu and do eat beef.) It was a simplified version and I didn’t have the knowledge to explain the full process but I tried.

It saddened me. India holds at least one-sixth of the world’s population. Being third world, they didn’t have all of the technology (cars, factories, etc.) as we have in N. America. But they already had their pollution problems. I received a valuable education in India and that day was just one reminder of how much work we still have to do, how far the world must go to still save itself. Like that day long ago when I put the wrapper in my pocket, I continue to try and stay green and become greener.

I have a long way to go still. But I still believe that if we try and even encourage one other person, we’ll continue to work against the tide.

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