Conversations Over Breakfast in Gangtok: How I Found Family
“I think we and Sri Lankan people are the same level nice,” says Oksonam, which according to her is extremely nice. Over the years, traveling in Sri Lanka has taught me one thing – it’s that its people, my people, those who live in far corners are some of the most generous people I’ve met in life. Over the years, my patriotism has dwindled, but my love for the rugged landscape, green vistas, surrounding ocean with choppy white waves and the kind, beautiful people have remained constant.
“I think it’s Buddhism,” Oksonam says again. She prepares me breakfast in her rooftop kitchen, which opens up to the cloudy mountains, and asbestos roofs of Gangtok localities dressed in colorful prayer flags.
Next to me is Oksonam’s husband who quietly gobbles up his morning omelet. On my left is Oksonam’s friend. Aunt I-forgot-to-ask-her-name has visited Sri Lanka about two decades ago. She has fond memories, but regrets not being able to visit the Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy.
“They told me it wasn’t safe,” she leaves a cry. “Oh, it was during the war?” I ask her. “Yeah, we went everywhere else but not that temple,” she’s unable to recall the year she visited Sri Lanka, but based on her little memory, it suggests me that it was the year 2000.
It was when my little sister was born. I was five.
It was also when the big temple in Kandy was bombed. It was only years later when I was old enough to grasp graphic details of the Civil War I knew that the terraced temple that surrounds the big lake in Kandy was also a target of decades of inhuman shelling.
“It was very sad,” says Oksonam’s husband. “We didn’t expect it to happen,” he refers to the recent Easter Sunday bombings. The series of blasts across the country shook the islanders with fear and misery. We mourned for days, months and we will, for years to come. “It was a shock…what happened in Christchurch,” he says, “I did my postgraduate studies there.”
The aunt tells me that Sikkim is safe but warns me to be cautious as a solo female traveler should always do. I enjoy her company. She’s chatty and instructs me to take a shared taxi to my next destination, Dzongu Valley. “There’s a hot spring. You can bath there,” she says enthusiastically. Meanwhile, Oksonam’s husband has finished his breakfast and is now brewing his morning cuppa.
Oksonam pours a piping hot cup of Darjeeling tea for me and offers me a bowl of sour curd. She is in her early seventies but has climbed up 5000 steps to visit Adam’s Peak this January. “I went to Lion’s Rock too,” she continues telling me about her two trips to Sri Lanka.
We then spend the next half an hour chatting about AS Mahinda Thero and the differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. I ask them about Lady Buddha. “Tara is a goddess. We believe she is there to protect us,” Oksonam tells me. In Vajrayana Buddhism, Tara is believed to be the Lady Buddha – a piece of information I gathered at the Tibetan Museum I visited two days ago.
She takes me to her prayer room. It was a large spacious room on the top floor of a four-story house. In the center of the room is a large golden Buddha statue. It glistens as the morning sunbeams sweep by. “That is Tara,” she shows me a smaller statue next to the Buddha statue. Tara wears intricate earrings, a thick beaded necklace, and a grand headgear. “Do you offer flowers?” I ask Oksonam, itching to know more about the practices of this Buddhist community I’m quite alien to.
“Yes, we do. But now I don’t feel like plucking flowers off the tree,” she says, as she burns an incense stick, which fills the air in the prayer room. It smells like jasmine. “Sometimes I bring the pot itself and keep it here,” she says as I burst into laughter. “It is true. Plants are like your children.”
Back in her little kitchen, Gautam sits next to me and devours a plate full of rice mixed with kidney bean curry. He’s dressed in a pair of long leg warmers and a thick, green color jacket. At 16, Gautam takes care of the Airbnb when his aunt is away. “He is my nephew’s son,” Oksonam tells me.
Gautam was a sweet kid, who always had a wide smile to offer. He checked me into the Airbnb when Oksonam was away and made sure I had everything I needed, except that he was unable to open the storage to give me a few tea bags. Sweet mistakes! I bought a packet of Temi Tea for 20 rupees from the shop next door. Temi Tea Gardens are located in the south of Sikkim and produce organic tea in the state.
“Sangay is very good with guests, but Gautam is still very young,” Oksonam says. “Who’s Sangay?” It was only then I knew that I was messaging to Sangay on Airbnb, who’s Oksonam’s nephew. He manages the Airbnb, cleans it and does everything when a new guest comes in. During my trip, the twenty-something was away on a trip to Lachen in North Sikkim.
“We host travelers because we love to talk to them. We wouldn’t be able to do it without these two – Gautam or Sangay,” Oksonam tells me as she rushes to her room to get dressed for the neighbor’s funeral.
Managing a homestay or a bed & breakfast is indeed a family affair. You welcome a stranger into your home, to your family, and let them become a part of your family only to bid adieu in a few days or weeks as both parties shed silent tears. It is a beautiful thing, I learn – to find a family in a bunch of strangers.