This weekend, Assam celebrates the harvest festival Bihu, the surrounding villages of Guwahati are alive with traditional food and festivities, specifically burning large straw structures and eating food thick with sugar from the sugar cane harvest.
Our original plans were to spend the weekend in the village of a CRD employee, but potential political unrest and concerns of bringing too large a group of white people to the small village forced us to call the trip off. Instead, CRD founder Subhash Sarma offered to take us somewhere for the day. We circulated much speculation and wonder as to what adventure would befall us, and as usual the language barrier between us and our host (many of the people I’ve met here speak English that sounds more like Assamese than not) kept us guessing right from the beginning until we had safely arrived back at our guest house in the evening.
Subus took us to a village where another employee of Rickshaw bank, works and lives with his family.
Throughout a work day, 300 rickshaw drivers come to him in 60 groups of 5 to make the microloan payment for their vehicles. Since the group of drivers knows each other well, they serve as peer pressure and a contact for Rickshaw Bank to reach an absent driver. In case I haven’t explained yet, Rickshaw Bank is a microloan organization, they build rickshaws then lease them to drivers at the equivalent of 80 cents per day until the driver has paid off the full cost of approximately $300.
But on today’s holiday, no drivers come to visit and the whole family, no, the whole village welcomes us happily. In the collector’s home we are served traditional Bihu dishes as we talk with the family and Sarma. The women and children film us on cell phone cameras throughout the visit. First is a soupy rice with at least as much sugar as rice and topped with a sort of homemade molasses and “Curd,” a natural yogurt. We all politely clean our plates, but when we reconvene later, it seems Jeff was the only one who actually enjoyed it. Next is a plate of desserts, small balls and squares made of rice, coconut, poppy seeds, and buckets of sugar. Each new bite of a dessert is a leap of faith; you never know whether to expect a pleasant moist sweetness or a ball of sugar dry enough to leave your whole mouth parched.
Next in the meal is a cup of tea, once again thick with sugar, and finally… the leaves.
We’ve seen these around town, green leaves and little nuts in a dish like mints, but they are not at all like mints. It seems this after dinner chew is the only thing in Guwahati that Gwyn is afraid of, something about “very strong sensations”. But alas, our host was adamant that we try it, and after Sarma explained the traditional significance of the treat we had no choice.
As soon as my jaw had clamped down on the nuts, rolled up in a leaf, I wasn’t sure if I was chewing anymore. It took a solid five minutes of pretending to relax while I moved my jaw up and down before I could feel my painfully dry mouth again. Another five minutes later I had swallowed it all and a liter of water. Apparently it’s good for your teeth.
Before we left, the woman of the house presented us all with a traditional parting gift: beautifully hand woven cloths, one small and brightly colored, the other the size of a small two towel, each white with red or green patterns. On our subsequent tour of the village, we see the loom that she wove them on, spending near a full day’s work on each.
As we toured the small village our entourage grew, culminating with an extended photo session (both our cameras and theirs’). After many fond farewells and an invitation to attend a wedding ceremony later in the month, we drove off into the fields, leaving with a sense of warmth that comes only from the hospitality of complete strangers and the mutual excitement of two cultures exposed to one another, maybe for the first time.