Meals and Tea shared With Locals
1) Cascades d’Ouzoud – Morocco
After a night of heavy rain, we awoke to glorious winter sunshine streaming through our windows and the thundering of the ‘cascades’ (waterfalls) below our patio.
Setting out to explore our surroundings, we wandered through the tiny village where locals loaded their donkeys with the morning’s purchases, then fanned out toward their homes on the mountainside; women hung brightly colored woven rugs on their balconies to air; and farmers led their donkeys, laden with bags of olives, to the village oil press.
We followed a dirt path that led uphill towards the mountains. When we reached a ridge that overlooked fields of olive and almond trees, we noticed two elderly women with tattooed chins (something one rarely sees these days in Morocco) – sitting in the sunshine on a pile of wooden logs. When I approached, camera in hand, they smiled in welcome but spoke neither French nor English. I don’t think they’d ever seen a camera and were delighted to see their images on the screen.
As we turned to take our leave, a young woman – balancing an infant on her hip with two little boys in tow – came out of her stone house and, walking toward us, said: Thé? Thé? (Tea? Tea?). A word that we all had in common. I immediately accepted the invitation, overjoyed at the thought of sharing a cup of tea with this little group of women and children. She handed me the baby and went off to make tea. I rocked the baby in my arms and the grandmother tried to control her boisterous little grandsons while raking the ground, shooing the animals away, and scooping up turkey and chicken droppings.
Forty minutes into our impromptu visit, the young mother emerged carrying a tray bearing cups, a silver Moroccan teapot, triangles of hot fresh flatbread arranged on an embroidered cloth napkin, and a bowl of warm, golden, olive oil. She plucked the baby out of my arms and settled down to nurse him, while the grandmother dumped the bread onto the dusty table, wrapped the napkin around the hot handle of the teapot, and poured the tea in traditional Moroccan style – holding it a good twelve inches above the cups so that one hears, sees, and smells the aroma of the tea being poured before drinking. I relish the memory of that tea-time treat and the kindness and effort that it took to prepare.
While we enjoyed our tea, I dug up two ballpoint pens and notepads from my backpack and handed them to the little boys. Their excitement was touching. That simple gift instantly transformed them into two angels absorbed in scribbling and drawing, then proudly showing their creations to each adult in turn.
2) Rajasthan – India
We were on a seven-hour drive from Delhi to Shekhawati when our driver and friend, Nizam Ali, asked if we would like to stop at his wife’s family home for tea. He pulled onto a narrow dirt road, parked the car, and we strolled down a country lane towards green fields shimmering in the early morning sun. We passed goats and roosters and came upon a group of children playing on a heap of old abandoned metal: their improvised and creative version of a jungle gym.
A little girl cried out: “Papa, Papa” and flew into Nizam’s arms. In an instant, we found ourselves surrounded by smiling children and beautiful sari-clad women. Our lively little procession made its way through a mud doorway where a donkey stood quietly munching on hay. In the cleanly swept earthen courtyard, two babies covered in brightly colored hand-woven blankets slept soundly in the morning sunshine in elevated cots made of thick, plaited rope. Hesitantly, Nizam’s young wife, sisters, sisters-in-law, and mother – all clothed in exquisite embroidered and beaded saris, their arms covered in bangles, hands and feet adorned with intricate red henna designs – emerged from three small doorways.
One of the sisters-in-law – who had the poise and elegance of a Chanel model – began preparing hot chai. Sitting on her haunches in a corner of the courtyard, she started a fire using hardened cow dung then placed a pot of water with milk, tea, and sugar, on to boil.
While we sipped our sweet, hot chai, we took endless family photographs, laughed with the women and children, and communicated with no language. While in the big cities, people often take offense or ask to be paid to have their photo taken, in the remote villages, they are enthralled and delighted to view their images immediately on the digital camera screen.
When it was time for us to continue on our journey, the lively family escorted us down the lane – women, children, and animals – and stood at the side of the road waving until we were out of sight.
3) The Tai – Northern Vietnam
We had been hiking all day in the heat and humidity of the mountains of Northern Vietnam guided by Cheung, a wiry man with boundless energy and a sunshine disposition. He has wandered those mountains since childhood and knows them like the back of his hand. When the path disappeared, Cheung created his own path, testing rocks for stability, cutting away branches with his machete, and making his way down muddy, slippery slopes, then directing me where to step. Much to my surprise, when we descended to a slow-moving river and the terrain was flat and even, my head began spinning. I became disoriented, unable to talk coherently or to walk a straight line. Cheung immediately recognized that I was suffering from heatstroke. He led me to the shade of a tree where a man sat peacefully smoking grass. He looked at me with glassy stoned eyes and kindly shifted over so that I could share his woven grass mat.
Cheung then contacted the family in the Tai village where we were planning to stop for lunch (cellphones work in the most remote corners of Vietnam) and arranged for the husband to drive down the mountain on his scooter and give me a ride up to the village. He also arranged for us to spend the night as guests in their home. Within thirty minutes, the sound of a puttering motor drifted towards us, and moments later, a smiling man on a bright red scooter bounced into view.
In the Tai village, I was welcomed into my scooter savior’s home by his caring young wife and escorted to the shade where I was served a rejuvenating pot of herbal tea.
Later, we gathered for lunch outdoors on the verandah that overlooked a large fishpond surrounded by vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and animal pens. The family raises fish in the pond, which allows them to have a steady supply of freshwater fish outside their front door, most of their fruit, vegetables, and herbs come from their small plot of land, and the wife pounds corn into flour with an impressive, stone, mortar and pestle.
Despite no common language, we managed to communicate somewhat with gestures and Cheung as a translator. This young couples’ generosity was touching.
We were served a feast for dinner of steaming bowls of vegetable soup, beef with spinach and mixed roasted vegetables, and chicken cooked with onions and exotic mushrooms. While we chatted over dinner, our hosts’ two young daughters – a toddler and an eight-year-old – played happily beside us. When the eight-year-old plucked up the courage, she pulled up a chair beside Stan and proudly showed him her schoolbooks. She was studying English at school. Cheung commented that when he was a child, they were all taught Russian.
Our beds were made up in a private, spacious loft. All my bedding was bright pink, and Stan’s was turquoise blue. At a moment’s notice, with overwhelming warmth and hospitality, this generous family had opened their home to unexpected houseguests.
4) Leshkovo – Russia
We departed Moscow on a sunny, cold winter morning for a day in the countryside. Our destination was Sergiev Posad and the spectacular Trinity of St. Sergius – the largest monastery in Russia. Over the centuries, additional structures were built surrounding the monastery, each one a national treasure and work of art. Their interiors are adorned with breathtaking frescoes and chandeliers, while massive, golden, onion-shaped domes crown their rooftops.
En route to Sergiev Posad, we passed small villages, fields of vegetables, and “dachas”– charming country homes – which traditionally served as a vacation or second home. Over time, many have evolved into permanent residences.
Our guide Svetlana had a surprise in store for us: We pulled over onto the side of a country road in front of a fairytale dacha, where her elderly friend Anatoli awaited our arrival. He led us through his flowering garden and small fields dotted with plump, colorful fruits and vegetables ripened to perfection and ready for picking.
The interior of the house was out of the pages of my early childhood storybooks. Anatoli had handcrafted the furniture, and every inch of space was put to good use. A trapdoor on the living room floor opened to reveal a ladder down to a cellar stocked with glass bottles of preserved fruits, jams, and vegetables.
The kitchen was like a rustic, still life painting; antique stoves stood in the two bedrooms providing indoor heating; the teeny outhouse was like a doll’s house.
The kettle was put on to boil, and tea was served in glass cups on the outdoor porch overlooking the garden brimming with golden daisies, sunshine marigolds, and apples.
I had asked Svetlana if she could include a visit to the countryside in our itinerary. My Russian born, South African grandmother had cherished memories of her vacations in the countryside as a child and teenager, and had described it so vividly in her storytelling. Anatoli’s dacha and small fields were a living example of the picture she had painted for me. Those few hours were a gift that I treasure.
5) Cappadocia – Turkey
Having spent several days exploring this otherworldly winter wonderland of church-caves, phallic-shaped tufa formations, underground cities, valleys, and volcanoes with our guide and driver – we decided to spend our last day striking out on our own to explore our surroundings.
It was a picture-perfect day for walking in the thick, crunchy snow under a cloudless blue sky. We stopped to watch a cave being transformed into a cave-house; a shepherd appeared around a corner surrounded by his sheep; magnificent huge white dogs with thick furry coats befriended us and accompanied us on our walk until they grew bored and wandered off.
In the snow-covered valley of towering tufa formations – many of which are inhabited – I walked past an unattended store the size of a closet. A door to the house beside it stood wide open, so thinking that it may be a guesthouse, I couldn’t resist crossing the threshold while my husband hung back, protesting that I was probably walking into someone’s home. I passed several bedrooms outfitted with Turkish carpets and beautiful iron beds draped in colorful tapestry covers.
A flight of stairs delivered me to the piece de resistance: A verandah hewn into the rockface bathed in sunshine. It held a long wooden table flanked on two sides by built-in wall seats and upholstered tapestry cushions.
As I made my way downstairs, a tall, stately gentleman seemed to appear out of nowhere. We were both startled to see one another, but he welcomed me to his home in fluent English. His name was Ismail. He explained that this tufa tower was originally his family home. He had converted it into a pension, and he now lives in a cave-house across the valley. He invited us into the living room, where the seats, walls, and floors were covered in Turkish rugs and colorful woven tapestry kilims. A kettle was on the boil, so we settled down to tea and conversation with our magnanimous host, whose home I had gatecrashed.
Ismail’s parents had come to the valley to live in a tufa cave when he was a young child, so he had lived in this idyllic fairytale setting as far back as he could remember. He explained that cave dwellers enjoy excellent health and have a longer than average life expectancy: The quality of the air inside the porous tufa rock caves, the absence of chemical-based paint and toxic building materials, coupled with pure, unpolluted outdoor air, natural plant fertilizers, and a noiseless almost spiritual existence, account for the longevity.
When it was time to take our leave, Ismail led us to his snow-covered front garden and pointed us in the direction of the town square above the valley.
Every time I turned around to look back at his cave-house with its fairy-chimney shape, there he was waving to me. A tall, proud, solitary figure in a sun-kissed, sparkling winter wonderland, who had touched our hearts and warmed us with his hospitality, tea, and camaraderie.
6) Somewhere between Saigon and Suoi Nuoc – Vietnam
Ting greeted us in our hotel lobby in Saigon: An elderly dapper gentleman dressed in a crisp, starched, white shirt and impeccably pressed navy-blue slacks. The hotel manager had hired Ting to drive us to Suoi Noc Beach in the Mui Ne region. It’s a four-hour drive but at least a five-and-a-half-hour drive with our amiable, cautious driver Ting at the wheel.
Ting is familiar with all the newly constructed freeways, the serpentine roads that wind through the tropical forests, the villages, the speed traps, and all the charming places worthy of a stop.
The highlight of our drive was a surprise late morning coffee break at Ting’s family home. He wended his way along narrow meandering lanes where tropical flowering vines draped themselves around the boughs of sturdy old trees, and turned off into the driveway of the family compound. His five adult children, their spouses, and his grandchildren were all home for the weekend. Music, chatter, the laughter of children at play, and the aroma of fresh lobster and giant shrimp on the barbecue mingled to create a warm, lively welcome. The women sat on the ground, socializing and keeping an eye on the clan’s toddler members while they cleaned, chopped, and grated piles of aromatic fresh herbs and vegetables.
We settled down in the dappled shade of a flowering magnolia tree where a table had been set for us, and Ting began preparing his specialty: hot, strong, Vietnamese coffee. A quarter cup of condensed milk; a quarter cup of thick, dark, coffee; a half cup of boiling water; and a few pinches of spices. The result was an aromatic brew so thick and dark that it resembled a glass of melted chocolate. As I sipped Ting’s delicious concoction, I could hear my digestive system saying: “What on earth are you sending down here?” There was more concentrated caffeine in that glass than I’ve consumed in a lifetime.
As we sipped our coffee in this lively yet tranquil setting, Ting shared his experiences as a guide and driver in the years following the Vietnam War. He has built a loyal clientele of international businessmen who he ferries across the country and Americans who fought in the Vietnam War and return to visit the country the way it is today: peaceful, fascinating, and welcoming.
7) The Atlas Mountains – Morocco
As the rising sun cast its rays over Rose Valley and night turned to day, the landscape changed color and, like a chameleon, became saturated in a deep pink hue.
With our friend Mustafa at the wheel, we drove along a rocky, narrow path that hugged the mountainside. Where the valley ended, Mustafa turned on to a track littered with stones used by nomads, donkeys, and those familiar enough with the rugged paths to find their way through the Atlas Mountains with no GPS and no compass.
After bumping and bouncing through the arid terrain for an hour, Mustafa announced: “Here we are!” We were nowhere. The bleak landscape revealed nothing but mountains and rocks. He parked on a ridge, walked below it, and lo and behold, a family of smiling faces greeted him with the traditional salutation: “As-salamu alaykum” – “May peace be with you.” We had arrived at the “home” of a nomad family, one of many that Mustafa has befriended during his years of driving through the Sahara and Atlas Mountains. He pops in to visit whenever he can and brings them supplies: primarily salt, sugar, tea, and oil. This nomad family had just moved from outdoors to their caves, which they seal up with stones during the summer months. They have ten children, the youngest being a twelve years old son. Their winter residence consists of four caves. One is used to store water, which they collect many miles away, traveling by donkey for hours on end. Then there are two small caves where family members sleep, and a large, deep cave, where the ceiling and walls are blackened from the smoke of cooking and the floor is covered in colorful Moroccan rugs.
They have two outdoor pens for their goats and sheep. Ten camels roam the flats, and several donkeys nibble on whatever greenery they can find.
We were invited into the living room/kitchen for glasses of steaming hot Moroccan tea. Sitting on the floor rugs and sipping our tea, we attempted to converse with Mustafa as our translator. Unfortunately, I had not come bearing gifts but fortunately had an overly generous collection of candy and cookies from the USA which we had brought for Mustafa’s children. As we departed, we handed a pile of goodies to the mother and her twelve-year-old son. Their smiles were as wide as the Sahara. As-salamu alaykum!
It was a stroke of luck that when the hotel concierge called for a taxi to take us to Quito airport, Luis took the call. We were on our way to spend a week exploring the Galapagos Islands. By the time we reached the airport, Luis and I were engaged in animated conversation even though I mutilate the Spanish language.
As we said our goodbyes, Luis offered to meet us on our return to Quito and take us into the countryside and small villages. Sure enough, there he was a week later on time, waving to us as we exited baggage claim.
The next day we set out on a journey that took us into the mountains, through villages and atmospheric towns where the homes are topped with those magnificent old, rust-colored clay tiles that have been charred over the years by the elements. We passed fields, which were a patchwork of green; purple flowering quinoa; golden corn; and endless rows of hothouses where flowers and long-stemmed roses are cultivated for export.
Midmorning, Luis stopped at a pristine café/bakery, “para degustar algo tipico de Ecuador y de esta region en particular.” The bakery specialized in Biscocho: Crusty, melt in the mouth biscotti-type cookies came straight out of the oven onto our plates. Luis purchased Manjar de Leche, which had the consistency of condensed milk and a caramel-custard flavor, and a roll of white cheese, Queso de Loja. He covered the Biscocho with a layer of Manjar de Leche, then topped them with Queso de Loja. It was quite the most mouthwatering dessert that we still rave about and crave to this day.
In the late afternoon, after a day of visiting villages, lakes, waterfalls, and shopping in the town of Cotacachi, where one can smell the aroma of the leatherwork for which it is famous, we grabbed the offer to visit Luis’ family. In a landscape dotted with volcanoes, we bounced along ancient cobblestone roads that wrapped around hairpin bends. Children as young as six and seven years old tended the sheep, women in their colorful full-length skirts watched over their goats and cows, while dogs zipped happily among the farm animals letting them know who was in control.
Luis’ family home is built around a stone courtyard when laundry hangs out to dry, and their dog, chickens, and rooster all coexist happily. We were introduced to his sister Anna, his brother and sister-in-law, his two little nephews, and his father.
The kitchen contained a huge wood-burning clay oven; kitchen utensils – beautiful, rustic, and handcrafted that have been passed down through the generations – hung on the walls. Standing under a single electric light in the center of the home’s kitchen and hub, stood a beautiful, petite woman with weathered, lined skin. She wore the traditional ankle-length skirt, a shawl, gold beaded multi-strand necklace, and a black hat. Luis’s mother stepped forward to greet us with a shy smile.
The family invited us to take a walk through their farm of fruit orchards and vegetable fields. With Anna – who was eager to practice her English – in the lead, we wove our way through the lush terrain among fruit trees hung with exotic fruits, many of them new to us. As we walked, our hosts were busy gathering, picking, and cutting down an abundant variety of fresh produce for our impromptu picnic in the fields. They peeled, sliced, seeded, and split open a mouthwatering array of fragrant, colorful fruits, dripping with juice. It was an unforgettable fruit feast, set in nature with a view of the fields and the volcanoes, and shared with a family who has worked this land for over three generations.
When we said our goodbyes, Luis’ parents presented us with bags laden with fruit. Unbeknown to us, while we were walking and chatting, they brought up the rear and collected fruit as a parting gift.
9) Tibet – Somewhere between Shigatse and Changthang-Drogba.
The stark winter landscape of the Tibetan mountains has a soothing aura of tranquility. Sturdy, long-haired yaks graze beside the lakes, shepherds tend their flocks, snow glistens on the mountain peaks under a sky bathed in blue, and every once in a while, a cluster of houses seems to appear out of nowhere. The houses are bright white with stunning doorways, and patties of yak dung are piled on the fence and roofs, creating interesting patterns. Yak dung – the primary fuel source in the Tibetan mountains – is used for cooking and heating.
We were all starving after lunchtime came and went, and still, there was neither sign of life nor the chance of a meal in sight. When a solitary, small, box-like structure appeared in the distance, Tenzin and Darghal – our driver and guide – recognized it as the home of nomads. By early November, most nomad families had already moved on for the winter.
The four of us were welcomed into the modest, cozy dwelling, where an infant swaddled in an embroidered Tibetan blanket lay on an upholstered bench gurgling and smiling. A massive pot of water was put on to boil, and the women got to work making noodle soup. The matriarch reached under a table and added patties of yak dung to the fire, then reached into a box (no handwashing between these two moves) and dumped handfuls of noodles into the water and a few handfuls of greens that resembled wild grass. The hot soup was ladled into bowls; the house was filled with the warmth of the family, their smiles, camaraderie, and hot noodle soup. In the simplest of settings, this simplest of meals was among the most memorable experience of our time in Tibet.
10) Varanasi – India
We were fortunate to be in Varanasi on the eve of Diwali – the five-day festival of lights, which symbolizes the victory of light over darkness. We were also lucky to have a phenomenal guide. Shasha is a dignified, educated, spiritual, and worldly young man familiar with every nook and cranny of Varanasi. He is a member of the Brahmin caste. Both his great-grandfather and grandfather were priests.
On a steaming hot October day, we walked along the narrow, tumbledown lanes of Old Varanasi with their peeling limestone ancient walls, colorful doorways, minute food stalls, cows, pedestrians, priests, and motorbikes, that mesh to create an atmosphere of organized mayhem. Trash and fresh cow and dog poop are ubiquitous. One dare not take a step without paying attention to one’s next move. It’s like playing a fast game of chess. The heat and stench were indescribable, but the color, the cross-section of people, the throbbing pulse of those alleys are mesmerizing.
In the days preceding and during Diwali, thousands of Hindu worshippers make a pilgrimage to pay their respects to the goddess Shiva in a small, ancient temple hidden among the chaotic web of lanes of Old Varanasi, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Foreigners are rarely admitted at a moment’s notice. Shasha thought that it would be a unique experience for us to partake in the spirit of Diwali, but guides leading tourists are denied entry to the sacred Hindu temple. He has friends who live and work directly across the lane from the temple. We removed our shoes at the base of a flight of steps so steep and high that a rope has been installed to enable the family and their visitors to hoist themselves up to the first-floor landing. To our great surprise, we were greeted by a beautifully refurbished living room that boasts gleaming wood floors, thick white floor mats scattered with brightly colored pillows, and glass-faced wall-boxes that hold the family’s prized collection of ornaments and bottles used in their trade: the production of masala, curry powder, and essential oils from recipes passed down from generation to generation.
After ridding ourselves of our socks, and all our possessions other than our passports and a small amount of cash, we descended those treacherous steps once again, purchased a bouquet of flowers and some sweet delights, and made our way barefoot to the temple. Our passports were checked by the police, who grilled us as to why we were visiting the temple; we were patted down in a thorough security check, and only then were we granted access. We joined the crush of people circling the outer courtyard, then entered the inner chamber where we laid our flowers and offerings on the rapidly growing mound, and my husband received a blessing from the holy man. An aura of spiritual reverence pervaded the temple compound. We felt privileged to be permitted to mingle with the worshippers and partake in this religious holiday that symbolizes the triumph of good over evil, hope over despair, and light over darkness.
Back in our host’s home, we seated ourselves on the white floor mats and over aromatic cups of hot chai masala, shared our moving experience, chatted with Shasha’s friends, and learned about their family’s multigenerational history of mixing spices to produce their sought-after blend of masala and curry. I departed with several bottles of each – which I use very sparingly at home, only for those guests who have an appreciation for the difference between mass-produced store-bought spices and the fine Varanasi blends. Sounds, tastes, and aromas take us back to a time and place. I go back to that home on top of the steep steps, the warmth of the family, the chatter and laughter, every time I open those bottles, and the aroma fills my kitchen.
Disclosure: The photos of the Kashi Vishwanath temple are courtesy of their website.