I've always wondered how a shy person like me would be able to get around the world, especially when I wanted to travel solo. I could only fantasize about talking to strangers and living my best days wandering among unknown streets of beautiful destinations across the world.
But my fear was the tight chain that held me back for all of my 24 years of existence!
Yet I decided to break free one morning. I made up my mind, booked my flight ticket, and landed in Nagaland one fine afternoon in mid-November 2021 without thinking twice, all alone!
Why Nagaland, you ask? Because it's completely offbeat. It's rarely explored, rich in all the cultural traditions that I dreamt of exploring, and stands totally away from all the over-tourism regions of Himachal, Uttarakhand, or North Bengal.
But it wasn't like I went in blind. I would never do that!
I researched a lot and got in contact with a social travel initiative 'NotOnMap' based in the Chamba District of Himachal Pradesh, which helped me get in touch with Better Life Foundation (BLF), an NGO addressing social and environmental issues while also working together with NotOnMap to develop sustainable rural tourism within remote communities of Nagaland.
And that's how I landed in Agangba Village of Tuensang District, one of the most pristine & remote village communities of Nagaland. I stayed at the Farmer's Innovation Center (FIC) there and spent an amazing 2 weeks with the Sangtam Tribal Community.
The journey from Dimapur to FIC in Agangba Village was long & tiresome, yet worth each and every minute of it. As soon as I reached FIC, I was first escorted into the community kitchen. It's called a 'community kitchen' because it's open to everyone. The door to the kitchen is never locked, and anyone from the FIC community or the guest can use it at their own will. The guests can also cook for themselves if they want to.
When I stepped into it, I knew instantly that the kitchen is the soul of the Naga community. And I was proven right over the next few days. Naga kitchen is the place & haven where everything happens - from having meals together to gathering around the fire hearth to keep themselves warm and having both fun & insightful conversations.
The kitchen is where I made connections, where I opened up to these extremely sweet and hospitable people of the Sangtam Tribes. The Naga kitchen became an integral part of my stay in Nagaland, and most definitely my life too.
You must be thinking why I am blabbering all about the Naga kitchen only, right? I feel it's such an integral part of the daily lives of the Naga community that I can't help but write all about it. It's where people are when they awake the first thing in the morning, or when they're not out working in the farms, or in the evening when they come home, and even before they retire to their rooms to sleep. It's where all the interesting conversations take place.
The most interesting thing that I learned about their lives through the kitchen is that they really don't have the concept of Breakfast in their community. If they eat light food, it's Breakfast. And if they eat heavily, it's Lunch. Needless to say, I had lunch here at 10 in the morning! That's completely beyond imagination for a person who hails from a Bengali household and eats lunch at around 2 in the afternoon.
The time of their food habits is actually based on the time of their farming activities. Almost all of the people in the Sangtam community are farmers. They leave their houses to work in their farmlands by 8 am and thus have their lunch by that time only. They return by 3.30 or 4 in the evening. And as soon as they return, they have their dinner. Nightlife in these remote areas is occupied with resting and sleeping in their rooms.
They don't sit on the floor at all to eat. They sit on these sustainable and locally made short stools called 'moorah' spread around the kitchen hearth and eat on traditional wooden plates of Nagaland, locally called 'singtha'. Sing means wood and tha means plate. Their main dish is pork and as I realized, any feast, festivities, or special occasion isn't complete without a special and local pork dish.
The best thing about the kitchen was how from being shy and not being able to communicate properly, it made me an active part of the community and the family. And the story goes like this.
I had been staying with the family at FIC for about a week now, when we got to know that another set of travelers - at least 15 of them! - were coming to stay at FIC for a few days. And most of them were vegetarian people, which was difficult for the family to cook as they mainly ate boiled vegetables rather than cooked vegetables with masalas. And the rest was history.
From a traveler and guest myself, I became one of the family members who served the oncoming bunch of travelers. I contributed to the kitchen by helping them make rotis and sabzis for the travelers. And this was an experience I won't ever forget in my life!
Nagaland is way more than what has been portrayed everywhere. It's a peaceful land, a community of people who are so sweet that you can't help but smile back at them every time you see them. I found solace in the welcoming arms of Nagaland and its Sangtam Tribal Community.
Though I left with a heavy heart for my home at the end of my 2-week stay, I knew that I'd made a second home here right in Nagaland and that I could always come back and start over where I left.