Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Old (Veg)News = Good News

The call came from out of the blue. Joe, my former boss at VegNews magazine, asked if I'd like to join him and his VegNews co-publisher, Colleen, as the third host on a VegNews Vacations tour to one of my favorite places on the planet: India.

"Think about it and get back to me," Joe said.

"I don't need to think about it. The answer is YES!"

We met in Delhi the second week of February, setting off with 24 strangers on an adventure that took us to one or two predicable places--does anyone visit India and not see the Taj Mahal?--then zipped around less-crowded Rajasthan, staying in centuries-old royal dwellings tucked into rocky hillsides, visiting different animal sanctuaries, participating in cricket matches and games of Sitoliya with local youth, and eating way too much Indian food.

Saying our farewells back in the capital two weeks later, I felt like I'd formed some wonderful new connections and experienced India in a way I hadn't ever before. It was an educational experience; I learned more about bovines than I had on all my previous trips combined. For example, all those cows wandering about on Indian highways, country roads, and city sidewalks? Those are the abandoned ones, turned out to fend for themselves after they've stopped producing milk. I also learned that there's a tradition of giving the first chapati of the day to the local cow (the second goes to the neighborhood dog, and the third goes to the man of the house). This new information was fascinating, and the trip fulfilling and memorable, but it was still work.

To decompress, I decided to stay on for another week and mosey down to a familiar haunt:
Pushkar. I've loved this little Rajasthani village since I first visited in the mid-'90s. For starters, it's an all-vegetarian town--a Hindu pilgrimage site built around a sacred lake hemmed with temples--and it's a car-free zone. No honking horns, CO2 fumes, or near-misses with four-wheelers for five days? Nirvana!

Settling into my guest house across from Pushkar lake, I quickly found myself right at home--a comforting feeling, since I often half-joke that this is where I'll be spending my "retirement." My 600 rupee-a-night room ($12) was spacious, the bathroom had hot water and two resident geckos (but no towel; my stripey nightshirt turned out to be surprisingly towel-like in its absorbency), there were loads of blankets on the bed for warmth on those cold desert nights, and out the front door (there was a back door, too), I had a nice little porch where I could sit on sunny afternoons and read my book.

In the past, I'd done business in Pushkar; to pay for my college education, I'd come here to buy textiles--dresses, scarves, jackets, blouses--and sell them at flea markets around San Francisco. I did pretty well for a few years, as my lack of student debt can attest. But now, I had the town and my time to myself. I planned to do some hiking, maybe get a massage, and work on reclaiming my title of Champion Slacker of the Universe.

I awoke early the second morning with the idea of heading out for a spot of fresh air. My goal was to make the heart-strengthening climb up to Savitri temple, which sits high on a hill to the west of Pushkar and offers great views over the valley. It's a peaceful spot, and the journey is part wildlife safari, with scampering langur monkeys on the ground, noisy green parrots above, plus goats and cows all around to keep it interesting.

The little lump on the top of that diamond-shaped peak is Savitri temple

A view from the top, looking down toward Pushkar

Before I even left my lakeside abode, I was waylaid by a most unexpected sight: A gleaming glass case stocked with vegan pastries. At my guest house! Taking in this hallucinatory vision was definitely a "WTF?" moment. Vegan croissants, cinnamon buns, and German chocolate cake, for, like, 75 cents, right here, two steps from my room? What the hell kind of good karma was that? Krishna, Pushkar's "only vegan baker" and the mastermind behind these lovely treats, had just arrived by bike to make his morning delivery.

Krishna refuels the bakery case at the Pushkar Inn to the delight of vegans and omnivores alike

Poor Krishna soon found himself in a firing line of questions:

"Are you vegan?!"
"How long have you been baking vegan treats?!"
"Are people buying your stuff?"
"What do the locals think?"
"Has anyone done a story on you before?"
"Why vegan?"
"Do you do gluten-free?!"

He had no idea what "gluten-free" meant, but responded cheerfully to every last "what?" and "why?" Then it was his turn to ask the questions.

"Why don't you come to my house for tea, so we can talk more?"

I didn't say no, even though the morning was heating up, meaning my hike up the hill would likely be carried out beneath blistering sunshine, if I got around to it at all.

"OK: Let's go!"

We walked together across the little footbridge to the south of Pushkar Lake, through a series of lakeside temples, past the sacred Peepal tree decorated in colorful ribbons, and over to the Bread of Life, Pushkar's only 100-percent vegan bakery. Here, Sangeeta, the mother of Krishna's two children and his longtime domestic partner, greeted us with her warm smile and offered us cups of their sweet "special blend" tea. (Krishna and Sangeeta never married because Krishna doesn't believe in religious dogma or outdated ideas like marriage--one of many reasons he's a bit of a renegade outsider in his community.)

Krishna's domestic partner of 15 years,
gets up at 2 am every day to join in the bread- and pastry-baking effort

Krishna also gives a great Ayurvedic massage

Golden loaves of whole-meal bread baking in the outdoor oven

More goodies for sale at the little shop outside Sangeeta and Krishna's home/massage studio/commercial kitchen

For the next hour, Krishna shared an inspirational tale about a precocious 11-year-old boy from Nepal who moved to Germany, alone, to participate in a government-sponsored skills-training program, and learned to bake like a pro. Twenty years later, the young boy applied those skills to a commercial enterprise, and just four years ago, he turned that operation vegan after adjusting his own diet and seeing the benefits of living and eating dairy-free.

As we sat and chatted in the early-morning sun, I noticed that we had a visitor; across the courtyard to my right, at the Bread of Life's doorway, stood a cow. I looked at her, and she at me, but she wasn't really looking at me. She was waiting for Sangeeta.

Intuitively, Sangeeta popped her head out of her living room doorway and looked across the courtyard toward the cow standing outside, looking in. A look of acknowledgement passed across Sangeeta's face, and she spoke a few words in Hindi I couldn't understand before popping back inside. A moment later, she appeared again, a warm chapati in her hand. I watched her make her way to the cow, and without fanfare or fuss, participate in a centuries-old ritual that binds humans and animals together. With breakfast out of the way, the cow carried on, Sangeeta carried on, and I, too, carried on, climbing to the temple at the top of the hill beneath a marvelous, sweltering sun.


  1. Another beautiful tale! The photographs are mouth wateringly lovely, and the ages old tradition between the human and the bovine warmed my heart. Si's great grandfather-ish type family member had a clay oven in Grass Valley, that he built after learning the skill in the French Foreign Legion (bakers don't have to march, he learned).
    Please continue your edible journey and telling us about it, I feel like I just had a nice respite from my work day with you.

  2. Hi, Beth! I'm always so excited when you leave a comment. May I propose an idea? Oui? How about you guys build one of those ovens in your roomy back yard, and have pizza nights a few times a week? I'd move to Santa Cruz for that! And/or I'd come and do all the cooking and baking for you, on a live-in basis. Please consider it!

  3. Pizza ovens are all the rage, my bosses both have one (at a major expense - restaurant quality of course). Our oven may be a little more rustic, but if it'll get you to Santa Cruz...
    I'm always so excited when you post a new entry!

  4. Oh what a grand adventure! I'd love to visit India someday. Wonderful writing, sounds like a delightful time :) - Kizzy

  5. Great to hear from you, Kizzy! You should definitely visit India. You've been to Bali, and know how warm the people are there--imagine that times 100. The people are so kind and friendly and eager to make your acquaintance, and the food isn't half-bad, either! If you couldn't tell, I highly recommend a visit to the subcontinent :0) I'll even meet you there, if you like!

  6. I'm in Pushkar at the moment and will set out to find this place later! Can't wait :)

  7. Have fun, Sarah! I'm jealous--not just because you've got easy access to vegan treats, but because it must be about 120 degrees where you are right now! We're freezing in Paris! I've visited Pushkar at least a half-dozen times, so if you need ideas or guidance, please holler!


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