Chai Diaries: A Punjabi Peace Corps Memory

Tondalaya Gillespie

After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Maharashtra, Tondalaya began a 37-year career in international development, working in the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe. Her husband Ron was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Bengal and they married in Delhi in a ceremony that blended Christian, Hindu and Sikh traditions. The couple currently resides in Hawaii but makes frequent trips to the Indian subcontinent with a visit to Bangladesh planned for the fall.

Tondalaya Gillespie submits this Chai Diaries entry from Hawaii’s Big Island, which recently saw the opening of its first Indian restaurant. “It is ek dam pukka,” Gillespie reports. “You can even get veg and non-veg thalis.”

Tondalaya sips chai in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in India. I also returned for my marriage to a former PCV who was directing a PCV training program at Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, Punjab. I accompanied him on a week’s programing tour along with his language instructor. We made one of our many tea stops at this little roadside makeshift spot which consisted of no more than three charpoys (rope beds) and some rocks piked up to hold the fire to boil the tea. There were a few men squatting around drinking chai and an old old chap sleeping on one of the charpoys. He was snoring away, but undoubtedly heard English being spoken. He rose up, looked at us, and in a loud voice wanted to know why we killed Kennedy, rolled over and went back to snoring!


Tondalaya and Ron's wedding in Delhi, 1971.

Tondalaya and Ron’s wedding in Delhi, 1971.

Golden Temple Chai: Tea For All

If you’ve ever thrown a dinner party, you know cooking for guests can be a logistical challenge. Imagine cooking for 500,000. That is the task faced by the volunteer chefs and chai wallahs at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the Sikh religion’s holiest site, on Guru Nanak Jayanti, which celebrates the birth of Sikhism’s founder.

The langar, or community kitchen, at the Golden Temple serves free food to anyone who visits the glimmering shrine, from pilgrims to tourists to locals in need of a hot meal. On on average weekday, about 80,000 people eat in the langar; on weekends, close to double that figure. But on Guru Nanak Jayanti, an estimated half million diners descend on the langar.

Every 15 minutes, a new group of diners enters one of the langar’s vast halls. They take a seat on one of the mats laid out in neat rows and watch as their steel thalis are loaded up with dal, vegetables and rotis by one of the many volunteers constantly marching down the aisles looking for plates to refill. After eating their fill, diners toss their plates and bowls at metal shield-wielding volunteers who deflect them into buckets bound for washing.

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