Chapter 1: Eating like a Local in Trivandrum
As I sat in the Delhi airport on a painfully long layover, time seemed to crawl by. The minutes lazily ticked along my watch, as if the incredible heat weighing down on me had even slowed down the clock. My anticipation for the 3 month journey ahead only fueled my impatience, and this large stretch of time to think made me reflect on the enormity of the unknown: I had no idea what to expect. I booked my flight to India on a whim. My family was nervous that I was traveling alone in a country that was so different in so many ways.
My stomach did a somersault as I let that settle: I was traveling alone and had no idea what to expect. My nerves mixed with excitement as I realized my fate: either good or bad, I was now completely in the hands of the universe.
In hindsight, I think this became my mantra of the trip. This is because so many times, I was so completely reliant on the kind compassion of new friends or complete strangers. These instances of human kindness first presented during the first leg of my trip in the form of 3 incredibly kind and gentle souls: new friends who took me under their wings and hosted me during my stay in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum).
I arrived in the middle of the night and after 40 + hours of travel from Canada, I was tired and a little on edge. I had connected with my host who we will call U* and his two flatmates via couchsurfing, and he agreed to pick me up from the airport. However, without a local cell phone or wifi, I couldn’t let him know that my flight had been delayed over an hour.
When I finally landed, I couldn’t believe that he had waited outside for me the entire time, even though he worked early the next morning. To my surprise and slight concern, U* drove a motorcycle. With my large, heavy backpack on, my balance was off as I climbed on the back of the bike and we sped off into the night. This was my first experience on the back of a motorcycle. We were intertwined in the hustle and bustle of urban Indian traffic, with horns blasting and vehicles of all shapes and sizes competing for space on the road. I ‘white-knuckled’ my seat in attempts to stay on the back and did my best to conceal how scared I actually was on the inside.
My life is now in the hands of the universe.
I arrived at the house and U*’s two flatmates were awaiting my arrival; we sat cross legged around the living room, watching Indian music videos on TV and had a naturally flowing conversation, chatting about the easy-going types of things you can never really remember. My bed was a thin but comfy mattress on the living room floor with light blankets; I drifted off into a deep and peaceful sleep despite the unfamiliarity of my surroundings.
The next morning I woke up to homemade chai, oatmeal and fresh papaya waiting for me; when my hosts arrived home from their days of work, we ventured out on their motor bikes for some south Indian food they swore I could not miss eating: masala dosa.
We drove through the streets as darkness was settling over the city; bright lights were illuminating the shops and stalls, as we wove in and out of traffic. We stopped at a small, family owned restaurant where my hosts said many locals eat. I watched as the owner brought out our food on silver trays and our drinks in matching cups. My new friends expertly ripped pieces from the thin, warm, pancake-like dosa while capturing flavourful bits of potatoes from inside the wrap. They dipped this into a savoury sambar sauce or spicy coconut chutney. Never having ate this meal before, let alone having ever really ate with my hands, I awkwardly tried to mimic them the best I could.
They were spot on: the dosa was incredible – light and fluffy, yet still filling – flavourful, yet not overpowering in spice to a Westerner’s mild taste buds. Satisfied with my brief introduction to Indian culinary culture, our next stop was to a food stall for an evening snack.
Feeling as though I must try everything to get the full experience, including street food, I accepted a small, deep fried dough ball covered in some sort of clear vegetable gravy.
“Just pop the whole thing in your mouth”, U* said as he devoured his.
Why not? … “Sure I’ll try one”, I heard myself saying.
I stuffed the entire thing in my mouth and immediately there was an intense explosion of spice. Fire swept down my throat and coated my tongue as I tried not to cough and sputter. The heat crept up my neck and onto the crown of my head; I was starting to sweat as U* handed me another.
OMG, please not another one. I didn’t want to be rude. I pictured the vial of digestive aids buried in the bottom of my backpack. I’m going to regret this, I thought to myself as I threw back the second one.
Oh Shit. My insides were burning.
“No more”, I pleaded. “I’m so full”.
U* could see through my attempts to dissuade him. “Too spicy?” he asked with a mischievous grin. “Don’t worry, this will help”.
Uh oh, what now?
The food stall owner handed me a small plate with something wrapped in a green leaf. “It’s taken after a meal”, he said.
Now a little skeptical, I hoped for the best as I cautiously bit into the leaf-thatched mystery parcel– except it wouldn’t break in half. With all eyes on me, I had no choice but to less gracefully stuff the entire thing in my mouth.
Thankfully, the flavour did calm down the spice – but now with a full mouth, I had difficulty chewing. Minty liquid from inside the leaf spilled out of the corners of my incapacitated mouth. Like a rabid dog foaming at the mouth, my eyes darted around unsure of what to do. Determined not to spit it out, I swallowed the strange leafy dessert in one gulp as my new friends patted me on the back.
I later found out this was not quite a dessert: it was “Paan” – a concoction well known throughout Asia, mixed with either tobacco or in our case a breath freshening paste. The betel leaf that Paan is made from has been cited to have many health benefiting properties, including aiding in digestion.
Miraculously, despite the spicy stress that I placed on my digestive system that night, I woke up the next morning feeling great – I guess the Paan really does work!
The moral of the story:
Be open to the adventure of trying new things. Good stories will never come from your comfort zone.