India Introduced, January 7th 2013

In India on March 3, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I’m on the run from the chaos, congestion, filth, poverty and corruption I’ve experienced in Bombay after only arriving in India 21 hours earlier from Missoula, Montana.  I’m escaping south to Goa and the promise of surf and sand.  How crazy can that be?  Staring blurry eyed through the horizontal metal grate over the bus window I think about how I planned to explore Bombay’s street foods, restaurants, bars and Bollywood scene for a week, at least.  I imagined Bombay as a run down carnival, a little dangerous, rough around the edges but cheap and inviting, having me begging for more.  I can’t bring myself to dig through the city’s crust in search of its soul beneath.  I haven’t touched a bed in 4 days and as of yet don’t have any waiting in my future.  I feel adrenaline settling into exhaustion.  Closing my eyes I can at least laugh at the irony of my immediate situation.  I’m here to eat my way through India, eating anything and everything it has to offer, yet for the last 3 days I’ve starved, quelling hunger pains with handfuls of hickory smoked almonds, chocolate covered cherries and leftover Christmas cookies my mother made, all mixed together in a Ziploc bag, the leftovers of an American Christmas past.  It’s the beginning of a new year, a very new year.

The hour hand on my watch points towards 10, the darkness outside indicating night when the bus pulls off the toll road highway, bumping and squeaking atop the gravel and potholes, fees not apparently earmarked for maintenance and repair.  It’s symbolic of my experience in India thus far, paid for but not received.  The bus comes to a stop between two parked Tata brand freight trucks.  We’re at an Indian roadside truck stop.  As the passengers silently file off the bus, my attention is drawn to these dusty red trucks, tile size paintings of lotus flowers, deities and suns separating the metal spacing bars on the rear.  The front end ornately decorated with silver tassels, dangling metal chains and coins and a string of bright orange flowers across the upper windshield. They are pretty.  Dented, rusted and dusty from heavy use, still rugged.  It’s a compliment not to be bestowed on Montana truck drivers, adorning their rig with swinging chrome plated bull testicles and ‘Hippie Hater,’ rear window sticker.  Yet I do imagine the Indian trucks to be how my seven-year-old niece might decorate her younger brother’s red Tonka truck if presented with the same materials.

My focus quickly turns to the open-air restaurant or Indian equivalent of an American diner.  Concrete pillars backlit by flickering fluorescents and red Christmas lights.  The first smell coming across my face is from the outhouse off to the left, mixed with thick wood smoke and burning empty plastic water bottles.  Now standing, a shudder from the top of my neck reverberates down my spine to the base of my hip and both arms shake in agreement.  Entering, everyone washes their hands from the basin in the middle of the dining room as they look over the menu on the wall above.  My one semi functioning recognition of the Hindi language is food.  Unfortunately this menu is written in Sanskrit, each symbol as alien to me as the next.  Still, for the first time I feel the giddy anticipation of my first meal in India and I know it’s way overdue.  Standing in line to place my order, I can see the kitchen begin to spring into action, flames, steam and yelling.  It’s late now and the restaurant empty until our bus pulled in.  Reaching the front of the line, I then realize the significant obstacle between myself and getting fed, ordering.  One word in the form of a question emerges from my mouth.  “Chicken?”  Luckily my question is met with a smile and head nod, “Kadai chicken, steam rice, chapatti?”  “Yes . . . Thank you.”

Sitting down at one of the plastic tables by myself, I am comforted to see a sea foam green water pitcher reminiscent of one I remember pouring Kool Aid from as a kid.  I immediately decide to order an orange Fanta.  Not much longer after admiring the plastic wares, my chicken, rice and chapatti appear.  It took about 8 minutes from me ordering to having it steaming hot in front of me.  The chicken clinging lightly to the bowls protruding bones, simmered in tomato, chilies and sliced onions, garnished with chopped cilantro and wedge of lime.  It was simple but sublime.  It had a local heat, which meant I broke into sweat, snot pouring down my face with the first bite.

From previous travels, I was once adept at eating with my hands, a skill that if unpracticed, unlike riding a bicycle, the grace and mechanics lost.  The experienced and effortless movement of thumb sliding the food along the ramp of your fingers into your open mouth can be anything but.  It is very possible to wind up flicking your food at your face with your thumb, mouth open as the majority of your food bounces off your chest and into your lap.  At this level of proficiency it is wise to carry soap and napkins to avoid later questions of crotch stains.

Having flicked the last pieces of chicken and rice at my head, crotch moist from soapy water, I ventured out into the night air.  Clouds of dust loomed from passing traffic, headlights and conversations of car horns punctuating the darkness.  The meal hit my stomach hard, the spice wanting to jump out of my uninitiated stomach.  Running to the outhouse, dark with no lights, I cough and dry heave into the darkness fighting to keep the food down.  A lump in my throat and knot in my stomach has me question if I’ve made a mistake, A big mistake.

Welcome to India.

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