Say it with me: I. AM. GOOD. ENOUGH. Say it to yourself in front of the mirror and say it like you actually mean it. Have you said it? Oh yay, you’re the best. I’m amazed every day at what humanity – myself included – can put their minds to and achieve on a daily basis. At 20 years old, having never left the family home for more than a week (okay, our school camps went for 9 days at times, crazy!), I went on a whim and signed up to a social business/volunteering program called 40K. They were going to leave to southern India in February the next year – and by that stage I was jobless and almost graduating from uni – so I was all on-board with the idea. A week after I graduated, I got a full time office position in the heart of Darling Harbour in Sydney. I was stoked, but India was lingering and I didn’t know how my new boss would take to the conversation I was to have with him which would mean 3 months into the job, I’d basically be going on a break. Well I sure got lucky because I got the job and the company let me take all of February off to fulfil my dreams. Sometimes all you have to do is ask, you know?
This post has been a year in the making and I hope you know it wasn’t false anticipation when I said, ‘soon, I will do a post on my trip to India’. It’s been REALLY hard to find the photos from my trip and then sort through them and this is why it took so long. But thanks for sticking around! I am now a complete India enthusiast and whenever someone mentions this gorgeous nation, I gleam with joy. Yes, I do promote India quite a lot and if I could withhold the energy and vibrancy and excitement and everything else I felt there, I would do it in a heartbeat.
For a month of my life, I discovered the world through the eyes of a village person. We spent the majority of our time in a tiny, humble village outside Bangalore called Marala Kunte. The buildings were of coloured concrete – teal walls, soft pink ceilings, pumpkin-hued shopfronts and nothing but wispy sheets of red dust for roadways and thick, dark green forests lining the landscape. Kiosks were aplenty, with folks setting up convenience stores in the most miniscule of spaces selling vividly coloured powders for Holi festival season to freshly picked bananas and five cent packs of what would become my favourite cookie of the trip, the ever-popular children’s snack Parle-G.
Within Bangalore, the setting was quite the stark contrast to the villages the 40K group dotted themselves throughout. All hustle and bustle, insanely chaotic traffic and neverending highways. Silk, incense and sari stalls as well as high-end luxury brands like Adidas and Levi’s in direct line of sight with beggars and roadside fruit and snack stalls selling their fare to tourists and locals alike. Sometimes when we needed a break from it all, a reminder of our homogenised Western roots, we would step inside the security-lined, air-conditioned Starbuck’s or Kripsy Kreme’s (or even McDonald’s…). How embarrassing that even as we tried to embrace a beautiful culture, we still needed the comfort and familiarity of fast food. Tsk tsk.
Further away from the city centre you’d encounter real India – auto-rickshaws swiftly making their way through long-winded markets that were split between the Hindu and Muslim quarters. Wow, what a sight. Whatever it was you were after, this was the avid shopper’s paradise where the strangest to the most mundane items would be found side by side in the narrow, cobblestoned streets. A friend who was Indian herself decided to show me some of the more extravagant sari stores, where tailors would proudly display their jewelled, silky, netted or everyday saris and help you into one if you wanted to try before you bought. I found another local tailor who gave me a great deal and I purchased a royal red silk sari for a bargain price of $30!
One thing I didn’t expect to see so often in this ancient, spice-laden world were bakeries! Bakeries are unexpectedly common and the delights you’d be lucky to try included ‘egg puffs’ which were spicy morsels of crisp, flaky puff pastry which included curried onion and a boiled egg within. So good. My favourite bakery treat was probably the dark, rich and moist plum cakes studded with green and red glacé cherries. A most memorably stressful day involved two separate 5kg birthday cakes from two entirely distant cake stores for one of our volunteers on a stinking hot day in an overpriced rickshaw. What a lucky girl. The majority of southern Indian regions are vegetarian but local restaurants also serve chicken and mutton depending on their customer demands.
Our lovely, cheery and at times outright adorable housekeeper Sujetha would cook up an array of dishes with a multitude of ingredients; a kind of rotating menu. This usually involved a sambar – a soupy one-pot wonder laden with curry leaves, mustard seeds, coriander root, curry powder, yellow split peas, root vegetables, a range of other spices and flavourings and at least THREE green chillies. The less you told her to put, the more she revelled in the idea of more is more. Ouch, if it wasn’t for the accompanying half kilo or so of rice and chapatti to soak up the mouth-tingling sambar, my heartburn would probably have been a hundred times worse. On the side, she’d make an equally-as-hot carrot or beetroot pickle which was somewhat a nice respite for your burning palate. To my disdain, restaurants were similar with their heavy-handed use of green chilli. Our local joints included two bustling spots in Bagalore, just a half-hour bus ride from our village. The first specialised in their $1 veg thali – a large metal tray with small veg-based curries and sambars with a side of basmati rice and some fresh, crisp pappadum. It was like a lucky dip – some days you’d breathe a sigh of relief at the mild nature of your meal and other times you’d want to throw a tantrum like a hungry child at just how eye-tearingly hot this damn meal was. Fun times. But really, I was pretty impressed at my sudden increase for chilli tolerance when I had no choice. The annoying part is, as soon as I got home, I lost all remnants of that superpower.
The second eatery we only discovered halfway through our stay, and boy were we glad we found out about this one. It was a much more adventurous place to dine due to their interesting flavour combinations and condiments. A veg meal here was also around a dollar but you’d also get a chewy, freshly made parotha – a bit like a roti but less buttery – alongside rice, a perfectly balanced capsicum chutney and a refreshingly mild sambar all served on a banana leaf. The biryani with chicken and egg here was also pretty spot on for flavour, not overpowering with heat and a deftly balanced spice profile.
What amazed me was how different my experience of Indian food was growing up in Australia. Here we mainly come across Westernised northern-influenced Indian food with thick, oily sauces and naan alongside lukewarm samosas. Within Bangalore, my eyes opened up to the kind of skill and understanding of flavours local Indian restaurants required which spoke of their regional influences, how talented the cooks were and just how hospitable the Indian culture is. This is not to say North Indian food isn’t equally as delicious, but the fragrant, tomato-based butter chicken, gently flavoured saag and moreish aloo gobi I tasted throughout various areas were nothing like their Australian counterparts.
Gradually we’re moving towards authenticity and complexity of flavour within Indian cuisine which is definitely a positive step in the right direction. This post has been the smallest of glimpses into what I discovered experiencing life in India. So what I guess I’m really saying is, regardless of your past experiences or lack of understanding of this intriguing, multifarious nation, give India a chance to take your breath away and keep you coming back for more. I know I will be.