Posts Tagged ‘Food’

Christmas in India: Part five

January 16, 2011

After two hours in the sun at Suraburdi Meadows, it’s safe to say I was warmer than I’d ever been on Christmas Day.

In spite of the relentless December heat, the complex where we spent the day was the nicest I’d seen in Nagpur. Nowhere else in India had I seen a place like Suraburdi, with acres of closely mowed, cleanly manicured green grass. As our bus drove in around noon, a beautiful blue lake sprawled out before us. Beyond the main compound, dozens of cottages sat spaced far apart, one in which we would be staying in the hours before our performance.

Christmas dinner was remarkably unremarkable. Other than some chicken biryani for which I was not tempted to take seconds, nothing on my plate resembled anything that would be there for the American version. In fact, nothing about our meal resembled the cozy American version. Instead of gathering around a table in a well-heated home, we sat bunched in a row, our legs dangling over the edge of a makeshift veranda. The enemy wasn’t bitter cold, but searing heat. Unlike our Thanksgiving dinner in Coimbatore, there was nothing emotional about our Christmas Day buffet. The ice cream was good though.

You’d think with our performance so imminent, we’d be harried to practice at the first available opportunity. But India had turned us into professional procrastinators. As we entered our cottage after lunch, it was with four hours and about 1000 square feet to spare. With no supervision, we had no intention of getting to work anytime soon.

We found different ways to enjoy each others company before our instructors arrived. Some of us broke out our Christmas presents, wasting no time in putting them to use. Jakob and I attempted to play (American!) football with one of the many water bottles we’d taken from lunch. Eventually I made my way to the back room with five others and plopped myself in a cozy-looking chair. It was no use resisting the downward pull of my increasingly heavy upper eyelids…

I don’t think I ever fell asleep, although my eyes stayed closed for the better part of an hour. Before four p.m., just a couple hours before show time, I was roused from my half-conscious state.

It was time for our final practice to begin.


I’d been in two plays my senior year of high school, so I knew the atmosphere from the hours before a performance. People pacing, muttering lines under their breath. Makeup being made up. Dance steps being re-stepped. An omnipresent, transparent nervous anxiety as the clock cruelly ticks closer to show time.

Everything was there but the last one as we rehearsed in the cottage together, the imminence of our performance at last upon us. But any tension, if present, was minimal, and the distance between our practice and performance sites was palpable in both distance and time. We had no set to construct, few props to assemble, and Brii was the only one with lines to rehearse. But given the amount of information we’d learned but had yet to commit to memory, I was surprised those final hours weren’t more hectic.

I had two costumes. One was a plain white pajama-kurta with red trim and a triangle-shaped hat that I’d be wearing for the Maharashtran dance. The other was a white dhoti-kurta with a red sash and a white headband for the Bengali dance I’d learned just days before. The pajama-kurta would suffice for the yoga and music portions. I’d wear one kurta over another, and my in-performance costume changes would take seconds. It seemed simple.

Actually, everything we were asked to do seemed simple on its own. It was just when everything came together that everything fell apart.

Our tabla part gave us little trouble, but the copy we’d been promised still hadn’t been given to us. The flutes and drums were still having troubles synchronizing, and our teacher had decided to replace one of Brii’s drums with a porcelain orange sphere, which would change the sound of the drum solo significantly.

And my dances were still a mess – particularly the Bengali dance. Our practice was better than that from the day before, but only marginally. It was lucky I’d be entering the stage behind Jakob and Jordan, as I was far from qualified to lead in this situation. With the three girls still busy applying makeup and jewelry, we rehearsed anyway, but we just couldn’t get our legs, arms and torsos in the right rhythm.

And just like that, it was time to go. With our costumes still in flux, our makeup half-applied, and our dances more demonstrations of disarray than delight, we were rushed out of the cottage and into our cars. My tabla in the trunk and my backpack in hand, we set off for the performance center.

Ready or not, we were coming.



Christmas in India: Part two

January 12, 2011

I have no prevailing fear of rickshaw drivers, but it took until Christmas Eve for me to ride alone in an auto in India.

For five months, I’d gotten around without many rides in the three-wheeled, open-air miniature taxis that are found in abundance across India. My ride to Jakob’s house, where most of us would be congregating before dinner, was uneventful except for the fact it was the first auto-rickshaw I’d taken without a companion (or two or three). Heretofore, my bike had taken care of all my transportation needs in Nagpur, its convenience outweighing its relative slowness (and relative safety).

I was so full of sugar after my two-hour stopover at Jakob’s that I don’t even know why I ate dinner. In addition to the sweets Jakob’s host family had provided, Amanda had brought with her a huge tin of desserts she’d been sent for Christmas. By the time we left Jakob’s, I’d had peanut brittle and Skittles, Indian sweets and Rice Krispie treats, chocolates and chocolate-chip cookies. Our brief meeting had turned into yet another full-fledged food party.

At about 10, I got into Jakob’s car to go to the PC Club for dinner.

And so did 13 other people.

Allow me to put our ride in context before judging us. On the South Tour, some of us were among 18 fit onto a jeep after seeing a Kathakali dance. A couple days before, six girls squeezed into a rickshaw supposed to seat three. All facts that I know will have the parents reading this digging fingernails into their palms.

But that’s all nothing compared to what you’ll see on the streets of India everyday.

Two-wheelers are supposed to be two-seaters, but it’s common to see four people on one moped. I’ve seen rickshaws on national highways carrying over a dozen people. As for city buses, I don’t think there’s any limit on their capacity – you’ll often find them packed with 100 people or more.

As we drove to dinner, we broke out into song. What need was there for a radio? In the course of our 20-minute ride, I think I heard every Christmas song ever written. Everyone but the driver had heard Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, O Christmas Tree, and Jingle Bell Rock. Hoarse, antsy, and considerably more hyper than usual owing to the night’s circumstances, we belted out the lyrics to the songs we knew – and hummed or whistled to the ones we didn’t. My voice was considerably more off-key than the others but what did that matter on a night like this?

The front windows were kept open as we drove. Although most of our faces were obscured, our voices rang through the open windows anyway. I wonder what the people on the streets thought as we passed them by. It was probably the most bizarre Christmas caroling they’d ever heard.

It was certainly nothing like riding alone in an auto.

And I loved it.


But the caroling didn’t end when we got out of the car (with some difficulty, as both finding the handles and refraining from toppling over each other posed problems). No, our Christmas Eve was just beginning.

CP Club is a classy, high-end establishment, the kind of place to which you only go for very special events. The pavilion was decorated for Christmas, with green and red festooned everywhere. We’d barely walked inside when we met Santa Claus – barely five feet tall, with a face and beard that quite literally seemed to be made of plastic. With most of the club situated outdoors, our voices didn’t carry that far – a fact which mattered when we discovered they had a karaoke machine.

Playing Christmas songs.

We rushed towards the microphone before we were shown to our seats. The first song I remember hearing was I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. For some reason, the word “kissing” had been changed to “tickling” in half the verses. Even for India’s high standards of censorship, that seemed a bit much.

But it was music. Christmas music. And that’s exactly what we needed.

Why was it so much easier to broadcast our voices in front of a couple hundred people on Christmas Eve than it would be to showcase our talents the next day? Some of us were more willing to come onstage than the others, but there was no pressure to perform here, no stage fright. One of a group of about eight, my back was to our audience as we sang, and most of the crowd was paying more attention to their immediate conversations than they were to us. There wasn’t a single butterfly in my stomach as I sang Jingle Bells, my voice alternating awfully between the two octaves in which I was capable of producing sounds.

Christmas karaoke came to an end, giving way to music videos for Ke$ha, Lady Gaga and Madonna songs. We snacked on cotton candy and popcorn, putting off dinner even as midnight drew closer. Our dinner was an appropriate one: instead of individual plates, we ordered several dishes and offered everyone at least a bite of each.

After a month of eating like this on the South Tour, how could our Christmas dinner have been any different?


South Tour: Ooty to Coimbatore – How we celebrated Thanksgiving in India

December 23, 2010

25 Nov

COIMBATORE: I have not eaten turkey since coming to India.

Every potato I’ve eaten here has been unmashed.

And when it comes to dessert, you’re certainly not going to find pumpkin pie.

My Thanksgiving dinner consisted of chicken noodle soup, rice, noodles, daal, carrots and tomatoes, spicy potatoes, and a 4 oz. cup of vanilla ice cream. I’m not going to lie: the food was quite bad. At least the vanilla cake, with “Happy Thansgiving” (sic) spelled out on top, capped our meal nicely.

It was the least traditional and most memorable Thanksgiving dinner of my life.

Of the 18 students on the tour, seven are from the U.S., meaning today’s holiday was one not celebrated by most of us on the tour. Some of the students from Europe and Canada were familiar with Thanksgiving, but had never celebrated it. The hotel staff around us, of course, was about as familiar with the holiday as they were with lemon meringue pie – in other words, not at all.

Nonetheless, it was an occasion for all of us to put on our best clothes, eat a nice meal together, and celebrate.

Thanksgiving is a family holiday. Not once in my life do I believe I’ve missed Turkey Day dinner with my family – normally at my aunt’s house. The weather is usually close to freezing, I’m in the midst of a five-day break from school, and I get to see my close family gathered together for the first time in months. It’s an opportunity to relax and enjoy the company of people I already know but haven’t seen for some time.

Tonight, everyone at the dinner table was between 15 and 20. None of the blood that flowed through our veins was shared. The amount of time we’d known each other varied from ten days to several months, but in all cases it was less than a year. Before eating, we held hands, went around the circle and said what each was thankful for. Everyone found different ways of saying it, but what we showed thanks for always came back to the same thing: each other.

My journals, too, keep coming back to the same thing each time I put pen to paper. Because each day I realize even better why my friends are my friends. It’s like having three families – one in Illinois, one in Nagpur, and one in this hotel in Coimbatore. They’re not interchangeable, and certainly not replaceable, but each group is important to me – in different ways, for different reasons.

Spending Thanksgiving abroad doesn’t make me sad so much as it makes me happy. Because this trip has helped me realize how much I have to be thankful for, at home and abroad alike.


P.S. Black Thunder Water Park, unlike most of the events on this tour, was merely good, not amazing. The bumper cars, however, were well worth the ride.

South Tour: Bangalore, Hassan, Belur, Halebid & Mysore – It’s not my eyes that are sore

December 20, 2010

22 Nov

The Maharaja’s Palace, in Mysore

MYSORE: I woke up today with my stomach in pain.

That statement certainly worried some people more than others. It was a routine stomachache, nothing more, although it didn’t help that I’d only gotten four hours of sleep the night before. Food poisoning had afflicted me about three times since coming to India, so I knew the symptoms well.

I asked my roommates how they were feeling. Jordan, too, was sick. From several conversations in the hallway, I gleamed that about a third of us were legitimately sick. Another third, like me, had some symptoms of food poisoning. We’d most certainly eaten something bad yesterday.

I normally eat a larger breakfast than any of the other students. Breakfast is the only meal included in the cost of the tour every day, so I normally take 2-3 plates of South Indian food. Today, however, I had one piece of toast and two glasses of juice. Throughout the day, I took nothing else more than a bowl of soup, a liter of water, and the largest prasad (food offering) I’d ever taken – enough to fill a plate – but the smallest dinner I’ve taken on the tour.

Being sick is by far the worst part of being an exchange student in India.

From our night halt in a Hassan hotel, we visited two impressive stone temples in Belur and Halebid, decorated so as to leave no part blank. As nice as they were, the architecture was similar for both. As we approached the second, some of us groaned, unwilling to depart the bus. Had we been healthy, none of us would have complained. As it was, we got out and spent some time with our hands on our knees, sitting, or leaning against pillars for support. A lot of us slept on today’s bus ride.

I woke up a few kilometers from our hotel in Mysore. Although it was raining, the city still looked beautiful. Like Hyderabad and Bangalore, Mysore is very modern; I saw no sidewalks used for walking, but the traffic moved smoothly and I could see an abundance of Western stores. Mysore somehow made me think of England, even though I’ve never seen the country.

I was rushed through the Maharaja’s Palace – given barely an hour this evening to see it before it closed. Worse, cameras weren’t allowed inside. My free audio tour headset was broken too.

Nonetheless, it was among the most beautiful manmade structures I’ve ever been in – just behind Wrigley Field, the Eiffel Tower, and the Statue of Liberty. From outside, its majesty was apparent. The inside was full of rooms so detailed, decorated and colorful I could have stayed for hours…days…weeks… It would have been nice to live there.

Mysore also looks exquisite at night. Our view from the hills above the city was spectacular. Although about half the size of Nagpur, the city seemed much bigger when lit up in all directions.

I got a good vibe from Mysore. My stomach doesn’t seem to be bothering me as much anymore now.

The two previous days featured some nice attractions – an animal park in Bangalore where I snapped pictures of tigers and bears (but no lions), a flower garden wherein plants of varying sizes combined to form jaw-dropping views, and a Jain temple atop a hill not unlike Golkunda and Sinhagad that took over 600 steps to climb, the world’s largest monolithic statue – Gomateshwara – at the top.

However, the theme of the last three days was, and remains, the people. The past three nights have featured “parties” in hotel rooms lasting late into the night – the reason our sleep has been so limited and I’ve written nothing from Bangalore or Hassan. Almost every waking moment is spent with the other students, and over half of those are filled with interesting conversations, some on which I can’t elaborate. Suffice to say we’ve learned a lot about each other.

I’m going to miss everybody when this tour is over. Have we really just spent a week together?


Click to enlarge

“It’s kind of like Christmas in India” and other Indian festivities

September 13, 2010

I’ve come to the conclusion that three things are more important than anything else in understanding Indian culture: food, family, and festivals.

While I plan on giving food a post of its own sometime, I’d like to talk about the latter two of those, since all three are inseparable from Indian culture, and all three were a big part of this past weekend.

I was told earlier that the reason Rotary places us with host families is because the family is at the heart of every culture. And they’re completely right about that with India.

Prajyot and his parents came into town from Pune on Friday, and this weekend has had a certain energy that hadn’t been present for a while. Since Mayank left for Michigan, life had been a little quiet; the energy in the house had lessened after the months-long buildup of preparing for his trip came to a climax with his departure. We weren’t exactly sad, but things felt a little stale.

Festivals bring flavor to life in India, so things never feel stale for long.

Here’s a sampling of the celebrations we’ve had since Independence Day:

August 24: Raksha Bandham

I was confused the first time I heard Mayank refer to Saket as his “brother”. Since they have the same grandparents but different parents, that makes them cousins, right?

But “cousins” are considered brothers and sisters here, which means I, an only child in America, have several “brothers” and “sisters” in Nagpur and Pune. Our extended family here is so large I’ve lost track of all the aunts and uncles, and I don’t know most of their names. When addressing an elder brother, we’re supposed to say “dada”, which means Saket is “Saket-dada”.

Raksha Bandham is about the relationship between brothers and sisters. One of my “sisters” tied three bands – rakhi – around my wrist to symbolize our relationship, and did the same for Saket, Mayank and Vedant (a 12-year-old “brother” who lives nearby and visits almost every day). In return, the brothers offer gifts to complete the ceremony and vow to always protect the sister.

Of course, we had a feast as well.

September 2: Dahi Handi (Krishna’s birthday)

Since I attended college like any other day, I didn’t realize anything was happening until I heard the celebration that night.

My host mom, Saket-dada and I went to the nearby field, where over 100 people were gathered around a long rope stretched 15 feet high. Tied to the rope was a pot filled with buttermilk. As drums were rhythmically pounded, water and pink powder were thrown into the crowd. About a dozen people closed in beneath the pot and formed a human pyramid in an attempt to break the pot.

Of the many attempts, only about three or four times did a group succeed. I kept my distance and stayed dry, but Saket contributed to some of the successful efforts, earning him several buckets of water splashed on him.

I’m not sure what it all had to do with Krishna’s birth, but it was a lot of fun to watch.

September 10: Eid ul-Fitr

Our family didn’t celebrate this, since our family is Hindu, but this Muslim holiday was celebrated around the world and India was no exception. Eid marks the end of the Islamic holy month Ramadan, which here is called “Ramzan”. (Romanization of many of these holidays, by the way, can be inconsistent.)

September 11 – present: Ganesh Chaturthi

This is the holiday that’s confused me the most.

I usually don’t hear about these holidays until the day before or the day of, so they’ve lacked the buildup and suspense of holidays I’m used to, like Easter or Thanksgiving. It’s probably because this is my first time celebrating them. Ganesh is no exception.

For ten days, people celebrate the Hindu Lord Ganesha, probably the most recognized of the Hindu deities. It’s impossible not to immerse in the festivities – drumbeats from a parade thundered through our living room the other night and we’ve already had two well-attended feasts with friends and family.

Now we’re in the process of decorating part of our dining/ sitting room. Where before sat a swing-like bench there is now a space for an idol of Ganesha, which comes in tomorrow morning. The surrounding frame is decorated with leaves, flowers, and several kinds of lights in many colors. It’s not finished yet, and it already looks quite flashy.

It’s kind of like an Indian Christmas tree.

Actually, it’s kind of like Christmas in India.

Seven days to go. There’s much more to come. And we haven’t even had Diwali or Holi yet…


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