Fresh out of college and naïve to the 10 month fellowship experience I was about to embark on, I had implement the good ol’ “fake it ‘til you make it” and “try it, you might like it” tactics best learned in college. Basically I had to stumble around in the colors, sounds, and smells of India and hope to God I did not fall flat on my face too hard. But I did and oh boy did I make some blunders. Many of them are disastrously awkward and all of them are comical. So I’d like to tell you a couple because I believe laughing is one of the world’s finest medicines and I’d like to reflect on my journey of realizing that ultimately it will all be alright. If you can relate to any of these stories I hope we commiserate one day over chai or coffee and barrels of laughter. If you can’t quite relate I hope you still enjoy:
Before coming to India, I prided myself on having an iron clad stomach, capable of digesting salad at a Malagasy wedding that had likely been washed with unclean water (while a friend had thrown up later that night) or unknowingly eating cow stomach in Costa Rica. But India humbled me. Over the course of 10 months I had experienced several, some quite painful, bouts of stomach issues, the worst being in the month of January. This month involved a lot of travel, from south to north; and as is an incredible characteristic of India, the differences in culture and traditions was striking from one state to another, food being a strong representative of this. I loved the experiences and the taste of each place, but my bowels were unfortunately thrown to the gauntlet.
Warning – the material you are about to read is quite detailed and may cause aversion to what is stinky or guffaws over what is gross. Consider yourself warned.
For two weeks in two states of India – Jharkhand and Orissa – I had relentless and fiery liquid emit from my sphincter. Besides being obviously uncomfortable it was also rudely ironic to the day’s activities given these weeks were for work in the field (one public health case studies, the other for collecting narratives) and any sort of field work is never ideal zones for such experiences. But I made it! By the grace of God and curd rice, I made it. My last day in Orissa was spent visiting a fellow friend in Bhubaneswar and thankfully the rumbly tummy was starting to subside. So what better way to celebrate than some good ol’ Pani Puri from a street side vendor? I have no doubt a few of you must be cringing now. But my friend and I couldn’t resist the multitude of flavors and foods bathed in seasoned water and smothered in curd.
I took a train the next day to Kolkata. Train food is always a tricky gamble that some, if not most, dare not tempt but out of hunger and exhaustion I happily consumed what they gave. A tidbit of rumbling ensued but for the most part it was an easy ride. Once the train finally arrived I stepped down into a lovely and large station, with architecture boldly bearing the remnants of British presence. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people going here and there. I paused at a pillar, whipped out my phone to order a taxi, and felt the smallest bit of gas wanting to be freed. I let it loose and then stopped mid taxi ordering in shock. Ladies and Gentlemen, in the middle of Kolkata train station and amidst throngs of people, I had shat my pants as a sober adult. Within seconds I composed myself, briskly walked to the public bathroom (where the stench of urine fumigated the air) and changed. So funny story – there were no trashcans in this bathroom or in the train station, for that matter, so I rinsed my soiled underwear and threw them into a small bag and tucked it into a distant as possible area of my duffel. I pulled up my pants and distinctly remember thinking “Well, that’s life” and walked confidently out of the bathroom, poo underwear and all, and went on to the next endeavor.
Lessons learned: don’t play games with your stomach and its fragile western biased E. coli, electrolyte packets are your best friend when traveling, and shit happens but we have to move on and eventually realize we are stronger…or at least have a hilarious story to tell.
Even times spent at home in Kotagiri had moments of absurdity. From day 1, I loved the food in the south of India. The endless possibility of chutney varieties, the warm dosa both soft and crunchy, the tasty sambar, curd rice, and more! Over the 10 months I did my best to try all the variety of South Indian food and I also attempted to make a few things at home. Now I know what you’re thinking – she’s about to tell us how she completely screwed up making India food. But I’m not. I actually made several tasty dishes alongside my dear friend and roommate Pavitra (who is an exceptional cook) and became accustomed to certain kitchen tools that I had never used before. I did screw up when I tried to make a pot of chili (a dish I loved to eat back in the states) and used a pressure cooker to do so.
Do you feel intense anxiety when using a pressure cooker because the whistle blower sounds like a train about to wreck in complete and utter chaos? No, just me? Even with such adverse feelings I still was compelled to use the device because it could cook all foods faster. One night I tried, in vain, to make a chili from scratch (#24hourbeansoak) but the #$%* beans were still not tender. It was almost 10 p.m. and my roommate and I had still not had dinner. So I threw the pot of stew into the dastard pressure cooker and waited for the whistles. They came. I turned off the induction stove and listened for sssssssss sound to stop coming because it is a sure-fire way to know the food has stopped cooking. But the sssssss had become so small and it was past 10 p.m. and we were so hungry and I was so frustrated….so….I grabbed the handles and forced what little pressure was left to open…so…that plan literally backfired.
Bam! Splaaaat! Chili unabashedly exploded across one of the kitchen walls, almost reaching the ceiling, and across the counter on other items. It was a mosaic of piping hot condensed tomatoes, mixed vegetables, and still not yet tender beans (damn it!) across the Pepto-Bismol pink back drop. The amount of luck and relief I felt for the chili not to have exploded in my face – sky high. The amount I was embarrassed and felt like a complete clown – insurmountable. My dear roommate came into the kitchen in shock, did not say a thing, I rushed some barely audible apology, but she was already helping me clean it up. Surprisingly much of our chili was left in the cooker so we did have something to eat, after which we went straight to sleep.
Lessons learned: pressure cookers are legal household weapons, chickpeas take 24-a million hours to prep, and patience is not only a virtue but is sound judgement and should be regarded in any situation.
India has been many wonderful things, life experiences and lessons included. I had fallen on my face (but not burned!) many times, but more often than not I was fortunate to be surrounded by those who cared and laughed with me later and said it was alright. And the greatest lesson I took away is that those who are your friends and truly love you will still love you, even in the midst or aftermath of your complete faux pas. Because at the end of the day we are all weird, smelly, chaotic, and ridiculous beings stumbling our way through this beautiful journey of life.