Monday, July 24, 2017

India



When I first started writing about my travels, I always pictured it getting easier to pen down my ideas about these different places across the globe. As I go along, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. No amount of adjective riddled word splatter on paper can ever replace or mimic the experience or excitement or fear of stepping onto the tarmac of a new place for the first time. The world is full of never-ending surprise. India has been one of the hardest and most rewarding yet.

Travel is, rest assured, an addiction of mammoth and confusing proportion. Enough to justify the morbid hangover of a 43-hour travel day and a harsh come down at the end. Enough so to justify hardly ever sleeping in your own bed or cooking in your own kitchen or enjoying the comforts of your own bathroom (this can be a big one, depending on where you are). Even now, sitting at the beginning of this headache of a transit day, I find myself browsing flight prices to Cairo and Barcelona and Seattle, and on and on.

 Visiting with new friends in Goa.

India is an exuberant contradiction of emotions, sounds, smells, flavors, and identity. It’s shockingly beautiful, pungently effervescent, scary as all hell (mostly due to the truly terrifying power lines, massive holes in the sidewalks, and gasp inducing driving habits) peaceful, and delicious. I have never in my life shoved so much food into my stupid American face. I’ve eaten very little meat since I’ve been here. As I’ve heard so many times before, the cliché stands true and proud, the dishes here stand strongly on their own without meat. As far as flavor goes, I have hardly noticed its absence.

New York still holds my heart strongly in its grasp. It’s the best and most diverse food city I’ve ever been to. I don’t expect these thoughts to change, but India has without a doubt become my number one food destination in the world. I knew it would be good, but I had no concept of just how much surprise and delight its secrets and flavors would deliver.  It is no surprise that after 89 years of British rule, the most coveted cuisine in the UK comes straight from Indian roots. 

I would eat until I was full, continue until my food was gone, and then I would go eat somewhere else. Every dish stands in sharp contradiction. It can seem all the same to a fresh, uneducated palate. Yet it is all very different, every time, without fail. Every bite brings a daze, you kind of float away, worries and cares all gone, your right hand stuffed deep in the slightly too hot mound of rice, you take the tea spicier and spicier every morning, the initially off-putting smells become a comfort, a way of life. I wonder how entrenched I am in it, if people will tell me that I smell strange and unfamiliar when I arrive home. I can’t decipher anymore, my olfactory is either crushed or, finally, truly alive. I know which way I’m leaning.

New Delhi is an absolute madhouse. I arrive late at night and take a pre-arranged taxi to my hotel. Taxi scams from foreign airports are plentiful across the world. I book ahead whenever I can. The city seems to go on forever and ever. Sleeping families line the streets at every twist and turn. It’s sweltering. The heat is a shock as I first step out of the airport. I’m only here for one night. Right away, I’m just fine with that plan. It’s astonishing that a city like this functions on any kind of successful level. I’m typically not claustrophobic, but the sheer quantity of people becomes quickly overwhelming. I’ve heard before that Delhi is a culture shock even for the most seasoned travelers. That is no joke. I’m off to the beach.

Goa is a relief from the madness of one of the most populace and over crowded cities on the planet. I stay a few nights at the Panjim Inn in Panjim in Central Goa. It’s a sprawling old 19th century home. Beautiful colonial charm dons the bedrooms and common areas. The included breakfast is a wonderful surprise of fresh fruit, dals, fresh eggs to order, juices, teas, coffee, and just about anything else you could ask for.

I head North to the small beach town of Mandrem and find a wonderful bungalow resort called Jamboree Creek. I end up staying a bit longer than I had intended. This tranquil spot is the total opposite of everything I’ve seen so far. Simple wooden bungalows line a pretty garden and swimming pool. Monsoon season is hitting and I’m the last person at the resort for the season. The hospitality here is open and loving. The resort sits a few minutes walk from the beach and is surrounded by beautiful jungle roads and a small and wonderful community. It’s just what I needed. It feels incredible to stand on a beach all alone in a country of over 1.3 billion people.

And then the real magic of my trip began. A 14-hour train journey (in addition to a 4 hour delay) takes me to the South Indian state of Kerala on the Malabar Coast. I will spend a week at the garden, homestay, and cooking school; The Pimenta Kerala.

 Fabric Maker

I’m weary, exhausted even. I have some kind of base expectation, it’s impossible not to. And then I pull up to the entrance of the garden home stay, and all is well in life. I will spend the next week here diving into the cuisine of India. The food that I love so much.

 Beet Root Soup

The estates proprietor, Jacob, has poured every ounce of his passion into this magnificent property and program. This is not a multi-day cooking class. It is a fully immersive Keralan culinary adventure; it’s a dive head first into understanding the cuisine of the region, it is, without doubt, the exact experience I was searching for. This week isn’t solely about preparing and eating food, but really understanding it in an intimate way. Jacob is highly in touch with his community and where his food comes from. He makes you understand the process of food and how it gets from creation all the way to your plate and fingers. I see the gardens, the markets, and the food preparation factories. I begin to understand the importance of knowing and respecting the ingredients to a level of great care and grace. I surprise myself with progress and compassion for what I am doing. Failure does not exist on these grounds, only advancement and enlightenment.

Thali

Part of me says that Jacob would be right at home in New York City contending for James Beard Awards and Michelin Stars. The rest of me knows that he’s just too good to ever care about such silly accolades. The reward is in the process. The Pimenta Kerala understands that to an enlightened and beautiful level. The week is, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding of my life.


India ends up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The culture is maddeningly complicated and beautiful, almost as if the entire country were worthy of being declared a museum. I’m freshly charmed around every corner. I’m lost in deep thought; I question my motives and my life deeply. As with everywhere, I walk away with more questions than answers. It’s a perpetual cycle that I’m perfectly fine with. The reward of visiting a place like this will stay with me until my dying days. I can only hope that some of you reading this will get on a plane to somewhere and do the same.

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