SO MUCH RICE. Kerala is known for having every single dish be full of rice and coconut (considering how many palm trees they have here it’d be ridiculous not to use them so often). Every day three meals a day I eat a variation of rice and spicy vegetables, along with some chipati at lunch and dinner (think Indian tortilla). Every day. Every meal. No exceptions. For breakfast the rice is prepared differently, as a spongy rice cake a little smaller than your fist, or as a rice pancake (it looks and has the texture of the cooked whites of an egg– actually pretty good). Lunch and dinner is plain old rice and then a chipati. The vegetables change every day which is good, they use some that we don’t have in America and I’m kinda sad I won’t be able to cook them. They also spice every dish with green chile. Now this is the type of chile whose oil coats absolutely everything in your mouth. First it burns your mouth, then your lips, and when you swallow you feel it coating your esophagus all the way down to below your sternum. I’d say I’ve gotten pretty used to it (surprising considering how I hated spicy food), and I’m wondering if I’ll enjoy my first food back without it or think it’s bland. We will see. What I will definitely miss about Indian food is the freshness of it. I have maybe had 2 items that have been packaged since being here, and it’s been bread in Varanasi and some biscuits for tea here. I know in America a lot of what we do to food is for convenience, but I think we are missing out on the benefits and general tastiness of freshly harvested food. We add so much extra to our food, just to make it easier and I think that that is another area in which we think we are being brilliant but just making things more complicated and less good. After coming here, I realize we do that often: we think we’re making something better just by making it more complicated.
So, now that I’m settling into a schedule here at IAD there’s a lot less exciting things to write about. My days are basically the same: work 9-430 ish and then chill in my room all night. The only thing to break this up is Sundays, because I get to go home with one of the girls each weekend because they have the day off.
My first weekend I went home with Amrutha, she lives with her mom, dad, and pregnant sister-in law. Here they treat guests very well, and insist on you eating food until your stomach rips at the seams. She also added ayurvedic drugs to my water (I honestly have no clue what they were supposed to do) and it didn’t necessarily make the water taste bad, just wrong. Because your brain knows that it shouldn’t smell or have a taste, so when it does you just feel extremely uncomfortable drinking it. I solved this problem by not breathing through my nose when I drank (because I guess the drug is actually tasteless), and then quickly afterwards I would take a bit of food so it ended up not tasting out of character. (The drugs would also sit in your mouth, so even if you were done drinking, if you breathed through your nose you could still smell it). Overall interesting experience. Also, as people know the water isn’t safe to drink here so people without filters (basically everyone) have to boil the water. Now, trying to soothe the burn from the chile I mentioned earlier with warm water is probably one of the least refreshing things ever.
We ate dinner in a traditional Keralan style- on a banana leaf! Speaking of bananas, the bananas here for some reason are so much better than those in America. I can’t explain it but the taste is ever so slightly different and it’s great. It could be that they are so fresh or maybe they’re just a slightly different kind. Anyone who knows me knows I like my bananas absolutely spotless and slightly green at the tips. Here They’re all covered in brown spots and they are still absolutely amazing. I’m definitely gonna miss these bananas.
So my day with Amrutha consisted of me meeting some of her closest friends (who spoke good enough English that we could discuss things like our election, and let me tell you all other countries also think we’re crazy). We visited a resort on the Atlantic and they gave me a full tour, probably because they thought I could afford it or tell my friends haha. We stopped in at their cute little gift shop- and here I will give you a quick example of how cheap things are here. I got a pair of ruby earring for 15$. Granted they aren’t flawless cuts or anything like that but still.
Alright quick tangent about the monetary system here. Just to give you guys an idea. So, it’s 1$ = 66 ruppees. If I would work a 12 hour shift at my summer swim club, I would make the same amount of money (by exchange) as these girls I’m working with do in a month (and that’s as a doctor in a health facility, though this is only her third month working here). Yes I said a month. However, though they make a lot less here, things are also a lot cheaper (as my example above implies). You can get a full meal here for about 1.50$ or a little less. Buying your own vegetables to make are even cheaper. However, they still are generally poorer even though things cost so much less. People are constantly joking: man I should come over and work in America for just a month- I’d be rich! And to their standards they would be.
Alright so back to our day. We also went to a fishing dock to look at the fishing boats, and then to her clinic that she works at on Sundays, and then we stopped at another beach. The beach had a lot of trash, but surprisingly not as much as I thought it would. What surprised me the most I think was that no one was at the beach except a clean up project group. And I guess it was so weird because in the US the beaches are always crowded and there are always people out and about or swimming, so it seemed so empty. Also, the waves looked like so much fun to swim in. Like not big enough to surf but fantastic for body boarding, if you can picture it. But as soon as I started to just put my feet in (not to swim or anything) Amrutha pulled me back like it was dangerous, and although I know there’s a current and everything, I realized how either stupid and reckless we are, or how sheltered and fearful they are. I know it’s polluted too, but I was so sad that swimming in the ocean was not going to be a possibility here.
I think one of my favorite things from the day was just riding on the back of her moped through town with her. I loved the warm air and the breeze, and the landscaping here is just absolutely beautiful and awesome (in the actual sense of the word). It feels so real, unlike the manicured lawns of similar Floridian houses that I usually see. Here the animals and plants just do what they want, and the people respect that and live with it. They don’t chop down or cut trees because it’s in the way or because it’ll look better, and they just let the animals do what they want. I saw a huge freaking iguana like thing that her dad was excited to point out to me. Probably two feet long or something, just running across their back porch. No big deal.
The next weekend I went to Sweta’s, where she lives with her husband and his dad. It was my birthday that Sunday, so we went to a temple in the morning because that’s what they do here when it’s your birthday. They also got me a cake and this cute little thing. It’s like a plastic flower that has candle wicks on it and it’s closed and then when you light it is sparkles and pops open and starts the Happy Birthday tune. And yes the plastic and fire was not a good mix it melted everywhere and it really needs a new design, but still very cool. And they also had one of those confetti cannons, overall very nice of them and I had a good birthday. Sweta and Amrutha got me another sari for my birthday, it’s so pretty. Although I didn’t know what I was going to do with one sari, let alone two. The faces on it depict the masks worn in a traditional Keralan cultural dance.
I think the most uncomfortable thing from the weekend was that she kept having all these relatives over and she’s like “they all want to talk to you and ask so many questions! But none of them speak English.” So we would just smile and wave at each other and chuckle a little bit and then it was super uncomfortable. And that happened many times. Sweta is from a lower caste than Amritha, so people aren’t as educated and therefore don’t study as much English. Sometimes they could pick up on what I was saying, or communicate a little bit, but mostly it was separate conversations between me and her, and then her and everyone else. I also think that they are scared of messing up and looking dumb, but I can understand quite a bit and just phrases and words are better than awkward silence. Also perfect grammar is rarely important when crossing the language barrier.
Later in the day we went to this zoo, and then a very popular temple in the area that houses the god for poor people (that’s how it was described to me anyway). So it is many people’s, including Sweta’s husband, favorite temple. We had to drive 50 km in an auto rickshaw to get there. If I had to explain an auto rickshaw. It’s like an open smart car on three wheels with the steering mechanism of a moped and the engine of a lawnmower. So that was an interesting drive and took a little less than an hour and a half. The zoo was different than our own in the fact that ours house animals we wouldn’t see in our area, and theirs only houses animals they can find in their area. Granted all the animals are still wild animals in their area, it’s not like they’re domesticated. And we got a nice presentation on the snakes you can find in Kerala and the poisonous ones who have venom that can kill you in seconds- great. At least I know what they look like.
My favorite thing I did with her is cook. I didn’t quite know the processes behind making all the food, and cooking there is so different than how we do it that it was so fun. They just use different type of pans, and different spices, and different vegetables and things like that. So now I know the proper way to cook Indian food and hopefully I can replicate that at home. However, after cooking with her I am absolutely shocked that I have not contracted some deadly disease from the food I’ve been eating. I am 100% serious I have no clue how I haven’t gotten sick yet. Ants are crawling all over their kitchen, and all over ingredients that we will be using. And at home we would freak out and not cook with that, but here they barely even try to swat them away. Food fell on the ground (which I would never attribute the word clean to) and she wouldn’t even wash it off. The counter would be wiped up with a towel that earlier cleaned up rabbit pee, and I was cutting with a knife that was very much rusted. I guess the heat they cook with kills everything? Cause man. This is not sanitary.
And finally, today I got a traditional Indian Panchakarma massage. It’s basically a whole body oil massage. It was very interesting to say the least. And then afterwards you sit in a steam box thing with just your head poking out. And I had to get out after about 5 minutes because I was pretty sure I was well on my way to getting burns on my thighs (no exaggeration), and even after she turned the heat down I was incredibly dizzy. So yeah. Interesting experience.