I’ve been back in California for the last couple months to help my family out, so I don’t have any chaotic India stories to post. I decided to write anyway so that this site doesn’t look completely abandoned, and to let everyone know what my plans are for the rest of the year. I will return to India on June 28th because I have a dog/housesitting job lined up for the beginning of July. Karthik and I moved across the city just before I left Chennai, and this job is near our old apartment, so Karthik and I will be living across town from each other. The job ends in late July so I’ll be staying in our new apartment for the last week of July and the first week of August. I only spent a few days in the new apartment, and that was just enough time to scrub away all of the gecko poop and facial hair left by the charming previous occupant. So I’m excited to see what the apartment looks like now that Karthik has been living in it for a couple of months. I’m even more excited that I’ll only be in India for a month and a half this time. As soon as I return to California in August I have to pack up all of the winter clothes I left behind and set out for Montana. I just received my acceptance letter from the University of Montana Western which was my first and only choice. I didn’t apply anywhere else because this is the only university in the country that uses a block plan which means I will be taking one class at a time. I will go to the same class every day of the week during the condensed semesters. This format worked really well for me during summer school at Sacramento City College, hopefully that continues after I transfer. I’m disappointed that Chennai never grew on me. Maybe it would have if I had stayed a year or two, but the helplessness I’ve felt while living there has motivated me to continue pursuing my educational goals (bachelor’s in Biology and hopefully a master’s in Public Health). I realized pretty quickly that Chennai wouldn’t be a good place for me to attend university and I would always feel like an outsider. I have a strong feeling that Dillon, Montana will be a better fit or at least a very different adventure.
Karthik and I decided that it was time to invest in a microwave so we don’t have to light the stove and stand in front of it with the fan off so the flame doesn’t go out every time we want to reheat some leftovers. Before yesterday we’d only used it to make idlis once because the power for the whole apartment tends to go out every time we switch it on. We got some nice mushrooms from Big Basket the day before yesterday so I decided stuffed mushrooms would be a good way to test out the Grill function on the microwave. Big Basket also had a gluten-free flour mix for making rotis so we had that with the mushrooms and tapioca chips for a discombobulated but delicious dinner last night.The tapioca chips don’t really require a recipe. Just slice them, heat some olive oil in a frying pan and throw them in with some rosemary. Then flip them, pull them out of the oil and salt them. So here’s the recipes for the rotis and stuffed mushrooms. The stuffed mushrooms are loosely based on this recipe.
After a good, frog-free (I scooped it up with a tray and a loofah and put it outside in a bush) night’s sleep we went for an early morning walk. It was too far to walk into town so we just explored the hotel grounds. There was a steep hill behind the parking lot with a trail that looked like it had only been maintained by the wildlife. The trail came to a dead-end behind the hotel so we doubled back until we reached some wide, stone steps. This new trail hooked around the hotel back towards our porch that faced the pool. We stopped for a while on the rock outcropping that towered above the pool to appreciate the soft, early morning light and waves of fog swirling through the valley.The path then curved away from the hotel to a road that ran beneath the drop off of the lawn area. We followed it and found a small garden perched on the steep hillside. This step garden was filled with eggplants, peppers, radishes, and pumpkins, each plot marked with a little misspelled sign.
I’ve dreamt of visiting a hill station since I first came to India in May of last year. The cooler weather, the orchards, tea plantations, and hiking trails made them seem like the perfect contrast to the congestion of Chennai. We set out on the morning of March 12th bound for Yelagiri. Being the closest hill station to Chennai it seemed like a practical weekend trip. About 2 hours into the 4 hour drive to Yelagiri we made the considerably less practical decision to add a few extra hours on to our drive and aim for Yercaud instead. I had spent the whole week researching hotels and restaurants and activities in Yelagiri. I reviewed all of that suddenly useless information in my head as we charged towards a much bigger hill station that I knew nothing about.
Whatever lay ahead of us I was just glad to be on our way. The morning had gotten off to a rocky start when the person we had hired to drive us canceled due to a family emergency. He arranged for a new driver to come and collect us but Karthik and I felt unsure because we’d never met him before and we’d be spending a lot of time together. We debated canceling the trip because financially it hadn’t made much sense to begin with. We hemmed and hawed for about 45 minutes and eventually just got tired of discussing and loaded our stuff into the car.
I just want to make a short post about nothing in particular.
You may have noticed that my post about DakshinaChitra had no pictures at all which is strange for a post about art, architecture, and museums. Let me assure you that I took tons of excellent pictures that day. They only didn’t make it in to the post because part of the $1 card reader that I bought at a Japanese grocery store got permanently lodged in the USB port of my laptop. Laptop might even be a strong word to describe my poor little gadget at this point. I have a 3 year old Windows Surface tablet that only supports Internet Explorer and is so glitchy that it is, essentially, an enormous, fragile calculator. It was magnificent in its day when very few people had laptops with touch screens but giant, inconvenient calculators with touch screens really doesn’t make any sense. Anyway, I took all of the pictures at the museum with a grown-up camera instead of my phone so now, with no card reader or functional USB port, I have no way to access them. I thought about moving the pictures over directly from the camera but it turns out I would need to download some software from the CD that came with the camera. My laptop doesn’t have a CD reader nor does it support the software that can be downloaded from the Canon website. So, for now at least, you’ll all just have to take my word that the pictures are excellent.
I had to wait a while to write this post because the day we went to the heritage museum was just one of those days for me. It was the kind of day I suspect all expats in India experience once in a while. The kind of day when the divide between expats and locals seems so wide and cavernous that I wonder how we successfully coexist in the same country. When my mantra “it’s different but not wrong” just doesn’t cut it. The other day was by no means the worst I have experienced but it was bad enough to make me postpone writing the post because I didn’t have a single positive word to write about my adoptive city. Almost every day I see dogs with deep sores where people have beaten them with rocks, I’ve seen cars and motorcycles accelerate towards and try to run over stray dogs, I’ve seen a man lying dead in the street after being stuck by a car. In all of these cases people just walk by as if it was normal and nothing was wrong. Sometimes I feel suffocated by the apathy and indifference here. Sometimes I start to think I should organize a beach clean up and then that ever-present apathy rears its head and I remember that the houses along the beach dump their raw sewage right onto the sand and realistically the beach would be back to its normal trash covered self within a week.
The day before yesterday Karthik and I went to the Museum Theater to see the play Six Characters in Search of an Author. I was sure everything would go well when the cab dropped us off even though the journey to the theater had a rough start. Our cab had just turned the corner from our cul-de-sac onto a busier street when a motorcycle failed to navigate the tiny space between us and on coming traffic. His bike began rocking violently. One second it looked like he had it under control, like he was regaining his balance and the next it looked like he was going to skid underneath one of the cars. Luckily he didn’t wind up beneath the car and only bumped along the side of our cab. He wasn’t wearing a helmet so I jumped out to make sure he hadn’t been injured but the driver motioned to me and told Karthik in Tamil to have me return to my seat. The last time I was in a car accident in India our driver threatened to stab the other with a screw driver so I wasn’t opposed to returning to the car. As I watched Karthik, our driver, and the man on the motorcycle inspect the damage, two small children meandered into the fray and smiled and waved at me. I figured if they could be right in the middle of things so could I. The driver asked why I was out again and I said it was too hot in the car. He offered to turn on the AC but I said no, that would be wasteful. It seemed like the man on the motorcycle was dazed so I asked Karthik if he had a head injury but Karthik said the guy was just really high. Despite being high and confused he exchanged information, handed over some money for the damage, and rode off. Our driver insisted on taking the car straight to the mechanic so we waited on the side of the road for another cab.
I have not had an easy time finding gluten-free food in India so I’ve decided to start keeping track of the best vegetarian and gluten-free restaurants and recipes I come across. There are a few obstacles that I have to overcome when I cook for myself here: 1. My apartment, like most Indian households, has no oven 2. Ingredients that I’m familiar with have to be imported so are generally pretty expensive 3. Pre-made gluten-free foods like bread, pizza dough/crusts, and crackers are, to the best of my knowledge, non-existent here 4. While most ingredient lists on food packaging are in English, they frequently use a Tamil or Hindi word for grains or spices so it can be difficult to determine whether or not something contains gluten
At home my go-to meal when it’s hot outside and I don’t want to stand in front of a stove is a salad but it became obvious early on that finding a salad in Chennai would be a struggle. Many restaurants have “salad” on the menu but it only consists of sliced cucumbers and carrots. No lettuce, no nuts or seeds, no dressing. I tried once to make my own salad but lettuce is so hard to find I had to use greens similar to collard greens. It was delicious but didn’t satisfy my salad cravings. I recently found a list online of The Best Salad Bars in Chennai and, while they weren’t salad bars like we have in the US that allow you to pick your own toppings, they were all restaurants with real salads so I was ecstatic.
I’ve taken some real steps forward, over the past few days, towards acclimating to my new environment. I’ve walked to the grocery store alone twice. First during the day while Karthik was in Bangalore and then a second time at night just because. That may seem like a really small step and in the US it would be pretty insignificant but India is different. I didn’t get lost or hit by a motorized vehicle either time so I consider it a victory.
For weeks my only real human interaction was with Karthik and our maid but our maid doesn’t speak a word of English and I only know a swear word in Tamil. Then yesterday, I made some new friends who are also expats. One of the women is an American married to an Indian man and it was nice to talk to someone who understands the struggles and joys of navigating life in a new culture and a cross cultural relationship. Both of my new expat friends have taken up driving here and seem generally independent so I have renewed hope in my ability to eventually figure all this out.
Yesterday Karthik booked a cab to take us to San Thome and this time we actually made it there. The traffic was awful again but we muddled through. There was a service being held when we arrived so we wandered around the cobblestone path that wound around the church and connected with the other buildings on the grounds. Everyone was required to remove their shoes to enter the buildings so we stored them away in the little cubbies and headed for the museum. The museum was more amusing than awe-inspiring. It was a dusty little room filled with rubble left over from the old church that once occupied the same land but was torn down in the 1800’s. The chunks of stone had paper labels printed with descriptions like “Large stone receptacle” and no explanation of the purpose it had served in the old church. The relics of three saints were the only objects in the museum that hinted at the importance of the church. I’ve since learned that part of the spear used to kill St. Thomas is housed in that museum but without any label to identify it I really don’t think I could find it even if I returned.