Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Sentiments of Departing Nabadeep

As I near the end of my summer journey to India I've had time for some reflections, some melancholic some cheerful. Over the space of the last three months I have been delighted, awed, shocked, pleased, interested, exasperated, pissed off and, importantly, informed. Any of you who know me in person will soon learn what it means to have an iron stomach; while I adjusted my innards to dietary  changes you will have to don a similarly iron gastric lining in order to endure persistent unwitting cliches. While I have harbored little sympathy for those refined sob stories narrated daily on the streets of Dublin by people my own age littered across Grafton and Westmoreland Street and my heart of stone rarely spared a thought for the homeless on O'Connell Bridge or Temple Bar, I am undeniably opposed to the exploitation of the victims of circumstance I have seen in Kolkata and, I hope, have been softened to equally worthy causes on the streets of my own home city. My characteristically stoneniness should, at the very least, be critically assessed which, to date, it has never been. If I am to be so unmoved in my relentless dismissal of the human beings whom have made the streets their abode then it is my duty to know why I deem it to be so. And if, in my search for a reason, I find my logic to be failing and the scenarios here and at home to be worthy of similar virtue and care, then I will make amends.

This trip has been unflinching. India is an incredible country, Kolkata is a shocking city. Daily you are repeatedly exposed to events I have taken to titling "a conversation worthy daily event". Everyday the taxi driver will try to rip you off, the sales assistant in a stall will make warm hearted conversation with you, the supermarket staff will find your groceries worthy of uproarious laughter and the kindness of strangers will overwhelm you.

Today was, in essence, no different to any other day in Kolkata, but I feel my fluctuating mood caught the details in grand relief, standing out as silhouettes decorating the backdrop of my imminent return home which, despite my best efforts, I have found hard to prevent my thoughts from fleeing from the present to. Today I woke up about 9am. My teaching partner was calling me to come shopping; we had told our teachers that today we would, in some modicum, return their favor of feeding us all summer long. We walked from our door and jumped into an auto-rickshaw, which took us ten minutes down the road to the market. Or use of autos for this journey is fairly lazy and has become cause for remark amongst the drivers, who chortle every once in a while at our unwillingness to walk. Collecting some veg from the wooden stalls that line the street, enough to feed 5 people for 3 euro, my teaching partner returned to the house to prepare the potatoes while I headed down the road to the supermarket to get the chicken. When we offered to cook a meal for the teachers it wasn't long before we realized how limited we were in terms of meat. India is known for not eating beef, no Hindu seems to eat it. Muslims will not eat pork for religious reasons also, but neither will the Hindus. Pigs are rarely farmed animals in India and their flesh in considered to be parasite infested and unclean. Mutton is actually goat, not sheep and lamb is not popular. That leaves us with chicken or fish, and seeing as I do not know the fish by their names I have not ventured to buy any of the street hawkers. Instead I stuck with reliable, if a little boring, chicken.The chicken was fried, the potato was mashed, and mayo was added to veg to make a creamy addition to the dinner. Whether or not my teachers meant it when they said they loved it, I don't know, but I sure as hell have missed buttery mashed potatoes.

Throughout eating I caught glances of my students making faces at me as I ate my food. Tongues were stuck out and grins pulled. One girl darted her head from one side of a pillar to another from across the room. Simple childishness can really be enough to cheer an exhausted me up. That being said, my energy levels were much higher this morning than they were over the last few weeks, thankfully. The kids received about half an hours teaching without protestation today; after that we were resigned to games of hide and seek and dancing for the next two hours. The end of our afternoon coaching was greeted with demands for "five more games, no uncle ten more games!", which it broke my heart to refuse. The children repeatedly told us that we were not to go home this weekend and to come back on Monday. Initially when starting our placement I felt that one of my biggest issues this summer would be bonding with the children and I put a lot of thought into making my company as fun as possible for them. As much as being a good teacher, I wanted to be a good friend. The preemptive goodbyes today definitely make me feel I was successful in that regard at least.

We went for an omelette and tea for lunch before heading on to the evening coaching center. A side route between two houses leads us down behind the audi service station near our school and out the back of the evening centre. A narrow bumpy path has been across a man made body of water, exposed only due to the high temperatures and low rainfall levels, led to the back of the centre, a small stone shack far from suited to the numbers that cram into it every day. This coaching center has received mixed feelings from me. On the one hand the beauty of the area overwhelms me everyday. The man-made bodies of water litter a simplistic village. Rugged tar mac is outside our door, running onto a narrow concrete path. To the side of the path a pair of simple backless stone bneches border one of the ponds. A little further along the path a wife and husband sell fried foods from a stall outide their home. In one of the ponds, along a dirt path between tall grass a pond, more symmetrical than the others men often wash and bathe on the brick steps into the water. Our teacher told me it is clean rainwater and regularly used to swim in. It is about 50 meters long and as wide. Today, when the sun began to set I rested my feet in the water. The crescent moon hung in a cloudless sky above. Bats whirled above and my serenity was shattered by a snake at my feet in the water. The men washing nearby laughed at my start. I headed back towards the training center, got some fry with my partner. Gathering up my stuff and leaving I am again struck poignantly that we do not get the same warm goodbyes from as many students in this center as we do in the other. Climbing into the car is a poignant act, and my mood is low when I get in the door at home.

I meant it with every fiber of my being when I told my teachers I will sorely miss my time in India. I believe it has given me so much. I may not be 100% but I am significantly more sure about the direction I wish to leave my life, about the directions I should be applying my thoughts, ethical and practical, and I certainly have a stronger desire to do than before I left. My sense of fairness is more refined and a desire to do by others has certainly been sharpened. Above all I have grown as a person, loved the experience, loved the children, been passionate about performances and projects I would never have anticipated been a part of and made close friends with people I would have never met otherwise in my life. It has been an exceptional experience. It has been exhausting and painful and times, but nearly always interesting, delightful and rewarding. The trials were the heat, the exhaustion, the roads, and the children. The rewards were other volunteers, my team, the GP, the children, the children and the children. I would not trade this journey for the lost phone, lost wallet, the broken electronics, the parties missed at home, all regrettable but this has been the greatest experience of my very pleasant 22 years of this planet. Right now though, I miss home and I want my bed. I may tear up on Friday when I say goodbye, but I will probably also tear up in Dublin airport. Kolkata, it's been incredible, I hope to see you again soon!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Food, food, food.

Sitting on a wooden bench under a corrugated iron roof of a small wooden stall, in a line of similar stalls on the side of the street, a sparrow alights to my peripheral. It flies away to a, still bright, overcast Indian sky. It is replaced by the everyday hustle and bustle of people, rickshaws, taxis and dogs, rushing back and forth in the morning air. By 8 or 9 am every morning these streets have become a manic scene for all the senses, predominantly sound. I turn my gaze away from the street as my attention is called back by the shop owner handing me my omelette and my cup of chai. I turn over 15 rupees for my breakfast. Both pieces are delicious.

On of the dominant topics of precaution that arises when one is departing for India, at least in my experience, is the insistent caution surrounding what and where you eat. Warnings of avoiding western dishes, avoiding un-peelable fruit and vegetables, avoid meat altogether, and the never ever ever eat the street foods rang in my ears prior to departure like alarm bells. Anyone who knows me, knows I love food. I may be a bit unusual in what I deem to eat due to health choices, but I am never religious about my choices. I like food, and lots of it. As a result I have eaten pretty much everything I was told not to eat before I came, and it has been one of the most incredible experiences my pallet has ever undergone. Spices expertly applied, beautifully fried vegetables, tender cuts of gorgeous meat and an amazing array of options. True, sometimes the food one encounters on a day to day basis should be skipped over with haste, or can sometimes be just plain grueling (not even I particularly want to see my chicken killed and eviscerated in front of me.

The streets of Kolkata are readily stocked with any sort of fresh foods you could want. Stalls line the roads with fresh fruit and veg in abundance and even chicken and fish is only a small walk away. A kilo of onions costs the equivalent of about 20 cent but, unfortunately, without a good fridge they go bad in a few days. The stalls hold chillies, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, mangoes, bananas, peppers, apples and countless fruit and veg I still don't recognize the name of flavor of, eight weeks into the programs. Eggs are one of the more expensive items, at about 5 rupees, of about 3-4 cent each. I have yet to brave any of the street fish or prawns, but I intend to coming towards the end of the placement. And the chicken...let's say its impossible to find fresher.

Dinners out in Kolkata are equally comparatively cheap to home. A fine meal in a swanky restaurant may set you back about a tenner, but it's perfectly possible to get exquisite food for less than a fiver if you simply walk a little further down the road and are willing to dispense with the exceptionally fancy decor. I've eaten lamb in most conceivable manners, fried or grilled, stripped in sauces or on the bone and in a gravy. Chicken dishes can be from mild sweet and sours to chilli riddled dishes that have made my face go red. The veg dishes can be a little risky I've found, most of them have something called "paneer" in them, which seems to be something like cottage cheese...not up my street anyway. The noodles and rice dishes, which I try to stay away from, are equally fantastic and, for the first few weeks, buttered or garlic naan bread was staple at our tables. It goes without saying that me being me, have eaten gluttonous amounts of food and have even had to grin and my waiter responding to my order being "too much" for one person, a statement he coupled with massive dishes. I attacked both statement and evidence with zeal.

On the streets there is an array of food stalls that would miserably fail any sort of health and safety strictures at home, but produce some of the nicest food I have had over all. Chow mein seems to the running favorite with the children in my class but for me it is outclassed by the fried foods and the chicken and veg rolls. Bagies/bajies are a fairly commonplace equivalent of a chipper. Onion, potato and spice, eggplant, and pumpkin are available outside the door of one of my schools, deliciously fried in horrible unhealthy oil and comparatively healthy chickpea batter, all for two rupees a piece. I've eaten more than enough to leave me with a unsettled, greasy, stomach. Next on my list of favorites are the omelettes. Every lunch time between school a local shop serves up, after some chuckles at my attempts at communication with people who speak no English, an omelette and tea. The tea is spiced, differently in each place, and sweetened with sugar. It comes in small cups, but at this point myself and my teaching partner have established we want bigger cups when we order. The omelette is fried with salt and chillies, before this trip I would never have thought to combine chilly and egg but it is a delicious combination. On occasion, if we manage to brave the possible miscommunications, we have managed to order some delicious veg or potato currys. TAlso available were egg or soya currys, both of which I have avoided since my first sample. Finally, in the world of fast food, the rolls are running favorites. Sold from the same stalls that dish out different types of fried chicken and vegetables, the rolls are by far the best, but definitely not paleo. Dough rolled into a circle is fried to form a wrap and, depending on your order you can have veg, egg, chicken, or any combination of the three. The egg adds bulk to the roll as the two are fried together, and the soft texture of potato in the veg roll adds beautifully to the crunchy red onion, the chicken is fried in a spicey sauce. The whole thing is the covered in a chilli and mustard sauce, but these can vary depending on the stall in question. Chillies are an option always worth considering.

Overall, the flavors I have experienced since coming to India have consistently impressed me. While everything, even the jam, is spicey or sweet or both they are never overpowering flavors. Chillies adorn most meals, more noticeably the Chinese meals, but it is never at the expense of the richness of the tastes. The diversity of tastes in one meal alone is enough to make you wish you could order another meal, and it's safe to say my Bengali cookbook will get substantial use at home, if only the mangoes tesco sell could live up to those here! I hope it's not a running trend for Indian foods at home, because I know the Chinese dishes in Ireland are definitely not up to scratch after dining on them here.