Day 69: The great Indian madness

The great Indian madness called the roads. Driving home to visit the parents in Coimbatore, and the 6-hour drive has been fun. It’s almost symbolic of our manic lives – a random pedestrian walks across your path, carefree and wanton; a cow parks itself squat in the middle of the highway, oblivious to the high speed travel; an annoying family honks their way past you from behind, unaware that multiple lanes exist for a reason. And through it all, you’re stuck in your little metal bubble, behind the steering wheel, with the false illusion that your control is the reason you’re still alive.

Fish fry… Strange incense… Hot poodle poop… Man not showered in three days… Biriyani, Oooh where was that biriyani. Turn around, S” Scotch

India Calling…

I would’ve safely assumed it to be me dreaming, about all my favorites together in the same fantasy, had I not known better. A recent tragedy left Switch, DShah and me shopping all weekend, something that took us across seas and to a world we had grown up in. And yet, so close home.

Edison, New Jersey, should be called Little India or something more desi, Edisonpur or Edisonabad maybe. It beats and breathes the lives of  the countless Indians who migrated to greener pastures back in the flourishing days. It symbolizes man’s quest to find home around any surrounding that he is thrust into, and if not successful at that, the drive to create it.

The glistening jewelers, with brilliant creations adoring their window showcases, line both sides of the strip. Eateries flaunt their melange of sweets and savories; sugar cane juice made to perfection, complete with the ginger pieces and pinch of spice, is worth every last drink. The pan shops have everything from calcutta sada to the stuffed meetha. If you woke up from a slumber and found yourself amidst these saree shops and salons, you would have a strange familiarity of waking up in a suburb in Mumbai. The ben-jis and babus, saree or kurta clad and conversing in fluent, authentic gujarati wouldn’t help much in judging your bearings either. I could have sworn this little town was the sister of some lost town had a sister in Modi-land.

The jewelery market here is bountiful with wings spanning into gold ornaments, raw gold and a dozen precious stones. Every visitor travelling back home stocks up on these goodies, a ‘loss-proof’ investment I hear. Not only do the adroit jewelers make sure you buy three times your intended purchase, but they provide unsolicited advice on handling Indian Customs as well (pun intended!). Make sure to keep your ears open when those special jewels rain down. With a strict cash-only policy, it is definitely a world in itself.

But none of these stores and the shopping came close in satisfaction quotient to what a foodie derived from the numerous options here. The Saravanaa Bhavan here, one of the four in the country, and many across the world, is a mouth watering treat for any lover of South Indian food. We found ourselves wanting to order at least four items from each page of the colorful menu. A true to its roots sambar vadai and bona fide mini idly were the perfect start for our lunch. For the main course, between us we managed to order a mysore masala dosai, adai aviyal and kara dosai. The special meals were the typical home made feast, thorough to the point of having the mango chutney and appalams.

The climax was the genuine filter coffee, nursed to perfection in their stainless steel tumbler and davara ;) I don’t know what it is between us South Indians and Coffee. Tea is always the travel drink, the compromise you force yourself to, when you don’t have the luxury of home made filter coffee. But coffee is the drink of the kings, OK, I can argue with you for an hour on that one.

I still debate the actual source of the flavor; I know it’s somewhere in space between the coffee powder, that strong chicory, that filter that gets passed down generations and the davara-tumbler. The aroma that floods the vicinity, the minute the hot water starts to seep through the freshly ground powder, is out of this world in all senses. Contrary to the now-hyped latte or cappuccino’s smooth and delicate froth, the filter coffee has a rusty, bubbled froth. No coffee is complete without that froth, balanced precariously, an inch beyond the tumbler top. The trick lies in pouring the coffee from the highest point your hands can reach. And it is this little white dream that separates the tea from the coffee, the luxurious from the mundane.

The filter coffees in hotels added all the glitz and the glamor within these basic requirements; the inverted-tumbler-trick is still my favorite. Sitting miles and years away, thinking about our visits to Annapoorna and picturing God mix the sugar and coffee in his slick movements, I emptied the coffee into the dabara and peeped in, anticipating the ingeniously placed extra serving of sugar down there. I was expecting too much after all.

The meal had been etched in memory for days to come; the adai aviyal after two long years was not going to be let go off that soon, was it?

The touching finale was the rain drenched dandiya in JC. While we stood, tucked under the comfort of the shades, and gorged on the bhel puris , the hundreds of staunch Gujaratis went around the circle, with ritual-like dedication, making the drizzle all too trivial. Dames dressed in flowery dresses danced about, while their better halves tried being up to the expectations in more senses than one. The sheer mix of ages in that group astounded me; old women, jackets over their saree to beat the cold, danced about not missing a step. The entire scene, the whole day, had been too mystic to be real,  and yet thousands of eyes had blinked through it.

I saw pot holed roads and got bitten by mosquitoes; drank genuine filter coffee and ate fresh vadu maanga. Would they let me miss home at all?

Wild Wild West – I

One thing that hit us with a quick gush, as soon as we stepped out of the airport, was the hot and dry air. A 100 Fahrenheit and we rechecked our stock of sunscreen, put on those glasses and strut on to our ride. I have to flashback a few hours to how we got here though, because the beginning ensured that we were to have a fun trip after all.

2 AM miseries

Some sane thought that Switch and I had, made us book tickets out of far-off PHL, instead of backyard EWR or across-the-street NYC airports. This “out-of-this-world” decision, that seemed pretty reasonable when we punched out our credit card details, ensured that we were up at 2 in the morning, out of town by 2 30, only to be roaming the streets of EWR for a decent parking lot. Well, we had to put the car in safe hands for four long days; that automatically ruled out any off-street ones, those that had a voice operated system talking to no one in particular and of course the ones closed. Frantic search was on. It’s funny to digest the number of weenies who actually roam the earth that early in the morning.

After trying out every possible option dear mr/ms garmin gave us and having let go of two of the five, to magically walk into the dream parking space, we had a little of five minutes to spare before our train out. Better sense prevailed and we drove into the very same lot that we had driven past a hundred times in that one night in search of a safer option. Yeah right! Who are we kidding!

Feeble pleasanteries exchanged, keys to the ride surrendered in the hands of a total stranger and two bags baring us down, DShah and I ran for it, while Switch tried to fumble the tickets out. We dint care if we looked like two goons, running away from mad dogs chasing us; we had a vacation to start on time. Acela arrived, the conductor obliged and we rode an hour into PHL, all in a weary sleep-embedded daze.

Note to self: cops in Philly are very cordial, nice to the point of being over intrusive I guess. It’s a fact, because Dear mr cop chose to accompany us from one station to the other, made sure we boarded the correct connecting ride and wove good bye to DShah with tear-filled eyes. Ok I might have fuzzed the facts on that one a bit; I was sleep deprived and it was too early in the morning for nocturnals like me, remember?

Philly billies

A minor fiasco at the “security check” left Switch bereft of his dear-old ninja gear. How many camping trips had he gone out on, pulling it out of his kit, nimbly; flaunting it out in the open, boldly; as other covetous eyes stared on! True, he had hoped to demand extra drinks on the flight with that one weapon and damn, his plot lay out in the open. We drank to his ill fortune, promised to buy him a stronger, sharper, meaner, sleeker, ahmm.. er weapon and boarded the flight at the back of the crowd.

Proud to be back benchers indeed, we tried having sane conversations with the ‘air hosts’, Damn! I still cant get used to that profession for a man, before somebody’s good judgement stepped in. We slept through the rest of our flight.

Wild West

Turbulence woke us up, in time to see the first glimpses of the mighty canyon. We straightened up, crained out the pot hole windows and Viva Las Vegas!!

PS: Learnings so far:

– It is impossible to try being on a diet and on vacation at the same time.

– When fast asleep, an hour is like a minute and 1500 miles take a mere five.

– Male air hostesses, using their spare time knitting a sweater, are not a welcome sight to wake up to.

– Deccan airways was not the only one that had carriers rattling during take-off.

– Security check personnel love Swiss army knives.

In Wild Wild West – II, The Mustang compromise, Hoover’s arch and the mad dirt ride to walk.