First time for Everything – Five things I never thought I would find myself doing

When we travel to new countries and live in foreign places, there will be many “firsts” we encounter along the way – things we end up doing, thinking, seeing, hearing and saying that we never thought we would, or never have before. I’ve had many of those here already, and I am sure I am in for many, many more – but here are some of the things I have experienced/done in India so far, that I didn’t really see myself doing – or haven’t done before.

1. Eating food with a consistency close to that of soup – with my hand(s)

Most people who have been to India (or elsewhere in South-East Asia) will know that people here prefer to eat with their hands instead of utensils. If you think this is a class/cast/income level-thing, you’re wrong – Everyone eats with their hands, or, more specifically, with their right hand. This applies mainly to Indian food; if you go to a western restaurant and the person in the next table is eating steak, chances are they are not scooping it in their mouth with their hands, so fork and knife are of course used as well – but when it comes to Indian food, the vast majority of people, both at home, at work, or in restaurants, will use their right hand instead of utensils. Why right hand, you ask? Well, the left hand is left for more.. unclean and unholy tasks, such as wiping/cleaning yourself after using the toilet. Using the left hand for eating, and also for handing things to other people, is considered rude – I’ve had an auto rickshaw driver ask me to give him another bill using my right hand, because I was trying to hand him the first bill with my left hand.

Sambar – a Vegetable stew/broth, often mixed together with rice

Now, you may think eating with your hand can’t be that tough, but trust me, it is! I am still very far from mastering the skill. The thing is that the types of dishes we often eat at lunch at my office, for example, can at times be very hard to eat using only your hand. It is common to have sambar, which is a vegetable broth or stew, with rice. The sambar can be poured on the rice, kind of as a gravy. The thing is, that the end result, while often delicious, is also very.. liquid-y -, and scooping that with your hand is anything but easy. I really should be wearing a bib every time I try to eat Indian food with my hand, because I tend to get more of it on myself than in my mouth.

Chapati – also functions as a spoon when needed.

Having bread, like chapati or dosa, with your meal makes it easier, because it allows you to use the bread as a “spoon” – but it’s still messy. I am like a two-year old, learning to use a spoon for the first time. The Indians are of course extremely good with this, making virtually no mess and getting everything from their plate into their mouth.  I, on the other hand, look like someone poured sambar and rice on me by the time I am “finished” with eating – and also often left very hungry. Luckily, our office does have spoons as well

2. Eating boiled rice with… yoghurt.

Curd – unsweetened, natural yoghurt-like food that is good for your belly and tastes delicious!

Plain, unsweetened yoghurt, or curd, as it is called here,  is a very common thing to see in an Indian table. It is offered with most meals, and it is actually really delicious. It’s also supposedly very good for one’s digestive system and helps maintain the balance of good bacteria, which in India is quite important. Curd is also used as the base for raita, the life-saving yoghurt dish offered in Indian restaurants, which is the absolute best thing to pour in your mouth when you find yourself gasping for air after taking a bite of “not so spicy” Indian dish that is burning through your insides. Curd offers the same relief as raita – and is also very tasty and refreshing.

However, while I quickly became a fan of curd after arriving here, I wasn’t necessarily expecting to find myself eating a dish that consists of boiled rice and curd, mixed into a paste-like, rice porridge-style form. “Curd Rice” is exactly what its name suggest – rice and curd. That’s it. Well, sometimes there is some garnish. But basically it is just rice and curd, and it is.. weird. It’s not really bad in any way, but it’s not really something one would call a delicious Indian dish either. It is often kind of bland, and very mild-tasting. My local friends mix it with pickled vegetables and/or fruits, a local favourite that I just cannot bring myself to like – but it does probably add some spice and flavour to the curd rice. As you can imagine, curd rice is one of those dishes that is an absolute delight to eat with your hand – if by “delight” one refers to the joy of finding pieces of the food on your shirt and hair hours later.
3. Negotiating over $0.20

Not something I am proud of, and yet it happens almost every day. I walk to an auto rickshaw, tell them where I am going, and the negotiating begins. They usually never want to put on the meter, but rather give a fixed price – such as INR150 for a trip I know would be less than INR100 on the meter. I gasp, in shock, and start negotiating over the price. “No no sir, crazy! 100 rupees, maximum!”, to which he responds: “Madam, long way, no customer coming back, traffic bad.. give me 140.” This continues for a while, to a point where we are now arguing whether the fare should be 120 or 130. The difference of 10 rupees equals roughly 20 US cents – and actually, not even quite that.

Now, of course there is the matter of principle – and stubbornness. I don’t really care about the 20 cents as much as I care about not feeling like I am taken for a ride. And in the end, when you live in India and take an auto on average 2-3 times a day, if you overpay every time, of course this will eventually accumulate to an amount that is more substantial. However, at times I do find myself both baffled and embarrassed to realize that I have just spent a good ten minutes arguing with an auto driver over an amount that really makes no difference to me – but probably means quite a lot more to him.

4. Crossing a busy street with the help of a.. Cow.

The cow in the picture is unrelated to my road-crossing adventure. This one was too busy eating trash.

Crossing a street in an Indian multi-million city can be a nightmare. The traffic is insane, to an outsider there seems to be no logic or sense to it (though I have been told that for the locals, there is..), and there rarely are any traffic lights, at least not for pedestrians (and if you’ve read my previous post, you also know that the pedestrian traffic lights give you approximately 5 seconds to cross the street – and after that, you’re on your own).
So far, I have managed to eventually always get across without losing any limbs, but often it will take me quite some time to achieve that – the traffic never stops, and finally you just have to plunge in, cross your fingers and hope for the best.

One day, I had been standing on the side of a big road for a good ten minutes, waiting for an opening to cross over. The opening never came. Several Indians had of course crossed while I had been cowardly waiting for a break in the traffic to minimize the risk of being hit by a truck/bus/car/auto-rickshaw/motorcycle, and eventually I had to admit that this break would never come. Just as I was getting ready to find an alternate route, as I sincerely felt I would never be able to get across without being maimed or killed, a big, gentle looking black-and-white cow lethargically walked right past me. Without hesitation, she just started to walk into the traffic, straight in the middle of the chaos – and all the cars, buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws and motorcycles stopped, slowed down or made room! It took me a few seconds to see the opportunity this posed for me, and once I did, I grabbed it – I rushed to the side of the cow, held my hand over her back, and walked next to her, watching the traffic veer around us or make room for us. Well – not for us. For her. I think they would have crushed me in a heart beat, had I not been shielded by the cow – but walking next to her, crossing was easy. It got a bit challenging when we had to cross over the cement barrier that separates the right and left lanes from each other, as the cow got across it much faster than I did (I am slightly vertically challenged, one might say) and I got slightly left behind – but I caught up with her quickly, and made it safely to the other side. I have found this to be by far the safest and most hassle-free way to cross a road in India. However, the challenge is that there isn’t always a cow around when you need to cross, and sometimes they also decide to take a rest smack in the middle of the lanes, just simply lying down on their side right there – and then you’re screwed. Other than that, it seems to be a pretty fool-proof method.

5. Feeling cold in India

I am a Finn. All of my native country is north of 60 degrees latitude – the distance from Helsinki to NYC is twice as long as the distance from Helsinki to the North Pole. Bangalore is 13 degrees north latitude, with a climate that is described as “tropical savanna climate”. Never did I think I would ever feel cold in India.
Turns out, I was wrong. The past three days, I have been freezing. This might be partly as a result of the effects of Cyclone Nilam that hit the southern coast of India earlier this week, pushing heavy and persistent rains to us in Bangalore as well – but still! Cold, in India?? That is just shameful. I am seriously considering buying a thick jacket, boots and fluffy socks – items I did not think to bring with me when I moved here. I used to think it was funny how the locals would bundle up in parka jackets, hats and thick scarves when the temperature dropped below 65 Fahrenheit, but not any more – now I want to find out where they go to get those parka jackets of theirs. I feel like a disgrace, but more importantly, if I now pull out the winter gear here, for this climate, what on earth will I wear when I am in New York over New Years? A Michelin Man outfit?

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So, here are some of the things I never thought I would do, or had never done before – until I came to India. I think we all encounter them when we travel to new countries, and it would be great to hear what kinds of “Firsts” others have had in different places. Feel free to share in the comments, or write a list in your own blog! My inspiration came from a good friend who recently moved from Finland to Laos, and wrote a list of “Ten things I never thought I would do” – unfortunately her blog is in Finnish, but if you are fluent in our little language, feel free to stop by her blog too!

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5 Responses to First time for Everything – Five things I never thought I would find myself doing

  1. 1) You ate with your hands? You are more courageous than I have been.
    Of course, everyone eats with their hands: sandwiches, french fries, fruits, candy bars, snacks, etc. However, Westerners use their hands as forks; Indians use them as spoons. I have not yet embraced that concept.
    Are you left-handed? Usually it is only left-handers who notice such things. Have you watched the film “Outsourced”? It has a scene describing the preference for the right hand, and why the left hand should not be used.
    5) I feel the same way. For the past three “winters”, I never felt cold until mid-December through mid-January. Yet, I am beginning to feel cold now, at the beginning of November.
    Weather.com says that San Francisco is 12° and Kolkata is 26°; yet, I almost always felt comfortable when I was in S.F. but I feel cold now in Kolkata.

    • Foreigner says:

      Hi Micky, Thanks for re-visiting the blog.. 🙂 Yes, I try to eat with my hand(s) – but usually have to eventually admit defeat and switch to a fork or a spoon. I’m actually right handed, but have been chastised so many times by auto drivers and other people when I hand them something with my left hand, that I have started to pay more attention to using the right hand in stead of the left.. Haven’t seen “Outsourced”, will add to list of films to see.. 🙂
      I am a native of Finland, so feeling cold in India is quite embarrassing.. and, if I am feeling cold here now, I think I might die in NYC over New Years.. the weather is warming up in Bangalore though, but I think there are more rains coming later this week. We’ll see – in the mean time, I need to try to find myself some thick socks and proper shoes that aren’t sandals!

  2. suthewriter says:

    Nice to read about my own culture through the eyes of a foreigner. I really appreciate the respect with which you treat your new experiences here, rather than scoffing at something alien to you. 🙂 Curd rice is the best comfort food, once you get used to the flavor.

  3. A post partly inspired by this post. I hope that you will read it, especially the last section.
    http://mickyandrani.blogspot.in/2012/11/o-of-india-nov-2012-food-drink.html

  4. I loved this post, I can’t manage the sambar with my hands either but am getting good at the more solid foods. It does up my consumption of breads though. Curd rice, it took a bit of getting used to but I quite enjoy it with some pickle now.

    As to the cold – I gleefully got rid of all my Scottish winter clothes when I moved to Vietnam nearly 6 years ago, since then I’ve relocated to Mumbai and in the process have built up a nice little collection of cardigans, light sweaters and long sleeved tops along with the inevitable collection of warm wraps. It never gets properly cold here but during “winter” mornings can be chilly.

    My “winter” collection gets aired all year round though. The level of air conditioning in some restaurants, cinemas and hotels is so low that an extra layer is necessary just to stop me shivering. As a rule of thumb I consider a place “too cold” when I find myself wishing I had worn socks with my sandals and my glasses steam up on leaving.

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