What coming home feels like: making friends edition

When I was preparing to move to Bangalore, I wondered about feeling lonely and isolated in a city of nameless faces. I didn’t particularly fancy the thought of making friends all over again. Nor did I want to continue my streak of people-less-ness. Much of the urge to get out of Goa was bolstered by the promise of new people. I’d grown rather jaded of the company I kept and was seeking a fresh energy and some new faces. And yet, 33 isn’t the most appropriate age to venture out into the school yard, to scope cliques and meekly gauge which one to attempt to break into.

I felt at sea in matters of people-ing because it’s just been so long since I had to go out and make an effort in this regard. Specially since the last decade or so I’ve had things just happened — people have come and gone from my life, connections were effortlessly made and lost with equal ease — without any active pursuing on my part. Not to make friends, and not in keeping them either. I’ve let a lot of people just go. So making friends felt daunting.

Wh is friendship in adulthood such an intimidating proposition?

However, in yet another unexpected turn, things have been strangely easy on the people front. Ironically, while I still continue to struggle to come to terms with many other things about this city (including some aspects that I thought would be a good change) it’s the people who have been pleasantly warm and welcoming.

I’ve already said coming home gave me the opportunity to reconnect with old friends that I’d sworn I would never go back to, and how comforting it is to just be in the same city as the best of my friends. But that apart, there’s a third set of people-ings that I’m so happy to have stumbled on. It’s the new and unexpected friendships I’ve made. Through friends, through older connections, through people who know people. And happily, so many of these connections have brewed over home cooked meals. I’m more than grateful for these folks who just easily opened their homes up, invited me over and cooked some splendid, memorable meals.

There have been multiple such events. With D, I thulped Goan sausages and bread like it was my last meal ever. A cooked me this stunningly simple but high on flavour Andhra meal, from recipes of her very own cookbook complete with a spicy and heady bone broth that kicked my cold out of the way. With N and D I ate baingan bhartha, chapaties laced with carrots and some gluten free bread because I’ve been off carbs lately.

Each that I’ve shared a meal, hanging out over hearty hot food, huddled around a table, cross-legged on the floor crouched over a plate laden with goodies — something opened up for me.

This past weekend I ate what will go down as yet another incredibly tasty, beautifully put together meal, at yet another table in the home of someone I didn’t know just a few months ago.

It was a large, painstakingly out together array of Andhra food. And again, I felt grateful for the opportunity. For the warmth, the openness and the joy of sharing a meal.

There’s something about honest, homely food cooked straight from the heart, that reaches right inside and touches my soul.

Same time, last year: Day 257: Down and up again

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What coming home feels like: Sunday lunch edition

I firmly believe we have entered a time of being grotesquely overfed and unnaturally preoccupied with food. Nothing confirmed that for me as much as moving to Bangalore did. I realised very early on that meeting people had to involve a restaurant or pub. The number of events and happenings in the city revolving around food boggle me. A visit to some of the happening hubs in town make my head spin. Take 12th main road in Indiranagar, for example. I cannot get over how dazzlingly chock full of restaurants and night clubs and pubs it is. Each one seemingly bursting at the seams, and most of them running full house on weekends with business roaring.

I’ve been conflicted about this lately. As I think of alternate ways to engage with people — a walk in the park! a play? a concert? meeting over tarot cards? book club, anyone? I find that despite the largeness of a city like Bangalore, and the variety of opportunities to engage with the culture one might imagine it to present, to service the varied interests of this people-infested place, I’m struggling to find avenues that don’t revolve around food.

So in these times of overfed everything — from our instagram feeds (I’m so over the here’s what I ate for breakfast/lunch/dinner updates :-/) to the fetishization of meals we put in our bellies, it feels a bit self-indulgent and vacant to say food brings people together. And yet to not state it, in the manner I mean it today feels a bit fraudulent. Because it’s true what they say, food brings people together. At its most fundamental level, so many of my memories are bound by flavours, and nostalgia stirs when certain aromas or remnants of events surrounding food are evoked. It could be something as simple as the baby food I’d wait for my 6-month old sister to waste so I could wallop, or it could be the ginormous indulgent buffet i ate for five days straight over my honeymoon, or my grandfather’s very own mutton stew. Food memories have preserved my sanity on more than one occasion.

Flying out of the proverbial nest gave me wings in more ways than one, and one of the bittersweet joys of being away was creating my own set of traditions and rituals — many of which were around food. Festival sweets, Sunday breakfast eggs, nuts to start the day, supaari to end the day. And I’ve missed the grounding and centering effect of many of these simple habits and homely traditions, followed almost too tediously, week after week.

These are the same rituals I sometimes resisted participating in, many times when Iw as young. And stupid. But I was too naive to fully realise how much lingering over a shared meal, letting conversation unravel sometimes, or disappearing into comfortable pockets of silence, mindfully eating the complex outcome of someones thoughtful, deliberate labour, played a role in keeping me grounded, together.

Growing up, our Sunday lunch at home was one such event. It was where the stories of the week were shared. Where sneaky giggles, tired sighs and everything on between came together, in long belaboured detail, for everyone to chew on. The meal itself wasn’t necessarily large and sinful. Sometimes a simple khichdi, sometimes an egg curry with fluffy white rice and a naked salad. But sometimes, like today, it was a leap of faith into a previously untouched cuisine. It was larger than usual, felt fancier than the familiar fare we were usually fed. But no matter what it was, it has always been the heart of Sunday afternoons in my home.

Post lazy oil-bath mornings usually spent tidying up or hurriedly ticking thru homework, after a tiring dance class, there was nothing I looked forward to more than a meal with my folks and sister.

A meal is a magical thing. So much a labour of love, putting together a meal is an energy sapping activity. And yet, when it is done and finished, it is only the memories that linger as aromatic evidence. I realised this on Sunday, as I sat at the table we dragged out into the terrace garden at my parents home. I’m beginning to like that peaceful feeling of acceptance that washes over me, like like telling me I-told-you-so, every time I notice I’ve come full-circle. And it happened again the other day, back at the table on a Sunday afternoon. Even though our family is larger by almost-two and life has taken us all in such divergent paths. We’re louder about some things, clandestine about others. And yet, when we come together, the laugher, the noisy munching, the clinking of spoons against bowls and plates and the hearty fullness of a shared meal remains much the same.

Same time, last year: Day 194: Pedalling again

What coming home feels like: Revisiting old haunts

I’ve been fighting the worst creative block for weeks now. Work is slow. Both because the energy I’ve directed towards the pursuit of it has been flagging, and also because I’m being a hopeless procrastinator over what little I have going.

I’ve tried everything — locking myself in my home away from distraction, taking myself to the comforts of my parents’ home where Amma plies me with filter coffee, working at night, working early in the morning, tempting myself with afternoon naps as a reward for a morning of writing, reading to get the words going, silence to get the words going. But nothing has really pushed me out of this stupor.

Until today. And this chance visit to an old haunt.

I had a meeting close to MG Road and a few hours to kill until dinner time (which is also happening this side of town, making it pointless for me to trudge home and back again in a few hours). So, I made the wise decision to carry my laptop along. It’s a fabulous day out and I enjoyed a lovely walk from one end of MG Road to here. When the weather stays this way, and it has been splendid, I’m rediscovering the joys of a walkable city again. Little pleasures that make being back in this monstrous grind, just a wee bit more bearable.

And for now, a glass of kadak milky super sweet tea and a plate of smileys seem to have done the trick.

Same time, last year: Day 181: Holiday vibes

Kitchen Soup for the Homesick Soul

So here’s a little known detail: Somewhere in 2014, I was suddenly inspired to write a book. It would be a food memoir, I’d decided. Threading memory, tradition, nostalgia, food, and how it had all shaped me into the accidental kitchen-lover that I’d turned into after moving to Goa. Fragments of ideas popped like mustard seeds in a hot wok of oil. The time was ripe, I thought. So I jumped into it all guns blazing. Took 2 weeks off, went away to Bangalore with the intention of doing nothing but writing. It was a glorious time away from all responsibility and I spent my days writing and reading furiously, adding bits and bobs in the cauldron that was brewing my book. I came back to Goa with what I thought was more than 50% of the writing done, and confident that all that was left to be done was finish it. The draft has been sitting in cold storage since then, a series of episodic events that I needed to somehow tie together with a more than just coherent narrative, to take it from reading a blog to make it a book. Farr too often, I’ve seen bloggers, especially food bloggers, make the mistake of thinking that a successful blog is a validation of one’s ability to write a book. There have been some truly atrocious food memoirs and books to come out of the Indian food blogger community and I suddenly became very conscious of adding to that list. It also has to be said that in the time between then to now, my interest as it was then, in food, also waned. As I found more avenues and stories to go after, I found myself looking beyond food in the myopic way that I was: through the lens of nostalgia and memory alone. In case you haven’t already noticed, I shut down my food blog somewhere along the line too, and until I find a compelling reason, I will probably not resurrect it. With time, it became alarmingly clear to me that I no longer wanted the book to be just a chronicle of disjointed food-related memories peppered with recipes. Eventually, it became clear that I didn’t want to finish the book at all, not in the form it was.

But at the end of last year, I decided the least I could do was pick out episodes from the book and turn them into essays that explore the gamut of emotions, experiences, thoughts and memories I made in the seven years that I have lived in Goa, where my love affair with food began. So, I went ahead with shaky hands, to pitch this. As luck would have it, my very first attempt landed me this opportunity with Arre, a website whose distinct style intimidated me. This was really gratifying to write for more reasons than one. Besides being able to finally find an outlet for the umpteen stories in cold storage, it was made made even better by a delightful edit experience that is becoming increasingly rare amongst Indian publications.

*****

Kitchen Soup for the Homesick Soul

cooking

I remember sitting cross-legged on my mother’s kitchen counter, eating beans palya out of a steel katori, while she put finishing touches on a meal. I remember watching my grandmother deftly work the large grinding stone in her kitchen, breaking down fresh spices with a mesmerisingly giddying turning of the stone. I remember the excitement stirring every time my grandfather stepped into the kitchen to make his six-hour slow cooked mutton stew.

I remember always being a mere observer, a taster. I had no interest in the cooking, a process that everyone in my family took such pride in. The one time I succumbed to being taught how to cook, I was coerced into it. I was 13, and holed up in stuffy classroom with girls. It was the home science laboratory, and we were in groups of four, poring over our single-burner stoves, atop which were pots of bubbling pongal. While every other girl in the room lovingly stirred her pongal to buttery, smooth goodness, I was looking at a solid mass, fast transforming into a something that resembled industrial strength adhesive.

I’d rather have been out in the field playing, to be honest. These were electives, extra-curriculars, as they’re called. And I wondered why the only choices for us girls were aerobics and home science. Why were athletics and sport not up for grabs? I stared down at the gloopy mess that lay before me. While every other girl in the room lovingly stirred her pongal to buttery, smooth goodness, I was looking at a solid mass, fast transforming into a something that resembled industrial strength adhesive.

Right then I had decided this domestic business (okay, home science) was not for me. Years of tender convincing on my mother’s part turned to goading and silent worry. How would I feed myself when I moved out? How would I provide meals for my future family? Given that I couldn’t boil a pot of water without a minor casualty, her concerns were valid. But all that gentle persuasion was only met with my staunch rebellion.

I was convinced cooking was a completely unnecessary skill and played no part in my womanhood.

Over a decade after that ill-fated pongal incident, on a blistering day in March, I found myself setting up a new home, miles away from my own. Nothing shatters a self-satisfied, smug existence like a reality check. Mine had arrived less than 24 hours after I had landed in sunny Goa, in the form of six large cartons of kitchen equipment that I didn’t know what to do with.

I realised very soon that two-minute noodles and quick-cooking oats simply weren’t going to cut it and that there are only so many ways to cook eggs. Before long, I was deeply regretful for not watching Amma make phulkas. For wishing I knew what to make from the three different kinds of dal in the supermarket. Was there some way to thinly slice onions, without gouging my eyes out?

Resisting slipping into the identity of a homemaker that this situation demanded of me, I chanted repeatedly: Cooking isn’t for me. But, I had to eat my words. Along with the badly made meals of dal, rice and sabzi.

I began to cook in my new house because I simply had to. I was overwhelmed by homesickness and hunger. I had been wrenched out of a job I loved, uprooted from the only city I have ever called home, and was starting life over in a dusty home that didn’t feel like mine. I had no choice but to make sense of the demands of this new space I was in. This kitchen, this home, and this life in general. I had to recreate an identity and purpose in these new circumstances.

I began first with taking solace in recreating the comfort of rasam and rice. When I needed a challenge, I attempted to deconstruct a biryani from the memory of taste. When I felt lost and weightless, I grounded myself in the mundanely tedious rhythm of peeling garlic, making a massive batch of tamarind extract, rearranging my kitchen, or cleaning the fridge out. When I simply needed to occupy my mind that would race toward unwanted and sometimes destructive thoughts, I went into the kitchen and cooked a meal. When the emptiness felt like it was consuming me inside out, cooking filled the void. All of it to bring some semblance of sanity back in my life.

Memory is a wonderful thing. Almost every single day, my mind would float back to the humble homely meals, festive celebratory meals, skimming over the traces of taste, texture, and aroma that lingered at the back of my mind, thoughts of customs and habits related to food. I recalled things I didn’t know I had stashed away at the back of my mind – the way my mother stored her coriander and curry leaves in the refrigerator, the exact dishes she made when she was strapped for time, the way her pressure cooker was the centre of all kinds of magic. All of this simmered together slowly, and gave me a sense of self again.

Before long, my days began with praying the dosa batter had risen, picking out the weekly vegetable and fruit supply, and haggling over best prices of grains and pulses. I don’t know when I embraced the kitchen, even less when I began to find contentment and joy in cooking.

In finding myself, I somehow found my way back home too. Through simple, hearty meals to satisfy hunger at first, and more complex challenging ones, to satisfy my mind and find my feet again. When every other aspect of my life, and strong facets of my identity felt like they were slipping away from me, cooking helped put it all back together again.

I was not only teaching myself to cook, but was also recreating my own sense of home. Donning the identity and roles I’d observed all the strong women in my life play so very well, being in the kitchen was no longer an aversion. It was my sanctuary, and cooking, my raison d’être.

In the process, I rekindled relationships of a new kind with my mother, grandmother, and aunts. They gifted me cookbooks, emailed me recipes, and sent me tips and tricks I could use. I forged new ties with friends when we gathered around my dining table. Eventually, though, and possibly the happiest consequence of all, I found a career in writing about food.  In an odd roundabout way, stepping into the kitchen, into the very role I believed was a trap, had liberated me.

Thirteen-year old me would most likely be disappointed to see how contempt has been replaced by a deep affection for the kitchen. But if only I knew back then, that it would eventually be food, that would teach me to love my life again, and that learning to cook had little to do with being a woman but everything to do with identity, I’d probably have tried to just keep calm and stir that pongal to perfection.

(A version of this essay first appeared on Arre)

Same time, last year: Day 63: Shine on

Day 322: One night in Bangkok

The last time I was in Thailand, I was so hyper-focused on the beach, that we planned to be there for a bulk of the trip, sandwiching it with a grace period of 1.5 days in Bangkok on either side. And that too, only because we had to fly in and out of there. I’m a fan of city holidays as much as I am of getting away into the wild or exploring nature. The last time around I got a good sense of the wonderful amalgamation of urban and ethnic culture that Bangkok is and I’d long decided I would come back for more. So this time, we planned to return from our beach days and spend two days in Bangkok.

We checked out of our resort at noon, and caught the 2.45 pm catamaran back to the pier at Chumphon. A similar stream of efficient hustling like on our onward journey, and before we knew it we were on the bus speeding down the near-perfect highway back to where we had come from. The last time I was in Thailand too we’d taken a bus journey, and like the one to Chumphon earlier last week, was a night journey. So it was nice to have a day view of the countryside. Rolling paddy fields, highway eateries, outlet stores, villagers ambling along on foot or badly driven two wheelers. I read for the most part back, and only perked up when we halted at the rest stop and this time I got off to experience the mind-boggling variety of food on offer. We picked rice, meat curry and stir fried veggies and tucked in hungrily. And thank god for that because it was well past midnight when we wound our way through Friday night traffic in Bangkok and pulled into Khao San Road again.

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The same street we’d left, which was bustling and chock a bloc on a Monday night, was packed tighter still with what looked easily like three times the number of people and twice the number of food stalls. Loud, stomping beats wafted out of the nightclubs, and groups of inebriated young folk staggered out looking high as kites. It was noisy, festive, a cacophony of music and a medley of smells of all kinds of food. It was time to eat again, of course. So we bought ourselves a massive Nutella crepe each while we watched the crowds much to our amusement, and figured out how to get to our hotel for the next two days. It turned to be a twenty minute drive and we decided to cab the distance. We didn’t even have to look very far for one because opened the door confidently, fully prepared to negotiate and start arguing about a reasonable fare, when the cheerful driver clicked his meter on. “By meter?” S asked. He nodded happily. In shock at our luck at finding a cab past 1 am, and not having to haggle over a far, my love for Bangkok was already through the roof. As a rule cities with really good public transport give me a massive high (“turn me on,” said S). I’d already experienced the amazing skytrain last time I visited, but to get into a cab well past midnight, not have to haggle and be taken straight to your destination – full marks, Bangkok!

We stayed at this really cool hotel with a neat concept and super minimal style. It was a basic business-traveller kind of hotel, perfect for just the two nights that we were there. Several notches higher in terms of fashionability, without as many digits being added to the price. So it was much nicer than a deal hotel we’d have settled for otherwise. Our room had a cool mural and twin beds that we hit almost immediately after we checked in and had hot showers. The next morning, we set off looking for breakfast and currency exchange. Several street food stalls had opened up, and everything smelt divine, especially this one cart wedges into a corner adjacent to a tiny gift store, where a woman in a long coat and a hat was making omelettes and fried eggs with a hit of chillies, green onions and soya sauce. It looked so good, we stood by trying to communicate with her in sign language and broken English. She didn’t even so much as look up. We’re not the target audience we told ourselves, dejectedly, and settled for Au Bon Pain very disinterestedly, because by then we’d walked a long way from the hotel and the hunger levels were rising. Thankfully the chai and croissant really hit the spot, and was just perfect for the late breakfast it turned out to be because we wanted to hit Din Tai Fung for lunch.

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It was a morning dedicated to gift shopping, as we roamed a mall picking up delightful little things that we thought were unusual, that folks back home with like. Colourful leather stuff, really cheap and comfy footwear, amazing soaps and lotion, wooden trinkets and the like. All very affordable, even for a mall. Shopping in Bangkok was the only place we encountered Desis doing what Desis do best, shopping. And bargaining. The latter of which neither S nor I could get ourselves to do, everything was so dirt cheap. And if it wasn’t the item was probably so nice we thought it warranted the price. Yeah, we may have serially paid a lot more than we needed to, but we cannot complain.

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By lunch time we sniffed out way to Din Tai Fung, with the single minded focus of a detective on the job. Referencing GPS and the map on my phone, speedily rushing through lunch time pedestrian crowds, winding out way up and down skywalks, we found ourselves in yet another massive mall, a much nicer, fancier one than the one we were in. Eyes popped at beautiful bakeries with their displays laden with gorgeous freshly baked goods, and a Marvel store that nearly made us stop and walk in. “After lunch!” became the common refrain, until we finally made it. And DTF did. not. disappoint. I’d first eaten at this Dumpling Mecca in Singapore last year and I’d move East in a heartbeat, just for a lifetime supply of DTF, I would. Garlicy sauteed greens, delicate, almost too good to eat, with soup-filled pork dumplings, spicy noodles and pork baos were inhaled. Completely satisfied with how committed we were to finding DTF, ignoring all the distraction en route and proceeding straight to the main deal, which totally hit the spot, we picked up dessert at Paul the authentic French bakery and boulangerie that had a cute little store in the mall. Back in the hotel, we stashed dessert away for later that night, and waited for S, who by some corporate sorcery managed to have a work trip to Bangkok coincide with my weekend there, and flew in from Singapore.

When we were planning the trip, S and I briefly flirted with the idea of flying back via Singapore. The charm of the city still fresh on our minds from our respective brief trips last year. Also, friends. I’m always game to plan a trip to meet friends I love. But for various reasons we decided not to stretch ourselves that far. I was slightly bummed at not being able to go and meet S and party it up with him for a bit, but when he managed to swing by Bangkok and meet us, it really more than made up for it. I have a special place in my heart for friends who will really go the distance, and who I can count on to keep the fun up even when my different worlds collide.

It was at 5:30 that evening, when he hopped into our hotel, out One Night In Bangkok truly began. We hit a beer cafe nearby, sitting outside watching traffic go by, drinking Asahis while yakking away. Well the yakking was mostly done by me, but we caught up. What is it about beer bars and retro? Does every beer bar everywhere play retro? The tunes took me right back to Purple Haze in Bangalore or Down The Road in Panjim, and if not for the superior quality of beer, if I shut my eyes, I could have been anywhere, really. When S had said “lets begin at the beer bar” I didn’t quite know what we were in for, for the rest of the evening. A couple of beers later, we left and headed to the second bar for the night, which S did a really shitty job of selling to us.

“It’s a cool place. It’s really dark.

“Erm, like the lighting? Or the vibe?”

“Both!”

“Okayyy, then why are we going there?”

But go we did. It was one night in Bangkok after all.

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And boy was I glad we did. It was easily the best bar I’ve been to in a long, long time. A bar with serious character – it’s designed to resemble an iron smith’s workshop. Crammed, packed tight with intimiate seating, wrought iron staircases that lead nowhere in particular, dingy staircases and alleys lit by candles, secret doors leading to surprise entries to private seating, and some seeeeeriously good live music. The Band was superlative, playing what sounded like very bluegrassy covers of everything from Fly Me To The Moon to Cheerleader. Yeah! How’s that for serious variety. More beer followed, despite my staunch attempts to pace myself, somewhere between my fourth and fifth beer I teetered over the line and decided to go with it. S had some really interesting cocktail with gin ginger ale and peaches (I think, I could be entirely off here) and a flambed sprig of thyme. It was amazyyhzing and I now think I should have had that too.

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In time to leave, we swung by the loo. And the only reason I mention it here is because if you stepped into the dark and dingy bar that is was, you’d expect a shitty loo. But. It was spotless. And smelled amazing. I almost didn’t want to leave The Iron Fairies, but S suggested a Japanese bar (I think) so we walked out. Only to bump into a friend of his, completely out of the blue. S kept saying “what are the odds!” like it was truly unbelievable, but his friend diligently kept responding “pretty fucking high!” while S and I just giggled non stop. Before we knew it we were being herded in the opposite direction from where we were headed, and we were joined by a bunch of other people, and suddenly we were in a crowded elevator that opened into a rooftop bar. Dark, with clubby music, suddenly the crowds parted and a table was set up for us. I looked around and I was at this table with about 7 other people I didn’t know. A large bottle of vodka with an unpronounceable name appeared out of nowhere, swiftly followed by 6-7 glasses stacked with ice. Someone had to ask for tonic. I gingerly pushed my glass away, and ordered cider, deciding to play it safe and stick with beer. It all happened so fast, and sent me off into another giggle fit. S joined in, because truly, it felt like a scene straight out of a movie. Surrounded by people who looked like they were up for a long night of partying hard, a DJ who had blonde dreadlocks tied up in a man-bun, and people unravelling in various stages of inebriation dancing away.

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Our clever plan to stick with cider didn’t work after all because when we were done, two glasses of unnamed alcoholic contents appeared. And S’s friend kindly informed us that he’d told the bartender to give him what he always does, “a double of whatever it is” Turned out it was a G&T, a very, very stiff one. So stiff it burned my oesophagus. But we drank up. And soon enough I got up and danced a little with some random Thai folks. Someone broke a glass, someone took pictures of everyone, it was all a blur. I just remember giggling a lot and saying cheeeeese at some point.

Pretty soon, I realised we hadn’t eaten. Possibly the longest we’d gone without a meal through out the whole trip! So we decided to duck out, and went to a 24 hour outdoor food court of sorts close to the hotel. More beer followed. With a papaya salad that was so spicy, i began to hiccup uncontrollably. Which made me giggle some more, and didn’t help any way. Pad Thai and something else I cant remember was consumed too. And we topped it all off with a long walk back to the hotel to eat dessert. You know what’s the worst? A cocktail of alcohol followed by something sinfully sweet. And that’s exactly what we went headlong into. We dived into the little boxes of dessert and nearly polished off the custard filled eclairs and the strawberry and cream mille-feuille. So good when we were tucking in, but ph so horrid about half an hour later when my high suddenly spiked. It coincided with my finally lying down in bed. The minute my head hit the pillow the room began to do gentle little circles around me. I was too high (and tired) to bother to fix it with water or pacing up and down and the usual tricks that help, so I did my best to ignore it, telling myself this is what I get for ageing prematurely living my sage life in Goa devoid of any sign of partying, and I don’t know when but I drifted off to sleep.

The moment of truth is always the day after a night like this. How many times will I hit snooze before I wake up? Will we make it to the Chatuchak weekend market? Will I be hung over? Funnily enough, it wasn’t as bad as I felt it could have been the previous night. Both S and I woke up mildly groggy, but now shitfaced. But S, being S, served up room-made tea with two Disprins each. We chugged it and in no time at all felt clear and ready to head out. I’m really, really glad we did because we got to the market earlier than planned and the crowds hadn’t hit full swing. And even though we probably only touched about a tenth of the space, we saw some lovely wares, walked through the stalls amazed, and even bought some really special stuff for gifts. We were on a deadline because we had to find our way back, a 40 minute train ride, in time to catch S for lunch too. So we stepped out, when suddenly S spotted the one item we’d been hunting for (albeit very passively) all week – Birkenstock knockoffs! And then the food, oh my god, the food! Everything looked so, so inviting and if we didn’t already have plans we’d have given up all attempts to resist. It was just as well we didn’t because S scouted out a really amazing little restaurant back near the hotel. Indoors, air conditioned, with very affordably priced authentic Thai food. It was likely the best meal of the week, next only to DTF, and a lovely way to wind down.

Quick bye-byes followed and S and I went back to pick our luggage up before we trudged all the way back to DMK airport an hour away. We managed to squeeze in a tuk-tuk ride from the hotel to the skytrain station, from where we went to the last stop on the line, and then took a bus to the airport. I LOVE efficient public transport and I got a special kick when I realised we’d officially taken every kind of transport we saw – those classic colourful cabs, the metro, the local train, city bus, long-distance bus, catamaran, and a tuktuk!

Reaching an airport and touching Duty Free also means encountering Indians again, and invariably it’s an experience in being schooled about why we get treated the way we do. I tried my best not to let a few uncouth Indians spoil the holiday high. Webought ourselves some goodies and booze for home and settled into a corner to sit and do our hisaab like a couple of baniyas. It’s when it hit me again, how every single thing went off without a hitch, with zero conflict of interest even between the two of us, and just a smooth, seamless progression from one event to the next. R and S were sorely missed again, as we did several times during the trip, adn we vowed to do this many, many times again.

To end the holiday on a high we went into the Thai restaurant at the airport for one last meal. Finally, I succumbed to green curry and rice, while S had pork meatballs in a noodle-y broth. Both divine, and even though we had no room for dessert we had to relent and get one last portion of mango and sticky rice. The flight back was quiet, uneventful and I read for the most part, feeling very, very happy to be going home. We landed in Bangalore at 10:30 pm, to ATMs with no money. Thankfully my folks came to pick me up. I came home wired, unable to get to bed till almost 3 am. So I lay in bed thinking about the week gone by – how quickly it came and went – and how near-perfect it had been. It’s the mark of a good holiday I think when you come home feeling satisfied, and like the experience you’ve had was enough. My cup, it runneth over.

Day 320: One day in Bangkok (or day one in Bangkok)

The idea to go to Thailand cropped up at the unlikeliest of times. But the alacrity with which we got around to booking tickets, figuring out where to go, how to get there and all the nitty gritty details really surprised me. It was originally meant to be the four of us, which slowly petered down to three, and eventually left just S and me. We’d booked non-refundable tickets and I’d planned my November around this holiday, so we weren’t about to cancel. I’m so glad we decided to go through with it because it really turned out to be just right, in every way. I said before that it isn’t often that you find travel buddies so perfectly aligned to your inclinations. Which isn’t to say that everything about us was same-same. A lot is, tbh, but it’s also that between the two of us we managed to balance our eccentricities, laziness and efficiency out — which made for a great mix! From our obsession for morning chai that was the perfect temperature, to keeping detailed hisaab through the trip, to our single minded focus on eating our way through every day, to being armed with everything from socks to sanitiser to scissors and Disprin between the two of us – we realised we were more than suited to travel on long trips together. It was a holiday with adequate laziness and quiet time (on the island), 80% of which was spent in utter silence, and the enthusiasm to get out and do stuff (in Bangkok).

I landed in Bangalore a day in advance. I spent a day and a half with the folks and on Sunday night we took a flight out of Bangalore. Months and weeks of excitement that had reached a point where I felt I couldn’t hold it in any longer finally exploded when we met outside the airport. It was all a bit surreal. We bought ourselves beer and Chinese food to set the tone for the Asian food fest that was about to be, and got yakking. S had decided to ration out all the things we had to catch up on. Literally every big update and conversation in the weeks before the trip abruptly ended with “But I’ll tell you when we meet”. So with all that saved up conversation, the list of things to catch up on was fairly long. And the conversation was loud, giggly and animated, of course.

We and reached Bangkok at 4 am, which we thought was genius. You know, reach your destination at the start of a day so you can set off exploring immediately and all that. Which was great but for the fact that including checking in three hours prior to departure, delayed departure, horrible low-cost carrier seating and having a lot to catch up on, it meant that I didn’t sleep much. S is one of those lucky people that can pass out quickly, almost anywhere. So when we landed in Bangkok four and a half hours later, we emerged from the Don Muang Airport (yep, it wasn’t Suvarnabhumi this time around) bleary eyed. Information very helpfully told us we were an hour away from the heart of Bangkok and that we could either take a bus or a train, both available right outside the airport, to get there.

We trudged across the walkway over the main road and entered the sweetest, small, quaint little station. Which was basically a covered shelter with a few Thai folks waiting in the last dark moments of dusk to catch a train into Bangkok. A mere 20 thb a head, and a shot 15 minute wait later, a noisy train pulled in. We got into a chair car and it was a while before we got ourselves place to sit. Shaky and noisy, with tea-coffee vendors making their way through the aisle, and locals in various states of slumber, I felt right at home, as I would have in a train in India. We drank a shot of coffee each, “o give us a kick,” S said. Except we promptly drank it and nodded off to sleep. S being herself and dozing off effortlessly, and me trying to make up for all the lost sleep.

An hour later we were at Bangkok Train Station, and came out to hoards of people dressed in black, snaking their way out to a counter where free food and drink was being offered to anyone mourning the death of the King of Thailand who passed away last month. Later I realised this was common sight through the rest of the trip – people everywhere, tourists included dressed largely in black. Whatever the crowds were being handed in styrofoam cups looked like hot noodle and meatball broth and smelt divine. It was nearly breakfast time and we were both starving.

Thankfully, we found a cab fairly quickly. Some sign language, showing the cabbie the address to our hotel and helpfully offering GPS was all it took to get to our cute B&B where we were booked just for the day. It was small and cosy. Very basic, but with crisp sheets, a clean loo (with a shady as fuck looking instant water heater connected right to the shower head) and a hot water kettle and instant coffee – it was more than enough. We freshened up and didn’t give ourselves time to settle, rushing out in search of breakfast instead. As it turned out, we’d accidentally picked a very nice part of town to be in.

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Khao San Road is quite the hipster place to be, with quirky coffee shops, charming restaurants and the last vestiges of Bangkok’s famous street food culture still to be seen. We ducked into this place called Chomp which looked promising. Breakfast was sumptuous, and free wifi and a stand full of all kinds of maps meant we settled in and figure out what we were going to do next, and over the week to come.

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The cafe guy didn’t seem inclined to throw us out even long after we’d finished eating and made the very large cups of tea last as long as we possibly could.

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Eventually we headed out to try and figure out where we had to catch our bus on the way out later that night. As it turned out the travel company we’d booked our bus+ferry ticket from was not too far form the hotel. Walking distance in fact, across one of the streets that turns into a food street by night! We couldn’t have accidentally planned this better, really. And this was the best part about having a travel partner equally interested in being efficient and prepared. We’d barely suggest something and the other person would promptly agree, because in all likelihood we’d have thought of the same thing.

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A short loaf at the closest mall and a minor attempt to try and find the closest Din Tai Fung ensued, but we glazed over very quickly at the chaos of the shopping and excessive sensory overload that is MBK Centre. Luckily we were distracted, and stopped in our tracks, by a mini hawker centre of sorts right outside the mall, lured mainly by our noses to the smells of sizzling meat on a hot griddle, and the sights of raw papaya salad. We very quickly ditched the idea to go hunting for DTF, promising ourselves one meal there on our return, and settled in for pad thai with shrimp, raw papaya salad and some extremely icy mango and passion fruit spritzers.

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Here’s the great thing about Thai food, right? It’s fresh and light, yet so filling. But not in the way that greasy, spicy, rich food tends to fill you up by settling in your belly for many hours. It was filling enough for our eyelids to droop, though. It was also hot outside and since we had figured out where to catch our bus later that evening, we decided to retire and catch a quick nap before heading out again. So we returned, drew the curtains in the room and passed the hell out, ignoring the alarms we had very efficiently set to wake us up.

Eventually, room made coffee tempted us to rise again. And we packed and left the room closer to sun down. We traipsed around the street watching the food carts and stalls being set up, as the whole atmosphere was slowly changing and coming to life around us. It was super hard to pick a place, with rows of food carts, all equally inviting and plenty of bars stacked back to back, adjacent to each other. Eventually we went to a place that had a happy hour offer on cocktails and we picked the closest thing we could find to G&Ts. Topped that up with pad thai and spring rolls and walked back to our hotel to tidy up a little and check out before returning to catch our bus.

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Catching the bus was super easy and very entertaining. We decided to walk the distance from the hotel, because it didn’t warrant a cab ride. It was nearby and 50% of it wound thru the food lane, which would have been impossible to take by cab. So walk we did. Eventually very sweaty, but so happy to reach the spot where we saw this sign and cracked up completely. However, that incredible piece of communication was no indication of what was to come. As soon as we checked in, we were handed a bunch of stickers to denote our seat number, destination and matching stickers for our luggage. One set went on our bags, the other on our chests. From that moment on we were just herded around and pointed in the right direction by non-English speaking Thai women who were the bosses of this efficient system. We walked up to the point where we’d board the bus, tucked in our luggage and got to the top deck of this basic, but decent double decker bus that took us to Chumphon.

The journey was fairly comfortable. The roads are excellent, not windy like in India, so even my fears of getting sick faded away very soon. The ACs underperformed so my tendency to freeze in travel also vanished. Yet, I couldn’t sleep. I must be getting old, because I used to be the kind of traveller who could curl up or stretch out in any awkward spot and manage to go to sleep. For some reason I just couldn’t. So I tracked the journey on my phone for a bit, read a bit and eventually only nodded off in the last 2 hours of the seven hour journey. The service was pain-free, the bus was decent, even though I’d read some horror stories of leaky roofs and such. The rest stop that we halted at around 2 am was excellent, with clean loos and a lot of food options too. However, I was dazed and wanted to just go back to sleep.

Seven hours later we woke up at the pier at Chumphon. It was still dark, but the cafe was open. We doubled up on chai and waited for our catamaran to arrive. Before it did, the sun came up and cast mad colours in the sky.

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Suddenly it felt like it was really worth missing two nights of good sleep.

Day 123: Turning 32 and the salt water theory

It was a weekend that almost didn’t materialise for various reasons. It even had a fair share of hiccups that had me telling myself that I’d only believe it were actually happening when I eventually saw monkeys S and S at the airport. The logistics of their arrivals were harebrained, but that was unavoidable given everybody’s work schedules, mine included. So when I finally wrapped up work for the week on Wednesday last week, and prepared to drive to the airport at midnight, with a sleeping husband in the passengers seat beside me, I could hardly wait.

Despite our daily, incessant chatter that actually shrinks the distances between us, the possibility of finally being in the same room chatting furiously in person, laughing out loud together and sharing our quirks has a different excitement. In December, when we met last, we’d bravely declared that we’d meet for my birthday and make a trip to Sri Lanka. Then life caught up, plans got forgotten and before we knew it April was upon us. Tickets to Goa were then hurriedly booked. Yes, it was meant to be a go-away-vacation, but a staycation (for me) would do just as fine, we thought. Too late for Sri Lanka, but Goa would do just as good, we thought.

In the run up to the weekend, I repeatedly forgot that the real reason we were congregating was my birthday. Maybe because I know each of us individually had different, very solid reasons for wanting a break. It’s been a hectic, tiring few weeks for me and the weight of the year zipping by too fast, too soon is catching up with me. Without going into details I will say S and S had their reasons too.

Let me just say it hit the spot for me.

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I essentially took a holiday from the routine myself. Blistering heat with humidity that was through the roof ensured I didn’t stay in and cooked as I might have originally planned. There was plenty of good Goan food, fresh urrak, mangoes, birthday cake, sangria, lots of beer, pinacoladas and I’m pretty sure I haven’t finished the list. We hit some really local dive bars, seated in plastic chairs behind curtains, eating the freshest seafood and winging it with the local urrack.

Confession: for all the times I visit the beach, I hadn’t been swimming in Goan waters in about two years. Going to the right beaches, three days in a row, the insane heat, lack of tourists and the perfectly warm water was too tempting and I broke my two year dry spell over the weekend too.

Through it all, conversation didn’t stop. And when it did, it felt okay. It’s the best kind of company to have when you can sit in perfect, comfortable peace with each other, guess what the other person is thinking and say so much without saying a word.

There was enough sweat, the sea and even a touch of (happy)tears to complete the triumvirate of things that can cure anything. We had planned so much and though no amount of time will ever be enough to do it all, we got a lot done. Ticked off a lot of the things from the must-do-this-when-we’re-in-Goa-next list.

The weekend had all the essentials – food for the heart

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body

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and soul

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The sun set on my birthday with goodbyes in the middle of the night. Thank god I was half asleep, or I might have cried.

Right then, 33. Bring it. I’m ready.