The one about a hotel and unlikely friendships…

I have been known to write some rather self indulgent posts out here.. about me and the honorable myself. And however hard it may be for me to admit it, some of the finest moments of my life have been ones that would have remained forever incomplete had it not been for the kindness and generosity of the people I have known. Let me tell you a story, a real one at that. It’s a story about a van filled with people from Vietnam, India and the USA. No, I am not about to narrate a thoroughly racist joke… promise.

This winter, I found myself in snow-swept Pennsylvania for 3 weeks for an assignment… and the living arrangements at my hotel included the use of a hotel shuttle for commuting to work. So each day early morning, a bunch of us homeless souls would trudge into the hotel lobby, powered solely by the excellent dark coffee that the hotel liberally plied on us. And there we stood, a rather sullen group. People did not talk much, preoccupied with the day at work that lay ahead, or just grumpy about being out in the cold when they hotel bed had been more than welcoming. So like kids waiting for a school bus by the road side, we waited in the hotel lobby waiting for Lonnie to bring the shuttle around.

Lonnie ! The driver of the shuttle; he instantly became our new best friend. Greeting us with a smile that seemed for a while to warm up the frigid winter cold. The shuttle, well it was a rather huge van. Large , comfortable, nice, warm.. much like Lonnie himself !

The shuttle was our oasis of warmth as we were driven through snow, sleet, rain, black ice or whatever else the Pennsylvania weather had to throw our way… making a stop every so often to drop someone at their destination before moving on to another. I would play loud music in my ear phones to while away the half hour or so that was my commute…. Lost in my own world of familiar notes and melodies…

Come to think of it, hotels like airports, form the backdrops of a million untold stories. People live a part of their lives in impersonal hotel rooms, perhaps come to decisions that alter their professional or personal lives, rejoice and celebrate… and as soon as they move on, every sign of their presence from the very space they occupied is removed diligently.

Empty glasses, crumpled bed sheets and sachets of coffee… cleaned, removed and replaced. The air refreshed and wilting flowers removed from cut glass vases…

Hotels… offer the most personalized service by removing every sign of the personalities of those who spend time in them ! Not that I would have it any differently ! Imagine spending time in a hotel room with the last occupant’s tooth brush still lying by the wash basin !

So there were some lucky people who visited Valley Forge Pennsylvania for a day or two in the middle of winters… some rather unfortunate souls who spent an entire weekend there. And there were those like me who were probably getting drunk somewhere when their quota of luck was being allocated… we stayed for weeks together. Each day I boarded the shuttle with a group of folks from Vietnam… exchanged sympathetic comments with each other and reminisced about our warm countries while Lonnie drove us through the snow. We were noticeably more cheerful and talkative when the shuttle did its rounds in the evenings picking us up once again to take us back to the hotel where food and drinks awaited us.

Tung was the first guy from Vietnam I made friends with. Meeting him made me realize rather guiltily how little I knew about Vietnam. Each evening, once we were back at the hotel, we had our dinner together, full of questions about the countries we were from. How strange it is, Vietnam is so close to India in terms of geography and culture, but I seem to know more about the US and Europe. I wonder why the collective eye of the Indian population seldom turns eastwards… it’s a world lot closer to home and equally fascinating. I spent many a night after having met my new friends from Vietnam reading up about their country… at least the next time I meet a guy from Vietnam I will have more to discuss with him other than music…

Music !

Tung is an accomplished musician. Perhaps the best guitarist I have had the pleasure of having heard in front of me. I wonder what is it with me and friends with guitars…. be it Dwarahat, Hyderabad, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York or now Valley Forge! In each city I have made friends with some one or the other who played the guitar. One day, late at night, Tung arrived at my hotel room with a guitar in hand… I mixed a few drinks and Tung played his music. It was by far one of the most enjoyable evenings in a long long time.

Come to think of it… a guy from India, mixing American Bourbons, for a guy from Vietnam playing an electric guitar manufactured in Japan, singing Simon & Garfunkel songs we had both heard at college !

Sometimes, the world seems so much smaller, and simpler…Thank You for the music Tung.

Our trips in the hotel shuttle were now full of chatter. We told each other of where were from, and what awaited us when we went back. To some it was family, or perhaps a girlfriend and a job or whatever else we had chosen to call home. Lonnie took the role of the grand old man (which he is ) and gently admonished the recklessness of some of us younger ones.

I never had to plug in my ear phones during my commutes again…

Thank you Lonnie, it was good to feel cared for in a foreign land.

And then, we all went back home eventually. I returned to India, and the folks from Vietnam left Valley Forge in the space of the next one month. Will we ever meet again? Who knows… it’s a funny world. We all stay in touch via the internet… and being in IT we will probably end up in the same spot on the globe again sooner or later. And Lonnie? Well he is still at Valley Forge… genially smiling as he usually does, sheparding folks from one place to another, being friendly the way he is…. that is when he is not writing on walls in Facebook !

Who says hotels are only home of the transient… memories of the friends I made at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania will probably last me a lifetime…

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Coffee at Mani’s Cafe

So here I was in Sri Rangam, which is a busy little temple town in the district of Tiruchirapally in Tamil Nadu, and that also, happens to be my hometown. I had come to visit my grand parents & my mom who was camping there and guess what- it was turning into an impromptu mini reunion! Suddenly there were aunts & uncles & cousins and it felt like the good old times when we would gather during summer holidays or during someone’s wedding…lots of people, lots of noise, lots of food & lots of fun…so well, one of the days my dad has a brilliant idea- that we all go out to have breakfast. We all set out, at 7:45AM, an unearthly hour in Pune, but there, we were already late. If you have been to Sri Rangam, you would know we have narrow streets lined with little shops & pavements brimming over with hawkers & the roads a mumble jumble of people hurrying towards the temple and bicycles tinkling away & cycle rickshaws & the odd honking autorickshaw, all bustling & bursting in & around the huge temple complex of Lord Ranganatha. If you were lucky, you could meet the temple elephant ambling away slowly, probably taking a walk? I remember I used to be thrilled when I caught sight of him…Now on one such street, just beyond the Raja Gopuram, was Mani’s café, a little place which you would have totally missed had you not known it was there…

Have you ever been to Tamil Nadu? Well the men usually wear a lungi or a veshti ( essentially a dhoti) which is worn folded by half so that its sort of like an above-the-knee wrap around – which I think is quite the appropriate garment for the sticky heat of that state. The veshti is always white, worn usually with a crisp white shirt.We south Indians revere all things fair & white.Well one such veshti clad man waved us into an interior chamber at Mani’s (probably the owner, I don’t know) and we somehow managed to save ourselves from the waiters rushing hither & thither juggling their plates of masala dosai & jugs of sambar, & plonked ourselves at two tables…with benches instead of chairs.. One of the men came forward immediately ( he had a folded crisp white towel that hung on one side of his shoulder – which gave one the feeling of military like efficiency & also that here was a man of importance.) He reeled off the menu with a casual confidence that comes of repeating it for probably the fiftieth time that morning – “inniki enna kidaikkum?” “idli-vada-idiappam-dosai-puri masala-pongal” (yes, my mouth was secretly watering) We all gave our own orders , and before we knew it, our leafy plates were laid out before us. Food here was served the traditional tamil way, that is on plantain leaves – trust me, it’s a lot of fun, if you know how to ( my brother still doesn’t) And just think about it- it’s a brilliant cost & time saving mechanism – since it does away with crockery completely & therefore someone to wash them, besides being supremely eco friendly- nature’s very own disposable plates! One of my cousins, who like myself, is a pretext for a tamilian, whispered urgently into my ear “they don’t have plates here! ” & I had the smug satisfaction of telling her this is how it is…
Our orders came in one by one..I had asked for a masala dosai. I was just about to bite into it when one of the Sambar juggling waiters came & poured a torrent of sambar right on top of my dosa! Before I could protest at this, in comes another guy to pour chutney right on top of the sambar- so now I had this soggy dosa-sambar-chutney mix topped with my irritation – apparently they didn’t believe in bowls in this place. But still, soggy or not, my dosai was beckoning to me & soon I was tucking into it with gusto, as were all the others. Between seconds & extra helpings we soon finished & the famous filter coffee was ordered. Coffee is the staple beverage in South India & if you were a non coffee drinker, like me, well, you could get looks ranging from astonishment to bewilderment to the kind of look one gives to a neighbour whose girl has run away to marry, O Lord, a North Indian 🙂 –- pity? Yes that’s what it is, I think…Anyway, the coffee is had in a davara-tumbler – davara being a cylindrical katori with a flat rim, and a tumbler being , of course a tumbler. The steaming hot coffee is then poured back & forth from davara to tumbler till the time it cools down a bit & the coffee becomes light & frothy, & sipped slowly while chanting our thanks to the gods for this manna from heaven. Now Mani’s Café had an innovation to add to this- they gave us black coffee in the tumbler, which was tilted upside down in the davara, while the davara itself had the milk separately in it!! Probably to give us a feeling of having made good with our colonial upbringing…

Soon, this too was over & we were ready to go. Or rather, they were ready to let us go – it was a busy place, & not really one where you could dawdle over your cup of coffee with a book… we decided to move. Breakfast was over, & chatting & laughing & squinting in the sun, we left for home.

Its amazing how you never really see things when they are all around you. Actually you never see things until they are not there for you to see…and then they are suddenly so clear. Srirangam & Tamilian traditions were all somewhat of a drag for me till the time I married a North Indian (yes, I was the one, though I didn’t run away 🙂 ) I somehow see both with new eyes today, in fact , I feel I am really only seeing them, now. Its only when you go away, that you have perspective. And only then you realize what it is you had up close. I remember wondering briefly about having an identity crisis marrying a Lucknowite, but surprise, surprise, I think am more Tamilian now than I ever was before….Yes, I might still look uncomfortable with flowers in my short hair, and I might still prefer chai over filter coffee, But I most definitely believe that chilled curd rice with pickled raw mango is the best thing in the world……hmmmm…

Street Outside theRaja Gopuram, further in is Mani's Cafe

You can hear the whistle blow a 100 miles…

As the train finally started moving, I could barely contain my excitement. Pressed to the window, watching the people & the hawkers & the waiting room & the Wheelers Stall all pass by with increasing speed, my mind crowds with multiple emotions- excitement, anticipation, & somewhat strangely, a peacefulness.
I love train journeys. I am traveling with my dad to my native town in interior TamilNadu, and apart from the excitement of meeting all my relatives, the most awaited aspect of this vacation was this – the train journey! That I am traveling with my dad, after ages, brings back a flood of nostalgia…and the landscape outside changes to twenty five years of flashes of memories…

Train journeys – how much preparation went into them! Days before we (us kids) would decide what luggage to take & argue with mom about the clothes to carry, the number of books & comics, what games to fit in. Travelling games usually would be Uno, Memory, Ludo etc. There was this phase when all the kids in the neighbourhood, probably the country, went crazy after WWF cards, and Racing cards & what not & my brother was one of them. So these would be carried along too.

Food preparation used to be a huge activity in itself. Now that I have seen more of the world I have realized that every family has its own staple travel food- For example,My husband’s family, who are from UP, used to carry parathas or puris with a dry aloo ki subzi. In fact, we are carrying some of the yummy stuff with us right now. Many of us must have seen Gujaratis or Marwaris travel- boy- I don’t think they have any separate journey food- They somehow manage to carry the very same meals they have at home on travel too, from farsaan to salad to pickle!
For us, Tam Brahms that we were, Idlies & thayir sadham (Curd Rice!) was the most common staple. Mum would prepare idlies by the dozen & would carefully smear each with an oil & gun powder paste, instead of carrying the usual sambar-chutney which would spoil. Sometimes instead of idlies we would have puliyodharai (tamarind rice) or lemon rice. Curd Rice however was omnipresent. It was fragrantly seasoned with coriander & curry leaves, green chillies & ginger for a subtle bite with a sprinkling of mustard seeds & urad dal. If it were summer, we would have freshly cut pieces of raw mango with salt & chilli paste to go with- merely the thought of this combination is making my mouth water! Its true – curd rice & Tam Brahms are inseparable-whatever part of the world they are in or however many cuisines they enjoy! Now apart from the food we carried, there would be a lot of intermittent snacking going on, where every hawker who passed by was stopped, his wares examined, & more often than not, sent on his way lighter.. and what about all the chais & coffees?

“Cha—i—ya, chai-yya…” “Bhaiya- ek chai dena.” As I sip on my third chai of the journey, I can’t help but think how those days have undergone a change.
Those were the days when second class travel was the norm and AC a rare luxury. When train bathrooms didn’t give you nightmares from days before.When train food was fun & hygiene was simply a word in the dictionary. When hawkers added to the excitement instead of being a nuisance. When time was our own and no one was in a hurry….
You know we would usually reach the station about 2 hours earlier, because , well, my father is a cautious man , to say the least. So that would mean a good 2 hour time pass at the station – as a child I guess a railway platform is a fascinating place – there s so much happening! Now, all that I can see is an unbearably dirty station, stinking & smelling of the sweat of all the people jostling each other for space with railway carts, luggage, hawkers, beggars & the odd stray animal. Hair raising to say the least, but then, I am the one who has changed…

I like to simply look out the window… the whizzing varying landscape fascinates me…here field after field of sun flowers.. there you have mangroves for miles.. rice fields pass by now, with a solitary farmer trudging along side his crop…then a beautiful serene vast expanse of water- was that a crane that broke the surface?…then a bridge comes & the steady clatter of the wheels changes to a slower deep baritone & I look in awe at the river flowing beneath, always thinking, what if…? Here comes a city..a line of impatient lorries & cars & scooters straining against the level crossing….the window is actually like a bioscope..
There usually would be a mini World War between my brother & me- who would get the window seat? Usually, I being the elder one, always got to be the larger hearted one & had to give him whatever he wanted. The many sacrifices an elder sibling has to make for the ever-demanding never-satisfied greedy younger ones is not funny  Well anyway we would arrive at some kind of amicable arrangement for the window…I remember this one time when he & I were traveling all by ourselves for the very first time- from Chennai to Hyderabad to meet our cousins. Boy were we excited or what! I remember we kept chatting & giggling non stop throughout the journey….

Its getting dark as I am writing this now. I am snuggled beneath my sheet with my curtains drawn & my little over head light shining a little round spot on this page as I write…I think am sleepy now.

As I switch off the light & lie down, I am happy & peaceful as my eyes are lulled to a close with the soothing rhythmic movement of the train echoing in my sub conscious…

A new beginning…

I have often written here about my struggle with cholesterol and our fascination with running. I have created a new blog that I hope to use to chronicle how I am trying to combine the two. And am also intend to use the new blog as a very public reminder to myself that I need to complete the half marathon at Mumbai in 2011.

Ashishandradhika will continue the way it has always been, a shared space for me and Radhika to write about whatever we feel like, the new blog though, will hopefully be far more focused on topics related to health, nutrition and exercise.

If you feel like taking a look, here is ‘Running to Save My Life’!