india

Atrophy

 

June, India

I’m afraid that my writing, along with my critical thinking and ability to self-analyze, feel, and reflect, will continue to atrophy if I don’t write more. It is becoming more and more of a struggle to write something coherent with each passing day. Writing is certainly like exercising a muscle – the longer it goes unused, the weaker (and harder to use) it gets. Confidence in its appearance and ability wanes and gives way to further inertia.

So start somewhere, and start simply. Just write, even if it doesn’t make sense, seems self-indulgent, or won’t impress anyone, including the author. To muster up the courage and self-determination required for a lanky, awkwardly-shaped boy to lift those lighter weights in the public arena of the gymnasium is a first victory, upon which greater successes are built. And so here I am re-familiarizing myself with words and their lives and their companions, and relating them to the experiences of my life, here and now. My arrangement of said words, however trite or banal or plain mediocre, is my own, and is new. There’s always something there – a thought, a muscle, a life – that could be nurtured, exercised, and developed into something productive and worthwhile. Convincing myself otherwise might have been the greatest contribution to its gradual atrophy.

Kirk FranklinHello Fear

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Cook

While in India, the most common refrain I’d hear about myself, apart from inquiries as to why I always carried my camera and backpack everywhere or comments concerning my declining weight, was about my cooking. I come from a family where life centers on food; the kitchen is the main hub of activity and the axis on which the day turns. And so it is no surprise that cooking, despite all of the difficulties and complications, became a comfort to me and thankfully a service to others in India. I remember the words of one competitor on the American show, Top Chef: After 9/11 happened, I didn’t know what to do… so I went into the kitchen and I cooked. I suppose, for me, cooking ties me back to the fundamental activities of sustenance that nourish me in more ways than one.

Of course, cooking in different environments comes with its certain challenges. Following the training of my mother, I mostly baked, which can be a challenge in a place where baking isn’t a priority or a common practice, where water and electricity shortages and cuts are frequent, where ingredients are hard to come by, where you have to be more mindful of insects and hungry animals [note to self to write more about that story later]. The recipes I followed were refined methods from my mother and were adapted to what was locally available or feasible, so whenever I made a carrot cake or apple pie or Christmas fruit cake, my mother was right there with me.

Never before have I ever baked as much as I did in India. This could because I also received the nicest, warmest remarks concerning the quality of the dishes produced. Many questioned my career choice as an academic and suggested opening a shop of my own or pursuing a career as a chef. I, too, pose the same questions to myself. While I would certainly not claim to be a great cook, I do take great joy in being able to apply practical skills I have learned over the years to serve others. Some of my fond memories come from dinner gatherings where the following conversations would occur:

Someone’s grandmother (SG): Now let me taste your pie. I’m very good at making pies, so I must have a taste of yours!

Me: Oh, I hope you’ll like it!

SG: [Tastes pie] It’s so delicious!

Me: [Smiles] I’m so glad!

Or grandiose statements, like This is the best cake I’ve tasted in all my 30 years! and He cooks food like in a 5-star hotel! It can be a challenge to introduce new flavours to people’s palettes; not all dishes work, even though they are sourced from mostly local produce, but I think the right combinations and paying attention to the range of tastes of your audience is a very useful refining process that can lead to appreciated, wholesome meals. Some of my most satisfying moments would come from one of the helpers simply accepting my piece of cake or savoury dishes and finishing it all; I found their taste to be the most discerning, and so pleasing them was always an ambition of mine.

Soon after making a few dishes for myself and the family, I started receiving orders for various social gatherings, including birthdays, dinner parties, meetings, church functions, and so forth. I also began baking for a coffee shop.  I was busiest around Christmas, when I think I made thirty cakes in a week or two. In the new year I decided to cut down on the cooking to refocus on my work and allow more time for my writing, but I still managed to answer a few requests here and there, including conducting a little cooking class for apple pie and chicken pot pie 101. I asked friends to send a few food items through the mail. I’m so thankful for the little food items that came, like instant tom yum mama noodles, kimchi mix, miso paste, and various Japanese snacks. Unfortunately some packages sent from North America never made it (lost/stolen/opened and consumed?), but my mom’s box arrived after much inquiry and after 1-two months delay. In that box were dried, packaged blueberries, which meant I could make orange-blueberry scones in my last two months in the field. These small joys I will cherish.

Nina SimoneFalling in Love Again

Sick

I believe it’s time for a straightforward update.

Since returning to India after a few short escapades in January, I have been hit by various illnesses, mostly pertaining to my apparently fragile (intestinal) constitution. When I’m home, in my own personal space, I am particularly careful about hygiene. I prefer a properly sterilized cooking and eating environment, and am a fan of various cleaning products, especially ones that deliver on the illusion of spring flowers and fresh green apples. When traveling or living abroad, I sometimes abandon, if only slightly, my watch over such issues, knowing how unrealistic my expectations may be in different contexts. That, combined with my desire to eat everything, can lead to dangerous circumstances and results.

It may be a crude affront to the clean, white facade of this blog but I do speak rather frankly about illnesses because, well, what other productive way can it be discussed? I’ve traveled to many places where I’ve had to compromise on standards of hygiene, and have at times of course suffered the consequences; diarrhea in China, constipation in Tanzania, food poisoning in Egypt. But, after 8-9 months here in India, I’ve had more run-ins with bacterial and viral infections than I can recall; more headaches, colds, flu, and general exhaustion than other periods of work abroad. And honestly, I’m tired. Disappointed in myself, and very tired.

A few weeks ago, I decided to walk to the market to cheer myself up. Seeing fresh produce and being surrounded by such a lively atmosphere usually helps me forget what I was so depressed about in the first place, if only for 2 seconds. As I was trudging through the fish section and got body checked by a large metal barrel of fish guts, I thought to myself, this might not do the trick today. Every time I visit this market, I get lost… which is okay, really. I just wasn’t feeling it that day. Then I spotted some mushrooms, something that wasn’t always available before. Excited, I bought half a kilogram, along with some local berries and other basic produce before walking home. That night, I proportioned half of the mushrooms to be sautéed in garlic and butter with some dried herbs, setting the other half aside for a soup the next day. I enjoyed them.

The next day I spent 23 hours on the toilet.

That same day, someone brought to my attention an article in the local newspaper.

I had to see the doctor for the second or third time about stomach-related problems and, as usual, she prescribed a course of antibiotics. Seeing that nothing else would work or bring relief, I completed the course, albeit wary of the effects of consuming so many antibiotics. I vowed never to eat mushrooms here again (for now) and to temper my use of local products.

Not long after that incident, I got sick again. It hit me on Palm Sunday when I wasn’t able to stand from the church pew to sing the hymns. I spent two days either incapacitated in bed or in the bathroom with a fever, painful diarrhea and stomach cramping, and severe bone aches that were reminiscent of the knee pain I felt during my bout of malaria in Nairobi. The pain became too intense on Tuesday morning, when I went to the same doctor who then admitted me to the hospital for the rest of the week. For the first time (since infancy, I suppose) I spent a few nights in the hospital, with a tube inserted into my right arm for constant IV drips, some other unidentified medicines, and early morning and late night injections of antibiotics. I was released recently, and have been resting since. The doctor says it was typhoid.

I don’t dwell on the negatives in this space much, since it might not be the best avenue for that. But nevertheless, the past few weeks have been a bunch of negative adjectives: frustrating, depressing, lonely, challenging, disappointing, sad. And being sick exacerbates everything. Don’t get me wrong – it could be much worse. And yes, I am glad to be alive, and yes, things aren’t that bad, and yes, things could be much more challenging. But I’m tired, so very tired of being a foreigner, of being marginal, of not connecting, of being misunderstood, of the stress and anxiety and unbelonging. And I miss eating. With two more months to go, I just feel exhausted. Too long out of my element, too long looking like someone I sometimes don’t recognize.