Last weekend I finally felt like India embraced me, and I was hugging it right back. I spent a weekend in India’s capital for work and stayed an extra day to explore the city on a mad-dash food tour in old town through temples and surprising little restaurants, using cycle rickshaws for transport.
I traveled to Delhi with a group of colleagues to attend FastCon: a work conference for first and second tour foreign service officers from the five U.S. consulates in India—Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai. We spent a day and a half getting to know each other, talking about work, and learning more about the core skills and responsibilities that come with not just being a consular officer in a country with a bottomless appetite for U.S. visas, but to be a diplomat in India; internalizing our mission’s strategic goals, learning about messaging through public diplomacy, and managing teams. It was a great opportunity because for a long time the pandemic limited our ability to travel, meet with colleagues from other posts, or fund extracurriculars (COVID limited visa processing and thus our revenue).
The conference was held in a hotel that was truly a sight to behold. Yes, many American hotels offer comfortable beds and room service, but comparable hotels (price-wise) in India are like palaces. The décor is old world elegant, employees are at your beck and call, and everything seems to be complementary—from the refreshments in the hotel room, to the drinks at the lounge, to the breakfast buffet where a large team of chefs are ready to make anything from eggs benedict to a giant fresh dosa. Late check-out? No problem. Take the whole day!
Anyway, the luxury was great. But the real highlight of the trip was the food tour I took with a group of colleagues. The arrangements were rather informal so I had no idea what to expect. When we met our tour guide, Harshit, he said simply: “we’re going to start in a Sikh temple and then eat at about six different places, so please don’t eat the whole meal each time.” He’d given about 500 tours before but today turned out to be his last one—he was about to complete some final exams to become a judge.
First, he led us through a Sikh temple and explained the basics of a religion I knew nothing about, other then that men don’t cut their hair and wear turbans. We wrapped our heads in yellow fabric and joined a line that slowly moved through the mosque-like building, stopping briefly to admire “the book,” which is a holy artifact containing the spirits of all past gurus and lies in an ornate bed. We didn’t get to eat though. Even though the temple serves free meals around the clock we only got to see the kitchen. The tour guide didn’t want us to accept the food since it’s not done to waste any of it. And he wanted us to preserve our appetites.
Then we visited a dizzying number of restaurants and street food vendors. It took over five hours and yet we were always in a rush, so I didn’t register most of the names of the places we went. We drank masala chai and ate a varity of parathas (stuffed with lemon, nuts, paneer or vegetables), curries (lentil, potato, pumpkin), samosas (peas), pakora (onion was my favorite) as well as lamb kebab, mutton korma, butter chicken (chicken bathing in butter), fish, jalebi (funnel cake) and multiple desserts (I was full at this point). The only place I remember by name is Karim’s—a grimy backstreet restaurant that was named one of Asia’s best by the Times a number of years ago.
All of the places we ate at were highly credentialed in the sense that they’ve been around for a hundred years or more. None of the places looked like anything I would stop at if I’d been by myself. Hygiene being the main factor. But of course, I’m so glad we did because it was all delicious. (update: I didn't get sick afterwards. Harshit's mantra was "as long as it's cooked, it's okay," which appears to be true.)
It really helped to have an affable tour guide and some really nice colleagues by my side, but I can honestly say that I finally started to feel like I’m really okay living in India. As in: I’m starting to feel excited about exploring it and ready to meet people and engage without feeling like I’m on an alien planet. It’s been about six weeks now so I guess it’s about time to let my guard down, but it surprised me that it even took that long. I haven’t had a single bad experience, so it’s not that. This is a very livable, very interesting place. It’s just unapologetically different from what I’m used to, as places tend to be. Perhaps my surprise wasn’t so much that I felt weird about being in a new place, but more that it’s so big and fast-paced.
This country is busy and not in a bad way—it’s just like I imagined, a swirl of every extreme, traditional and modern, both simple and complex, homogeneous and incredibly diverse at the same time. And it's all very attractive. I just realized how much it has absorbed me already, probably more than other places I’ve lived during the past decade (in five different countries). I eat Indian food once or twice, sometimes three times a day. I bought three elaborate Indian outfits (sarees and lenghas) I never even conceived of before, and all of my travel plans are about seeing more of India rather than going abroad. I’m taking Hindi lessons, read books about India and I’m even going to Bollywood dance practice!