In 2010 Sian embarked on what would have been a year long backpacking trip around the world. Four months into the trip her mother was diagnosed with cancer and she returned home. She visited India, Vietnam and Cambodia, in this blog post she reflects on that trip.
The first meal I had to find for myself in Varanasi was a challenge to say the least. When I arrived in Delhi I was met by a driver who took me and my friend to our hotel. The hotel had a travel agent across the street who arranged our tour of northern India. During the few days we spent in Delhi we were given a guide to help show us around. He was a nice guy, he took us to all of the main areas of interest and helped us to fathom the often confusing cultural and social differences in the sensory explosion that is Delhi. He took us to different restaurants, showed us how to eat with our hands and helped us buy food from street vendors. He was a useful guy to have around and I was sad to leave him behind when we caught the night train to Varanasi. We had a meal on the train and managed to buy fruit and snacks at a stall near our hotel. The next day we got breakfast in the hotel and found ourselves a cheap hostel close to the Hanuman Ghat. So five days into our adventure and feeling pretty smug we had survived thus far, we ventured to the streets to hunt and gather our first meal.
The early evening streets were bustling with life, everyone was busy going here, rushing there, praying, singing, peeing, shopping, coughing and spitting. We walked in a daze, examining every bit of human behavior out on display, wondering what stories lay behind the individuals in the crowd. We walked and walked, looking for a place to eat. I can not recall if we expected to find a McDonalds or a Royal Tandoori Curry house, but I know we did not find either. I think I was expecting getting a meal in India to be a bit like Curry Mile in Manchester but a bit more foreign, it was far from that. I could see people going into buildings but none of them looked like restaurants, were they shops? homes? temples? I had no idea. Every now and then we came across what we assumed was an eating establishment, people called to us “Hello mam, come in, take a seat, eat here!” Being new to the India experience we were petrified of contracting Delhi-belly and still sanitizing our hands every half hour. We had no idea of the accepted hygiene standards and dismissed most of the places we passed.
After what may have been decades walking without any sign of the a fore mentioned Curry Mile, we made the decision to stop at the next place which was serving food. We saw a place from across the street, it looked busy with lots of people coming and going. After some consideration, we figured if the locals were eating there it must be safe. We crossed the street and asked the price. “Oh please please, come eat with us, no charge, no charge.” said the maitre d, looking excited and ushering us in. We took our seats at a shared table and discussed how much we thought the meal would actually cost. After deciding we were now committed and we would have to pay, no matter what they charged us, we let them bring us some food.
We were served a flavoursome vegetable and potato curry with chapatis and set about using our new hand eating skills to wolf it down. The gentleman across from us agreed it was a lovely meal, he then went on to tell us it was the first time he had eaten that week. Two new diners joined us at our table, one had wooden crutches and a missing lower leg, the second looked as though he may have had polio. As we finished our meal we looked up from our table at the other people in the restaurant. It was like a scene from a Victorian work house, every sort of street urchin, cripple and beggar you can imagine crammed around tables and eating like their lives depended upon it. Confused by what we saw, we asked the man serving the food if we could pay for what we ha eaten and leave. “No charge, no charge mam. This food is from God, from the Temple, thank you please.” Still unsure what had happened and expecting to pay on the way out we bid farewell to our fellow diners and headed for the door. The restaurant was even busier now and a queue had formed outside, but these were not people looking for a bite to eat; these were starving beggars and street children. We left our Bollywood Oliver Twist themed restaurant to smiles and thank yous and no one asking for payment. We stood outside caught up in the confusion and watch to try and make sense of what had just occurred. Then the realisation dawned on us; we had just eaten in a poor house! We had filled our fat white bellies with the free food provided by the temple for the poor, sick and needy people of India. We were surely either going straight to hell, or worse a nasty case of Delhi-belly in the morning. Mortified, we crept back to the hostel and waited for the obligatory lightening bolt, the ground to open up or a rumble in our stomachs.
A few days later we found out that yes, we did eat the free food from the temple which was intended for the poor. However, the Indian people see it as a great honor to have westerners join them for dinner and sharing food with them brings good luck to all involved. Which is probably why our stomachs held up so well.
Do you have a similar experience? What are your experiences of hospitality when traveling? How did you find the food in India?