As an opportunistic traveler, I’ve always got my ear to the ground for chances to travel. Friend is spending the last year of her art history master’s program in Florence? Book a flight to Italy. Other friend accepted a temporary position in Auckland? Time to fulfill my dream of visiting New Zealand. So when my brother Ian announced that he and his then-girlfriend P. were getting married, and that they would be celebrating not just in the U.S. but in India, I was thrilled. Hello trip to India! (And, y’know, yay for them getting married and stuff.)
That was a couple years ago. Since then, Ian and P. got married in a small civil ceremony in Seattle (where they live) and celebrated with their west coast friends. My parents began thinking of an east coast reception. In the meantime, P.’s parents — who are from India but currently live in Thailand — began planning the Indian wedding. We were invited, of course, but not just for the wedding: They wanted to take us on a tour of South India. They wanted to plan everything for us, from organizing a big van with a driver to booking our hotels to engaging tour guides for the temples we’d visit. A little stunned by all this work they were doing on our behalves — on top of planning the wedding itself! — we said, “…okay!”
Last month, all their planning came to fruition. Steven, my parents, my cousin, my sister, my sister’s boyfriend, and I (and Ian and P., of course) all trekked to South India for a two-week wedding and road trip extravaganza. Truthfully, I wondered whether all the planning would diminish my enjoyment. I’m not typically a group traveler, preferring to plan things myself and strike off on my own or with another travel companion. So how would a weeklong road trip with 11 other people, where our itinerary was scheduled in a massive Excel spreadsheet, work out?
Well. It worked out juuust fine. As soon as I realized I’d have to give up any control over our destinations and day-to-day plans, I did just that. I readjusted my expectations and decided this was an opportunity to sit back and enjoy myself, stress-free. No planning needed. No worry about scheduling intra-India flights or booking a tour guide or deciding where to visit. P.’s parents took care of everything, from providing bag upon bag of homemade vegan road trip snacks to booking hotel rooms in some seriously beautiful locations. I can’t imagine how different this kind of trip would’ve been if I’d been left to my own devices, and I’m actually glad they took the reins. India can be kind of a tough country to travel through, and I appreciated all the insider guidance. We packed a lot into our two weeks, with stops in Kochi, Coimbatore (for the wedding!), Chennai, Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Chidambaram, Swamimalai, Darasuram, Thanjavur, Srirangam, Madurai, and Munnar… whew! During the week-long tour portion, we stayed in a different city location every night, packing our days full of sightseeing. The majority of sites we visited were temples, with a few museums and local attractions (including a tea plantation!) thrown in to spice things up.
Of course, we had to fuel those long temple tours under the blazing Indian sun… and we did so with gusto. And since we’ve been back, curious friends have asked a common question. They’ve seemed less interested in the sites and more interested in the food! Ha. We’ve been barraged with questions along the lines of, “How was the food?!” And, “Was it difficult finding vegan food in South India?”
The food was, in a word, plentiful. It was also delicious. And rich. Very, very rich. Fully half our group was vegan (!), and we also had one vegetarian with nut allergies, so we were quite a mixed bunch with very specific needs. We were able to get vegan food with relatively little fuss, though the nut-free requirement for my sister was a little more challenging.
Ian and P. (the happy couple!) are both vegan, so their wedding meals (yes, meals plural) were vegetarian, with ample vegan options. Those fancy catered meals went on and on — we sat down to a big banana leaf “plate,” which had a little pile of salt and a scoop of my new favorite food: pickle. (This kind of pickle, not pickled cucumbers.) And then the food started coming. Big scoops of fluffy rice. Steaming hot chapati or naan or parotta. Three or four types of gravy, what many of us in the U.S. call curries. Another gravy. A small dish of raw veggies in coconut milk. Another gravy. A bowl of vegan carrot halwa for dessert. Waiters coming by every few minutes, pressing us to take another scoop of this, a little more of that. Me, stomach bursting, having to say no, I can’t, I really can’t, I’m going to explode if I eat more food!
…and then doing it again a few hours later for another meal.
Reader, I am not exaggerating. Those catered meals were epic. But even our everyday meals — whether at the hotels we stayed at or at the little roadside restaurants where we stopped for lunch mid-drive — were also incredible. We’d roll in to a restaurant, all 12 of us, and P.’s mom would start her schpiel with the head waiter: “No ghee or butter in the gravies for these six. Please cook the naan in oil. No cashew paste in the gravies for this one. No ground nuts for her either, she has an allergy!” Then, ten minutes later, out would come a stack of metal platters for a thali. Or, more frequently, a vast assortment of breads and gravies, and maybe some rice (but not usually), and we’d begin stuffing our faces again. Protestations of “But I’m not hungry; I rarely eat this much at home; really I can’t eat now!) were met with alarm.
If my stomach was protesting another heavy, rich meal, I’d opt for a ubiquitous offering on nearly every menu: Chinese noodles. This Indo-Chinese fusion dish was deceptively simple and could be ordered with lots of veggies; my favorite iteration was a peppery garlic dish I would love to recreate. Another favorite for a lighter meal? A crisp, thin masala dosa, served with coconut chutney and assorted other gravies, maybe stuffed with potatoes. So good.
One thing I didn’t indulge in very often? Dessert! Nearly all South Indian sweets are made with milk, so ordering off the menu could be difficult. That said, P.’s sweet mom had a friend specially make some vegan coconut burfi for us, which we gobbled down during our road trip (along with assorted other homemade Indian snacks). One hotel was able to specially make payasam with coconut milk, and another hotel gamely attempted a vegan chocolate cake for P.’s dad’s 60th birthday (an especially important birthday, which we were happy to celebrate together). And the halwa we had during the wedding was superb. We did also indulge in some uber-rich vegan chocolate gelato at Auroville, a sort of utopian settlement with an earth-friendly vibe. It was more than welcome in the heat.
In that gelato photo, you can see the mehendi on my hands. Since my sister, mom, cousin and I were all part of the wedding ceremonies, we were encouraged to get some mehendi done. Of course, our designs were tame compared to the beautiful — and expansive! — bridal designs that covered P.’s entire lower arms, hands, and feet. P.’s mom also provided saris for us to wear during the wedding, taking our measurements for custom-made blouses and specially ordering jute (rather than silk) saris for my mom and me, which I so appreciated. I felt a little hesitant about wearing a sari at first, not wanting to engage in cultural appropriation. But since we were part of the wedding and were being encouraged to wear them, I obliged (and loved it!). Two women came in to wrap us, then they pinned fragrant jasmine blooms in our hair and encouraged us to put on bindis and our matching jewelry. P.’s mom also bought tunics and pants for us to wear during the tour portion of our trip, which was so gracious. I just surrendered to the experience. :)
Another new experience for me? Seeing street dogs. I’ve traveled pretty extensively in Europe, but never anywhere with a large population of street animals. I won’t lie; it was difficult. I felt like I had to turn off the part of me that sees an animal and automatically wants to pet/love/save her. Actually, though, the dogs we saw didn’t seem to be too badly off. Most looked relatively healthy, not emaciated or otherwise ill, and a few even had collars. We only saw one really unhealthy-looking dog, and that was admittedly pretty difficult. But watching a mama dog curl up by the side of a random woman one night while we sat listening to some traditional music at a temple? Beautiful. The woman was a little unsure at first, only petting the dog hesitantly, but soon they warmed up to one another and it was so sweet to see.
We also saw plenty of cows and goats (obviously owned), and they all seemed pretty happy, scrounging for fruit and veg on the side of the road. It was a little hard to watch when they were nosing among piles of trash, though. We couldn’t help wondering how much plastic waste they accidentally ingest. Which leads me to the biggest thorn in my side during this trip: my usage of plastic.
Before this trip, I couldn’t have told you the last time I drank out of a disposable plastic water bottle. Truly. I have my own metal bottle, and I just abstain if I’m without it. Steven and I try to cut down on our single-use plastics, but on this trip? We went through so. many. plastic. water. bottles. It hurt my heart.
To ensure that our drinking water was safe and wouldn’t make us ill, our hosts bought water bottles in bulk. I drank from them; sometimes there wasn’t an alternative, and I was glad our hosts had provided them. Becoming dehydrated during our tours was not exactly a viable alternative! That said, I did have my reusable bottle with me, so whenever we saw potable water available, I filled up. But that happened only rarely; there were filling stations at the Coimbatore airport when we were flying to Chennai, and the aforementioned Auroville also had them. I also drank from the pitchers at restaurants whenever possible, but still: I used a lot of plastic. And I feel terrible about it.
So now that I’m back in the States, I’ve imposed a kind of plastic penance on myself. I’m being extra conscious about my plastic usage; a new grocery store with an expansive bulk section just opened nearby, so I want to increase the amount of staples I buy in bulk. Shopping at the farmers market and gardening helps, too. Plus, our local Trader Joe’s is moving to a much less convenient location; while I’m gutted that I won’t be able to drive five minutes during the workday to pick up ingredients for dinner, I’m also kind of glad not to have the temptation to pick up whatever vegan convenience product catches my eye! I’m definitely guilty of making impulse Trader Joe’s purchases, and they’re rarely packaged sustainably. A lot of their produce also comes pre-packaged in plastic; I try to avoid that stuff, but sometimes I cave. No more.
That’s a bit of a diversion from my ramblings about India, but it’s all related. My actions here in Maryland have a greater, wider effect, and I try to be conscious of that fact. The movement to cut down on single-use plastics is worldwide; while reading Indian newspapers, I saw plenty of articles about plastic bag and plastic straw bans, and the one time I bought something (tea and spices, ha), the shop put my purchases in a reusable bag that’s become my lunch bag. (That said, the spices were packaged in plastic. I buy bulk spices here, but I couldn’t pass up the super-cheap pack of bay leaves, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, dried ginger, star anise, nutmeg, and peppercorns.) But again, I digress. :)
…so, India? Yeah, it was a pretty good trip. And I can’t wait to go back.