Today is a day off because of the rain. Schools were canceled and all students have a holiday. At home, we wait for snow. Here, the kids must wait for rain.
I stayed home until about 10 am and then walked over to the center. Instead of my traditional clothing, I wore a skirt and top from home in order to slog through the rain. I ended up detouring a bit, as the street that I usually walk down was flooded. All for naught - the street that the center is on must be lower than the surrounding areas and seems to become a wading pool when it rains. I slogged through, put down my umbrella, and walked into the office to check with my supervisor, who sent me back home because most of the students had canceled their appointments. On the way home, I took the direct route, wading through water about three or four inches deep in places, with my skirt clinging to my legs and the sleeve of my blouse starting to soak through. Still, the women were wearing saris and picking their way along the roads, and passengers on motor bikes were holding umbrellas over the heads of the drivers and going along as if nothing was unusual.
The two things that my daughters asked about when we talked to them yesterday is what I'll write about today and tomorrow. First, what is my job like, and second, how about the food? Today, a bit about the food.
Our most truly authentic eating so far has been at Mahabalapuram. We went to a local restaurant, "non-veg," (almost all eating places are labeled "veg," meaning no meat, or "non-veg," meaning meat and seafood are served). From the road, the sign said "Food Plaza," which may mean a general restaurant, but on that I'm not sure. We walked into a very cold, air-conditioned room with several Formica tables. The first thing that the host asks is "hand wash"? Because it is traditional to eat with your right hand, most restaurants have either a washing place against the wall, or in this case, behind some swinging doors. We followed directions, went and washed our hands, then were seated at a table right by the door.
Menus arrived, and the only tricky part was trying to order. Tour books recommended having tiger prawn or fish, as the town is beside the Indian Ocean and there's lots of fishing. Our waiter was very, very quiet, to the point that I could not hear him, and he kept asking us "one or two"? I was not sure if he was trying to find out how many meals we wanted, or how many people would be eating, or how many side dishes. I pointed to the man at the table beside us, who had a heap of rice on a banana leaf and a yellow plastic tray with several dishes of different things, and tried to convey that what was what we wanted. The language barrier was high, unfortunately, but finally we closed the deal, not sure what we would be getting but feeling relatively proud that we were eating out.
Here's what arrived, in stages: first, two small dishes of curry, one with chicken and the other with perhaps a shank bone - I took the meat off and the bone part was semi-circular and looked cartilaginous. The sauces were great - spicy, a bit hot, but not too much so. Also, a bowl of white rice and a plastic tray with several small dishes - an eggplant dish, something with spinach, a raita (yogurt mixed with a vegetable or fruit), a dish of something sweet and coconuttish with skinny noodles and one cashew nut, and a few other things. You scoop a heap of rice onto your tray (or leaf), spoon over some of the curry, mix it with the fingertips of your right hand, and then do a sort of pinch-scoop-bring your hand toward your mouth and mouth toward your hand and eat. Although the curries were spicy (though not as hot as many things I've had in the States - maybe they have a special pot for babies, elderly, and newbies), once you mix it with the rice, or eat some raita, it is tempered.
We worked on these dishes for a bit. Every once in a while, a waiter would head outside with a tray, bringing food to the drivers. Or people would walk out of the restaurant after eating. Because we were seated by the door, there was some traffic going past. The people would look at us, but hopefully we were making a decent impression by focusing on our food and by eating with our fingers.
And the "one or two"? Turns out we were ordering the number of tiger prawn that we wanted. We'd ordered four, and that was enough to feed a large family plus friends. A tiger prawn is about the size of a very small lobster, and next time, the answer will be "one."
Other than this, we've been eating at home most days. A cook drops a lunch off at about noon each day. It consists of several small dishes - some vegetable things (everything is cut up very small, mixed with some spices or coconut or lentils - it may be a base of green beans or a cabbage or turnip or potatoes), some rice (sometimes white, sometimes mixed with saffron and tomatoes and hot peppers), dal (a soupy lentil dish - the main protein), and maybe some chappatis. She is accustomed to cooking for Westerners, so the food is bland from a traditional South Indian's perspective, and I was starting to think that I was ready for it to be hotter. Then, today, we had some peppers mixed in with the rice. I tried one, and you know what - maybe not so ready...
The things that I do miss are milk for my coffee and cereal in the morning and something crispy and salty to snack on. The milk, I could buy daily, but have been too busy to do so. And with daily power outages, I'm not ready to use milk that's been holding in the refrigerator while it's off. (What makes me think that the same thing will be true of the milk that comes from the store is a good question.) The other part - the desire for something crispy and fresh - is somewhat filled by what I cook for dinner. I usually do something like stirfried vegetables with some rice, or a pasta with vegetables in it. And then, as much fresh fruit as I can eat. Tangerines, tiny little bananas, a citrus fruit that seems to be a cross between a grapefruit and an orange, pineapples that are smaller and not as sweet as the ones we get at home, and papaya, which is an acquired taste for me. Yesterday a colleague brought me two to show me what they look like when ripe and ready for eating. Still, even for natives, papaya are a mystery - some can be sweet and some not so much, and you can't tell until you cut into it. And pomegranates are in season. Do you eat the seeds or just the red flesh around the tiny seeds? I ate the whole thing, my husband, just the fruit part.