Drink the Chai, Eat the Mango

“Why don’t you eat mango instead?”, a friend commented matter-of-factly, as I was complaining about the difficulty of getting good apples at the market in April.

As a Westerner living in India, clinging to old habits can be a way to create familiarity in this sometimes overwhelming country. “Muesli, yogurt and apples for breakfast – how hard can it be?”, I reasoned. This had never been an issue in my native Canada.

I was reminded of a quote from Thoreau, who said “Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” What drink? What fruit? There was never a need to go without orange juice, or apples, at my local Loblaws. Sure, I enjoyed my Tim Horton’s “Ice Cap” during summers and its hot version in the winter, but is that really what “drink the drink” truly means?

DRINK THE DRINK, TASTE THE FRUIT

In desert Rajasthan with its extreme temperatures, winter means more ginger in your chai, and warm water boiled with cumin seeds to soothe scratchy throats. Scorching summer heat means no to chilled water so as to not shock your body, but yes to freshly made sugarcane juice to avoid dehydration. Fall means apples from Kashmir, and Spring brings the delicious mangoes.

“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”

My Western upbringing has conditioned me to expect a steady supply of a wide variety of items, no matter where they come from or how expensive it is to bring them to my doorstep. Coming to India shattered those expectations. What is found in a shop one week might not reappear for months, if at all. Food markets are local and sell only what is in season. Everything is fresh, but also in limited supply.

CLIMATE CONTROL, A LUXURY FEW CAN AFFORD

Most of my life has been spent in places where, whether through air conditioning or artificial heat, temperature was kept at more or less 25°C – my exposure to extreme weather being limited to outdoor leisure activities or short walks between one climate-controlled environment and another.

With daily summer temperatures of 40-45°C for months on end, Indian hotels and other places meant for tourists have no choice but to provide air conditioning if they want their share of foreign business. Even so, in the few local shops that do have AC, it is often turned on only when customers are present – evidence that high electricity prices in India make climate control a luxury. During chilly Northern winters, when poorly insulated buildings can mean indoor temperatures of 10°C or less, people must make do with extra layers of clothing and insufficient space heaters.

Their metabolism having adapted to the environment, Indians are naturally more tolerant of the heat. However, they are not immune to its effects and have learned to adapt the rhythm of their life to this reality. Walking is not a hobby here – if it can be avoided, it usually is. In times of extreme heat, popular wisdom advises to move only when necessary and do so slowly, to find shade, take frequent rest, eat less and drink plenty of water. Ignore at your own risk!

LIFE VS EXPECTATIONS

This attitude of acceptance of ‘what is’ is evidently one of the main reasons why so many tourists come to India in search of inner peace. Despite the many socio-economic issues and visible hardships of daily life, the Indian people display an undeniable serenity that is not so common in the West.

Coming from a culture where much effort and money is spent in crafting our environment to suit our needs of comfort and efficiency, life in India has taught me a great deal about the value of letting go of expectations.

Sometimes it means that you have to wait on the road for a herd of goats to pass through. But it also means that when it’s time, you can enjoy the best mangoes in the world.