Good food and President Abdul Kamal
Trip Start Oct 01, 2005
17Trip End Mar 27, 2007
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Later that day, after wandering through a maze of alleyways, food and flower markets and ancient neighborhoods, we discover the New Arya Bhavan restaurant. The restaurant sits at a busy and loud intersection. The large, high-ceilinged room, complete with several slow spinning metal fans, has not seen a fresh coat of paint in decades. It feels like a dingy warehouse that has reluctantly accepted its fate as a restaurant. The dozen, white and red plastic booths are packed. In the front is a bakery filled with every type of Indian sweet and pastry imaginable. On the grayish wall is a white plastic sheet with red lettering - the menu. Twenty or so items are categorized by the time of the day when they are available. Deep in the back is the kitchen, separated from the dining area by a half wall with mostly broken and mostly empty shelves.
We find an empty booth and based on the owner's recommendation order chili parota (kind of like Indian gnocci in a hot chili paste), puri with sambar (puffed bread with stew of vegetables, lentils and spices) and masala dosa. The sweet coffee is brought from the stand across the street, where men are loitering, enjoying small glasses of their caffeinated drink of choice and a smoke. The outside wall of the shop has an ingenious public lighter. (Two metal screws in a socket with a connecting screw welded in between them. To light a cigarette, turn on the switch and wait for the metal to heat up.) The porata arrives first. It is ridiculously delicious
A few days later I squeeze onto a noisy and hot bus packed with religious pilgrims travelling to Rameswaram - the Varanassi of the south. A holy city with numerous temples, it is situated on an island separated from the tip of the Indian sub-continent by a small channel. The main temple, Ramantha Swamy, contains 22 sacred pools, thought to purify all who bathe in the waters. Unfortunately, there are no available accommodations in Rameswaram. President Kamal is visiting in a few days and all rooms are being used by his entourage, extra police and army, as well as the usual masses of pilgrims. With the help of a local fisherman/snorkel guide/businessman/vendor of souvenirs/hustler I find a place to spend the night - the back room of his friend's chai stand. Very rustic - floor made of sand, thatched roof, mud walls, wooden columns. A large room, its contents include racks of empty coke bottles, broken chairs, wicker baskets, fishing nets, rope and a small outboard engine. When I return later that night, a simple wooden bed has been placed in the midst of the clutter. I sleep exceptionally well and wake early to the sounds of the ocean and what must be the entire fishing community simultaneously clearing their throats of phlegm. A few cups of chai and idlis with coconut chutney later, I rent a one-speed, solid steel, warped bicycle and head towards Dhanuskoti, the windswept sandy tip of the island
Pine forests and palm trees gradually give way to sparsely vegetated sand dunes. Fishing shacks, dugouts and boats line the coast. Outside their homes men repair fishing nets; children play, stopping to wave as I bike past; women wash clothes and spread their colorful saris on the sand dunes to dry; elders relax, smoking beadies and drinking tea. The remains of stone buildings fight a losing battle against the invading sand dunes - an eerie reminder of the devastating cyclones which frequently ravage the coastline. Returning to Rameswaram, an old lady with a basket of dried fish flags me down, pointing to the back of my bicycle. It's ride time. She hops on and we swerve down the empty road together, children pointing and laughing at the somewhat unusual sight. A difficult, very much hating the uncomfortable bike seat and scorching sun 30 minutes later we enter Rameswaram. What a welcoming reception...thousands of flag-waving people standing behind barricades, major police presence, banners. The street is closed to all traffic...well almost all traffic. We continue forward - we are definitely the main attraction. I can't resist and wave at the puzzled onlookers. Suddenly a policeman with a bamboo cane is running at us, screaming at the top of his lungs. Damn...it turns out the festivities are in fact not for us but are for Presidnet Kamal who is scheduled to arrive shortly. Oops. My passenger and I part ways. I move to the side, and while sipping a cup of the ever tasty chai, wait for the pres to show up.