Alternative reality

“I’ll have a flat white with an extra shot and almond milk, please.”

For most of us, that’s just another coffee order. A custom drink unlike the regular rather milky beverage.

However, until recently, that was more than a luxury for me. Before I moved to Australia, I took my coffee black or with home-made oat milk, which I wasn’t a huge fan of anyway. I’m vegan, and so my only option back in India was to go black or go home. I didn’t mind much, because I’ve always felt that functional coffee should be strong, sugarless, and black.

Still, it would’ve been nice to blend a splash of almond milk in my coffee.

Sure, I could still get it off one of those niche supermarkets that almost no one goes to, where they stock about two or three cartons of alternative milk every six months. The reason—almond milk is an imported good. And so, naturally it was far too expensive for my lifestyle. It remained a rare and pricey trinket I could observe from a distance, without ever a hope of possession.

Coffee shops stood no chance of offering it.

Does that sound pathetic?

Because it is.

Now though, I have three cartons of almond milk in my pantry. Yes, it costs little more than regular milk, but it’s still abundant and accessible. That’s first-world privilege.

We don’t often realise that even the most negligible aspects of our everyday life is such a big deal for the rest of the world. Coming from the rest of the world, I am stunned at the level of eschewal in society. Of course, I don’t expect people to worship the alternative milk aisle, but instead, I realise I’ve become more grateful than I thought I could be. It’s a strange side of my character I didn’t know I had—a side that’s so conscious and appreciative of the little things in life.

But let’s talk about something more important.

A child from an average household in a developing country wouldn’t need or want alternative milk.

I didn’t until I went vegan. Although I didn’t grow up vegetarian, my family thrived on vegetable nutrition at least 6 days of the week. Sundays were special—lamb days. Or chicken. Or eating out. You get the idea. 

But, milk was the beverage staple, just as rice was for meals. It was a habit I grew into as I got older, because that’s the way we’ve always done things. No questions asked. It also helps that most Indian foods are largely plant-based. Alternatives weren’t part of the culture, and so weren’t an available option anywhere.

Someone once told me that health-conscious dietary practices are first-world problems. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised it’s true. A family that survives on gruel twice a day wouldn’t bargain or complain about not getting almond milk. Any milk is blessing. 

And when you’re growing up in such an environment, you don’t always know or listen to your body. You’ll just shrug off the bloat from gluten and the gas from milk as just another bad day. Because you’ve never experienced gluten-free, vegan, or raw food habits.

Lack of awareness leads to lack of wants. Which may seem like a good idea, but it also leads to unhealthy practices and lifestyles. Which is the disappointing reality in many of our so-called under-developed countries.

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Perhaps, tea

whee
eeeeee
eeeeeeeee
eeeeeeeeeeee

the boiling teapot brought back memories
arm in hand they’d walked down the aisle
best man and bridesmaid of best friends
it had all started at the rehearsal dinner

when he arrived late and flustered
though she’d been on time, awaiting
her mascara was on before his coat
yet she’d had to wait up for him to suit up

couldn’t bear to see him in the face, anger
brimming on the surface, so threatening
she glanced aside to set her mind at ease
for tardiness was as good as neediness

a cup of tea she’d had as she waited

whee
eeeeee
eeeeeeeee
eeeeeeeeeeee

the boiling teapot jerked her to reality
sitting at home, the mighty housewife
cleaning, washing, washing, and cleaning
everyday household chores multiplying

she’d woken up early that morning
way before he’d even stifled a yawn
yet she stayed in bed for him to rise
for her beloved had to dress, to work

man of the house he was breadwinner,
and she bread maker, just a part-timer
she had much time, she needn’t rush
wasn’t like she had a wedding to blush

perhaps first, she’d have a cup of tea

Artists are sad people

I’ve been living in Canberra for almost two months now. And for a long time, I had trouble believing that I now lived in a first-world country. The main reason is that I grew up in a place where sidewalks are unheard of and pedestrians are more close to the pyre than they are to having priority in the streets. I walked about a kilometre every day to work and every day I grazed whizzing motorcycles, trying hard not to jump at the horns blaring next to my ear.

I don’t mean to sound depressed.

But I was.

It‘s hard not to be. In a society like that, people don’t live—they subsist. Every day is a struggle to get through. There’s always something or another to worry about: bills, rent, school fees, office politics, weak knees, unidentifiable skin allergies, lack of health insurance, yada yada.

And as a blogger, I had so much to talk about. To complain. Things I wished would be better, public services that could’ve existed, footpaths that should’ve been paved, and scowls we could do without.

All these emotions and opinions fed my creativity.

In Canberra, however, I have none of the negative feelings I used to have. For the first time in my life, I don’t have pressing matters chocking my existence, barring my experience of life.

In other words, I have almost nothing to complain about.

That’s scary. Because without something or someone to whine about, I have no writing material. I’ve hit a hurdle, except that this isn’t the dreaded writer’s block.

This is happiness.

Although it’s what I’ve always wanted to achieve for myself, this also terrifies me. Now, unlike before, I don’t have a raging flame fuming my words. Instead, I have to find an impetus elsewhere. I have to work harder to come up with material because my life has nothing newsworthy about it.

Perfect isn’t always good, remember.

When I realised this a week ago, I was anxious at first. Now that life’s plenty of good things, I didn’t know how I‘d sustain as a writer without all the bad things to reflect upon.

Then I understood something big.

So what if all I did today was bussing to the city back? So what if I’m living an ordinary life?

I’m finally free. Free to imagine.

A walk in the forest

During the one month that I’ve lived in Canberra, and for many before I moved, I’ve watched—with growing envy—the city’s locals share glorious pictures of the National Arboretum.

On photos it seemed such a vast area of green nothingness brimming with so much liveliness. Trees smothered brown and yellow during sunsets, mist hanging over unknown mountains, sneaky sunrises playing games of colour in the sky—every picture piqued my curiosity and intensified my urge to be there, live it, and relive it.

Except, I found out soon, the National Arboretum is unreachable by public transport. Although, somewhere in my subconsciousness, I knew I couldn’t just take the bus up there—the many jaw-drop moments I’d seen in photos revealed towering altitudes. Still, it came as a disappointment.

But rejection only makes us want something even more. And when we do get it, at last, we’ll savour it for the rest of our lives.

I will, the Arboretum.

View from the National Arboretum, Canberra
View from the National Arboretum, Canberra

Thanks to a bored brother and a good friend’s decent car, we cruised uphill with my eyes open bright and soul screaming wide. As we went higher and higher, I felt lighter. Trees have that impact on me.

When we stopped and stepped out, I grabbed my jacket to shield myself from the icy breeze. It was the first day of winter and though the sun shone bright, coldness pressed against my skin, tingling my t-shirt, and teasing my boldness to go thermal-less. It wasn’t nail biting, but just enough for me to appreciate the weather without developing a raging hatred towards winter. Nature knows how much to offer and when.

National Arboretum, Canberra
National Arboretum, Canberra

While the cold remained subtle, the views were more pronounced. As far as my eye could reach, I saw nothing but trees—steps upon steps of luscious greenery that refuse to die even in winter. From way above, I was looking down at massive branches appearing to be nothing more than bushes. Ah, Bush Capital indeed.

Amidst the sea of wood, I spotted, like deer in a jungle, benches and footpaths inviting humans to stray away from their handphones and into the amassing wilderness ahead. It wasn’t just a remedy for screen eyes, but rather an invitation to experience the vision of this great green city. With neat guidelines, pathways, and dedicated clearings to enjoy the view from, the Arboretum is the ideal environment for people to take a moment alone with nature without contaminating it with their innate humaneness.

Pine forest at the National Arboretum, Canberra
Pine forest at the National Arboretum, Canberra

As we walked down the path—a path—we came by a large row of pine trees extending to a forest behind them. While the sun prepared to step back for the day, a faint glow erupted from within and beyond the forest, emitting a clarion call for the crazy.

We heard it and heeded it. It’s enchanting to walk into a forest that’s both dense and airy at the same time. It was light enough to see through the trees, but also mysterious and unmoving. The deeper we went, the further we wanted to go. Pine trees always give each other enough space to grow and expand. Like the best of friends. And although they’re upright on a slope, they’re so well rooted that they don’t sway in threatening ways. We could walk quite far into the pine forest and still glimpse the last of the sunset through the branches.

Sunset over the National Arboretum, Canberra
Sunset over the National Arboretum, Canberra

Sitting idle at home two days later, I realised the Arboretum is more than a collection of trees in natural habitat. It’s a trove of magical views, mystic thoughts, and ground breaking moments—a much endearing, must visit.

Making friends

I’ve always had trouble making friends. Possibly because I don’t enjoy large crowds or loud conversations, but probably because I have trouble making friends.

For years in I had only one or two friends with whom I shared a lot and whose lives I was a permanent mark. It took me over ten years to two others who were as bespectacled and as touched in the head I.

Before I got used to it I changed schools. And the friend-making process started again.

It took me a year and a half to find the one person who was around for a while. But alas, it was only a two year course.

Life happened. She went to college (or university) while interned intending to study from home. In the five years since, I found two co-workers I call friends.

And now I’ve moved again. This time, it’s across the seas. Down Under is my new found land.

But as is always the case with moving, I still had to make friends.

The older you get, though, the harder it becomes. You’re conscious of wet hair flying about, dry skin cracking in the wintery breeze, and the damned jet lag leaving you like a zombie every morning. Approaching people is daunting, your low voice could reveal your fear, and you never know if the old man returning your smile is being polite or responding to a whole different social cue.

So it was for me. I encountered folks walking in tank tops and shorts, running in speedos with dogs on their tail, and striding in suits and pointed shoes with a McDonald’s bag in their hands. Should I smile? Nod? Purse my lips and raise my eyebrows, ‘Sup?

I’d no idea. Oh, and sunglasses. I couldn’t guess if people were making eye contact or staring at the patch of autumnal trees over my head. Most times, they didn’t even see me. Being short doesn’t help.

What did help, though, was volunteering. I found a co-operative shop and cafe in town. A small non-profit organisation with a massive potential and an ambition to match. It’s a great place to work too. I dropped by one day to check it out. And a few days later, I was in the kitchen peeling onions.

It was the least I could do to help with the onion marmalade. I peeled about fifty onions—red, brown, and white. And all the while, I was making friends out of people I’d never met before. Like those onions, we all came from various places, too. It wasn’t much, but it sure seemed like the beginning another friendship.

Here we go again.