Gone are the days

Winter’s almost over in Canberra, and since the start of June, I’ve been entertaining the possibility of a half-rant, half-awe blog post marvelling the mystic that is this season. It was my first winter, and along with everything I expected, it was also every bit as unexpected.

From waking up at 4 am with numb feet, to feeling my innards shivering in the late afternoons, partly in hunger and partly in the unfamiliarity of the nail-biting weather, every day of the last couple of months has been an adventure.

I’d wake up at seven am, and the sun wouldn’t show up until at least ten past. And even before I could get back to the comfort of my insulated, carpeted bedroom, the sun would be gone, shrouded in mist and icy breeze.

Though I was comfortable—with lifesaving heating and miraculous thermal socks—my feet and palms were almost always chilly. As if they were entities separate from the rest of my body. While thermal socks prevented the cold from getting onto my feet, it also arrested the lingering cold, like a shadow unshakeable even in the pitch of darkness.

It didn’t take long for the tiniest of my toes to lose warmth. Unless directly placed under the sun or hot shower, they remained solid and distant. The first few seconds of warm water on my feet would feel cold. It’d take a while for the heat to permeate the blanket of chillness.

That’s when I realised winter’s real power. It was eleven degrees, felt like nine, and yet the UV index was high enough to slow-burn the skin.

Now, though, I awake at 5:30, and there’s light on the horizon. Pinkish shards shoot through the sky, hitting me right in the face as a dart on a target board, paving way for the warm glow of orange morning, elbowing its way past the silver linings, as hopeful soldiers in the border. By the time I set to work, heatwaves pierce through my window, ricocheting ultra-violetness into my messy room, revealing crumbs from dinner and sheared strands of stray hair.

Winter’s gone, and it’s left me rather bittersweet.

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Oven and I

Like most teenagers who didn’t have many friends to hang out with after work, I developed an interest in cooking as a way to entertain myself. Almost every recipe I saw (that I liked) involved tools I didn’t have access to, like a grill, a waffle maker, stand mixers, oven—you get the idea.

Most Asian homes don’t have those appliances—and more importantly, they have no use for them in their kitchens. Generations of Indians lived full, healthy, and happy lives eating wholesome meals without even setting eyes on a microwave or an oven. Cooking heat came from firewood stoves and kerosene or oil lamp burners, both almost extinct now. Modern homes have induction or gas stoves. As a child I sat beside my mother watching her blow through a kerosene stove awaiting the water to boil.

On a side note, she also had a vintage oven in which she baked buns—buttered with a sesame-strewn crust—for us each week, but it was still a phenomenon in a society far more accustomed to traditional cooking methods.

By the time I was old enough to understand its functionality, my mother’s oven had fallen prey to rust and disuse. That’s why the oven fascinated me so. When I saw a video of bread rising behind the glass, as a flower to the sun, my heart swelled in longing. Buying an oven went right on top my list.

But it was also an investment and my inner miser took long enough to weigh the benefits and the possibilities of me making optimum use of the purchase. After years of being on my need-to-buy list, my inner logic won, pushing the oven to the more idealistic nice-to-have-but-high-maintenance list. And so, despite spending almost four years wishing, I never bought an oven.

Then as planned my move to Australia, I realised an oven was a household staple in the first world. Of course, that’s why every recipe called for preheating at 400 degrees F or 200 degrees C. My joy knew no bounds. I couldn’t wait to get started, to bake my aches away, to watch bread that I kneaded rise to the occasion.

Except, it took me over two months to pluck the courage to open the oven.

It was the first thing I saw in the kitchen. Unmissable, wide and thick-skinned, with knobs and symbols, and a clock that showed the wrong time—the oven was too much to take.

The oven, an appliance I’d imagined to love and cherish, felt alien and condescending. For the love of bread I couldn’t figure out what the symbols meant. How hard was it to add explanatory text in there? And why was the fan so big, staring at me as I peeped in, as though from behind soot-studded bars?

It was scary. I forgot all about the wonderful recipes I’d planned—choosing instead to cradle the comfort of the pot. Who needs roasted pumpkins when you could boil them instead? After all, the result was the same—softness, edibility.

And so it was a whole two months before my housemate, trying hard not to snigger at my ancient reluctance to modern equipment, explained the symbols and nudged me to live a little.

And since then I’ve been roasting chickpeas, baking crackers from intended cookie dough, making crispy onion flowers, and toasting oats with tahini and Vegemite (trust me, it’s good stuff if you like savoury stuff). I’ve been on an experimental rampage, throwing everything in the oven, testing temperatures, resting my palms in the glass as winter raged outdoors, and appreciating the oven for its might.

Then one day, too confident to wear oven mitts, I used a cloth to pull out the tray, singeing a small part of skin on the tray above it. It wasn’t painful for I’d pulled my hand out instantly. But the scar lingers, as a visual reminder of my adventures with the oven, with the power of heat, a power beyond my control, a power that I took for granted—that we all often take for granted.

As I look at the scar now, weeks later, I think of my carelessness, but also my growth as an individual. In just a few months, I’d gone from not knowing what an oven is to being so comfortable that I shrug off a small burn without a flinch.

Not to underestimate the importance of kitchen safety, but I can’t help but amuse myself of how ingrained the oven’s become in my life. It’s a reflection of a bigger picture—a sign of my adapting to a new society, and melding in without much friction.

We seldom realise it in our everyday rush, but when you’ve moved to a new place, things that once overwhelmed you soon become part of you. I paused to realise: that’s how oven and I are now.

Watch out

When I awoke this morning way late than usual (it’s alright, it’s Saturday), a dense fog clung to my window, shading Lake Ginninderra and the sunlight from my view.

Beyond the lake, in the distance, mild green and brown mountains rose through the mystic fog. It was so beautiful I could’ve stared at it all day. With my blanket over my shoulders, feet wrapped in cosy socks, behind the comfort of my insulated window.

I would’ve loved to leave the house and run to those foggy mountains, but I was too lazy. 

In less than thirty minutes, the fog departed, clouds separated, and a mild sun streamed into my room. I sat up in an instant, shedding my blanket. The sun was out at last. I moved to sit in the sun and within five minutes told myself, “Woah, that’s too hot.”

It’s mid-winter and the sun was burning my skin. 

Welcome to the bush capital.

When people in Australia say everything here is out to get you, they don’t just mean the inhabitants of our animal kingdom. They also mean the wind, winter sun, and especially the summer sun.

I haven’t experienced the summer yet, but I hear it melts leather gloves. Even though I can’t fathom why anyone would wear gloves outdoors in summer, if you do, it’ll leave you a hot sticky mess.

But that’s summer almost everywhere. Think California and Florida—it’s too warm to stay indoors, so people cool off at the beach, drinking soda and water by the litres. Mountains catch fire every other day, and everyone’s accustomed to heat waves. It’s just a tad bit worse in Australia, no thanks to the gigantic pothole in the Ozone looking down on us.

But winter is all about the chills, right? Wrong. I, along with the rest of the world, imagined winter would be all about hot chocolate, snow storms, frosty sidewalks, foggy afternoons, and an overall aura of a magical mystic.

Turns out, in Australia, you can get sunburnt in winter. That’s how harsh the rays are. I come from a hot tropical country where it’s almost always 25 degrees or more, throughout the year. But I’ve never felt such searing hatred from the sun as I have in Canberra. And I haven’t even seen temperatures go beyond 20 degrees!

Let’s not forget the wind though. A couple of weeks ago, horrible winds blew away birds in flight. My jaw dropped as I watched through my window. When I stepped outside forcing myself not to be a coward, cold air cut through my face pushing me around like a sock puppet.

By afternoon today, the lake sat still, soaking in the heat hitting it square in the face. There was no wind of a breeze to rustle the pavement leaves. And you could hear parched throats wheezing as joggers passed you by.

That’s the land down under, mate. Watch out for… everything natural.

Evolution of time

When I was five or six, my school teacher instilled in me the importance of the clock. Until then it was a round face on the wall, eye-less, needles circling past numbers one through twelve. Then, all of a sudden, time played into everyday conversation, and making my own clock at home became a school project.

I sat at the dining table on a Saturday morning, moping about the impending workload, all the while outlining a kitchen bowl on crisp board. My mother drew slices of arrows, one short fat and another longer slender with perfect, pointy ends. And even though I was familiar with the workings of a clock, I never figured why they had to have “hands” or why those hands had to be one over the other—the shorter one always on top. Regardless, with a pin I pierced, securing them in place, sticking a slice of eraser at the back, for I knew well from experience why that mattered.

That took all morning, with the hour after lunch reserved for penciling numbers on the circular board. It required so much precision, that there was no way a-six-year-old would do it without complaining. Or a cartoon break.

All that hoopla came to an end when on Monday my smiling teacher, approving my effort, gave me a red star.

It meant the world.

She then used the same cardboard clock to teach us how to read the time, making us write as we read—twelve o’clock, half past six, quarter to ten, quarter past nine, 20 minutes past eight—gah, I hated the secret math involved in calculating how many minutes had past or were to an hour. It seemed an unnecessary complication to think of the first half of the hour as “past” and the next half as “to”—as if thirty was the secret number around which the world revolved. As if conspiracy theories would unravel how three with its hunched shoulders and zero with its perfect nothingness made the entire world dance to their tune.

But it was important. A child who told the time well was a child who’d succeed in life. At least that’s what they told us so we’d work hard for the test.

It soon grew far more convoluted, however. As I observed the world around me, I noticed that no one said 23 minutes to ten. They said nine-forty instead. It was’t accurate, but it was close enough. And to my utter dismay, close enough was good enough. Three meagre minutes, give or take, wouldn’t kill us now, would it? Or better yet—some said nine forty-five. Rather be early than late.

I was going berserk. People didn’t stick to the rules. As if the rules were more like guidelines anyway. No one said the time as I was taught to, or as the clock showed it.

Then one day, our clock at home stopped running. “Ma, it’s half past ten,” I called out, rather proud of myself, after breakfast on a Saturday. She was making chicken and wanted to know how long it’d had been since the bird fell in the pot.

Hours afterwards, I glanced at the clock again—the chicken now eaten and almost digested—and it was still half past ten.

Oh, the horror.

Not only were people not telling the time right, time itself no longer showed it right.

Ah, stupidity of a six year old. Some even call it innocence.

And then everything changed. From being so important in life, to life, time became… convenient. My father set his clock five minutes faster than everyone else’s. My watch matched the school’s recess bells, my mother followed our good ol’ clock in the living room, and my brother in his room, had clocks from America, UK, Australia, and India.

From being dictated by time, we had for once conquered time, manipulating it into our disposal.

Greener on the other side

“So tell me, why should someone visit India?”

“Er—”

When my friend asked me what’s good about India, I couldn’t come up with anything.

The only reason anyone from the first world or a western country should visit India is to understand how much privilege they have over the people of developing countries.

It’s eye-opening. Even the smallest things like a proper footpath are non-existent. Things you’d take for granted, like safe neighbourhoods, pedestrian-accommodating road rules, recycling systems, garbage trucks are all still tucked away under a vague five-year economic plan that may never see the light.

But I know all that only because I’ve lived there. I’ve wallowed in that toxicity for so long that I’ve come to hate everything about it, no longer recognising, or even acknowledging, the good things.

I wanted to leave–for a better lifestyle, a better society, and better mental health.

And I’m fortunate that I could. But—ain’t the grass always greener on the other side.

India is a beautiful country—to visit. It plays host to 780 languages, the second largest number in the world. Thousands of cultures practice millions of traditions every day. Aside from their historical practices, each group that speaks a language has many religious beliefs as well. And so, every language, throughout the years, has served as primary communication among different religions and castes (family groups). Not only does this magnify the number of classifications amongst Indians, but it also depicts the diversity that thrives in India.

For me, that’s a whole lot of unnecessary complexities that lead to political and religious wars. And that disgusts me.

However, this diversity is also why India (most of it, anyway) has a rich heritage and open-mindedness in welcoming foreigners. People love to show off—whether it’s their customs, tales they grew up with, dances passed down over generations, food that’s comforted pained souls for ages, they enjoy sharing with anyone curious enough to ask and invested enough to respect.

That’s priceless when you’re a traveller.

Even though every corner of the country, every urine-smelling alleyway, every open garbage dump, and every infected street dog nauseates the average person, that’s also where you’ll find charming old ladies selling fresh flowers for your hair. You’ll see short-tempered fruit and vegetable stall holders bickering with each other who’s got better produce. You’ll run into juice vendors who’ll pour you a glass so full that you have to take a sip first before carrying it away. When you chat with them, you’ll learn their struggles to make ends meet, to pay their children’s school fees, to wake up every morning with only three hours of sleep. And yet, as you pass these everyday people on the street, you’ll realise that despite all the harsh realities of their lives, they still try to smile, share, and celebrate spreading joy around them.

India is a “developing” country—been that way for decades. And it’s hard to say when, if at all, it’ll offer its people the comfort and luxuries that’ve become a norm in other countries. Regardless, Indians try hard every day to make their lives a little better than it was the day before. And that’s worth a visit.

Oh, and the Himalayas probably makes it worthwhile too.