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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Cupcakes for sale at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Miami

Deep

Embedded unseen

as butter in a cupcake

are some traditions

An endless search

I walked out of the doctor’s room, dazed. Nothing made sense anymore. Of all the people I knew, I was meticulous, and the most watchful about what I eat and drink.

Some would say I bordered on neurotic obsession. I’d be mindful not to overindulge in deep-fried butter or pigs in a blanket blanketed with pork fat. And yet, there I was, despite stringent diets and careful observations, holding a report that deemed my cholesterol levels nigh too high.

I lamented. 

At 22, I knew no one as careful with their diet as I. I had to, too—diabetes, heart complications, blood pressure, and a hint of a brain tumour induced comma, all clogged my mother’s bloodline. I inherited, along with a few crumbling, unintelligible letters and premature graying, a lengthy list of disorders that could make my adult life miserable.

Therefore I took enough precautions to keep diseases away for as long as I could. I succeeded too-by choosing more fiber-rich alternatives to white rice and flour. I thrived on vegetables, millets, red rice, and bananas. Lamb meat and chicken were occasional because we’d get fresh meat every time I visited my parents.

Life seemed good-except for my weakness for peanut brittle, I’d become comfortable without artificial sugar, empty carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats. 

And then came the verdict: high cholesterol.

My doctor denied medicines. He suggested I stick to a proper diet, instead, and that everything should be fine then. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits, he said. “Eat,” he cupped his palm to indicate portion control, “but don’t overeat, meat. And get regular exercise, too” he raised his eyebrows at me, who hasn’t skipped yoga even for a day in the last five years.

What he didn’t know, and wouldn’t listen either, is that I’d been doing everything he said since 19.

Still, something had to change, I knew. Sure, I was cautious, but caution wasn’t enough anymore. I looked through my habits yet again. I was taking eggs and a generous amount of milk every day, in addition to a decent amount of meat every week, and a tad bit too much of it every two weeks. It seemed to me that I wasn’t distributing my meals as efficient as I should, and because of that, I was getting too much of one thing and too little of the other. 

Oh, trust me, you can have a careful diet and still be way off course.

I tried quitting eggs. It wasn’t hard because I never liked them much anyway. They involved too much work cleaning up without a stink that it was a relief not to deal with that anymore.

I felt good.

I wanted to keep feeling good and forget the fiasco that was my cholesterol.

I tried quitting milk. It would’ve failed had I woken up one day and stopped drinking tea altogether. It would’ve driven me mad. Instead, I switched to low-fat milk. I scanned labels analysing differences between skimmed milk, 2%, and fortified milk. But I soon learnt the risks of skimmed milk, and not too long afterwards, the vague health verdicts on milk altogether. I realised it could do more harm than good. From full-cream milk, to skim, to skim milk powder, I hopped on and off, before getting tired of them all. 

Good food shouldn’t be so hard to get. By the time I realised the potential risks of consuming adulterated daily and meat, I no longer craved it.

I was beginning to feel great.

Black lemon tea and drip coffee never tasted better after that.

I crave other things now-stuff that has little to no room for contamination or heated debates in lifestyle magazines-vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Not only did they taste great, but these foods also made eating a less stressful practice. The idea of relying on a plant-based diet freed up my mind from worrying about the side effects they could cause in future.

Now that I’ve acquired a taste for plants, I don’t think I’d want to go back to a meaty diet, to feeling bloated every morning or being uncomfortable after lunch on Sundays.

The best part is that I’m discovering new plant-based foods every day. My options, unlike popular notions, are abundant even to the point of overwhelming. This search could never end.

Red wine in a glass - happy new year

Cheers!

Food, booze, reflection

a night like any Friday

oh, happy new year

Pasadena walks

Some of my most exceptional experiences in Los Angeles weren’t in the Santa Monica beach or the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Why even the eye-opening Griffith Observatory wasn’t the best of everything I did.

The one thing I treasure about every city I’ve ever visited is the time I spent walking around the city’s ordinary streets—not just the downtown areas, but also the residential parts of a town, the school district, the supermarket street—the places where locals feel most at home. These places are more than just an everyday thing for people. They’re their lifestyle, their comfort zone, places they prefer to spend time at. That’s what I love about a city—being a part of the locals’ lifestyle even only for a few hours.

Buildings in Pasadena

And so, not wanting to disturb my colleagues’ sightseeing plans, I stepped out onto the street early one morning just to see what’s what.

As I strode along the streets of Pasadena, I came upon architecture both old and new. Stores reaching for the sky barred at the early hours, mere hours away from playing host to the hundreds of folk who’d come in for bread and butter. Coffee shops buzzed with conversations, while vending machines whirred away, energised by the same Joe they poured out.

Political and social opinions drenched passers-by, with clever wordplay on signboards and uncanny shop names, their lights snuffed out, though not for long.

Summer sunlight streamed through the trees, touching buds with their golden rays, awakening birds, bees, and their birches too. The smell of warmth spread through the air as empty roads stretched before me, challenging me, mocking me, to go as far as I can go. I found myself following the light, towards familiar street names, reaching unfamiliar territories, halting for the traffic signs and crossing through broad walks, stepping on sidewalks with plants for aisles, and staring at a Tesla or a Mercedes, a Beetle or a BMW.

I had the whole town of Pasadena for myself.

And as the clock struck eight, like most people in the locality I entered Trader Joe’s. Unlike them, however, I was there for window shopping. On my way back to the hotel I stopped at the coffee shop I’d seen earlier, only now it was overflowing with breakfasters. Carrying my pumpkin pie about 20 minutes later, I walked back to where I stayed, ready to begin a day of work—just like any other person.

And that’s the difference between a tourist and a traveller. We experience far more than what’s on the brochures.