O Desi! My Desi: From Costco to Chennai This Summer

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O Desi-Anu_1By Anu Chitrapu

(Editor’s note: We are pleased to introduce a new monthly column to our readers: O Desi! My Desi! by Anu Chitrapu. Anu is Senior Vice President and Executive at Bank of America. She holds an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management. Her column will appear on last Friday of each month.)

It is that time of the year again when we desis head back home to enjoy the hot sun with our families. And that is what we did too.

Of course the pre-trip Costco run had to be done first where absolutely essential items like almonds (yes really!), chocolates (which are now available on every street corner in India), Splenda (the nation is getting diabetic), flashlights by the dozens (power cuts you know), ziploc bags (to distribute goodies) etc. needed to be purchased. Satisfied that we had recovered our membership fees with this one purchase, we were ready.

We arrived in India in the early hours of the morning and even at that hour I could see a sea of faces waiting to welcome their NRI/US relatives. I wore a kurta over my jeans so I could blend in and not stand out, despite the bottle of mineral water in my hands. But sadly, I stood out — not because of the jeans but because while I was dressed in a desi kurta, people around me were wearing stylish, short dresses or designer jeans with heels! With my sneakers and uncombed hair, I looked like their country cousin.

As we drove through the streets of Chennai at 5 am, we made the usual noises about how surprised we were to see so much traffic at that hour — these are the exact comments we made last year. We are simple, predictable people and can be surprised by the same things for many years.

We got home and sipped hot, filter coffee — the type you get only in Chennai, and were slowly nodding away (funnily after drinking coffee) when we got jolted out of our jetlag by the maid who shrieked at how tall the kids had grown. In fact, her shrieks were so loud that the grandmother in the next house also got jolted out of her hourly geriatric sleep.

After we had eaten hot idlies and sambar (giving the impression we had come from Ethiopia and not from the US) and were making noises about how we missed the rosy Chennai life, the power went off bringing us back to reality. But no problem, because the “inverter” kicked in and the fans came back in full glory! Everyone now has an inverter — not sure what it is inverting, but we were happy it was there.

This year we took a trip to Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh, a little hill station that’s my mother’s hometown. The journey up the hill on the train was exciting, especially through the long dark tunnels. We watched the passing beautiful scenery and drank several cups of steaming hot coffee and arrived at Araku with our pulses racing and our bladders full.

In Araku we ate vegetables grown at home and drank coffee made from coffee seeds grown at home. Unfortunately the milk was bought — when I was a kid our family cow provided the milk but since her passing that is history.

We visited the local coffee shop run by the tribals and ordered• you guessed it “Caramel Machiato”! It was certainly interesting to have a native tribal serve us this coffee. Our trip to Araku ended with a visit to the temple built by my grandfather. In our honor the priest turned on some disco lights (still figuring out why a temple would have them) and ended the “aarti” on a high note with an automated drum that started without warning scaring the hell (oops) out of us. He then politely mentioned how they were planning to expand the temple and were looking for donations, at which point I suddenly developed an interest in the hills behind the temple. After our trip to the hills, Chennai felt extra hot, especially because our inverter was acting up.

Our India trip ended with us back in Boston with me facing the immigration officer with a straight face, a prayer in my heart and cramps in my legs, as I calmly told him I had no food. Who said fresh Andhra pickles, hot spicy powders, home made sweets and specially ordered papads were food?

It has been over a week since we got back and India is seeming rosy again. Needless to say, I can’t wait to go back. This time I plan on wearing designer jeans and heels. And on my drive from the airport to home I will be sure to mention how surprised I am at the traffic in the early hours of the morning.

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