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One Last Rice Mess: Biryani in Bangalore and Heading for Chiang Mai

That Feeling:

Waking up from the quiet of dream sleep, that space where you thought there was sound but realize now that this, this new awake place, this sound is so loud that what you had before must have been very nearly silence.

That feeling was riding in the backseat of our taxi as we honked our way through the late afternoon traffic of Bangalore.

We had chanted the Gayatri mantra 108 times in a row just hours before, which surely must have been noise, but this. We had asana’d through a final group practice in the quiet of the ashram, then I had eaten too much smashed sweet rice and papaya, as if I were a choiceless being, one side of a magnet in a sugar bomb equation, before saying goodbyes. The taxi picked us up at 12:30, three of us headed for Bangalore, me for an extra day before my flight to Chiang Mai.

Despite their customary Indian noise, the streets of Bangalore are confusingly, uncomfortably clean. A tenuous balancing act between the influx of Western tech startups and the city’s grit of history, of being India, Bangalore’s often referred to as the Silicon Valley of India and it made me uneasy.

The main drag’s got more than one Bespoke Suits shop, lit up bright neon in the night, and hostels boast co-working spaces. I can’t speak to what was, but I could feel its ghost, and it was eerie to sense how bleached the streets must be as the money has transformed things.

I spent the next day on my own. I took the metro to other parts of town, wandered in The General Direction of a park or a cafe, followed the printed “walking tour” instructions and hand drawn map the hostel host had given me, and let myself be swept along by the Sunday bustling.

By 1 p.m. I was hungry, so when a smiling bald man invited me into his restaurant for “best biryani” I took him up on it.

The floor was concrete, the vinyl booths bursting like old, overstuffed maroon teddy bears at the places where many butts had been. Mutton biryani—I let him choose for me, said “give me your favorite, your best.” After asking what I was doing in India and chatting me up about California, he brought me a giant silver metal bowl stuffed with packed-down fried rice, a plastic plate, and a dish of red sauce that I figured (correctly) was burn-tongue spicy.

New to this, I did not know to dump the metal bowl’s contents onto my plate so I could get to the pork at the bottom without making a rice mess—I made a rice mess all over the table. I did know enough to eat with my right hand, so I got rice mess all over my hand, too. The cashier, a frowny, round man in a stained button-up, watched me from across the room without changing his expression. Eventually he came over, unamused, to dump the rice onto my pink plate for me.

“This is your first biryani?” Everyone in the restaurant was watching me, most of them alone, most of them old men eating skillfully, but the man in the booth beside mine was younger, spoke practiced English. I told him it was, and he assured me I didn’t have to pick up the rice chunks from the table, which I was awkwardly trying to do as he asked where I was from.

Less than a US dollar later, I was full of delicious rice, pork, spice, and the bald waiter’s contagious joy. I thanked everyone I passed on the way out and got a few blank stares, a few head wobbles, shook the waiter’s hand.

The next morning at 6 a.m. I tried to catch a bus to the airport like I knew what I was doing. At 6:10 a man pulled his taxi over and told me (I think) that the bus wasn’t coming. He had insider knowledge, supposedly, and agreed to take less than what a taxi would usually cost. I was already time-crunched for my flight to Chiang Mai, so I let him haul my backpack over to his little white hatchback and stuff it in. We picked up a few more on the way—he’d roll down his window at every bus stop and holler in Hindi what was probably “The bus isn’t coming!”

I arrived in Chiang Mai after dark and immediately felt the ache of a brand new place. New-to-me everything. New abundance of mysterious street food, new ways to say hello and thank you (palms together and slight bow works for both). New so much white skin, the massive tourist faction apparent even from the taxi window. New feelings of moving through space and culture not mine.

The next day I would start what would turn out to be a challenging process of feeling my way into the city where I’d spent a month studying Thai massage. But that first night I didn’t brave the streets—I changed into pajamas, curled up, and slept hard behind my bunkbed curtain.

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