White kid in an Eastern town: On not knowing what to order or how to eat it

I made it to Mysore from the Bangalore airport by 4 hour bus ride, the final leg of the longest travel “day” of my wanderer life. I answered visa questions, got my stamp stamp stamp, walked outside, bought a 75 cent airport chai and caught the next bus to Mysore without a wait. Travel goddesses were on my side.


This one's from the streets of Mysore after I'd dropped my stuff at the hostel and gone for a jetlag walk through side streets. Cows chillin' on most corners, and sometimes right in the median.

The Bus Journey from Bangalore Airport to Mysore


On the gold FlyBus there were: Three bus drivers, or one driver and two side kicks, supports, henchmen, conversationalists along for the ride.


There were: maroon and soft and reclining seats, almost bed status.


There were: even USB charging ports between the seats.



I had most of the back to myself, everyone else having opted for seats near the front, likely a veteran move—newbie white girl from the West sits in the back and doesn’t know what’s coming. I brag about my stomach of steel, my sea legs, my ability to read in the car no matter the curves and swerves, but by twenty minutes in to the ride south I was worried I would vom up my milky chai on the soft red of the seatback on front of me. I swallowed hard and took to watching intently out the window.


There was: honking, swerving, honking. Swerving and quick-stopping to avoid carts, motorcycles, trucks painted bright, cows, and other busses.


We made one stop at an Indian equivalent of a truck stop, though rickshaws and buses were the dominant vehicles. The driver, catching my eye contact and reading it as the question it was, said “break time. Ten minute.” I walked inside, up the gray tile steps into the massive mezzanine of tables, and, worried the unsmiling bus driver would leave without me, tried my best to ask for some food to go.


I gestured with my hands: round plate. I said: Can I have an order. I gestured with my thumbs, over my shoulders toward the bus: takeaway? The server was both confused and uninterested in resolving the confusion, so he said yes and went away. He returned with a cardboard box inside a bag. Hoping for a range of delicious daals and curries, I opened the box and found one hot savory donut thing. Made of egg-like dough, white on the inside and oil-soaked golden on the outside, I had asked for something that sounds like “order” and is pronounced more like “orda.” (Note to self to ask an Indian friend what this is. Could not find on Google. Please write if you know how to help me not orda this again.)


Hungry as I was, by this point empty of plane food, I ate it all and decided to try again. “Another orda?” he asked. Me: “Um, no…vegetables?” I wanted to cry, I wanted what the bus drivers were eating, I was too desperate to think to point and say “I want one of those plates full of small silver bowls of delicious, I want to look as satisfied as all those men in white shirts.”


He eventually gave up on me, took my empty box that he had been skeptical of my need for in the first place (now I got that—girl just eat the tiny donut thing here), and walked away. I walked slowly back to the bus, past the driver shoveling fingerfulls of rice delight into his mouth, and curled up in my seat feeling all the feels of outsiderdom grumbling in my belly and welling in my eyes. Traveling means learning lessons at new lightning speed. Turns out I need to ask for a “meal,” how simple. Or thali, which I can’t seam to pronounce correctly. “Huh? Taylee?” (Incidentally, that’s also how everyone pronounces my name here.)


First meal! A plate of raw onion.


The bus dropped us at the central station in Mysore where an old man directed me to an office window beside a line of rickshaws. I gave the man in the window a piece of paper with the address of the hostel I'd chosen for its photos of a rooftop hang space and a garden. He didn’t recognize it so he made something up for the computer, printed my receipt, and directed me to the next in the rickshaw procession.


Honk, speed, quick slow, turn, and never really stop all the way is the name of the street game in India. I remember that this was the first shock to my baby traveler system in 2012 when I came to the north for a 200 hr yoga teacher training course. There’s a way everyone moves around each other here that feels like a pact. Even pedestrians don’t wait for crosswalk permission—they see a window and take advantage. It’s as if we all agree we’ll do our best not to hit each other in honor of foregoing excessive rules that would surely just slow us down. Granted, if a collision does happen, no one’s shy about shouting and placing blame. “Do you not have brakes?!” “What are you blind!?”


The rickshaw driver dropped me at the hostel, an unassuming little spot with the promised spacious, hammocked rooftop and a cozy garden lounging space out back. It’s run by a 27 year old Top 40-loving sarcastic-but-tender Indian man whose cousin started the thing, and a crass but gentle Italian volunteer whose Al Pacino-esque accent makes his English almost impossible to understand at first go.


I walked up the street to a hotel restaurant (every hotel has a restaurant here—sometimes they’re even labeled hotels but are actually just restaurants) where the waiter’s hovering made me nervous—I forgot all about the “meal” I was going to order, and opted instead for a “green salad” (newbie mistake #1—read any guide book, babe, it’ll tell you don’t eat the raw green veg), some roti and curd. The so called green salad showed up as a plate of raw red onion, cucumber, and flavorless tomatoes.



My bread and curd and onion didn’t feel like enough, so I asked for vegetables and learned again that this is not a request that makes sense here. Eventually he figured me out and brought me a big bowl of sautee’d cabbage and carrot.


I realize I feel confident and comfortable in a place in direct proportion to my understanding of its food culture. The names of the breads, the ways to sit and the ways to ask for things. So far I have learned: to wash my hands before eating (there’s usually a visible sink in the restaurant, sometimes right next to the tables); to only eat with my right hand (left hand is for poop-wiping only, do not shake hands with it, do not touch food); to use the tips of my fingers to keep from getting food on my palm; that all the breads are delicious, and I may never be able to remember their different names.


So very aware of my whiteness and Western habits here, an awareness from which my privilege usually shields me on the daily, I try to watch and learn. People manage to use rice as a vessel with such grace, with a skill similar to use of chopsticks but with only what the goddess gave ‘em, nothing but fingers. They don’t even need to tilt their head back like I do to get the pinch of wet food into mouth before it falls into palm or lap.


I walked back to the hostel and sat on the roof, swinging in the faded blue hammock to the rhythm of a barking dog, rickshaw engines, beep-beeps and then moments of the quiet of fresh night. I am sloughing off the layers of a stationary life in a too-much country, I can feel that already. Even the honking feels lighter here.

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