We’re walking down the main street in some town whose name we can’t pronounce. We’d finished our bike ride early, and it’s only 5 o’clock — still too early for dinner, so we’ve decided to kill some time by taking photos of the street merchants. A snapshot of a toothless fruit vendor here, a portrait of a burly guy cleaving up a chicken there. Oh the sights and smells of India! The honking and swarming masses!
But then we suddenly run out of street to walk along…it turns out the town is only 12 blocks long. We turn around and walk back the way we came. Morgan checks his watch. 5:30 PM… only 30 minutes gone. It still feels too early for dinner. What should we do now?
At a loss, we shuffle into a restaurant anyway. You see, besides our six dollar hotel room (not exactly a pleasant spot), we’re just not sure where else to go.
Western Europe has its corner cafes, Eastern Europe has its roadside bars, Turkey has its tea houses and open-air plazas. But India? We’ve yet to find a consistent spot to relax in public. So our question is, where do Indians usually go to hang-out?
Certainly not restaurants. A typical Indian restaurant is designed like a factory, run by an MBA who studied supply chain management. The food is delicious, but there is always focus on turnover. Most of time, you end up feeling like you’ve been whisked into, and out of a place a bit too quickly. And a pound or so heavier at that.
Many lunch spots don’t have seats. You push and jostle with the others in line to get your receipt into the greasy hands of the chef, and then take your loaded tray to one of the rows of long, stainless steel tables. Conversation is light, and heads are bent down in concentration as patrons shovel rice and dal into their mouths with their hands. You can feel the rush; after all, it doesn’t seem right to take up much time. A quick glance around reveals three or four dudes waiting to swipe your spot as soon as you’ve finished.
Sit down restaurants aren’t much better. The common restaurant in India seems to hire about as many waiters as tables, which generates an awkward situation where there’s too many hands on deck.
The moment you’ve finished that last bite of your curry chicken…BAM! Waiter number 17 yanks the empty plate off your table. And look — here comes waiter number 18! He’s quick on 17’s tail!
18 rounds the corner and with a flourish, flips the bill in front of you before you’ve even had the chance to say, “dessert anyone?”
So no, restaurants are not the spot for hanging out. Apparently café’s aren’t it either.
Understand that India is about as obsessed with tea as Turkey is, but it has this totally different culture surrounding the way they consume it. Consensus here seems to be that the very best tea comes from the roadside vendors – the chai veterans who dish out the goods from portable stoves and clean the dirty tea glasses with a dunk into a tub full of murky-looking water.
Sanitation aside, it’s also a delicious experience. But the turnover rate is the same. Tea vendors can gather crowds of up to 20 people around them at a time, but this means standing out in the street, and pressing up against the sidewalk to avoid the brash passes of maniacal rickshaw drivers gunning down the road behind you. Most of the customers up and leave as soon as they’ve got their caffeine buzz going on.
In the bigger cities, you can find malls and coffee shops. In fact, there are a few coffee chains similar to the American Starbucks — the most ubiquitous being Café Coffee Day. But the problem here is that no one goes to them regularly, since they are quite expensive by Indian standards (usually at American prices). So sometimes Morgan and I will spend hours at these café’s all by ourselves. That’s fine if we’re just trying to work or pass the time; we even get to tell the employee how loud we want the music. But still, it doesn’t answer the question of where typical Indians goes with their friends.
So where else have we checked? I can continue running down the list.
Bars? No – mostly shifty-eyed blue collar workers, emptying pocket-sized bottles of brandy into 7 UP.
The Street? Hell no – way too much commotion to stand still for more than 10 minutes.
Parks? Only where they have them, which is pretty rare.
So, to the best of our knowledge, it appears that most people must visit each other at their homes. The observation in many ways seems to validate our own experiences in Indian cities. Stepping out into the streets is simply exhausting, in the way that navigating the chaos is best done with a specific errand to run, or a mission to accomplish. As soon as that’s done though? They retreat to the sanctuary of their homes. Or in our case, a six dollar hotel room.
Unless we have this all wrong…If so please advise!