A Taste of Adventure

Is that a slug or a beetle?”

A tourist sitting at the next table turned to ask me this, peering into my plate. I was seated inside a restaurant in a refurbished Spanish colonial mansion, in Manila.

Despite my nervous disposition around all creatures with scales, my 5-course dinner was either amphibious, reptilian or came without a spine. For someone who does not venture far from Italian, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine, the Philippines was a heart-thumping plunge into the unknown.

For me, stepping out of my gastronomic comfort zone also meant uncovering some profound truths. 

For example, I learnt that the smellier the fruit (Durian), the more delicious it is. Later, at a local market, I found psychedelic purple eggs sitting alongside spotted quail eggs while being offered yet another type of egg to sample- a portion of Balut. Well, let’s just say I’m glad I ate most of it before asking what it was made of, or I would never know what a semi-developed duck embryo tastes like. 

Next, I travelled to Pampanga, the food capital of the Philippines, where I realized the Filipinos like their frogs stuffed (Batute Tugak), and their mole crickets crunchy (Camaru), but even that’s interchangeable. 

Just when I thought I had conquered my queasiness, a pot of steaming dinuguan (pork blood soup) arrived on the table. It may have been a regular lunch, but I’d like to call it an exercise in appreciating acquired tastes and controlling natural reflex – builds character, I believe. 

On my next stop in Malolos, a dusty historic town, I met a charming veteran who invited me to his 250-year-old mansion’s kitchen, to sample some of his closely-guarded heirloom recipes. Halfway through a densely flavored, delicious fish preparation, the veteran disclosed that his house had hosted the Filipino national hero, José Rizal for a meal at that very dining table, before he was arrested for his revolution against Spanish colonial rule. Intrigued, I wondered if we had enjoyed the same meal, only a few centuries apart.

Back in Manila, now fully confident about ingesting and digesting an exhaustive variety of forest creatures, flora and fauna, I stopped over at a swanky restaurant and ordered what was now my favorite. 

“Neither”, I answered the lady who was wondering what was on my table. “It’s not a slug or a beetle. It’s Camaru with hand-rolled cheese,” I said.”Gotta love your mole crickets!” C-R-U-N-C-H

“We are like this only!”

We Indians are suckers for free stuff. Free coffee, free water, heck, even free advice is heartily welcomed. 

Name almost anything free and the average Indian will grab it, regardless of its use to him. To us, free is priceless… but while that is a fact, it’s not always applicable.

I’ve had the good fortune of being able to observe some peculiar denizens of the Great Indian Middle Class. On one particular trip, I had time on my hands, a granny to watch over and approximately 27 co-passengers on a ‘package tour’ trip to tolerate. 

So, on a guided city tour of Singapore, we were herded into a gemstone factory outlet, with the promise of grade A gemstones with ISO certification. The commission-hungry tour guides left no stone unturned (excuse the terrible pun) to induce the bus-full of Indian tourists to buy jewelry from this gemstone factory.  
 
The local tour guides had no idea who they were dealing with. 

We charged towards the jewelry counters much to the delight of the tour guides but that changed rapidly.

We came, we saw, we inquired about the price of everything – I mean everything- including the salesperson’s watch and the ceiling fan.  And ofcourse, we conquered… the complimentary beverage counter! 

Out of the multi-ethnic congregation at the location, I was not proud to see our motley Indian crew attacking the free beverage section with a ferocity that could put the Spartan army to shame. My compatriots were seen climbing on top of each other, pushing, tugging and elbow-ing each other out of the way to emerge victorious from the crowd.

By the end of the tussle, each of my co-passengers from the tour bus from hell was seen holding one cold coffee, two cups of hot tea and one green tea. Each.

It didn’t matter if no human being of sound disposition could attempt to ingest all of these beverages at one given point of time. It didn’t matter of their bodies reacted unpleasantly to the cocktail of hot beverages in the enclosed tour bus. 

All that mattered that the drinks were free. 
 

On the same trip on another day, I was witness to what I now call Mutiny of the Singapore Flyer.

It so happened that our little tour group was made to pay 30 SD for a ride on the Singapore flyer-a major tourist attraction. Now, the disgruntled lot, who were just made to part with their precious green papers hopped on the ride, hoping it was going to be worth their sweat and blood and the horrid exchange rate they got their dollars at. 

“Hey, we thought everything was included in the tour price!” some of us retorted.

Thankfully, they found the ride worth it. They were a happy bunch returning to the bus after the ride when all of a sudden there was an outcry in the back. News spread like wildfire inside the coach and soon, there was a cacophony of Gujrati, Chinglish, Hinglish and English, each trying to either fuel the uproar or drown it. I couldn’t tell, and I suspect neither could they. Chaos and pandemonium reigned.

I thought someone was lost or killed, perhaps. But no, the uproar was over a free scoop of ice cream that allegedly came with every ticket…which the entire group was deprived of. 

Apparently one family from the group had sneaked off the previous day, to take a ride on the now infamous Singapore Flyer. Everyone got a complementary scoop with the ticket but not this particular tour group.

The family loudly declared that they had infact begotten the free scoop of ice cream along with their tickets yesterday. It was chocolate and mint flavored and oh so precious.

“How dare they! This is daylight robbery!” exclaimed one gentleman, after he heard this story.

“They’re frauds!” cried another.

“These tour guides have collected all the complimentary ice cream vouchers and are probably selling it somewhere!” shouted one lady. 

“Scam! This should be in the papers. I know a reporter in the Times of India!” declared another.

The bus was livid with rage. Afterall, free ice cream scoop denied was justice denied. There were wild accusations and threats and demands for a refund of the tour tariff. 

Only after a profuse apology from the tour guides, international calls to the Indian head office of the tour agency, a clarification from the ice cream promotion guy and an elaborate explanation from the Singapore Flyer management did they finally seem settle down. Moral of the story? You never fuck with an Indian’s free ice cream scoop.

Given the fact that India gave birth to the significance and importance of ‘zero’ it’s only fitting that we Indians realize its true value best. 

If it’s free, we must have it- don’t worry, we’ll somehow find use for it. We love free stuff and we’ll fight for our rights until our very last breath. Please feel free to sneer at us, too. As someone very wise pointed out, “We are like this only!”

The Singapore Flyer