My Indian Summer

There’s this problem I have sometimes that can probably only be described as ignorance. And I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for it. It’s not intentional, you see — just inevitable. The thing is, once I settle into anything resembling a routine out here, I quickly forget that I’m stil living stories worth telling. I find myself thinking often about this blog, about the lack of recent posts, and telling myself I should be doing something worthy of documentation. And then I shrug my shoulders, spend the afternoon in the sun, and work at the two casual jobs that have quickly and almost imperceptibly become commonplace to me.

Because the routines that have come to shape my daily life here already feel not unpleasantly mundane, I tend to forget that they probably would have seemed fascinating to me back when I was a 29-year-old with a solid job, a gym membership, and an unfailing sense of responsibility. I have trouble remembering that what’s quotidian for me now might still seem completely foreign to most everyone else.

But today I’m reminding myself that even when I’m not throwing myself off cliffs or taking free cruises, I’m still collecting new experiences worth recounting. Case in point: I currently spend most of my evenings working in an Indian restaurant.

My parents, for the record, think I work here:

In actuality, I work here:

Fact: every Indian restaurant I have ever been to has Christmas lights.

And sometimes I still have a hard understanding just how all this happened. Allow me to put this into context for you: I am incredibly, undeniably, at times almost embarrassingly white. The most exotic elements of my ancestry are reflected in the Polish roundness of my face and the difficult pronunciation of my German last name. My experience in food service is limited at best: I spent one college summer as a hostess in a Boston restaurant where servers constantly wondered at my inability to simply seat guests at the correct tables, and, more recently, I worked as the occasional Worst Barista in the World at a cafe in Arrowtown. This very blog is nothing if not an ode to my confounding lack of coordinationinability to stay upright, and chronic case of butterfingers — even when I’m not carrying trays of food.

In other words, this restaurant had no reason whatsoever to employ me. And yet, two months ago, without any knowledge, competence, or really even effort, I suddenly found myself delivering curry to tables of tourists while I tried not to spill anything.

It was pretty bewildering at first. I’d be handed a tray with five bowls of reddish sauce on it and find myself incapable of discerning between them: how does one visually distinguish a vindaloo from a masala from a madras? How was I, a vegetarian who hasn’t eaten meat since she was collecting Happy Meal toys, to tell whether the hunks of flesh drowning in thick orange gravy were chicken or lamb? When customers asked me whether a Kadai was spicier than a Bhuna, what in Krishna’s name was I supposed to tell them?

The surprising part is that, by now, I’ve caught on to the subtle variations in the hues of sauces. I can make informed suggestions to Kiwi diners when they ask for something spicy or mild; I can advise Indian customers on the merits of palaks versus butter masalas. I spend hours’ worth of isolated minutes peering into the kitchen as the chefs roll out balls of naan dough, stretch them over a stiff-backed pillow, slap them on the curved walls of the tandoori oven and peel them off minutes later, blistered and steaming, to be drizzled with streams of melted butter and thwacked into squares with butcher knives.

Smile for the camera!

I work with an Aussie girl named Alix, who will sometimes remind me with a giggle that she was still in primary school when I graduated college. Together, we’ve learned the words — or what we perceive the words to be, anyway — to every song on the “All-Time Bollywood Hits” CD. The same 50 tracks loop constantly as we choreograph high-stepping, shoulder-shimmying, wrist-twirling dance routines, waiting for customers to come in. Most nights, we spend the bulk of our three-hour shifts shivering beside the food warmer, joking around, making paper dolls out of the Lakes Weekly Bulletin newspaper and, every so often, pouring glasses of Kingfisher and ramekins of tamarind chutney for the occasional customer who wanders in. We wonder aloud what vegetarian curry the chefs will make for us to take home tonight, eyeing the kitchen hungrily when we hear the stovetops firing up, watching the flames leap up out of pans of chana masala and vegetable jaypuri.

My jams.

Other nights, the place is jammed with busloads of Indians on organized grand tours of New Zealand. They make reservations for groups of 24, 43, 70, back to back to back, and Alix and I dash around passing out half-cylinder metal bowls for yellow dahl, clearing scraps of roti and smears of lime pickle from the tables, fetching tiny bowls of sugar and ketchup and bottles of hot water for diners who seem to be more interested in the act of service than whatever it is they’ve actually requested. Great droves of visitors from Mumbai ask us questions we can’t begin to understand or answer, shaking their heads at us in exasperation before finally calling to our manager in Hindi. We end the evenings with frazzled hair from the clouds of steam that pour from the dish sanitizer, our clothing and ponytails and pores saturated with the smells of chili and cumin that will not wash or scrub out no matter how hard we try.

It’s a job that’s by turns head-slappingly boring and hair-tearingly frustrating. But, at the end of the day, it’s not a bad way to spend the summer. It pays just enough to cover the cost of groceries, pinot noir, and my monthly cell phone credit top-up. It keeps me stocked in more free vege-friendly curries than the hostel’s staff fridge can accommodate. It leaves my afternoons free for selling tours to hostel guests, reading Greek mythology overlooking the Remarkables, white-water rafting and river surfing  and popping open beers at noon on the hostel balcony (I’ll get to that). And, as often as I can, taking a deep breath and remembering that, for now, slinging curry is a small price to pay for living right here.

Sunset, Lake Wakitipu.

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8 thoughts on “My Indian Summer

  1. so happy you did a post! i’ve been missing these :). Sounds like you have your own little lovely routine complete with a gorgeous backdrop. We miss you though! xoxo

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