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Anusha Sekhar

Some short stories from and around the trip that evoked warm feelings of belonging, familiarity, and comfort.

An insight from introducing ourselves

One question that we got asked every couple of days, whenever we met new people was: “So, where are you from?”

I don't recall thinking much about our answer to this question. We always said ‘India’. And people would sometimes ask: "Wow, that's a long trip. How long did it take you to get here?", and then we'd clarify: ‘No, we're actually visiting from the US’. Usually anyone that’s a bit more interested in knowing us would ask the next one: “So, where in India are you from?”. To this, we would usually say we are from the Southern part of India. This was generally where the questions stopped. Sometimes, however, people who have been to India before, or plan to visit are a bit more curious. They would ask us the next one: “Where in South India? I’ve been to <insert city>/, or I would love to go to <insert city>.”. This is where our answers would start to diverge.
 

Suhas always answered ‘Kerala’, and I always said ‘Hyderabad’. Each time we answered this question, we realized how and where we derive our identities from are so different.

For Suhas, Kerala was not necessarily the place where he spent all of his childhood, but being from there became a prominent aspect of his upbringing. Especially since he and his family often moved within India for his dad's work, and also because he left home to go to college. Kerala became that anchor for him, and home usually meant eating South Kerala delicacies made by his mom, and speaking in Malayalam. 

 

For me, home is the city I grew up in, Hyderabad, unrelated to my Tamil roots. Even though both sides of my family are technically from Tamilnadu, and I speak Tamil at home, and eat Tamil food, it is not something I derive my identity from. Home is the friends I made, the school where I studied, the experiences I had growing up that shaped me, and the house I spent my entire childhood and a big part of my adult life in. 

 

I had no idea such a simple question could reveal so much about who we are as people!

 

Anyway, it was always great to be reminded of where we were from, again and again. Who wouldn’t want to think about home, especially when so far away?

Oh yeah, of course you are from India!

Speaking of where we were from, one time when we were in Chile, we were required to check-in with our name and country to board this shuttle for a tour of the Moon valley. Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) is a stunning natural landscape near San Pedro de Atacama that resembles the moon, as the name suggests. 

As I climbed into the shuttle, I said, "Anusha, from India". We were greeted by our tour guide with a “Oh yeah, of course you are from India!”. The sign of recognition in her sentence surprised me, but I figured she must have met or known other Anushas. I just smiled at her and went on to take my seat.

Feeling familiar in faraway lands

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After we finished the tour a few hours later, and as we were watching the sunset, our guide came up to me again. This time she asked me if I had heard of ‘Caminho das Índias’. I shook my head with a no. She then went on to elaborate.

Turns out ‘Caminho das Indias’, which loosely translates to ‘The route to India’, was a popular Brazilian soap opera from the late 2000s. The show revolved around Indian characters played by Brazilian actors, dressed in Indian attire while speaking in Portuguese, and touched upon issues such as family, love, tradition, and cultural identity -- apparently a joint passion for both Indians and Brazilians. On the show, there was a character named ‘Anusha’. I finally understood why she recognized my name.

 

I had no idea if the show, or even the character of ‘Anusha' was any good. But learning something so unexpected, in the middle of surreal landscapes, and that tinge of familiarity coming from a total stranger, felt oddly comforting!

Suhas’ custom made T-shirts for the win

What I like best about Suhas is his ability to plan surprises. This time around, he surprised me with T-shirts designed especially for our trip, in two of my favorite colors. 

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He, however, has difficulty gauging sizes. He bought me an engagement ring two sizes too big 9 years ago, so getting me a T-shirt one size too small this time around was actually an improvement. A little flattering even. 🙂

There was only one problem: we had less than a week left for the trip, and I couldn't fit into my shirt without tearing it. Suhas somehow managed to persuade Custom Ink (the store) to send us a T-shirt one size larger as soon as possible. Thankfully, they made it work, and a new one arrived two days before we left on our trip.

Given Suhas had gone to such lengths with this idea, I decided we would wear these T-shirts at least once in every country. During a dinner in Ouro Preto, Brazil, wearing said T-shirts for the first time, I figured we should wear them at the highlights in each country, to get maximum value out of them. And that’s how we got these pictures:

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While in Peru, we decided to wear these T-shirts on the last day of our Inca trail. Upon reaching Machu Picchu, our hiking group noticed our T-shirts and were asking us for the backstory. A week later, a British couple who were in our Inca hiking group spotted us in Uyuni because we were wearing the same T-shirts to the salt flats in Bolivia. They also sent a picture of us to our Inca trail whatsapp group, where everyone recognized the T-shirts saying: “Obviously a good day if the shirts are out!” 

 

We didn’t just get some cool picture postcard moments, but also got recognized, and became known for our T-shirts. Maximum value achieved! 🙌

And, our paths cross again

The British couple that spotted us in Uyuni was just one instance of where our paths crossed with people we had met before. As we traveled through the continent, our paths crossed with a number of different people we met during our travels.

  • A group of Americans who we shared our dune buggy ride with in Huacachina, Peru; Kept running into people from that group at various spots around Cusco, Peru 2 days and 330 miles later

  • A different British couple who happened to notice us during the Inca trail in Peru, who we didn’t quite notice then; Met them in Bolivia and shared a ride with them all the way to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile over 2 days and 320 miles

  • An Irish girl who we met in Santiago, Chile at a wine tasting tour and shared an Uber ride with; Met her again as we wrapped up our W trek in Torres Del Paine, Chile, 7 days and 1700 miles later

  • A group of Canadian friends hiking the W trek in Chile, who we had asked to click some pictures for us; Ran into them again after completing the Fitz Roy hike in Argentina, 4 days and 230 miles later

  • An American musician who we shared a meal with, on our Antarctica cruise; He walked up to us to say hi, at a restaurant in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, 4 days and 2700 miles later

 

Some of these were more likely to happen. The others were pure coincidences. 

Every time it happened though, it felt great. That feeling of knowing someone, and them knowing you back, and having something in common to talk about, in a completely new place, felt really nice. :)

A taste of home

We decided to sample Indian food in each country. Mostly to not feel homesick, but also to see how good Indian food was in South America. As we traveled further and further into the continent, the taste of Indian food got progressively better, peaking in Santiago. 

 

It was in Santiago that we first got to eat South Indian food. Eating dosa, chutney, and sambar, especially with Tamil ‘kuthu’ songs playing in the background, (a genre of songs I wouldn’t choose voluntarily, but somehow listening to them in this context was different), brought me maximum happiness. I was so happy that I dropped my introvert mode and even made conversation in Tamil with our waiter. The idea that someone would relocate from Madurai to Santiago to work at a South Indian restaurant was mind-blowing to me. I was similarly impressed with this Indian chef from Rajasthan, in Cusco, who didn’t just set up a restaurant, but also offered Indian cooking classes to locals and tourists. People are so interesting and enterprising!

 

Anyway, coming back to it, here is our ranking of all the Indian food we tried, purely based on taste and a sample size of 1 restaurant per country. Ranking aside, we enjoyed every one of these meals. Because any food that reminds you of home, is the best food! 🙂

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A taste of home, at home

We didn’t just eat Indian restaurant food in every country, we also made some. 

Considering how frequently we moved from place to place, we couldn't carry too many ingredients with us. I brought a small spice box along and that was all we had with us. We usually bought groceries locally, and our cooking mostly involved eggs, veggies, and some kind of local bread. Having a kitchen in most of our Airbnbs definitely helped.

Our meals weren't fancy or even entirely Indian, to be honest. But, they offered comfort when we missed being at home.

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- - -

Leaving familiar settings and people behind makes you realize how much you value that familiarity, and the feeling of being at home. Our travels taught us a lot about who we are as people, and what we cared about most. 

It was only fitting that we spent the next part of our career break in India. At home. With family, friends, and some of the best food on the planet!

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