In most places, so much unfolds on the roadsides that the journey is just as fascinating as the destination. Insights into cultures and how people live are doled out liberally; you just have to keep an eye for them. Vignettes fly by constantly and if you’re not on the lookout, they’d be like sand between the fingers. I tend to sit in the front seat next to the driver so I can click pictures, chat about things local, and also to request a quick stop should there be something worthy of exploration.
A SLICE OF CULTURE
In Goa on December 31, groups of neighbourhood children display an “Old man” made of rags which they burn at the end of the day, symbolising the death of the old year and birth of the new. Cockerels in baskets are placed on the roadsides in the hinterland of Bali in preparation for a cock-fight. A man in Singapore carries a prized songbird in a cage on a Sunday morning — he is one of many enthusiasts, heading to one of many bird singing corners. In New York City, tennis shoes tied together with laces dangle high overhead, curled around electricity wires. I’m told it’s called shoe-fiti, to do with somewhat intimidating demarcation of gang territory and is seen in many US cities, especially Los Angeles.
Some of my favourite memories involve skidding to a halt next to street food vendors selling specialties that would elude me in restaurants or supermarkets. A foreign visitor in Delhi might never discover papri-chaat, paan, phalsas or daulat ki chaat unless they actively snoop around the streets.
On a drive along the coast of the hilly island of Grenada in the West Indies, we came across vendors selling a highly seasonal and exquisitely delicious fruit called skin-up. Formed in bunches, it is grape-sized with a pinkish pulp and green skin and I’ve never seen it before or since.
In the Hinterland of Bali, my guide Tony Tack excitedly stopped the car when she saw the bakso man with his bicycle cart. I’d never heard of the locally styled dim-sum, and she said with the rapid modernisation of Bali, the treat was becoming a rarity.
Bhutan’s screeching halt revealed local yak cheese on a roadside. The piece I nibbled on to, looked like a white Lego block, but I was happy to have seen a favourite snack from the heartland. In Peru, large tankards of frothy chicha, pink beer brewed from corn, made the Andean folks jolly. They seemed to have tremendous capacity to drink large quantities of it. An old lady with sunburnt cheeks and two wispy braids, emerging from a Bowler hat felt sorry I wouldn’t have any chicha once I left Peru. There were weisswurst (sausage) stalls in Munich, dates just plucked from the tree in Tunisia, and sugar candy shaped into characters in Hanoi.
There are cultures that actively lend themselves to street foods, and the pickings are particularly rich in South East Asia, especially in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore. The thrill of tasting something unexpected, of making a discovery is totally worth the constant vigilance.