Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Visiting India, Part 1

The medium-sized city of Navsari has the best food
(Click to enlarge even more)

Thieves looting before the sun rises, a monkey hanging out on an electrical wire, driving in the opposite direction of traffic on the highway, and spices so strong you would have thought Columbus could have smelled his way here instead of trying to follow a map.

Yup. This is India.

I last went to India with my family in the summer of 2002 for six weeks. We spent the first week sight seeing the cities of Mumbai and New Delhi with the remaining five weeks living at my paternal grandparents' rural home in the state of Gujarat. Despite it being the hot and humid monsoon season, a language barrier, and being far from the comforts of home, I found the vacation fun.

This time around I was there for three weeks with my parents at the start of the cold season. Again we stayed at my grandparents' home - we don't go anywhere else - but it was different. Since the doors remain locked, only to be opened when a relative may visit, the house has not aged well. However we didn't have any problems with it as you'll see in these two posts.

I could recount the entire trip except that would exceed well over what I'd like to write. Rather I want to share my experiences and what I learned over the course of my stay. Visiting after ten years gave me a much different perspective than I can remember.

To better group my thoughts from this trip I'm dividing this excursion into two posts. In this first part I'll be discussing a wide range of items regarding food and exercise/fitness. In the second post I'll do a general look at the environment, people, and any changes I took notice of since my last trip.

The food was great. For us it largely meant produce cooked at home as opposed to eating at restaurants or street shops. Restaurants have become very generic highway stops commonly referring to themselves as "hotels." You'll find terrible restrooms, so-so/bad service, and a menu full of Punjabi dishes & Chinese-inspired ones. If you plan on going to India I suggest avoiding any place situated off a highway that has shirt-and-tie service.

What I do suggest is finding small street shops. The food has a more authentic taste, the people are friendlier, and the prices are better.

Fast food: real samosa
Not the knockoff kind you find here in restaurants

During this time at home the only vegetable in season was a type of spinach. Hence our diet consisted of different beans, beets, tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes eaten with sorghum* flat bread. Because the vegetarian meals were surprisingly satiating we ate meat less often. The meats we did eat were chicken, crayfish, shrimp, and goat all of which had a denser texture, but less volume compared to the meat found here in the US. The same held true for the vegetables and fruits - they were comparatively smaller.

*In the Indian grocery stores here it's listed as "juwar" flour but isn't that great.

Looking at foods between the two countries, here it's all about quantity and size. Our produce looks completely cracked out on steroids. I found everything in India had a better taste. Here the quality costs us extra: organic foods are the norm there. Additionally it helps that each dish is cooked in the deliciousness that is peanut oil.

Half the size garlic

The best food there was the raw milk provided to us from our neighbors. The cow was fed grass, vegetables, and bean peels leading to a fresh rich milk. Daily right after dawn our neighbor would provide us a quart of milk that we used to make our morning chai. Just enough of it remained for me to drink a cup later with my afternoon lunch. Drinking chai again with the usual American grocery store milk I've noticed it's thinner as well as giving the chai a bitter taste. It's only palatable after adding a heavy dose of sugar. Not only that but the milk leaves my mouth tasting and smelling rancid.

The biggest surprise was after we returned home I noticed a meal never satiated my hunger and it caused me to use the bathroom more frequently. When I spoke with my dad he said he had the same problems plus a strange itching feeling on his skin. Physically I see my skin produces more oil and that my hair smells within 24 hours. I really believe these weird symptoms are due to the food here. Add to the fact that my mom's acid reflux and dad's gout didn't act up a single day there but immediately began irritating them again upon returning to the states, it makes you think.

While in the US we are fortunate to have an abundance of food, high standards of practice, and an excellent process that delivers it from the farm to the plate, it's somewhat questionable on the quality front. What I really do enjoy is the availability of fruits. Because none were in season this time of the year, the few that were available to us were expensive (based on the locals' income). Season or not, the amount of fruits here are a real treat. The pomegranate I ate here tasted as good as the one in India showing that not everything comes in second place in terms of quality. 
Lastly, despite many homes owning a half-sized refrigerator few use them to store items for an extended period of time. Instead the norm is to consume an item of food the day it is received [meat & dairy] or within 3-4 days [vegetables]. This is one of the more valuable lessons I learned and think is imperative to put into practice. For something such as milk it's not possible to purchase everyday and I don't expect anyone to do so, but aim to refrigerate/freeze foods less. Make the effort to go to the grocery store each week putting a maximum shelf life of 5-6 days on fresh produce. Combine that with eating local and in season produce will make your health better than most people.

Exercise & Fitness

While I was away I did about five or six workouts using a combination of isometrics, bodyweight exercises, and a stalk of sugarcane. I let my mood dictate if I wanted to exercise but it also helps that I planned accordingly before I left - two months straight of hard sessions. In reality there was no need to train on vacation because three weeks of little-to-no exercise wasn't the end of the world.

Also just as important to exercise, or even more so, is recovery. Down time from exercise does the body good both physically and mentally. Naturally being on vacation it's a relaxing experience but the absence of electronics really let us unwind. The only piece of technology we used was a phone. Add the warm weather into the mix, it made for a pleasant atmosphere. Even with hard beds we had to use the sleep was particularly restful.

As for the people, muscle mass appears to be in short supply and winged scapulas in excess - I saw more people with them than without. What makes it worse is all the gluteless guys wear tight jeans. The jeans I wore there split completely down the middle from squatting down and they weren't even tight on me. But despite individuals being thin this shouldn't be confused with weakness because the people who do hard labor are strong at what they do. For instance, I saw a woman carry a 70 lb. gas tank on her head and walk roughly the distance of two city blocks. I think if any of us tried that our necks would snap.

If I had to guess why people in that region carry low muscle mass I would attribute it to the less amount of food they eat. Quantity of food is not as readily available for families as it is here. A household rations their portions sparingly due to their low income. Other individuals who aren't skinny just lack adequate resistance training to build bigger muscles. While there aren't barbells or similar equipment readily available I saw a ton of other stuff in the area that could be used as resistance - namely stones of various sizes. I know in other states of India that stones are used in training (pehlwan).

What's crazy is that if the Indian population took up barbell squatting (and had better upper body strength), they just might wreck everyone else in squats. I saw people in deep squats for just about anything you can imagine - squat to eat, squat to go to the bathroom, squat to relax/hang out, squat to clean, squat to wash clothes, hell I even think I saw guys squat to urinate on the sides of the road. Indians do not mind an ass-to-grass squat. They actually find it comfortable. I'll add that while they do squat deep without knee problems, they squat into an extremely lax position with a pelvis tuck and a slight forward lean.

Squatting becomes a daily affair when this is your toilet
(But don't worry, we had an American style toilet in the adjacent bathroom)

Being back, I feel more sluggish. I have no idea why. Chalk it up to the weather, food, beds, or a combination of factors. I have to make more of an effort here to maintain strength and body composition as opposed to there. The first few days back home I felt stronger than when I left. Of course that quickly waned and I started to feel stiff, lethargic, and weaker in subsequent days. Luckily by starting to lift again that's no longer the case. Just as I did in India I'll make sure to pay attention to how I feel to structure my workouts.
There's still a lot more to cover in the second half. With that said it will be posted sometime in January. Enjoy the holidays and have a happy New Year's Eve everyone!

I'll see you in 2013.

Related content,
Creative Commons License
Niel Patel's Blog by Niel K. Patel is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.