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  • Writer's pictureMadlén Hjelmroth

Eating With Strangers

After spending nine months in India, I'm leaving a bit emotional. The insights I’ve gained and the visual memories I’ve collected are all outstanding. However, the one thing that has connected me considerably with people I’ve met is one of the most common things we do; have food. 

“If you are fortunate enough to travel, what's put on the table will reveal a more profound knowledge of the country and its culture. Have food at the little place with the tiny stools where dogs and cats are waiting for you to give them a bite, where the locals have their lunch.“ 

These are not Anthony Bourdains exact words but the essence of his approach to food and travelling. He was an American celebrity chef, author, and travel documentarian who starred in programs focusing on exploring international culture, cuisine, and the human condition. 

Every street food vendor will tell me about their recipes, which part of the country they are from, and who used to make the dishes when they were children. We all have memories of someone preparing something that will evoke a sensation in our minds and bodies even decades later. In some cultures, your hosts will offer you bread with salt and pepper to welcome you; in others, they will provide you with water. Sharing food is one way of finding common ground. 

While staying in Varanasi, I noticed a street food Walla across from where I was. Mukesh, 34, handled the chai, peeled potatoes, and chopped onions. Swapna, 34, cooked. I enjoyed sitting on the bench surrounded by everyday life, drinking my chai while waiting for my food to be prepared. Then, we started talking using simple sentences in English, Hindi and gestures. They told me about their life, and I mine. And yes, obviously, we did find differences, but we united around the similarities in our lives that are beyond the visible structures in our societies. For three weeks, they fed my belly and some of my basic needs as a human being. We connected.

I had breakfast at the same place during my stay here in Kolkata. From the looks of his Walla, one could describe it as a shack. Nevertheless, magic happens daily in these pots and pans. Ravi, 42, serves breakfast at 7 AM, lunch around 1 PM and dinner at 8 PM. He and his two employees work from six in the morning until eleven at night—every day. We also had a conversation in which we connected and briefly shared our stories. Our talks would probably have been a bit different if his wife had worked with him. But due to social conventions on how men and women socialize, we both felt a bit restricted. 

My curiosity drives me to find kinship on a human level, and photography is very much about connecting with people. So, go travel, eat with strangers and share stories. 


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