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Oakes Weekly - April 20, 2006

Does chai count as beer?
Oakes Weekly April 20, 2006      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

I have nothing on Odysseus, Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo. No, as travels go, this was no epic. But travels aren’t always about distance and when one lives in a multicultural city like Vancouver it can be very easy to slip quietly into another world merely by visiting the next neighbourhood over. And so it was on a cold, blustery spring day in Vancouver that I visited the warm heart of the Punjab, simply by wandering twenty minutes down Main Street.

I am a man of many curries, there can be no doubt, and my fondness for such cuisine takes me to the Punjabi Market district on the south side of the city every other week or so to gather ingredients. This is not unfamiliar territory. But today is Vaisakhi, the Punjab’s harvest festival and one of Vancouver’s major celebrations.

Vancouver, its suburbs and the farmland of the adjacent Fraser Valley house a Sikh population in the hundreds of thousands. Sikhs use the occasion to mark the founding of Khalsa Panth (the Sikh Nation) by the tenth Sikh guru Gobind Singh. Two major celebrations and parades are held, one in suburban Surrey and the other on the south side of Vancouver, following a route from the Ross Street Temple to the Punjabi Market.

At each event, thousands jam the streets, everyone feasts and music fills the air. No sooner had I crossed the threshold of 49th Street when the first plate of food was presented to me. “Try some curry and rice, it’s excellent.”

How could I say no? This is a harvest festival – food is central to the pleasure. And at Vaisakhi, it’s all free, which blows my mind. Generosity is a bit rare in my culture, so it feels a bit weird to me. The feeling doesn’t last. It would be an insult, after all, not to eat the food. (I admit I had to skip a few things, like the deep-fried Wonderbread with ketchup, which still has me scratching my head).

This continues for several blocks. Ladies clad in bright saris and gentlemen in flowing robes are everywhere. The young women show off a rainbow of satin dresses. Kids play with balloons and the few non-Sikhs in the crowd immerse ourselves in this other world. I do not pretend to have an understanding of the Sikh faith – a religious scholar I am not. But the spirit of the harvest festival abounds everywhere and it did not take long to find myself caught up in the action. I attacked plate after plate of curried chick peas, naan and poppadums, rice, washing it all down with endless cups of chai, bobbing cardamom pods and all. Traditional musicians took the stage. I’ve always loved the strange sounds of Indian music but so rarely get a chance to see it performed live. I stuck around a while.

As I moved slowly down Main Street, battling the cold wind with chai, I ran smack into the parade. Drums pounded, harmoniums whirred, and singers greeted the crowd with festive tunes. I didn’t understand a word. A display of swordsmanship drew a large crowd and even I could barely see over the heads to take in that spectacular dance.

Buses were painted gold and trucks were adorned with painting and shiny bric-a-brac. Groups of schoolchildren and old men performed for the crowds that lined the streets. Representations were there from parts as diverse as Toronto and tiny, rural Lynden, Washington.

I followed the parade back up the street, though not without difficulty. The crowds I could handle. It was the food. I’d only eaten my way down a few blocks. The bread spiked with cumin seeds was a vice. I couldn’t remember who had the best chick pea curry because I’d had too many plates of it. I was bursting and had to eat my way back along the other side of the road. It was a challenge I was sadly not up to.

I rolled my overstuffed body back up to 49th Street, where the parade had arrived and the celebrations were reaching a fever pitch. Everywhere people were offering me food and inviting me to enjoy the party. The bright faces of the children, the sparkling eyes of old men, and the infectious smiles of the food vendors had taken hold. I was ecstatic.

I’d also overdone it on the food. As I stepped away from the mayhem to catch my breath and attempt to slug back just one more chai, a slap of cold rain reminded me that I was in fact not in India at all, but just down the road from home. I’d totally forgotten about that. I’m afraid I’m still no expert on Sikhism but I know a good time when I see it and I know a wonderful people when I meet them. Vaisakhi kicks ass.


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