What is that first thing you would like to have after landing at terminal 3 of JFK International airport from a 21 hour long non-stop flight? If you are from Americas then your nose is probably trying to catch whiffs of coffee and if you are from Indian subcontinent, as I am, you are probably looking for chai. Since JFK is in New York, in the United States of America (duh, even an illiterate who watches Hindi movies would know it), it would be easier to find a boiling pot of coffee and that is what I chose to drink. But, seldom did I know that this craving for caffeine was about to lead me into struggle and embarrassment.
You see, ordering tea or coffee in India is a very simple affair. All you have to tell the waiter is that you would like tea or the type of coffee and they will make it for you. When I say “the type of coffee” I mean you just need to tell them if you need cappuccino or a regular coffee. Every coffee/tea house in the subcontinent has their own readymade coffee/tea recipe and customers are usually never asked for their preference. Customers also never ask for customisation unless someone is diabetic and needs to cut down sugar intake. Please mind that I am talking about an average Indian’s experience. Big hotels might still offer you some customisation but not your regular tea shop. I was also accustomed to that “Indian” method of ordering beverages but America was going to teach me a lesson soon.
As soon as I exchanged a pile of Indian rupees for just a handful of US dollars, my first purchase was a coffee. I spotted a coffee kiosk with a girl, definitely of Indian origin, at the cash counter. I approached the girl with sleepy eyes and asked for a cup of coffee to which she said something that I did not catch. I learned my first lesson- your ears also sleep after a very long and tiring flight. I begged her for a pardon and asked her to repeat what she had just said.
“What size coffee do you want sir?” she repeated with a stern look on her face.
Now that was a question completely absurd to me. In India even the size of your beverage is fixed with its recipe and here I was standing in front of a girl with a condescending look on her face asking me the size of the coffee I would drink. I gulped down my hesitation with some saliva and asked for my options.
“Small, medium, and large.”
Being a student of science I have always hated such generalisations of measurements; how would I know how much coffee comes in small, medium or large? I was the only person at the kiosk still the cashier seemed impatient dealing with a foreign customer. I measured my craving for caffeine in terms of less, medium or large and thought I should go with a large coffee.
“Llll-arge please,” I responded with hesitation.
Now I don’t remember how much it cost me but if I could measure it in terms of embarrassment, I would say it was “large embarrassment”. I also remember myself remembering Einstein’s theory of relativity soon after that because those few seconds, that I took to decide the size of my coffee, seemed like hours, especially because I was making a fool of myself in front of a beautiful girl.
Paying for coffee was also not easy because if you have ever been to a new country and dealt with a different currency you would know that identifying coins and their denominations is tough. I fumbled with coins in my hand to find the correct amount. Somehow I passed the task of finding the right coins to the girl and dropped the coins on her desk. She quickly sorted the change, slid it into her cash drawer and instructed me to take back the rest. At this moment she heaved a sigh of relief and showed me where the cups were so that I could get my coffee.
What? Now I have to make my coffee? How on earth does one do that? I had never done it before. What the hell was that girl there for? Just to charge for the raw materials? I assumed I had made a mistake and should have settled with bottled water but the cash was paid and I was standing before coffee cups stacked in three sizes. Good thing was that I was hidden behind the paraphernalia of coffee making and there was no one else seeing me, especially not the girl at the cash counter. I ran my eyes around and found large flask labelled hot water. I understood that the steps would be similar to preparing tea in a bag. I poured cup full of hot-almost boiling water into my cup and as I moved further I saw a similar flask labelled coffee. I realised I had made a mistake. I had to throw water and pour coffee instead. But, I was hesitant to throw water – what if the girl saw me and charged me for taking large cup of water. I looked around, made sure no one was watching and threw that cup with hot water in garbage bin. I clandestinely took another large cup and proceeded towards the coffee flask. I thought that there would be prepared coffee in the flask and I will just have to open the tap and get my coffee. So I opened that tap and saw black liquid dropping into my glass. It did smell like coffee. Since I had paid for a large coffee I filled the cup to its brim, covered it with a lid and walked towards my seat.
Finally, I was having my coffee. I pulled out some biscuits from my bag, took a bite, sipped my coffee and coughed it all out. Never ever had I drank anything this bitter in my life. I know people drink black tea without sugar in India but that is only when they ask for it otherwise the standard tea or coffee has milk and sugar. My cough had drawn enough attention including of the girl in the coffee kiosk. I pretended as if biscuit had obstructed my breath. I wiped my mouth with a handkerchief, and acted as if everything was normal. I looked at my cup of coffee and thought that I, under no circumstances, will be able to drink an ocean full of bitter-black-hot water. But I could not even throw it because I had paid for it and the girl was still looking at me. So, I decided to take big bites of biscuits and gulp it down with coffee. I would do that till I feel I have had enough biscuits and after that I can throw away rest of the coffee.
Few minutes would have passed and I had just managed to gulp one biscuit with few small sips of coffee when I saw a man, in a very shabby denim wear, purchase a large cup of coffee. He disappeared into the same corner where I had poured coffee. Few minutes later he I saw him on the other corner of the kiosk adding things to his coffee. I was observing him very carefully. Watching him add things to his coffee it dawned on to me that I had missed few more steps to make my coffee. I let that man go and walked to the same corner and saw sachets of sugar and flask of cream and milk. Alright, I had to add all these things to my coffee in a proportion to make my coffee drinkable. I quickly opened the lid of my coffee cup and saw there was hardly any space for anything in it. If I were to add stuff to it I will have to throw some coffee and make space.
If somebody sees me throw coffee to make space for milk they would think that I am stupid and didn’t even know how to make my coffee. Okay, I accept that I was not bothered about anyone else watching me but that girl at the cash counter. However, before I could throw my coffee I met another predicament – how much should I throw? I didn’t know how much milk or cream would I need to make this coffee palatable. So now I kept waiting for someone to come and make their coffee so that I could see how much dairy I would need. Fortunately, a gentleman in a suit came soon. He tucked a folder he was carrying under his arms to free his both hands. He had just 3/4th of his cup filled with coffee. I watched him add equal quantities of milk and crème but no sugar. I copied him with respect to milk and crème. Since I wasn’t sure of how much sugar would I need I started with 2 sachets. I realised that I would need at least 1 more and so I added. I stirred my coffee and found that I had prepared my first cup of lukewarm coffee to swallow my embarrassment. But, it was an experience I can never forget. Now I have my own coffee maker and I just love my blend.