An avid traveler, Sarika usually takes a trip every three or four months, and she’s even written a book on traveling. Despite her constant journeys, however, she was looking for something different than the usual travel experience. Sarika believes in getting a true feel for the people and the flavor of a place, rather than rushing around checking items off a To-Do list. So when she came across VAWAA, she knew she had finally discovered something that would enable her to go deeper into a city by exploring it through the eyes of an artist.
Sarika began her VAWAA journey last September by traveling from Mumbai to Penang to learn Malaysian cooking with Nazlina. During her VAWAA, she would spend 4 days alongside a master learning the foundation of Malay recipes, exploring local markets and the island to understand it's vegetation, and visiting Nazlina's family home for a taste of traditional dishes. Later that year, on the way to Buenos Aires, Sarika decided to seek out another VAWAA. This time, it was with Pum Pum, learning street art and creating her own mural on a wall in Buenos Aires. Sarika sat down with us recently to talk about her experiences in Penang and Buenos Aires, how cooking and street art helped her discover each city, and the lasting lessons she took home with her after both trips.*
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m Sarika, and I’m from Mumbai. I work in consumer insights, and I’m also an author; I’ve published a couple of books. And I love traveling--one of the books is actually on traveling. I’ve been traveling every three or four months; I just feel the need to take off somewhere. And I love painting, I love writing, I love all of these things. Last year, while I was on Facebook, I came across this post on VAWAA. And I thought it was such a fabulous concept because it’s something that I was honestly looking for, something that is a little different than a usual traveling experience, exploring a place through the eyes of an artist.
Your first VAWAA was learning cooking from a Malaysian chef in Penang. Tell us a little bit about that.
I had always thought of Penang as being this food city, and I’d always wanted to explore that part of Malaysia. So when I saw VAWAA had a local chef, Nazlina, I thought that I could not just learn cooking, but also learn the flavor of the town. Especially since food is so intrinsic to it. I love the whole concept of Nazlina using local herbs and spices, that sort of holistic cooking which is very very authentically Malaysian. I thought that was really interesting because I thought that would really give me the flavor of the town.
Penang was very interesting because I don’t cook, I can’t cook to save my life. It was very interesting because Nazlina was very patient, you can tell she’s really passionate about the food. One of the days she took me home and showed me her herb garden. It was lovely, because she had all of these spices growing there. So what I really liked about that trip was how close she brought me to food and to local Malaysian ingredients. And with every ingredient she would tell me a little about the history, so as I was cooking I was also learning about the place, I was understanding the history of the place. So it all came together very beautifully.
What did you do when you were not cooking?
With Nazlina, every day after we would cook, she would take me to the local markets. I thought that was just fabulous. We would cook a little, then we would go to the Chinese part of the city, we would go the Indian part of the city, we would go to the Malaysian food stalls. And then we would sample some of the food there. So it wasn’t just about cooking in Nazlina’s kitchen, it was also about tasting different local food in Penang and other chefs in the town. So it was very, very wholesome, and it was very holistic. And by the end of it, I felt like I really experienced Malaysian cooking in Penang the way it should be.
What were your favorite moments?
When I made my first Nasi Lemak. I almost burned the banana leaf as I was making it, and when I finally made it, then we all sat together—Nazlina, me, a couple of other guests, and we all ate the food that we had cooked. And just talking about our experiences, and travel experiences, and just laughing. And it was just beautiful.
Master Malaysian chef Nazlina. Courtesy of Sarika Pandit.
4 months later, you went back for your second VAWAA to learn Street Art with Buenos Aires from a leading street artist. Tell us a bit about that.
I was doing a trip in Antarctica and I wanted to spend a few days at the end in Buenos Aires. So I quickly looked up VAWAA to see if there were any artists there. The one thing that really drew me was street art painting. Whatever I had read of Argentina and Buenos Aires, I know that it is very, very rich in street art. I personally paint, not very well, and I haven’t sort of painted in quite some time, so I really wanted to let go and have that painting experience and link it to the street art of Buenos Aires.
And Buenos Aires with Pum Pum was great too because I had been struggling with painting--I had a bit of a block. And Pum Pum was amazing--she took me through this whole process where first she made me use watercolor, and she sort of gave me instructions about how to let go. And I remember one of the things she told me was you know, you’re not making a poster, you can just let go you can get creative. And I remember by the fourth day I had begun to sort of let go. And finally on the fourth day we did the sketch on the wall, and even with the sketch she made me do, she made me do four or five iterations of it. And every sketch I improved little bit. So when the final piece really happened on the wall, it happened quite effortlessly.
What did you discover about Buenos Aires?
In Buenos Aires, for instance, what Pum Pum did was, toward the end on the fourth day, she took me to one of these street art galleries. She really gave me a sense for all the artists who had been painting on the walls of Buenos Aires. And we would walk down the streets and look at some of the street art, and then she would tell be about who these artists were and where they’re from. I went to a couple of museums with that lens of what Argentinian art is really all about. And I think what Pum Pum really helped me do was just keep an eye out for the street art in the city. So even as I was roaming the streets on my own, I would keep an eye out for any kind of graffiti and just clicking away. And all of that was just interesting and very, very stimulating for me personally as an artist.
Without a doubt, the biggest high was just seeing that painting of mine on the wall, then walking away, and looking back and seeing it there. And being like “Okay, this is amazing.”
What have been your biggest takeaways from these travels that have impacted your daily life?
With Pum Pum, one of the things that I learned was seeing beauty in little things. We get so carried away by work and things that we’re caught up in. But just something as simple as walking down the street and keeping your eye open to what’s around you. That for me was a takeaway from my Buenos Aires trip. And to keep sketching and to keeping in touch with that creative side in some way. And I think I learned the same from Nazlina as well, you know, the passion she brings to her food and you can just see that she brought that every day to the kitchen. I think that’s very inspiring and something I’d like to bring to my everyday life.
Any last words for other travelers?
I think for me, one of the biggest things about traveling that I believe in is to not have this checklist and To Do list, you know, “Ten Things I Have to Do.” Because then it’s just approaching it like a project. But just be in a place, and get a flavor of the place, and get a sense of the people in that place. An experience like this, it helps you to really come close, to get a sense of a particular city. A friend of mine said something very interesting, she said that we travel to places outside of our own city looking for these immersive experiences, and that’s great, but we should also do that in our own cities that we live in. We don’t often do that—live like a traveler in our own city, and to be curious in our own city. So to keep that curiosity alive and to experience as authentically as possible, that’s really my advice.
*Comments have been lightly edited for clarity and length
Written by Rossi Anastopoulo