It’s six in the morning, we’re jet lagged, and sleepy in the sleepy little airport of Perth, on our way to Sydney from Delhi, via Singapore. The kids trundle to the cafeteria looking for fries, we’re after the coffee, and my brain is looking for a bed to tumble into. I feel like I’ve tumbled upside down to another time zone (which I have) and landed on my bum (which I haven’t). Except that there’s something strange going on in Kangaroo-land.

Someone moved the ketchup.

The fries come along, and so does the coffee. I look around for the mandatory ketchup sachets, a squeezy bottle, hell, anything that has something red in it. Nope, nothing. I go back to the friendly lady at the café counter. Ketchup, please? “You want ketchup,” she asks, giving me a measured look. Confused, but diving in nonetheless, I respond, “Yes, please. Could I have some?” She says “Sure!” and starts punching numbers on the cash register. Before I know it, I’m down a dollar and sixty cents (roughly the equivalent of a meal back home in India) – for two tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them rectangular blips of sauce. My jaw drops, but I hang onto the sauce. I’ve brought up the kids on a “healthy” diet of liberal squishings of ketchup, so downing fries without first lubricating them with tomato paste is something alien to them, and me.

Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Cairns – as our travels swing us across the eastern coast of Australia, we come up time and again, against the ketchup conundrum. The Aussies just refuse to part with it gratis. It’s as if ketchup was caviar. I’ve been to dhaba-walas who ladle out the stuff, even if it is more pumpkin than tomato, so this is a shocker. Finally, in Melbourne, sense finally kicks in. I walk into a grocery store, and walk out with a bottle of Heinz. Total damages: two dollars. Next stop, I felt like a Gujarati family on the road. At every road stop, we settle down with fries, sandwiches, falafel wraps, salads, pizzas, chips, you name it. Out comes the Heinz bottle, one squish, and heaven!!

First published on January 18, 2007