Monday, December 28, 2009

receiving well and a Christmas message

Some friends of mine recently moved to Rwanda and, thankfully, are recording their Rwandan journey online. Check out their most recent post, To Know Him is to Know Peace, describing a beautiful expression of thankfulness expressed by some Rwandan women who understand intimately that nothing but Jesus can give them peace.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

things I haven't had to worry about yet

When this kind family offered tea to my fellow trekkers and I last May while we were visiting some of the small villages tucked among India's Himalayan Mountains, I never thought of not accepting their offer.

Last week while collecting interviews for a fun-to-cover article about cultural engagement for BestSemester magazine, I heard from Kara, a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, who described a sticky cultural situation I've yet to encounter:

"It's very difficult to know when to conform to another culture and when not to. This battle occurs every day for me! It's not just about major topics and issues, but about the everyday things. For example, here in Mongolia, if you are offered food or beverage it is considered very rude not to accept it and then consume it. But when it's something you know is going to make you sick, must you eat it? What if it's vodka, which is very popular here? I don't really want to encourage excessive drinking, and I definitely don't want it to appear like I condone alcoholism, which is rampant, but if I refuse to take a shot of vodka, I may be offending my hosts. What do I do?"

Tonight I ran across a related tidbit on the blog of a traveler/photographer I don't know (greetings, Mitchell, in case you ever discover this link to your nice site) who is recounting some Romanian adventures:

"I was reminded a little of India, when the locals almost forced their hospitality upon us, only in India the hospitality takes on the form of tea and food, while in Maramures you have to drink their toxic home-made “Tsuika”, a 50 + degree alcoholic beverage, strong enough to burn a whole in your stomach. After drinking five or six shots of it in the first day I decided that in reply to future offers it would be better for me to drink a tiny bit of it, make a face and say that it is too strong for people from my country, which is not far from the truth."

I'm thinking Mitchell's suggestion of a way out of this particular cultural engagement predicament sounds pretty good, so I've decided it's something worth adding to my bag of traveler's tricks in case I'm offered something stronger than tea the next time I'm on the trail somewhere in the world.

So far I haven't encountered any real food fiascoes in my travels. Thankfully. Of course, there were those small fish I ate in the village of Kisaba on Bukasa Island in Africa's Lake Victoria (I blogged about that here), but fish are not bugs. Or vodka. In that same town, though, I had the only experience I can recall of deciding not to eat something, even if not eating it could be considered impolite. It had more to do with exhaustion and dim candles, though, than with what was on my plate:

Sometime around 11 pm or midnight the night we stayed in Kisaba, we were finally led to our hosts' home/shop for supper. We wound through the dark fishing village on the edge of the lake and eventually passed through a covered storage room/kitchen area and entered a dark room of their home. I think it was the same room they used as a little shop during the day. It was lit only by a small light that, as I recall, was some sort of small oil lamp kind of thing. Whatever it was it emitted the amount of light of a small candle. Hence, when they brought our food, it was nearly impossible to see what was on our plates.

I was really tired at that point in the day and not so hungry anymore. And it was the chicken, of all things, that forced me to the brink of impoliteness. I decided I couldn't eat it because I just couldn't see it well enough to pick around the bones and such, and it was probably a pretty skinny chicken, so one had to do a lot of picking. So, I ate some of the other things on the plate and hoped it would be too dark for my hosts to tell what I hadn't eaten. I never noticed any dirty looks and everyone was still nice to me, so I guess no offense was taken.

And that is pretty much my most exciting food story thus far. (You were on the edge of your seat, weren't you?) Well, other than the secretly stealthy, invisible spices in the food at our Indian hotel, the food they kindly tried so hard to Americanize for our group. But that's another story for another day, maybe. And now that I think about it, there was that other dimly-lit meal that I ate in Maissade, Haiti, but other than the dimly-lit part and not being able to participate in the dinner table conversation because my Creole language skills are non-existent, that meal was really tasty.

So, anyway, the real moral of this blog story is that sneaky, hot spices and chicken-in-the-dark are a far cry from tsuika. And I'm glad some other travelers have gone before me and called back warnings about the more tipsy variety of hospitality I might someday encounter.
*Top photo: India, photo courtesy of Leigh Greer.
*Bottom photo: view out the door of a church in Kisaba, Uganda.