Ever been served up a cow’s vertebrae? Or a pile of deep-fried crispy Tarantulas?
No matter how strange or unpalatable, it’s customary for a traveller to accept local hospitality with gratitude. Showing distaste or declining is likely to offend, creating a very awkward situation.
For me, successfully observing this travellers’ custom has been a challenge.
In Uzbekistan I attended a formal dinner hosted by an Uzbek government minister.
The proportions of the dining room were grand, the decor was not. But for some framed 3D decoupage, its white walls were bare. A single window ran the length of the room, presenting panoramic views of Tashkent’s grey, concrete skyline.
The minister and other dignitaries sat behind a long table, facing into the room. I and others guests sat at round tables in front of them.
My vegetarian colleague Sue, sitting on my right, had looked forward to the adventure of the trip but was anxious about situations like this – where pressures of social etiquette might compel her to eat meat. Not knowing what to expect myself, I couldn’t offer reassurance. ‘Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it’ I said lamely.
We made small talk with the other diners at our table. All Uzbeks who, no doubt, looked forward to the meal about to be served. We did not.
The waiter placed the entree, a bowl of cloudy broth, in front of us. I glanced at Sue, raising my eyebrows optimistically.
Dipping in my spoon I touched something solid, resting on the bottom of the bowl, obscured by the soupy sediment. I scooped out something that resembled half of the rib cage of a very small animal, about the same length and width as my dessert spoon. I swallowed hard, trying to suppress the queasiness. Sue didn’t have to speak. Her thoughts were written clearly across her face. ‘WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!’
We forced down a few spoonfuls of broth but could stomach no more. We filled up on bread from the basket on the table.
The main course looked like minced beef flattened into an irregular shape, then fried. The meat was dark. Black almost. Sue tucked into the vegetables on the side.
I tore off a mouth-sized piece of meat with my fork. As I lifted it to my mouth a long, black hair stretched out. Long and taut. One end attached to the meat on my plate, the other in the piece on my fork. Sue’s face was pure horror. In the spirit of being a good guest, I managed to just eat a few pieces without gagging.
As the purpose of my work in Uzbekistan was to help improve the quality of primary education, we were taken on a familiarisation visit to a nearby school. It felt familiar, similar to a British school but the facilities were much more basic. We were led into a full classroom. Big curious eyes of the children watched intently. The rest of their faces covered by surgical masks. It was, we were told, flu season.
As his guests, the headmaster then whisked us off for lunch – in the front room of someone’s house. After the meal of coleslaw, cold meat and bread the smiling headmaster produced a half bottle of Vodka from a pocket inside his jacket. The tradition, imported from Russia, was that we should finish the bottle. I was game, my two teammates less so. Sipping a little while the headmaster and I demolished the rest of the bottle. I vaguely recall bouncing around in the minibus as we sped through country roads back to our hotel. The rest of the day a write-off. For me at least.