Food for Thought
Culture, Cannibalism and Cunning Chefs
One of the greatest beneficiaries of our rapidly shrinking world has undoubtedly been the travel industry. Among other things, the rise in leisure and work travel to previously unfamiliar locations has led to a tremendous demand for information. As a result, it has led to booming sales for publishers of the more well-known tourist guides. Given the astonishing diversity of cultural practices related to religion, food habits, romantic relationships and just about everything else in different parts of the world, it's not altogether surprising that travellers want to be as well prepared as possible for what awaits them at their destination.
The consequences of ignorance can quite often be embarrassing; and on occasion, the effects can be devastating, as when people move between urban hubs with a relatively secure street-level environment like Tokyo, to ones where gang violence and street crime are common, like Miami. A few years ago, the Florida city was declared to be among the most unsafe cities for tourists as they were being deliberately targeted by criminals. That said, people can usually keep themselves reasonably safe by being judicious in their choice of the locations to which they travel.
So perhaps the most common pitfall which poses a trap for the unwary traveller relates to cultural attitudes about food. While recent research has shown that the consumption of chillies releases endorphins in the brain and can contribute to a sense of well-being, those who are unaccustomed to eating spicy food may get a rude surprise when they first encounter Thai, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan or Indian food; which explains the origins of the term “Delhi belly” to describe the violent diarrhoea that can afflict such unfortunate wanderers.
Nor is the danger limited to stomach upsets. Opportunities to cause unintentional offence lurk around every dining table. For example, while burping or belching after a meal can be a sign of appreciation in parts of China, it would not go down too well in most of Europe! In some cultures, wiping your plate clean may be considered not only good manners, but also a way of showing appreciation for the food provided. So my father found himself perplexed – not to mention uncomfortably full – on a study tour to Japan several decades ago when his rice bowl was continually refilled each time he emptied it. It turned out that, in Japan, it was customary to indicate fullness by leaving a small amount of rice at the bottom of the bowl.
Apart from cultural and culinary traditions, political ideologies can also be very important in shaping a nation's perspectives, and sometimes they can have unexpected consequences for visitors. Even the most seasoned travellers may find themselves flummoxed - caught off guard by prevailing local conditions that are not likely to be covered by any guidebook. I came across an amusing example of this in the memoirs of the well-known BBC journalist, John Simpson. According to Simpson, the paranoia of the Marxist regime in Angola in 1976 was so serious, that slipping out of the capital at a time of siege required careful planning, since practically everyone was suspected of being a spy. Not long before Simpson had arrived, an American journalist was thrown out of the country after sending a message to his office that read: "Everything short here. Send bottled water, as shaving in Coca-Cola difficult"! The head of the government information service, deeply suspicious of foreigners, decided that this could only be a coded message to the CIA. I suppose it was obvious, really…
Political preoccupations can also give rise to some interesting signboards. Like the one Simpson spotted in Cuba, where the rigidity of political dogma meant that even a school in a small barracks was not exempt from ideological considerations. The noticeboard in the corridor read "Requirements to be chosen as an exemplary worker: ideological firmness, modesty and simplicity expressed in an austere life without consumerist habits, the energetic and intransigent defence of state property, and the fight against petty-bourgeois individualism”. And since this was a nursery school, a cut-out of Snow White was pinned above it for good measure!
Mind you, one doesn't have to be a world-famous journalist to spot some pretty odd signage on your travels. A tourist from the Netherlands visited Dublin zoo recently, where he was taken aback by a peculiar sign at the enclosure housed the seals - against a red background white letters emphasised the following message "Do not stand, sit, climb or lean on zoo fences. If you fall, animals could eat you and that might make them sick. Thank you." They are clearly serious about not over-feeding the animals, and you have to love the Irish sense of humour...
And there are the times you come across those signs which are just plain mystifying. Like the one spotted on the side of an Italian motorway near Venice, which indicated a special area, designated “ladies' parking”! What's that about?? Why should women need separate places to park – especially in Western Europe, which is hardly known for gender segregation! Or perhaps it is a privileged parking space, because women are better drivers;and if you don't believe me, check out the number of insurance companies in the UK and elsewhere that offer lower rates for female drivers, because they are believed to be more competent and less reckless – both of these, please note, not merely less reckless.
Of course, it's always wise to keep abreast of legal requirements wherever you might be travelling to. And some of those legal requirements can be pretty weird; like the town of Lanjaron, near Granada in Spain. The mayor of that town, Jose Rubio Alonso responded to the problem of dwindling cemetery space available for burials, by adopting the somewhat drastic measure of outlawing death in 1999. Bizarre as that may sound, similar reasons have actually seen dying prohibited in the French towns of Le Lavandou and Sarpourenx. Mind you, staying alive must be a directive that most people would be all too happy to comply with!
On the subject of death, I will leave the last word to John Simpson, with his extensive experience with dictators of all kinds, and their notorious methods of putting their enemies to death. During his visit to meet the one-time emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean Bedel Bokassa, in the secluded French chateau where the French government was restricting access to him, Simpson and his crew were both apprehensive and fascinated at the prospect of conversing with an alleged cannibal. There was an elaborate mythology surrounding Bokassa, including horrifying accusations that he had once killed one of the opposition leaders in his country, and kept the body stored in his freezer, instructing his French chef to fry up bits and pieces according to his requirements.
Not surprisingly, the sight of a very large freezer (by Simpson's account, big enough to hold at least one medium-size opposition leader!) shocked the BBC team. While the other two distracted the ex-emperor, Simpson sneaked back to take a look in the freezer where to his disappointment, he rummaged around extensively, but failed to find any body parts. Only lamb chops, peas and carrots; and further down, some ice cream and more peas and carrots! Subsequently, after he had recovered from his disappointment and finished writing up the piece, he decided to call it, in his inimitable fashion, "Silence of the Lamb Chops".
In conclusion, it should be noted that Simpson ultimately decided that the cannibalism accusations were likely to have been fabrications, a convenient excuse for the French government to remove Bokassa from office (once he had outlived his usefulness to the former colonial power). Since the idea of cannibalism would inevitably repulse anyone hearing about it, it be an effective strategic measure in building public support for Bokassa's removal. Interestingly enough, the only verification of the allegations was provided by the French chef – whom many would argue was hardly the most unbiased of sources...!
(R) thedailystar.net 2009