The South of India in mid-winter, balmy and green alongside the warm Indian ocean whose waves bathed our tired bodies and eased our emotions. The headlines on the front page of the newspaper reported a blizzard in Chicago leaving 3 feet of snow, and we relished our tropical surroundings even more while munching a freshly picked papaya for breakfast.
Only weeks before my friend and I literally had to escape the political unrest in Iran as the revolution was imminent and we lost our teaching posts. The winter dampness chilled us to the bone as we boarded the first available bus before sunrise to make our escape. In trying to reflect on the good times in Iran, I could not deny the wonderful culture of hospitality so characteristic throughout much of the Near East. I had experienced it many times in students’ homes over a meal with their families. One special meal stands out in my memory because it was so important to the students that I experience this part of their culture.
These were all college aged young men and I was invited to spend the night with them at a professor’s home because he was going to make for us this special breakfast meal called “kalepache”. Now the young men were adamant that I not be told what this meal entailed nor should anybody translate the name for me. Of course this piqued my curiosity and expectations as sporadic references were made about the breakfast throughout the evening. The poor professor had to cook this breakfast meal all night, and it would be best for us to go to sleep early because the food would be ready early in the morning.
Morning arrived and the excitement was not unlike a Christmas morning in the West. The tablecloth was spread over rugs on the floor and we all took our places. Flatbreads were passed around and drinks poured before the grand entrance of the professor carrying a large deep platter on which 2 boiled goats heads are swimming in a savory broth of limes and onions! I was aghast and wondered what I had gotten myself into.
Quickly I roused my manners and asked for an explanation of this astounding feast. They offered me an eyeball for which I politely declined, and asked instead for some cheek meat along with much delicious broth and bread. My host and fellow diners were so pleased that I had partaken in this special meal with them. In retrospect my hope would have been that as the revolution and anti-American sentiment grew, this group of young men would remember our shared meal and realize that the American people and their government are two separate entities often not sharing the same ideology or goals, and that the peoples of each country shared the same preoccupation of just wanting to live their lives without interference or trouble.
Reaching India we were greeted by smiling faces and brightly clothed people as much interested in us as we were in them. This new land did not feel heavy with the oppression that came with political unrest. We relaxed and let our guard down beginning to feel comfortable enough to mingle and enjoy all that life had to offer in this strange and exotic land.
We got a rail pass and took the train south to Trivandrum in Kerala. Kovalam Beach became our home for a week and we made several treks to neighboring areas of interest. On one such trek we found ourselves in the middle of a pineapple plantation. We were probably trespassing, but were greeted by a dark young man in a sarong who was motioning for us to come and join him in a small hut. We were reluctant since we couldn’t be sure of his intentions, especially when wielding a large machete and neither of us knew the other’s language.
Since there were two of us and only one of him we decided to go to his hut.
He motioned for us to sit, and proceeded to go out into the field and cut what appeared to be a green pineapple. He brought it back, cut it open, and offered a piece to each of us. It tasted sweeter than any pineapple I had had back home. We nodded our satisfaction and the young man smiled from ear to ear. When finished we motioned for the young man to stand out in the field so we could take a picture of him. We thanked him as best we could and headed back to the hotel.
Such a small act of hospitality can get beyond barriers of communication and more.Reflection by: Tim Thomas, Chef. Photos by: Cath S.