In one of my posts last year I told you about the wildlife in The Gambia and how I once found myself stroking a crocodile. That led me to thinking about other foolish things I’ve done while traveling so here is the tale of another misadventure.
Dinner with the Raj
One evening, while touring Tamil Nadu in southern India, a small group of us arranged to have dinner in the palace at Thanjavur with the Raj. We had dressed up in our finest saris (or in my case the only one I had) and hung garlands of jasmine in our hair just as every female from quite a young age does every day here.
As we made our way through the corridors of the 500-year-old palace to the dining hall I imagined that there would be a large number of people attending the dinner. So I was very surprised when I saw only 4 tables each seating 2 people. Feeling a little uncertain of myself I sat down in the nearest available seat. No sooner had I done this than the Raj sat down next to me! I almost went to stand-up again but the Raj kindly gestured for me to stay put.
I was a lot shyer then than I am now and lacking in confidence, so I was rather worried about making small talk with such an important man. I needn’t have worried as he immediately put me at my ease and started telling me about his responsibilities as the Raj.
The first course of soup was served. I was still holding my rather cumbersome camera bag so I thought I’d slip it under the table. As I bent down with my hand on the table, the whole top flipped up sending the bowls of soup flying and spraying the contents over my companion. Oh heck!
The Raj was the personification of grace and good manners and before long we were both seated back down, tucking into fresh bowls of soup.
The next course was served in a traditional manner without plates or cutlery. Instead various delightful curries, rice and accompaniments were placed on a banana leaf in front of me and I had to eat with my hands. Now this was the first time I had tried this and as you can imagine I made a bit of a mess of it. What was worse still, I kept forgetting not to use my left hand which is a very serious breach of etiquette. As in a number of cultures there is a strict rule of only eating with your right hand. Your left hand is used for.. erm.. other things.
It turned out to be a fascinating evening. The palace dancers and musicians entertained us and the Raj explained that both the dancers’ and the musicians’ families had served the palace for many generations each passing on the skill and knowledge to the next generation. There were a great many such families that depended on the palace for their homes and livelihood. The Raj was responsible for them all, maintaining their homes, providing health care and access to an education. He talked about his hopes and his dreams and his other responsibilities and how he had to lead by example and live a very moral life. It was a wonderful evening which I shall never forget, despite the rocky start.
By the time I left India I was quite used to eating with my hands or rather my right hand. The problem now was that I was too used to it. Not long after I was back in England I went to a wonderful restaurant in Brick Lane in London, an area well-known for its Indian cuisine. About half way through the meal I completely forgot about my knife and fork and started eating my rice and curry with my hand. My date stopped eating and stared at me. I realised what I was doing. He looked mortified. The waiters looked horrified. I didn’t turn around to see if any of the other guests noticed! I sat there blushing and carried on with my meal.Photograph courtesy of Annie Owen
A few days later we were invited to spend an evening with some villagers in the jungle – a very different but equally wonderful dining experience.