The old saying is true, without risk there can be no reward. Perhaps risk is too strong of a word, maybe it should be that if you don’t take the chance, you’ll miss out on a great experience. There have been several examples of this during our travels, but there was one experience that stands out for us. A few years ago, we had the pleasure to travel to Chennai, India, on business. The trip as a whole was one of our favorite trips, even though there was work involved. While we were there, a co-worker invited us to their home for dinner. We immediately accepted, not wanting to offend anyone, but to be honest, we were a little apprehensive.
The night of our dinner was one of our last nights there, so by then we had eaten quite a bit of Indian food, which we love, and had done our best to eat every meal like a local. We had a driver while we were there, not quite ready to take on the challenge of driving in India, so we gave him the address where we going and we were off. We turned off the main road and quickly found ourselves in a maze of tiny side streets filled with a mix of poverty and middle class buildings. After a few minutes, our driver informed us that the way that he thought we needed to go was not correct and he needed some directions. We gave him the number of our co-worker and after a few minutes of back and forth, we were on our way again. Then a few minutes later, we were at a stop, apparently the directions were too difficult and again he was on the phone. This time we waited until the husband arrived on motorcycle to escort us to their home.
We arrived at their apartment and walked up to the third floor where we went through a large wooden door with an image of Ganesh intricately carved into it. Typical to our experience in India, beauty can be found in surprising places. We entered into the living room, which had a couch, chair, coffee table, and large TV on an entertainment center with MTV (or something similar) playing. We were ushered to the couch as their two young children, both boys, showed us their favorite toys, much to their parents annoyance, not that we minded. We have a friend who is a cultural anthropologist, so he had prepared us for many of the things that we encountered while in India, but having dinner at someone’s house was not one of them. Our co-worker and her mother-in-law were in the kitchen, diligently wrapping up the meal that we were about to be served. There was one other room in the apartment, the bedroom, to be shared by all five members of the family. This was the life of a middle class family with a dual income from jobs working for American companies.
After a little conversation, translated by a friend of the family, TV trays were placed in front of us and our meal was about to begin. As we had been sitting on the couch, friends and neighbors had been slowly arriving and there was a small gathering outside of the door to the kitchen, not saying anything, just there to observe these strange westerners. We were given glasses of water and our first dish of fried fish was brought out to us. We needed to drink some of the water during our meal, but we didn’t drink too much, just in case. We did our best, using only our right hand, to eat while still having conversations with those that had gathered. We were their guest, so we would eat first and they were honored to serve us. It was just their way of showing us respect, but we weren’t prepared to eat while everyone watched, especially without utensils.
We wish we could describe the food in a way that would give it justice, but it was all delicious. After each course, we were offered “one more” of what we were having. When we said yes, we would get two more. We’re not big eaters, we usually share meals when we go out, so this was one of the largest meals either of us had eaten in years. After the fish came a potato curry with some flatbread (and then one more). Then for dessert, we were served a bowl of Rasmalai, which is made of sweetened condensed milk and a round dumpling in the center of it. It was wonderful, but eating that with our fingers was definitely an adventure, I’m sure many of the smiles were smirks at our clumsiness.
After the meal came the blessing. We were given gifts, a statue of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as a symbol of respect to our God and a statue of Vishnu in honor of their religion. Flower wreaths were placed around our necks and we were given fruit. Then a small round container was opened and handed to Dona for her to put the Bindi on the center of the forehead. That moment turned out to almost big our biggest faux pas of the evening as we didn’t realize that it was powder and instead of using the thumb to apply it to the forehead, Dona started to raise the canister to her forehead. Everyone quickly came to the rescue and showed us the proper way to do it. We thanked everyone profusely and left to find all of the neighbors crowded around to watch us leave.
Our driver had waited for us, so we got into the car and started making our way back to the hotel. We didn’t get far before we got behind an ox cart with a large statue of Vishnu on it. The cart would stop every few buildings and people would come out to the street and offer prayers. Slowly but surely, we made our way back through the winding streets, past the animals and throngs of people, and back to the familiar honking, motorcycle and rickshaw filled main thoroughfare. Back at the hotel, we were full and exhausted, but we knew even then that our evening at their home for dinner would be one of our fondest travel memories ever. We wish we had more pictures to share of the evening, but we were there as their guest, not as tourists, so we did not take any other pictures of that wonderful evening. Since returning home, we’ve tried several times to replicate the potato curry that we were served, without much success. Some things can’t be duplicated.