Somewhere in the airspace between Amsterdam and Delhi, a flight attendant announced that they would be serving dinner shortly. I dutifully did what I was told to do. I unhooked my upright tray and lowered it to the down position just in time for the flight attendant to plop down our onboard meal for the flight to Delhi. It was packaged just like all other onboard meals that I have ever eaten. It came on a plastic formed tray with other smaller plastic containers of various things neatly arranged upon the carrier. However, this meal was totally unlike all other meals that I have eaten.
My first problem was identifying what was what. Soon, I was drawn to the bold black lettering that was stamped across the top of the aluminum foil covering on the largest of the containers. The content of this entrée was written in three different languages. Being fairly fluent in English, I could understand one of the words: "steak." Suddenly, panic seized me. What is going to happen onboard an American airliner that served steak to a plane full of Hindus? I couldn't believe that some chef didn't realize that a flight to Delhi would have been loaded with Hindus homeward bound all of whom viewed the cow as sacred. I just couldn't understand why the main entrée would be beef?
Then it happened. An Indian woman dressed in a red sari motioned to me to get the flight attendant's attention for her. She had obviously been able to read one of the other three languages, one of which was surely Hindi. I thought to myself, here we go-a riot at 30,000 feet over some dissolute terrain below, and I was going to die when the plane crashed as a result of the onboard food-fight. Reluctantly, I relayed the message to the attendant that the women in the red sari wanted her. Then I merely put my head down incredulous at the thought that steak had been served to a plane full people who revered the cow. Go figure.
I decided to go back to my dinner before the midair uprising began-after all, it might be my last supper. The first thing that I noticed was apparently a salad. It consisted of miniature, multi-colored lentils or peas. The next item to get my scrutiny was hiding under aluminum foil with the steak, embarrassed about the faux pas of serving cow to Indians. The next item was saffron-colored rice, and the other looked like spinach. As I continued to rummage through the meal, I discovered two separate containers filled with something thick and white. One turned out to be a lime-flavored custard, and the other was a cucumber salad in a white sauce. Finally, there were two other smaller containers the size of coffee creamers served in restaurants. It was labeled: "Lime and Pickle". To this day, I don't know what was to be its intended destination on my tray. The other container was a cellophane pouch with little multi-colored grains like small rice. Initially, I figured that they would go on the salad as a garnish. However, the more that I thought about it, it didn't seem like a salad presentation that I would choose: mixing multi-colored peas and lentils with multi-colored seeds.
I stared at the packet of seeds for quite some time. After picking them up to examine them more closely, I discovered on the reverse side the notion: "After dinner mints." Great! So, I opened up the envelope and tossed the contents into my waiting palate. God. Even the after dinner mints were distasteful. There I was trying to remove a hundred little seeds from my dry mouth. It wasn't a pretty sight or a pleasant sensation, I assure you.
By this time, I was feeling quite inadequate. I am not a travel novice having traveled extensively in Western and Central Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and North Africa. However, my first meal before even getting to India was a humbling experience. I realized how even with all my experience and research for this trip, I was a total stranger to radically different culture. I felt impotent and worried if I couldn't pick my way correctly through a meal on an American plane, how was I going to fare on my own down on the earth traveling in the sub-continent?
By this time, I was picking over the various entrées on my tray and not even attempting to eat them. While in this half-conscious state, I thought about how different the world really is and how other travelers coming to America must feel having their first American meal. Surely, they experience culture shock just like I did. If we differ so much in simple things like food, it is no wonder that we often can't get along on the more substantive and therefore more divisive issues that divide us and cause us to distrust and even fight one another.
As for the woman in the red sari, she was able to exchange her steak for a vegetarian meal, thus adverting a midair international crisis. My first Indian meal can be viewed as a paradigm for all of us. We are so different as people and often we inadvertently step on the toes of others. However, we can negotiate our differences and resolve conflicts without resorting to fighting.