When I travel, I try to eat and enjoy what my host sets before me, even if it might otherwise make me squeamish. Of course, I’ll make my food preferences known if asked or if appropriate. But when the host has gone to great trouble or expense as a gift to me, I make an effort to partake with genuine appreciation.
This has led to some interesting meals over the years. Once in Singapore I just couldn’t surpress gagging while attemping to swallow down a bowl of a precious delicacy — frog sperm soup. I’ll spare you the details.
Even though Indian food is a favorite of mine, I wondered if such a moment might come while dining in the exotic land of India. Sure enough, it did.
And it took me by surprise.
When I was a child and reluctant to eat something, thoughts of starving children in India (or someplace far off) did not inspire me to eat my veggies. I couldn’t figure out how cleaning my plate or not would affect them.
I had it backwards.
What the starving children in India eat — or don’t eat — can affect _me_.
As an adult, having just spent a day with Vitamin Angels and Bridge of Hope in Muhundapur slum, the starving children weren’t someplace far off, but were looking in my eyes and placing their hands in mine.
Gratitude for all I have rises in me again as I write, spilling out my eyes. Generosity leaks from me; I’ve been pierced by their courage, friendliness, and respect.
My gut was so moved, I couldn’t imagine recoiling from or failing to appreciate anything to eat that came to me as a gift.
What’s more, every meal, every snack, on this trip, whether familiar or an adventure, had been beyond delicious. This had been a trip of splendid food.
So I didn’t see it coming.
Our small band flew to the mitary air base at Bagdogarh. The hot afternoon sky mopped our skin as we transferred from cool airport to a waiting car.
Despite the hard work of the car’s air conditioner, it just couldn’t keep up, and the heat began to sneak back in as we drove East.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for full frontal heat when we pulled up in Shiluguri, the gateway to India’s Buddhist mountain monasteries.
Carrying my solid old habit of eating what is served, as well as my newly discovered wellspring of gratitude, and a vague cloud of Zen calm, I stepped up to my host’s door.
Sure enough, I was met with an expensive gift on a tin tray, a heartfelt extravagance that made my gut clench.
On the tray was a can of Diet Coke.
I had travelled halfway around the world, but it was only something from my own country I didn’t want to touch.
Don’t get me wrong: for years Diet Coke had been my beverage of choice, a calorie-free, guilt-free, pick-me-up I enjoyed several times a day.
But long ago I had come to see it as a useless collection of questionable chemicals with no nutritional value and possible negative side effects.
There were better ways to hydrate, better ways to stay awake, better refreshing flavor choices – why choose Diet Coke.?
And on this particular day, the Diet Coke was even more jarring. Resources committed to a liquid of no value felt like a slap in the face to those thirsty for clean water, hungry for real nutrients, or even just starving for calories.
The moisture on the clean, bright can glistened. The ceiling fan spun, reflected in the shiny aluminum.
I took the can in my hand and looked down. It was produced by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, Private, Limited. Sweetened with aspartame and acesulfame K, at least the can had the good sense to warn: Product Not Suitable for Children.
But in the instant I looked at the can I also saw my host’s thoughtfulness and generosity to an American visitor. I saw how much the poor children I had met would have loved this empty treat. I saw that self-righteous or self-indulgent refusal was not an option.
Thanking my host, I popped the top with a satisfying rush. Tilting the can to my lips, I truly enjoyed the cold effervescent liquid on a hot afternoon.
Because of the starving children in India, I drank a full can of Diet Coke, savoring each drop like it was Holy Communion.
I expect it will be a very long time before I have another.
But not long before a bite or a sip of something becomes the host, reminding me that we are all connected.