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Just Say Oink
By Hilary Williamson

Cultural misunderstandings run rampant amongst travelers. There are places where proffering a left hand, showing the soles of the feet, or blowing your nose at the dinner table, are very bad form. There are even extreme cases that lead to violence, such as the rumors of pig grease that triggered the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

And then there are moments that are simply embarrassing, like the pass the parcel my travel companions and I played with a container of freshly squeezed goat's milk in Baluchistan. We saw tuberculosis in every drop, while our generous nomad hosts kept the milk circulating, eyeing our miniscule sips in great puzzlement.

My most embarrassing faux pas (so far) occurred in Malaysia. I was on my own, having just arrived from Thailand, and reached a small town at dusk. I found a cheap hotel and headed out into the evening in search of sustenance. Not wanting to wander far in an unlit area, I stopped at the nearest outdoor food stall, where braziers glowed dimly, emitting succulent odors of grilling satay. It was simply a few plastic covered tables at the side of the road, each one centered with a bowl of crunchy spiced peanut sauce. One was unoccupied so I sat down, mimed a request for a cold drink and hot satay, and watched its preparation with interest.

A dozen skewers of pork satay soon arrived and I tucked in with enthusiasm. Several skewers later, my appetite waned, but I soldiered on, reluctant to waste food in a country, where it might not be as plentiful as in my own. As I masticated, I noticed an increase in side glances, whispering and giggling behind hands. I wondered, but persevered with my self appointed task of cleaning that plate as I had been brought up to do.

As I finished, sighing, the empty plate was whisked away and another was plunked in front of me. That's when I finally clued in that the dining protocol was to pay per skewer, and that it was not expected (indeed, from the looks I was getting it was most unexpected) to lick the plate clean. I slunk out of there in the realization that I would never dare to look a skewer of satay in the grill again. So the next time you are ordering pork satay at a Malay food stall, do this for me ... just say oink!
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