On my flight to West Africa, sometime between my second and fifth movie, I walk to the back of the plane to use the restroom. As I approach, I see four Ethiopian stewardesses sitting in a circle on the floor, eating a family-sized plate of what appears to be a hodgepodge of flatbread, red sauce, meat, and veggies with their hands.
As I wait for the bathroom, I stare. When I see people who interest me, I stare like a little kid stares at Micky Mouse—I become so consumed by curiosity that I forget I’m in the room altogether. In elementary school this habit earned me the nickname, Kyle Stare-mann. Later in life, at bars, strangers would often greet me by saying, “what the fuck are you looking at?”
In this case, however, one of the stewardesses smiles and says, “do you want to try?” She holds out a hand full of the stuff. Beneath the sound of the jet engine, I’m not sure I hear her right, so I walk closer and lean into their circle. “In our culture, we eat with our hands,” she tells me. “When someone new joins us, it’s customary that we feed them their first two bites.” Before I have time to retreat, her fingers are in my mouth, and I taste shredded chicken and a variety of spices that are foreign to me. She holds out another hand full of what I soon learn is an Ethiopian dish called injera.
As I sit with the women, they tell me that injera is a staple in their country and that people have been eating it for thousands of years. They tell me the tradition of feeding another person is called gurshia. They tell me that Lucy, the oldest human fossil, was found in Ethiopia. “We are ambassadors of our country, and you must visit.”
Another passenger walks into the back of the plane to use the restroom. She is a middle-aged white woman who looks uptight. When the stewardesses offer her a hand full of injera, the passenger responds with a panicked "no, thank you," and retreats into the restroom. The stewardesses shrug and continue to tell me fun facts about their culture.
Suddenly, another flight attendant rushes to the back of the plane. “Boss is coming!” She says urgently. We scatter.
Back in my seat, with my fingers stained from the red sauce and my mouth still on fire from the spices, I enjoy the electric feeling a traveler gets from falling into a bizarre new world. The act of feeding one another with our hands is surely one of the earliest forms of gift-giving hominids ever performed, and I experienced this intimate tradition in a metal capsule, a mile above the Atlantic ocean.