Eating the Red Berries

I read somewhere that chimpanzees won’t eat unfamiliar red berries unless they see another chimp do it first. It’s a self-preservation instinct, and it makes sense; some berries are poisonous. But others are not, and can be a plentiful food source, so it’s definitely a risk-reward situation. This also means that if a troop wants to take advantage of that particular food source, one of those chimps has got to step up and try the berries, assuming a personal risk for the good of the group.

I’ve always been risk-averse, and while it’s paid off pretty well, it also means I’ve missed out on a few things in life. And so, in the spirit of our grand adventure, I’m trying to get better at throwing caution to the wind and just jumping in; in other words, I wanna be the chimp who’s brave enough to eat the red berries. It worked out well in Barcelona, where we got to try a bunch of unfamiliar foods that all ended up being delicious. The same was true in Morocco, and for the most part has been true in China, too.

Unfortunately, this behavior is not without consequences.

In a previous post, we talked about our bus ride to Yangshuo, and the tour guide who doubled as a salesman. It seemed very strange to us that this should be a part of our tour, having someone pitch to a captive audience like that. If I could have understood him, I probably would have been a bit more annoyed, but because it was all in Chinese, it was fairly easy to tune him out. We got the gist: he had stuff to buy, and he wanted us to buy it.

Then came time for the free samples. The guy had been rambling on for a fair few minutes about this particular product. It came in a fancy white box, with some nice calligraphy on the side, and a picture of some kind of fruit on the front. He put down the box and started down the aisle with a basket, handing out little samples on the way. We had eaten an early breakfast and hadn’t yet had lunch, so we were ready for snack time. The tour guy got to us, gave us his best salesman smile, and put a small white package in my hand. Without even thinking about it, I ripped it open to see what was inside.

What came out was a weird looking snack, although everything is kinda weird over here, so that was par for the course. It looked like a bunch of roasted pumpkin seeds glued together with a hard, brownish-orange paste. I shrugged, broke it in half, gave a piece to Jen, and popped it in my mouth.

It was bizarre. The pumpkin seeds still had the hulls on them, so they were very hard and fibrous. However, that’s not too out of the ordinary for plant-based snacks here; I thought nothing of it. The paste stuff was tea flavored, which, again, is pretty normal for China. However, this was very powerful, so strong that I could feel my mouth starting to burn from the intensity. They like their spices, but for the most part the flavors here are kind of bland, especially when it comes to sweets, which this kind of was. Jen and I looked at each other, noses wrinkled. It was, all in all, pretty gross, and guaranteed that we would not be buying this particular treat. Who would?

We looked around the bus, wanting to see how it was being received by the other tourists, when we noticed that no one was eating theirs. They’d all just set theirs down or stashed them away in their bags. “Wow,” I thought, “this guy must be a crap salesman. They won’t even eat his free samples.”

Jen had also noticed that no one was eating the treat. “Why is nobody else eating their snack?” she asked. Comprehension slowly dawned as we realized that the thing we’d eaten tasted like concentrated tea resin, because that’s exactly what it was. While everyone else got a packet of fancy tea to try when they got home, we got a strange new treat that we couldn’t resist eating right away. We laughed, realizing our mistake and how ridiculous we must look to the other tourists.

The tour guide brought another free sample, this time two packets, one he described as spicy, and one not spicy. This time, instead of ripping them right open, we decided to investigate a little bit more closely. There was a picture of a nicely cooked fish on the front, and in English the words “Fish scent, lingering eternally”. We poked and squeezed the stuff inside, and decided it must be a fish-flavored soup stock concentrate, another thing to try when you get home. Into the bag they went. We turned back to look out the windows, only to be met with the sight of a bus full of Chinese tourists chowing down on preserved fishy snacks. And yes, the package was correct: fish scent, lingering eternally.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that the chimps have got a good thing going. If you don’t know if a thing is food, maybe wait a bit and see how the other apes behave. Be patient. Let someone else eat the berries from time to time. Otherwise, you might end up with a mouthful of pumpkin husk slivers and a tea-scalded mouth.

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