BOGOTA, Colombia- I looked down at the green salad on my plate. It butted up against the other elements of my meal, served as a some sort of stale side dish — perhaps added as an after thought to mix up the color palate of the ensemble a little. I debated eating it. The greens were mixed with the reds, there may have been a glimmer of orange. The salad looked as if someone had been sitting on it all morning, as most salads do in restaurants in this planet.
I looked around the restaurant — it was an Israeli themed place, but no Israelis were in sight. The waitress, the cooks were without a doubt 100% Colombian, and, if I may be so bold to assume, more than likely handled the vegetables as Colombians, not kosher Israelis. Different cultures have different food handling practices, and those of South America have never impressed upon me as being overtly sanitary. I debate exiling the stale looking salad off into a far off section of the plate, but I had not eaten any vegetables for the past two days, and I was craving something green.
I ate the raw veggies, I am no culinary limp wrist.
Humans need to eat vegetables to maintain health — fresh ones above all. It is a good thing that vegetables are readily available in most parts of the world with fertile soil or established importation systems. In fact, the only places that I have been that lacked good supplies of fresh vegetables were in desert regions, Mongolia, and, for some reason, Bosnia. Fresh vegetables cover this globe, but the word in mainstream travel literature is that these vegetables are often not prepped properly in restaurants around the world, and the resultant bacteria and parasites that can be ingested from eating them can be hazardous to your health.
It is easy to call bullshit on such panzy warnings, but after 12 years of travel and observation I must say that these warnings are in large part substanciatable. Where possible, I try to avoid eating fresh vegetables that someone else prepares.
But often, in contradiction to my advice, I do eat those green salads that come as a side to my meal. I need to eat vegetables like every other person. In some places — such as the USA or Europe — I have observed no continuous pattern of negative side effects, but in Latin America, SE Asia, and other tropical countries whose food preparation practices often operate in denial of the germ theory, I can see a connection between eating uncooked vegetables and minor stomach ailments.
The night of eating in the Israeli restaurant my stomach began rumbling. The next morning what I was holding back arrived: a one off and gone bout of diarrhea.
Now, I understand that it is often a foolish act when traveling to try to provenience diarrhea to an isolated source : the small rumbling in my bowels could have been caused from the chicken that accompanied the Israeli meal, the egg sandwich I ate earlier in the day, my initial exposure to Colombian tap water, or from picking my nose, but the fact remains that I’ve been able to observe a pattern of these minor bouts of diarrhea occurring in conjunction with consuming raw vegetables in restaurants.
Now, 99% of these bowel problems that I mention are incredibly minor, and most never deserve a mention — they begin and end with a blast of diarrhea, a stomach ache, a period of temporary lethargy. Though I can still make a pretty direct connection between consuming fresh vegetables in a restaurant and a heightened probability of having rumblings in my bowels — 12 years of travel has been enough of a period to observe such patterns.
But a traveler needs vegetables. This is a fact. So how to eat vegetables without excessively risking illness?
Easy: when possible, I prepare my own fresh vegetables for myself.
Prep vegetables for yourself
It is cheap and easy to prep your own fresh vegetables when traveling. I follow these simple steps:
- I buy the vegetables I want to eat in a market, getting a supply for three or four days.
- Wash them very well with water and a small amount of diluted dish soap.
- Rinse them with drinking water.
- Dry them very well or they will rot.
- Eat when I want them.
Often, if buying larger quantities of vegetables than what I am going to immediately eat, I will wash the entire batch in one go and then store them in a clean receptacle so they are ready to consume on call. In this way, I do not need to bother going through a washing session each time I want to munch on a carrot or snack on a tomato.
This is a simple, proactive way to avoid a common cause of traveler’s diarrhea. It is still more than possible to get sick from eating meat or other foods when eating out, but I strongly believe that if your meal is cooked there is a vastly lower chance of getting sick from it. In point, it is the uncooked elements of meals that I am wary of — especially the vegetables.