Food poisoning is one of the biggest threats to a traveler, and, unfortunately, is one that anyone who wanders for a little jaunt will invariably have to deal with from time to time. I do not know where food poisoning comes from or how it really happens- probably something with bacteria- so I can not write about any of the deep biological impacts of it. But what I can share is a little of my experience with eating bad food.
I pride myself with having a stomach of steel, but after I put it to the test the second time I was in India – I was trying to impress Mira by showing her that I could eat any darn dirty piece of food that is vended on the street, but I only got really ill – it has been faltering slightly. Maybe I am still not 100% from India; maybe I have broken down some of the defenses that I built up from years of travel; maybe it has just been my turn to eat the rotten apple in the barrel a few times in a row? Whatever the case, I have been jumping the hurdles of food poisoning a little more often than I use to. I know much watch what I eat a little closer.
For the point of the post, I consider any sickness that is rendered by unclean food as food poisoning. I do not know the exact perimeters of the definition of the illness, nor do I really care.
Perhaps food poisoning partly derives from the differences in digestive flora that a traveler has in comparison with the local people whose food they eat, or perhaps some culture’s methods of preparing food varies from others. Whatever the case, it is my assumption that travelers are more open to food poisoning than the local people who prepare and eat their own food as they have for centuries. I think this is obvious.
Different cultures have different ideas of cleanliness. In China, even in the far west, I have never had to worry about eating unclean food. Never have I gotten ill from food in China, South America, Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia, or Morocco. But in India- I really have no idea how the Indians can survive eating the food the way it is commonly prepared- keeping healthy requires a little diligence (showing off to your girlfriend by eating a cucumber with dirty fingerprints on it may not be a good idea). Some cultures recognize that some people can become ill from ingesting bad food, and some don’t, and some people on this planet seem to be indestructible. It is just the way it is.
Well, I gobbled down something bad yesterday. This was unexpected, as I have never even gotten a real good dose of diarrhea in Central America. My lunch was a bean and chicken burrito that I ate at tourist restaurant at the gate of the Copan Ruins. By night time I was vomiting profusely. Yup, last night was spent rolling around in pools of vomit all over my room, as I wholly lack the normal human response of running to the toilet to puke. I left my mark in every corner of my room.
Mira was not happy. She actually scowled as she had to jump and dive over the puddles of puke that I left in my wake. I laid on the bed with my tongue hanging out of my mouth not too conscious of her wails. I reverted to acting like a small child and Mira took care of me.
This morning I had a chicken and bean mess to clean up.
I thought that the chicken in the burrito kind of tasted funny. It sort of had a fishy sort of flavor that I provenanced to the fact that it probably came from a can. I now know that it was more likely just plain rotten. I know that I can not fully trust strangers to make me good food, but I did not think that I would be served rotten chicken.
Oh well, it happens.
If I want to avoid food poisoning totally I know that I must cook for myself. This means carrying my own cooker and a stainless steel pot. I figure that purchasing, prepping, cooking, eating, and then cleaning would take me nearly the same amount of time as eating two meals a day in restaurants. Restaurants often take a lot of time out of the day. Making my own food will also save me a lot of money and make me more independent on my own means. If I had my own cooking supplies, I could just set up camp and cook away. I could make myself a pot of beans, rice, and vegetables in the morning and put it in a tupperware container to nibble on throughout the day.
I think that I am going to look into picking up a traveling stove the next time that I pass through somewhere that sells them. I know that there are ones that can work on a multitude of different fuels, I just wonder how difficult it would be to find fuel in the compressed containers that a stove needs. Do all stoves need these compression containers? I think that I need to begin cooking for myself.
Like old time travel.
As long as I eat in restaurants while traveling I know that food poisoning is a hit and miss endeavor. For many years I had no problems. In 2006 I had a major one that landed me in the hospital. I can’t plan for food poisoning, nor really prevent it. I have come to terms with the fact that if I pursue the luxury of eating at restaurants, then I am going to spend a night or two a year vomiting. I have to eat something on the Road, I know this. The occasional vomiting bump in my path is not too bad, but I think that I would rather now cook for myself. I think that I could also eat a more balanced and well rounded diet if I was the architect of my own menu.
One thing I do know about the tidings of food poisoning is that I often cannot tell the cleanliness of a restaurant from looking at it. I have looked upon eateries with immaculately scrubbed dining areas only to gasp at how dirty the kitchen is. I have also been pleasantly surprised at the sparkling cleanliness of kitchens that sits behind a hole in the wall restaurant. So I know that a clean looking, expensive restaurant has nearly as much of a chance as making me ill as a food stall on a street corner. You are usually unable to watch your food being cooked in a restaurant and therefore can never know how clean a cooks hands are, how aged the meat is, and if your vegetables have been washed. In point, unless you walk into the back of a restaurant and supervise the preparation of your meal, you have no idea of its cleanliness. I do not have the huevos for doing this. As my Chinese Medicine professor once told me, the front room of a restaurant often gives no indication of its kitchen. Food poisoning can come out of anywhere.
In fact, my bets are place on the street vendor rather than the restaurant for preparing a cleaner meal, as you can watch them make your food. Eat from a street vendor and you can ask them questions – even in pantomime – and watch how they makes food for other people before committing to eating. If the food at a street stall does not look clean enough then you can walk on, if the food looks as if it has been sitting out all day you can choose not to eat it, if the cook drops your food on the ground chances are he will not put it on your plate. If you eat at a restaurant you have no idea was is happening to your food.
The good thing about most strands of food poisoning is that it usually comes on strong and then goes away quickly. One night of puking and then you are free. It is not the worst of illnesses, I must say. Well, unless it kills you.
The occasional dose of food poisoning is simply a part of the traveling experience.
When in travel, you will puke.
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Copan Ruinas, Honduras
March 9, 2008