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Cook Food for Yourself When Traveling

I grade travelers based on whether or not they carry their own cooking gear. This is the defining characteristic, perhaps, between a person living life on the road or someone who is just along for the ride. I peer into the bags of the travelers, backpackers, and tourists with backpacks looking for a few tell tale [...]

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I grade travelers based on whether or not they carry their own cooking gear. This is the defining characteristic, perhaps, between a person living life on the road or someone who is just along for the ride. I peer into the bags of the travelers, backpackers, and tourists with backpacks looking for a few tell tale signs that they are in this life for the long haul, and if I see a pot, some silverware, a plate or two, and, especially, some manner of stove, I know right off that this person has been there, that they learned the value of self-catering.

I just heard a tourist in a hotel in Bogota claiming that long term travelers don’t get traveler’s diarrhea. She made it seem as if their bodies are stronger than the average person’s, that they have somehow become immune to the bacteria, virus, and little worms and microbes that can occasional rip up an intestinal tract during the course of world travel.

But I have a secret to share: this is not true. No, it is not true at all.

A long term traveler in a new part of the world is pretty much just as physically susceptible to traveler’s diarrhea and other food borne illnesses as a newbie, but the long term traveler does have a tool at their disposal that often keeps them from perpetually barfing and crapping their way around the planet: experience.

Cooking gear in action

Travel teaches its lessons the hard way — to learn how to travel well you often must face the consequences of poor choices. To be blunt, getting dog ill or doing a stint or two in dubious hospitals around the world is enough to make virtually any traveler connect cause and effect:

I ate X food that was prepared in Y conditions and soon after I was struck with a stomach/ intestinal illness — maybe I’d be better to avoid that culinary situation the next time around. 

Most travelers that I’ve meet who have been on the road for years seldom become ill, for they have learned through trial and error what to eat and what not to eat, what makes their bowels grumble and what they can pass without incident, and, most importantly, the importance of preparing food for themselves.

The fact of the matter is that if you eat in a restaurant in any country you take a chance that your food is not going to be prepared properly, that what is laid down upon your plate was dropped, flung, handled in a less than cleanly manner, was cross-contaminated with meat or dairy juices or other bacteria attracting substances, or just sat around with flies shitting all over it all day long. Take into account that notions of sanitation ebb and flow with culture, and the dining out experience becomes a tight rope walk over a pit of digestive illnesses. This is true for anywhere in the world: when you eat in a restaurant, you place your health in someone else’s hands (literally). I try to avoid restaurants whenever possible (especially those that cater to tourists), and opt to cook my own food.

Generally, I aim for making two or even three meals a day for myself, and eating out only when feeling social or when in a situation or place that inhibits self-catering. One cold self-prepped meal, one restaurant or street stall protein heavy dish, and one well rounded, vegetable packed self-cooked meal is usually my daily routine. But if I have access to a kitchen complete with a refrigerator, the restaurants will seldom see my face.

Food is sustenance first, entertainment a distant second. My culinary goals are to eat nutritiously, cheaply, and cleanly. These goals are often best accomplished through cutting out the middle man — the restaurant — and cooking for myself.

My cooking gear

My cooking rig consists of the following:

  • Two stainless steel pots
  • A stainless steel plate
  • A stainless steel cup
  • Silverware
  • A tuna can alcohol stove

Ideally, I will also have a small frying pan thrown in with this rig — but the last one was lost and it is a challenge to find a lightweight stainless steel frying pan in a culinary world full of Teflon and aluminum. Various disposable or borrowed articles — such as cups, bowls, and plates — are cycled in and out when they become available, but, for the most part, my family does not have much difficulty sharing what we have.

Why cook for yourself

The intrigue of sampling new foods every meal as I travel, for me, is often not worth the side effect, the expense, or the hassle. When a non-traveler asks what I ate in such and such place in the world I usually answer to the effect of: I ate chicken, noodles, eggs, vegetables, and rice that I cooked for myself. This strategy was learned the hard way as I’ve traveled through many parts of the world over many years.

My first journey through India I did not get ill. I ate in restaurants daily, gobbled street food, consumed the fruits, vegetables, everything the country put on the plate in front of me. I thought that I had a stomach of steel, that I was impervious to the bacteria, microbes, and parasites that made weaker-than tourists run for the bathroom. I thought that I was one of those long term travelers whose intestinal system was immune to the foods of the world — the type of character that girl at the hotel in Bogota was talking about. I returned to India a year later with an aura of culinary invincibility, and I got so sick I not only ended up in a hospital but had to undergo three months of intensive treatment in China. I learned an important lesson of travel the hard way:

Cook for yourself.

I would argue against the proposition that world travel strengthens a person’s bowels. Rather, it has been my observation that years and years of ingesting the arrays of bacteria, microbes, and parasites that are inherent to eating in restaurants multiple times a day in various parts of the world wears a traveler’s digestive system down. When I got seriously ill in India it was after I’d been traveling for around eight years. I do not believe that my intestines were just full of pernicious influences from India but from all of my travels up until that point. It is my impression that I’d reached an intestinal breaking point, and my body collapsed.

Since 2007 I’ve been focused on cooking for myself and only dining out with astute selectivity. The result is that I feel far stronger and healthier than I did during the first era of my travels, and I seldom ever become ill. I still dine out occasionally (no more than once a day to once a week) but I do so mindfully and don’t barrage my digestive system with dubiously prepared restaurant food.

Travel can either make a person more self-sufficient, or it can turn a person into a full-service grubbing lout. Most people wander this planet like petty kings, going from place to place removed from the work of existence: they have their meals prepped for them in restaurants, they are taken from place to place by drivers, their rooms are cleaned for them and their laundry washed and folded by hired hands. The act of travel can remove a person from taking care of themselves almost completely — there is a reason the word “travel” is often combined with the word “leisure.” The resulting condition is called tourism, and the person basking in it is called a tourist. Living like this can be fun for a while — a vacation should be a vacation — but being a perpetual customer should not be confused with being a perpetual traveler. After months and months, or years and years of travel, it is difficult to respect a person who does not cook their own meals.

Modern travel is a lifestyle which inherently errs towards leisure, but cooking for yourself can add a basic level of work to each day on the road. It is one small way to fend for your own sustenance and become a little more self-sufficient in places where it is often very easy to just pay other people take care of you. Cooking for yourself is work, yes, but the psychological impact of working for your keep lends a sense of fullness to a day and has the power to transform an activity into a lifestyle. The stimulation of shopping around in markets in a foreign country, putting together a meal plan of new ingredients, and making a culinary creation you’ve never made before is often far more stimulating and fulfilling than visiting yet another sight seer worn tourist site.

Cooking for yourself when traveling helps to keep the body healthy, the pocketbook full, and the mind strong. Pick up a pot, make a tuna can stove, and try it.


Filed under: Food, Health, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

3 comments… add one

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  • Caitlin November 12, 2011, 1:47 pm

    You think maybe you just don’t like food that much? I mean, it’s not a passion for you. I love restaurants. I love trying new foods. For me, eating out is one of the best parts of travel… but I think that’s just because I love food and dining so much.

    That said, I’m about to go eat some beans, tomatoes, avocado and tortilla in my kitchen, so go figure.

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    • Wade Shepard November 12, 2011, 2:20 pm

      Haha, maybe. But I think I just don’t like sitting around in a restaurant with my thumb up my butt waiting to be served. I once tried to calculate how much time the average tourist spends per day in restaurants, and it is an incredible amount of the day. I would rather be out doing something than sitting around waiting for someone else to do something. I guess if you really like food and the restaurant experience then it is part of your daily entertainment and worth the wait.

      I suppose I also don’t like people doing things for me that I could just do myself and be on my way. I guess I just don’t get the whole service culture and I have no idea why waiters exist — they seem to be some concocted middle man that is totally unnecessary. Why do I need someone to walk my food five meters over to me when I have legs and can just walk to the kitchen and get it myself? I suppose it is not food that I dislike but restaurant culture.

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  • vivienne campbell January 16, 2012, 5:35 pm

    yes i agree with that. sitting waiting for food is a pain in the arse, as is the restaurant culture. i wd rather be out doing something and cooking my own food

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