Don’t Eat The….Anything

Thailand, Thoughts & Reflections Add comments

Before I came to Thailand last summer, I went to a travel clinic and met with a foreign disease specialist. She gave me the vaccines I needed (Tetanus, Hepatitis A/B, Typhoid Fever) and some meds, like Mefloquin for protection against malaria and Ciproflaxin for infections or the super-runs. We talked about what not to eat or drink, washing hands and all of that.

I followed most of her suggestions in June. I didn’t drink the tap water, which was easy since most of the locals don’t either and so bottled water is available everywhere. I tried to not eat unpeeled and raw fruits or vegetables, since they could have bacteria on them. And I pretty much stuck to the general rule of only eating food that’s stove-hot or refrigerator-cold; nothing that’s been sitting around for awhile. Whether or not any of this mattered, I made it through all fifteen days unscathed.

Before I left for my current travels, I picked up a book published by Lonely Planet called Healthy Travel – Asia & India. Written by a doctor and a team of travel health experts, it’s given me some helpful advice, but not without some frustrating paranoia.

I can’t say I was sick my first few weeks in Asia, but I was definitely hanging out in the ol’ Haung Nam a little more than usual. Between that and reading the book, I was getting frustrated with the challenge of exploring the food culture here.

When you arrive at your guesthouse with a sore, sweat soaked back and your face is pulsing, it’s close to impossible to turn away a free glass of iced tea. It clink-clinks and sparkles looking so cold. The risk of foreign floaties inside is legitimate, but usually wasn’t enough to stop me. A few times I stopped half way through; irrationalizing that if there are some germs, maybe I hadn’t drank them yet.

When you’ve eaten hot stir-fry six meals in a row and your body is craving some sort of raw western vegetation, it’s sufferance to not order a towering salad of lettuce, cucumbers and red ripe tomatoes. There’s something refreshing about raw vegetables, so crisp and so clean, that I miss.

Everywhere I go there’s western folk eating eastern food they were told to stay away from. And it’s not like Europeans are dropping like flies from the Pad Thai or anything. Speaking of flies, in the book I’m reading the author warns that poor or non-existent sewage systems in Asia means that the chance a fly landing on your food had just taken flight from a pile human feces, is more likely here. She goes on to sight this as reason to stay away from buffets where food sits out! It might be easy for a foreigner to stay away from strange looking Thai foods cooked on stove’s with wheels parked on a smelly streets, but imagine having to wonder if the ice at Starbucks is going to give you a parasite or the hot peppers at Subway, a bloody case of Dysentry. It doesn’t seem to make much sense.

A couple of weeks ago I ordered a chicken sandwich, figuring it was something I could bite into with no worry of repercussions. When it came there were fresh, but mysterious lettuce, tomatoes and onions spilling out the sides and the chicken had no temperature. Besides that, a fly who had been landing on my arm, zipping around my head and then landing back on my same arm, did a little dancey dance on the bread. So I ate the fries, then ordered stir-fry and gave my $1.50 sandwich to the fly and his crap covered feet. Then I Purelled my hands three times and watched the ice melt in my tea while drinking questionable locally bottled water.

I was freaking out and realized the book was turning me into a hypochondriac. How was I going to enjoy myself if all I could drink was a well known brand of bottled water and all I could eat were western things wrapped safely in cellophane?

The threat of contracting a serious stomach bug is definitely greater here than at home, but I’ve learned the main concern is bacteria’s that my body isn’t use to. I must already be building up a defense against them, since foods have been sticking around in my gut longer.

I don’t forget the times I’ve spent hours feeling close to death, my body weak, empty, drenched in cold sweat, finding comfort only in the cool kiss of ceramic against my skin. These memories keep me from being completely careless, but I’ve taken an approach somewhere in the middle of the western advice I’ve gotten and what the locals eat. I’m still not drinking the tap water, avoiding ice from sketchy sources and for the most part sticking to cooked, over raw food. It’s too much stress freaking out about something that is probably impossible to avoid when traveling long term anyway.

Now if I can just get use to eating things with their head still attached, I’ll have a whole new menu to choose from.

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