“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eating Abroad: It's a Crapshoot

I traveled, I ate, I got home, I got sick.

Let's back up... There are more than a few "been there" dots on my travel map.  My first big trip abroad was to Egypt.  I thought I knew The Rules of eating abroad, but I wasn't experienced enough to really think them through.  The rules are: Cook, Boil, Peel, Seal.  Don't eat any meat that isn't COOKED, don't drink water unless it's BOILED, don't eat any fruits or veggies that you can't PEEL, and don't drink any beverages that aren't in a SEALED bottle.  Easy enough, but when you live in the US and you're used to eating almost anything in sight, you take that ease for granted.  I was staying at the Four Seasons so I figured I was going to be fine.  One evening I ordered up some hummus.  In hindsight: mistake.  Hummus isn't cooked, it's made with rinsed chickpeas.  I'm sure I may have eaten something else in the meantime, but a couple days later I was cursed with Mummy Tummy.  I felt so sick that day that I didn't want to eat anything heavy, so I ordered a salad.  D'oh!  Salad is raw, and the contents are rinsed in water.  And I had soda with ice.  Made with local water.  Let's say I learned my lesson after that trip.  I was well enough to work through my itinerary, but I was so bloated for 2 weeks I looked like I could birth a baboon.

A year later I was in England.  I drank bottled water, and I think I followed the 4 rules, but I didn't worry too much more about the food because we were staying in someone's home, and eating across the street at the pub.  Yummy, delicious, savory British pub food.  Nom nom nom... I digress.  Unfortunately my visit was timed with the worst outbreak of Norovirus that country had ever seen, and the entire village was sick before I even got there.  Needless today, I got it, too.  Not from food, but just from the air and a houseful of people.  It happens.  You see it every day in the winter, riding mass transit, sending the kids to school, or being in public.  Unless you're quarantined, you're likely going to get sick, too.  It was bad.  Not send-me-to-the-hospital bad, but bad.  Quick, though, just 36 hours turnaround and I was back to steak and ale pie in no time.

Insert Southeast Asia 2010.  How can you go to Thailand and NOT eat street food?  I went nuts.  Pad thai, street meat, grilled this, stir fry that... I ate nearly 3 meals a day on a sidewalk.  Literally popping a squat on a curb with a bent fork and a beat-up plastic plate that was washed in a bucket of suds.  Two weeks of street food in Thailand and Cambodia and I was in heaven.  Still, I followed the rules.  I could see the meat being grilled, the noodles were cooked, the water I purchased in bottles and checked the caps, the mangoes were peeled, the tea was piping hot.  And you know what?  Not a hint of any problems.  The rules worked.  I'm not sure I could have gotten away with much more, but I wasn't about to test it.  Success!

Next up: South American Adventure 2011, Peru and Easter Island.  The plan was the same: follow the rules, wash hands, but have fun.  And so we did.  We had alpaca, guinea pig, mystery street meat in Easter Island cooked out of a makeshift grill, ate at small family establishments, and the #42 best restaurant in the world.  Eating "different" food doesn't mean you'll get sick, it just means it's different.  As long as it's cooked, boiled, peeled, or sealed, I don't much care what it is.

When I returned to home, the very next day my stomach was a hot mess.  It went on for a couple weeks until I visited my doctor, she wrote out a Rx, and I thought I was all cured a couple weeks later.  Until last Monday when all hell broke loose and the illness made a mean resurgence.  I'll spare the gory details, but I was in the ER for 8 hours on an IV, pain meds, and anti-nausea meds until they deemed it safe to release me into the wild.  Turns out that the Peruvian stowaway in my stomach could have been from water (but see explanation below), or some jerk in a restaurant didn't wash their hands before handling my food (sez my doc).  Turns out that's the most likely explanation.

Carrie and I recounted where we ate and when.  That mystery street meat in Easter Island?  We both ate it, and she's fine.  Heck, she's BEEN fine this whole time.  We both brushed our teeth with the same tap water.  We shared entrees.  Ordered a lot of the same food.  The only occasions I can think of is a couple times when I ordered some pasta from a couple different restaurants.  After all, who handles spaghetti bolognese with their bare hands?  It was cooked, Rule #1.  I should be covered. 

The point is, you can follow all the rules, but sometimes there are other factors involved.  Hell, I'd be MORE prone to eat street meat next time because at least I can see it being prepared, cooked, handled, and straight into my mouth.  Get in my belly!  It turns out that what I had/have is pretty common and can be picked up easily in the US as well, although I was one of the special ones to be rewarded with doting at the hands of some handsome doctors. We know not what lurks on the hands of humanity and if it was smeared all over your delicious sandwich.  Or spaghetti. 

Was it worth it?  Hell yes.  I'd do it all again.  Pass the salt.