Saturday, January 17, 2015

Death of the "Iron Stomach" and the Doubts of a Casual Traveler

On the road, the biggest enjoyment a traveler can possibly have is food.  Going to new places and indulging on the delicacies that raised a whole new unknown civilization cannot be underestimated in its value in communicating with the locals.  It is like the Chinese says, "民以食為天" (people see food sky/heaven).  The centrality of gastronomy in not only the cultural expression of a place, but also the economic realities of the common people residing there provides possibly the most concentrated and succinct method to get know the good and bad of a foreign location.

Yet, the human biology may not always be as ready as the mind to dive into the complete unknown of a strange new gastronomical tradition.  The mind may want to chomp down on everything that is unique to a place, especially out here in Asia where the likes of dogs, whales, and insects are semi-regular fixtures of the local cuisines.  But as our individual bodies are unfortunately only adapted to the location where they regularly reside.  The foreignness of ingredients, from their mixtures to chemical contents, are not taken too kindly by the stomach.

It is funny how inspirational speakers (travelers, some of them) so readily try to convey a message that the possibilities are endless, and if the mind can think of it, the body will go and execute it.  It seems like the logic has hit upon an exception with food.  Sure, one can walk around and see neighborhoods that are not the most cleanly displayed or invitingly organized because at the end, one is still physically detached for the environment, but when one is told to active put edible pieces of those neighborhoods down one's stomach, all the sudden its visual appearance seem to matter more.

But one does not always have to be in a completely foreign land to have this sort of ambivalent and self-defensive attitude toward unknown food.  That ambivalent piece of cooked question mark may just be around the corner from where one lives.  This is especially true for many who live within their comfort zones, whether on the road or right at home.  Even for their home cities, they choose the most familiar options, seeking out sparkly clean, brightly lit malls with generic, largely commonplace cuisines tested by many people in the past.

The little hole-in-the-walls, with countless restaurants serving authentic and original specialties, are avoided, for the fear of anything ranging from stomachache to serious food poisoning.  Staying in the comfort zone, then, causes one to largely miss out perhaps the best a town can offer in terms of special culinary memories.  Many a backpacker, with their excessively adventurous spirit as a life principle, would see this as one of the biggest regrets they can have in a foreign location.  For them, trying new food and failing is not even fatal.  Yes, one may eat something nasty, but that's it.

The author has always been with the backpacking crowd in this philosophy.  Foreign foods, to the author, are always something worthy of storytelling at a latter day.  All the weird things eaten, from reindeer in Alaska to bear in Japan to dog in Korea, are subjects of pride, akin to a soldier's nonfatal wounds on his torso that he proudly present to comrades, friends, and potential admirers.  Having a spate of stomach issues recently, though, has made him much more careful on this topic.  Sure, foreign foods will still be tried, but he will pick and choose those that are easily digestible.

A part of the author is quite sorrowful on this turn of events.  For as long as he has known, he has been known among his friends for being an "iron stomach," someone who is capable of eating anything and be completely OK at the end of it.  While the author's tongue and mind are still ready to explore new things, his stomach is telling him to "slow the heck down."  Bouts of severe vomiting in the Philippines, followed by nagging and periodically recurring stomach pain has forced him to limit his diet, even as he explored one of the most popular night markets in KL for food.

Safety and health first, everything later, right?  Alas, one really has to set priorities straight.  Without good health, it is hard to  enjoy anything, including those adventurous backpacking trips.  For the casual traveler,  it is necessary to remember that it is not advisable to risk it all in the short term that will leave so much pain in the long term.  Only to passing up on obviously discomforting foods (such as intensely spicy chili chicken on the streets of Mumbai) that one will get to enjoy milder but definitely more comforting foods like daal bhat on the streets of Kathmandu.  

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