Feb 27 11

The Travel Diet

by Emily Benjamin

I’m not a healthy eater at the best of times. You say food – I say “double cheese burger!” I wake up and often my first thought is what I’m going to eat for dinner that night, and my imagination takes hold… roast chicken with potatoes and gravy, a big serve of lasagne, a two piece feed with a no legs or wings, upsized, with a gravy instead of potato gravy. Not only do I get food cravings, I get very specific food cravings, like right now – I’m craving about one and a half tasty chicken kievs with a side of potato bake and a cold can of coke. Om nom.

Only recently did I develop a taste for vegetables, and I can pinpoint the factors that lead to my increased appetite for the good stuff. Firstly it was travelling through Europe in 2009 with my Dad, where we were eating heavy pastas and pizzas most of the time, bangers and mash in pubs, and goulash soups with rice and bread in food halls. As my stomach swelled with all this tastiness, 5 weeks was too many to eat only the bad stuff and I began to crave a decent bowl of vegetables, which was near impossible to find in most restaurants. Secondly, I can blame the ‘caveman diet’ introduced at my gym, where we were encouraged to eat only meat and veg, day in, day out, to get us all as lean as possible. I managed this for a few days before giving in to the golden arches, but was at least appreciating that with vegetables, I could eat as much as I like without feeling guilty. And finally, I can credit the convenience of my Dad’s bamboo steamer, for showing me how easy it can be to serve up a bowl of healthy, tasty vegetables in just minutes, without fussing in several areas of the kitchen. Just chop them up, chuck them in, and you’ve got steamed vegetables with no need for washing up and wiping anything down.

I know myself (and my stomach) well enough to know that if I don’t get food when I’m hungry, there will be trouble. And I make sure those closest to me are aware of this, because no one wants to see me go mental on a food-finding rampage, when my sugar levels get too low. Jamie was warned of this not just by me, but by my family as well – they’ve seen me devour 8 roast potatoes in minutes and I’ll do it again, if you don’t stop me! So when we embarked on this adventure together, he was under strict instruction to make sure there was always food near-by and if we were hopping on a train/bus/plane/donkey to go anywhere, emergency snacks should be packed. Which, in the last few days, has been truly tested.

Our trip from Thailand into Laos was over 4 days. One of those days I was sick, and stayed in bed to get better. The other three days had us on buses, minivans, taxis and boats, with a total travelling time of 23 hours. That’s almost 8 hours a day, on each of Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. When we hopped off one bus, we were shuffled onto another. And from the boats edge, we were whisked away by a taxi. Saturday was maybe even the worst, where we spent 6 hours in a minivan with 10 other people, up the very back, with only a small fan which was switched off for 80% of the trip, and no windows open. The people we’ve encountered on our travels so far don’t seem to like fresh air on transport, which is a little annoying.

In anticipation of each of these trips, I thought immediately of food and looked around for the nearest vendor. And I can officially say that 100% of the time, your only options will be Oreos and Lays potato chips. So this is what I stocked up on, which was fortunate, because I only did so to get me through until our lunch stop, and once we were there we realised the best option available at the markets was a skewer of barbecued chicken necks. No thank you. By the time we arrived at our final destination for the day, I had a splitting headache, was completely dehydrated (no planned toilet stops either, and when we did stop, it was on the side of the road) and all I wanted was to smell freshly cooked food again. And never eat Oreos again in my life.

The other 2 days of travels were the same, except I now have an emergency jar of peanut butter in my backpack, panadols close by in case of another splitting headache, and a small packet of chicken flavoured crackers in case starvation strikes. All of this would suggest that I’ve regressed and have forgotten fruit and vegetables again in favour of unhealthy snack foods. But when you’ve got exactly one minute to drag yourself and all your luggage from a boat into a bus, you’ll grab whatever you can get. Especially if your head is ruled by your stomach, like mine is.

There is a silver lining to this story though. Actually, there are three! Firstly, Jamie’s appetite, which was always so small when we were in Brisbane, has returned. At last, he gets hungry when I do, if not sooner, so we’re usually both on the same quest for food. Secondly, at the end of each of those days we found real food, and I was relieved to fill my stomach back up with stir fried veges, freshly cooked meat with herbs and spices, and rehydrate with lots of water. Headache, be gone! And finally, the immense amount of road travel we’ve done in the past few days has even convinced Jamie that perhaps all these boats and buses and back seats aren’t the best use of our time, if we want to see more of the cities and communities we encounter. So we’ve decided that we’ll be forking out the extra cash to fly from Luang Prabang to Hanoi on Sunday, taking just 1 hour by plane compared to 16 hours by bus.

And even I can survive one hour without snacking on Oreos and Lays potato chips, and wait for some fresh vegetables instead.

Hmm… now how about that chicken kiev….

— Em 🙂


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