There is no where that exists on this beautiful blue-green Earth of ours that isn’t worth exploring, for reasons ranging from geography, culture, and of course, food. Every corner of the world has its own niche in the foodie’s heart, with recipes garnering original flavors of local spices, or the less traditional but classic fast food, and everything in between. With the travel experience being spoken of primarily in terms of sight, tasting a culture can be one of the most uniquely tantalizing ways to immerse yourself in a new place.
I like to half-jokingly, half-seriously suggest to anyone (from the Western world especially) who is considering international travel for the first time, to consider a third world country as the destination of choice to break themselves in. The sooner they see the contrast that exists in this world, the better. Many of the differences will undoubtedly be difficult to swallow, but I challenge them to go and look for the good. Look for the happiness, the smiles, the simplicity. Much of the joy is generally found in the local cuisine, in familial recipes passed down from generations. Fast food is a foreign concept to these people whose diets are much closer to home, starting in street markets or in picking the food fresh daily down to the way that it is prepared and eaten.
I noticed this stark difference in lifestyle on my first ever international and very impressionable trip to Morocco. I was seventeen years old and went abroad for the summer to study Arabic and to teach English in a tiny mountain village. I lived with a charming family who completely took me under their wing. I had responsibilities such as walking a half mile with the donkey at dawn to draw water from the well and kneading the daily bread. Whether we were making home-made goat cheese or cutting into the rare and exotic watermelon, eating was always deliciously earned and ceremoniously shared in a group setting. Coming home a few pounds lighter was an unconscious and effortless side-benefit for me, no doubt from the diet/lifestyle combo that I had unknowingly adopted.
Whether it’s over some dazzlingly good wine and paella in Spain, an ice cold beer with ceviche in Peru, or a simple couscous tagine in Morocco, partaking in someone else’s idea of “the taste of home” is a privilege for me no matter the locale – home or abroad – but I haven’t always been able to enjoy it like I do now.
For four years of adulthood, I was eating a primarily raw, all vegan diet, my main motivation being for personal health. I will never be able to deny the physical benefits I experienced from completely cutting out all animal products, along with anything processed including gluten. During much of that time I was either at home in a routine or in a tropical environment where the fruit that sustained me was abundant. The lifestyle was easy, until it wasn’t. More travel meant moments when I felt disappointed for not allowing myself to “eat my way” through a culture, followed by the subsequent twisted shame of even having the desire to stray from my strict vegan ways. I had a major inner conflict going on between my need to experiment in my own way with my taste buds and the dogmatic label that I had adopted and chosen to identify as.
Eventually I was forced to ask myself to define “compassion” as I saw it, a crucial leg that was supposedly the base balancing my concept of veganism as the ideal diet. What I discovered was that true compassion starts with how you treat yourself. This issue is so much more complex than simply wanting to eat the chocolate in Belgium. For me, I know that my foodie issues are similarly traceable back to my childhood. The more I travel abroad and come home to the United States, the clearer it is how this guilt surrounding the food we choose to eat is a common thread among us here on the home front, to the point of having prominent calorie labels on most menus and packaged items. That’s not to say that food issues and eating disorders are obsolete in all other parts of the world, but I can’t help but compare the food cultures that I’ve observed to my first impressions of normality. Maybe many of these places are “less privileged” or “struggling” in other arenas, but food – so long as it is provided for – is generally celebrated and enjoyed to the fullest. I discovered that, more important than the food you actually eat is the way that you eat it and how in tune you are with your own palate and hunger queues.
Enjoy the places you go; savor the food you eat. Don’t guilt your way through your meals, no matter what they look like. Be responsible, conscious, and know that you are always free. The answer to a health relationship with food is always going to be the path of least resistance, internally. Let your mind and heart be opened to the possibilities that exist beyond the boarders you know.