It had been a busy day of Hangzhou-ing, and we were ready to eat. It was murky and rainy out and we quickly moved from restaurant to restaurant, trying to find any that would pique our interests. The famousest and fanciest of Chinese eateries were long full and boasted impressive waiting lines.
We eventually settled on one tidy, pleasantly mediocre-looking joint. Jen, our life coach and Chinese interpreter, set about discussing what to eat with the waitresses, while another staff member led us to a room in the back. We filed into what appeared to be my grandfather’s dining room circa 1947, and began gathering around the table, which was draped in an enormous doily and then sealed in mylar.
Agnes cringed as she pulled out her chair, and pointed to the skittering vermin that she had loosed. It flexed its pincers or tendrils or legs or whatever at us angrily, unhappy at being disturbed. “That’s a fairly large cockroach,” Agnes muttered, attempting to undersell this monstrosity. If the cockroach had sat down to the meal with us he could have fit in an infant’s high chair and requested a kid’s menu.
We quickly exited the restaurant, tipping our hats to the bewildered waitresses on our way. It’s not that I am completely ignorant or terrified of cockroaches – living and eating in the places that I do, I understand that these insects are probably rampant. The only thing that I ask, the tiny bow to my dainty sensibilities, is that they not be invited to the table as dinner guests.
These arbitrary, meaningless limitations form the basis of my peace of mind while travelling. Nothing can destroy time on the road like the need to constantly sit on the toilet, nothing can ruin your journey into the wild like the wild journeying into your digestive tract. When you roam, you have to set guidelines for yourself, rules and regulations to protect the precious cargo in your abdomen, to safeguard yourself against intestinal calamity.
Of course, the rules differ based on where you go. The kind of meats and spices you know you can or cannot eat, the kind of places you trust enough to eat at, the level of comfort you have with complete ignorance of the ingredients in your meal.
Our rule for the Indian road was to be entirely careful about meat. Faith decided to go whole hog on the vegetarianism thing, but Ty and I decided to roll the bones and accept the risk. My only stipulation was that I had to be able to see the refrigerator somewhere in the establishment, to secure my knowledge that the meat was, at some point, stored in a cool, dry place. It was perhaps then summarily taken out back and hung out in the sun for the flies, but the reassurance was all that I needed.
In Burma we let our tastebuds be our guide, although we didn’t always follow their advice. The hissing witchbrew served in plastic sacks certainly tasted like fermented sadness, and yet we drank them down to nothing, because they were strange and it was hot outside. Hours later when Will was exiled to the bathroom, we wondered about what kept Tony and I safe. Days later when Tony ingested some pickled detritus, he too would wonder why Will and I were spared, and also why we kept eating even when it tasted like tapeworm lying in wait.
A general rule is to never eat in a restaurant where I can physically see the vermin. Having travelled enough I am absolutely positive I have eaten in establishments crawling with rats larger than my childhood Rottweiler, Stonehenge. And yet I still have a delicate sensibility about it, and allow myself the brief reassurance of ignorance. So long as I cannot actually see the pestilence and give it a name, so long as I could not pet it or grow attached or wonder how lovingly it has prepared my meal for me, I am willing to pretend it doesn’t exist.
In Korea my rules had to do with spice. Whenever someone told me something was spicy for foreigners, I knew it was safe to eat, and might taste like a pepper had once passed through the same room as this particular food. If a food was described as spicy for Korean people, I knew that it would be actually spicy, and probably enjoyable, and I might hear people whispering with fright at my ability to ingest such a food that should surely be melting my teeth. If I see Korean people visibly sweating and crying, if I can see eaters cringing and breathing heavily and clutching at their throats and quivering with dismay, I try not to eat there at all.
Ultimately the rules are arbitrary and meaningless. It’s an attempt to apply your own internal sense of order onto a food culture that is not yours, a way of casting a sheen of perceived safety over the unknown. You tell yourself that if you follow these rules you’ll forever be safe, never felled by parasites or food poisoning or giant, skittering cockroaches climbing out of your soup and wishing you a pleasant evening in a terrifying Cockney accent.
But part of travelling is the unknown, is the risk and the adventure. You make rules and regulations to protect yourself against your own fears so that you can keep walking, keep seeing, and keep eating. You’re probably going to get diarrhoea and a horrifying intestinal worm that grows large enough you name him Charlie and celebrate his birthday each year. You’re going to eat things that aren’t tasty, that are too spicy for you, that maybe went sour sometime in 1973. And you’ll close your eyes and gulp it down, safe in the knowledge that you didn’t see any rats.
And sweet Jesus the Taj Mahal is just down the road, so who cares anyway?