John is allergic to beef, so we were vegetarians for two or three years before John came down with a sinus infection that wouldn’t go away and our acupuncturist recommended that we at least include chicken broth in our diet. After years of not eating flesh, the idea of it was repulsive, but over time, we became vegetarian-chicken-eaters instead of just vegetarians. Vegetarianism is like a religion. If I say that I’m a vegetarian, people think all kinds of weird things about me. They think I’m PETA-Person and that I have various radical save-the-planet-type-of-views. But for us being a vegetarian had to do primarily with health so adding chicken and poultry back into our diet wasn’t an identity issue, though some of our friends thought our new carnivorous inclinations had to do with a change in worldview.
Then, about a year later, someone recommended the documentary Forks over Knives to us. Forks over Knives is a film that outlines the basic tenets of The China Study which demonstrates pretty definitively that dairy products play a role in the development of osteoporosis and cancer and a smattering other chronic diseases that are common in the United States. Thus, we became vegan-chicken-eaters, which is a hard concept to explain in a foreign language.
We don’t eat dairy products or meat, except for chicken and occasionally turkey. We don’t eat trans fats (which includes mono and di-glycerides, partially hydrogenated oils, PGPR, etc.) or monosodium glutamate. We also avoid high fructose corn syrup and refined sugars. At the grocery store, we read the labels diligently to avoid these various ingredients. It may seem excessive and obsessive, but as we near our forties, both John and I are in the normal to low blood pressure range. We’re both close to our ideal weight and reasonably healthy. We jog 25 miles a week and teach martial arts classes once or twice a week for a couple of hours. I do yoga every day. We have no major health afflictions yet.
When we travel, it can be challenging to continue with our vegan+chicken diet and exercise routine, but the consequences of not following the restrictions is an upset tummy (which is pretty motivating). Exercise in Tambor, Costa Rica was a real challenge because there was no place to jog, but we did Parkour in the backyard. In Atenas, we were able to jog, but the hills were so steep we almost had to crawl up them on all fours. But we stuck to the program nonetheless and by the time we got home we had both dropped about five pounds, mostly because, in addition to the heavy exercise, there was little that we could eat besides fresh fruits and vegetables.
In China, we couldn’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables because they fertilize their land with human poop (called Night Soil) and we were in a hotel where it was hard to thoroughly wash and adequately disinfect food items. We ate pre-packaged haw berries like they were going out of style, ignoring the no-sugar rule, just to survive. We also developed a taste for steamed bread and lotus root from the restaurant in the lower level at the hotel. We ate a lot of sesame butter, which tastes similar to peanut butter and granola bars that we brought with us from home.
In Morocco, we bent some rules partly because Lydian’s friend, Matthew was with us and partly because the whole transportation system in Spain went on strike on the night of our arrival. Our transport plans from Madrid to the Strait of Gibraltar were subsequently altered. We had to rent a car and drive to Tarifa. All we ate for the first four days of the journey were various types of noodles placed and sometimes even prepared in plastic baggies. They were cooked to varying degrees and covered with tomato sauce. This approach kept traveler’s diarrhea at bay. Unfortunately, we ate a restaurant in the middle of the medina in Fez and one night John defied an important food rule. He rewarmed some leftovers in the middle of the night. We had all eaten the same thing, but Lydian, Matthew, and I ate the food steaming hot. John ate food that had cooled and been rewarmed and ended up with a severe digestive infection with a protozoan known as Cyclosporiasis. He was sick for a month and lost 20 pounds.
Mexico is hardly the type of place where one can be flippant about choosing a food vendor or restaurant. In a book called On Mexican Time, the author talks about how
some restaurants and street vendors, rather than washing the dishes in hot water to sterilize them, they’ll merely dunk the dishes in a bucket of water that only gets changed once a day. After John’s bout with Cyclosporiasis, we decided that it wasn’t worth it to take our chances on street stalls or small restaurants in Latin American countries. Instead of starving, we bring along a couple of bananas, disinfectant drops and baggies. Then, we can buy lettuce in Mexico, disinfect it in the baggies for an hour and then eat what we call, “salad-in-a-bag”. Of course, sometimes we mix it up by eating spaghetti-in-a-bag too. When we leave home to go on excursions that require a hotel stay we eat salad-in-a-bag for almost every meal. It’s healthy and as long as we carefully disinfect the fruits and vegetables, it doesn’t make us sick. Sometimes we think we might starve to death, but at least we don’t end up with diarrhea or vomiting which makes the restrictions worthwhile.
This week has been challenging food-wise because we don’t have a kitchen. After the break-in and robbery, we moved to the Holiday Inn Express in Merida. We’ve been here now for five days as John is trying to catch up on his work after losing two days to the administrative tasks involved with getting new passports and figuring out a computer-situation. We can’t cook which seriously limits our food options while we’re here. It’s been a very nuts and berries kind of week for us and all of us were complaining last night about our one-ingredient meals. Earlier in the week we
were thoroughly enjoying refried beans with salsa and tortilla chips when John started pulling tiny hairs out of the beans as he was eating. I had noticed them too, but had decided to ignore them until I saw John pull one out and look at it more closely on the tip of his finger.
“What’s that?” Lydian asked. I’d hoped that John would say something like, oh nothing Honey….just little fibers from the onions or the corn.
“I……….don’t………know…”He said holding it up to his eyes and squinting.
“You haven’t noticed those before?” I asked him.
“No, have you?”
“Um….Yes.” I said. I had noticed them, but I had carefully and diligently been ignoring them. All of us sat silently looking down at the humble bowl of beans and salsa in the midst of us at the foot of the bed. My illusions about them shattered, I couldn’t stomach another bite. “Can you hand me the Fritos?” I said to Lydian. More Fritos. I love them. I hate them. I’ve had way too many of them.
I’d forgotten what it was like to eat food made of more than one ingredient until last night. We were wandering around at the mall and found a place called “Luciano Express” that served spaghetti with only olive oil and marinara sauce made of tomatoes, onions, and other “normal” ingredients. Today, we’re going back to get a pizza. Their dough is made of olive oil, flour, and other basic items.
I regret that we can’t experience some of the foods in other countries, but I don’t regret the fact that I’ve never had traveler’s diarrhea (knock on wood, of course). It’s not that our family doesn’t get sick when we travel. We do. I had a cold in Costa Rica and in Mexico last year. Lydian was really sick this year in Progreso for two weeks with a fever, cough, and sinus infection. Sometimes, illness can’t be prevented. But being vegan and picky about our food has saved us from having to deal with traveler’s diarrhea and other uncomfortable and sometimes deadly food-borne diseases. At least the hair in our beans, for example, was sterile because it had been processed and packaged. This is my only solace for having consumed who knows how many hairy beans since we’ve been here.