This article goes out to all of the adventurous people who prefer to brave the lesser developed world during their travels. The most common issue for travelers, particularly westerners who decide to take this route, is food and water safety. It comes up in the pre-take-off doctor’s visit. It comes up amongst friends and family. It comes up with the locals once you arrive.
And I am here to tell you: Take their warnings seriously.
Reckless vs. Inevitable
I’d like to start out by addressing a common issue that arises more as a result of your new environment than as a result of recklessness. Let’s talk about traveler’s diarrhea. Namely because I believe it’s important for you to understand that some things just happen and some things are reckless. This is one of those things that just happen. We’ll get to reckless later.
Traveler’s diarrhea is a biological issue at its core. You do not have the immunity to certain bacteria that locals are exposed to on a daily basis, and have been for years. There are a number of consequences to careless food and water safety practices, but this isn’t one of them. What happens is that your system has a nervous reaction to something new and not-so-exciting and tries to purge itself of the bacteria. The result? What is commonly known as traveler’s diarrhea. It is, unfortunately, the most common and nearly unavoidable situation for travelers. Meaning? Even the most cautious of travelers tend to come down with traveler’s diarrhea at some point. Naturally, I have a bit of advice for you on this.
Don’t let yourself suffer. Once you have passed the three day mark, you can be nearly certain that your body is not, contrary to what you would like to believe, going to sort it out on its own. Get to a pharmacist and explain your situation shamelessly. They have dealt with the likes of you before and will know exactly what to give you so that you can be feeling back to normal in less than 24 hours. Like always, I like to provide readers with a natural alternative. If you are adamantly opposed to antibiotics, you could try charcoal pills for a few days before going to the doctor. I have heard that it works. If you are really roughing it and thus worried about access to a pharmacy, then I would encourage you to see your doctor at home and ask for a prescription for in the event of a bacterial infection. More often than not, they are more than happy to give it to you.
Now let’s move on to reckless. There are certain things to avoid entirely, and certain things you can learn how to prepare properly.
For starters, we have all heard the “don’t eat it unless you cook it or you peel it” diatribe. And this is true, to an extent. Meaning, if you are properly washing your fruits and veggies, then you should be fine. Bleach and clean water are key-but just a few drops.
I find that asking locals helps. I ask my friends what they use to clean their vegetables. I have since learned of my improper care for olives and cheese as well. Local cheese purchased in the market, requires that I shave off the outside. Olives purchased in the market require that you wash them two times. Once just for the outside dirt and once with boiled water and a bit of bleach. If you don’t want to use bleach, you can also purchase fruit wash. However, this isn’t something that I would anticipate finding upon your arrival. Rather, I would encourage you to bring a supply with you.
Straight Up Foolish
Now let’s move on to things that I would just straight up avoid. Street food is a no-go. You have no idea how it has been prepared. It probably hasn’t been refrigerated. One of the fastest ways to get food poisoning is via street food-especially the chicken. Chicken carries salmonella when not prepared properly or when it has been improperly stored so I would encourage you to only get chicken in nicer, AKA safer, restaurants. If you are going to eat street-side, at least be streetwise get the red meat.
Fruits and veggies must be cleaned properly, but some are more difficult than others. Lettuce is incredibly difficult to clean. Think about it. It’s porous and full of tiny little crevices. I don’t bother purchasing it and trying to clean it. I only eat lettuce when in incredibly nice restaurants-a rarity to say the least.
Another thing to avoid is mayonnaise. While fine and perfectly safe right out of the package, you should be cautious of it in restaurants since the solution is often to just water it down. Furthermore, homemade mayo has raw egg that is often improperly stored at night. The consequence of this? Well, one is potential typhoid, which I have had. Vaccines are only between 50 and 80% effective. It could have been the mayonnaise, it could have been the lettuce, or it could have been…
Also, be conscious of your water needs. You aren’t superman. Don’t get cocky. I have known many travelers who drank the water in Kenya and Peru, thinking that their body would adapt within a few weeks. They failed to realize a few things. Namely, there are things that even the locals aren’t immune to. The two big ones being parasites and amoebas, and I have known travelers who have had both. As a matter of a fact, I have had parasites twice, once since arriving to South America, and once in Africa. And they both sucked.
You see, the problem was simple. I used to be too trusting with water. I also wasn’t taking two essential things into account: elevation and the amount of water.
If there is one thing that I have learned, it’s that you need to be direct. Ask if the water was boiled when someone hands you a juice or a cup of tea and ask for how long. The fear of being impolite should never overcome the realization of our mortality.
The specifications for water safety are probably more complicated than you realize. At two miles above sea level I have to boil water for approximately 10 minutes. I hardly doubt that the locals are boiling their water for 10 minutes. As a matter of a fact, when I’ve asked the locals they have actually laughed as if to say, “Oh, silly paranoid gringa.”
As I said, things that need to be taken in account include the amount of water that you are boiling and your elevation. For more information on calculating the appropriate amount of time for your travel destination please see: http://www.safariquip.co.uk/all-categories/water-purification/purifying-drinking-water/
I understand that many of us travel on a budget. But consider saving a certain amount for safety purposes. This includes things like buying clean water, eating in safer restaurants, buying fruits and veggies in supermarkets rather than open markets. By things pre-packaged, like olives and cheese.
And, as a wise Peruvian once told me, “Yes, to eat like that may be cheaper at the beginning, but at the end? At the end it is more expensive.”
I would like to take this time to thank my assistant.
I like to take this time to thank Tina Stelling for helping me with this amazing article. Check out her works at www.tinastelling.com