I spot this quote in one of the countless travel mags stuffed in the back of the airline seat in front of me on a flight to who-knows-where for god-knows-how-long. It encapsulates my obsession with a locale’s dishes and cuisine, why I so frequently document my noteworthy and less noteworthy meals, commenting on either the gift of freshness or lamenting the guile of fried and fast.
You understand a region’s history by its literature and architecture, you perceive its self image by its art and music, but it is through its food that you understand its true, unchanging character.
For the past nine months, my body has been a veritable testing and breeding ground for various foods, fads, eating styles, feeding schedules, food groups, mobility, activity, sedentary living. In short, I am a human guinea pig, and well, I don’t think one can sum up a trip around the world without talking about the nitty gritty–
What the hell does it do to your body?
Over the course of all these months, I fluctuate roughly ten pounds up and down from where I start, a relatively healthy size 2 – 4 depending on the brand, and now, I sit here a strong and hefty 6 plus, the heaviest the scale has ever tipped for me.
But, I come to this end point by way of an absolute gain of twenty pounds or so, first plummeting to a skinniness in Asia that was a combination of total vegetarian cuisine, bucket-loads of sweating, total absence of sweets, and lets be honest, some less-than-optimal food-safety conditions that leave me to empty my innards on more than one occasion. In fact, for a cycle or two there, my lady moons are so subtle and weak to be basically invisible, and I panic that my drastic change in diet and lifestyle shocks them into oblivion.
The sweets return in Indochine, as well as the meat and steadier meals, and I return to my balance point, albeit, my gut still signals massive disarray and discontentment, bouts of burning acid scratching through my stomach walls like lemony salt nails on an open wound.
Then, Africa happens, where my body finds itself opposite its Asia pace, and I swear, it is a veritable prison, constrained from walking less than a mile a day while force-fed three square meals, if not more, the calories-in and calories-out equation skewed towards obesity, the guzzle-fest normalized.
Holidays in Europe follow suit, and here, I know my weakness to be true–over-eating, especially too much of the sweet stuff–along with fewer opportunities for prolonged activity, but here, too, the situation seems inescapable. I fear my pants will split, but alas, Kei lends me a stronger pair and my mother sends me roomy, wintery gear, and now, I am better suited to hide the 4 kg gain between Bangkok and Brussels.
Come South America, I give up on feeling like I will arrive in any sort of shape to contest Brazilian bombshells, but lucky for me, my man arrives in similar shape after holiday-feasting himself, and despite the miles we log in Patagonia, the food available to us is piss poor and of the convenience variety.
Now, being on the road takes its full toll on my body and psyche, for I am lethargic in my skin, plumpier and weightier than I care to feel, fatigued from too many nights of bus slumber and too many consecutive days of eating the dead food available to budget travelers and those without access to a kitchen. Come Peru, we crash hard with a case of exhaustion and sniffles.
Finally, we fully wrestle with and appreciate the global Catch 22, which is this–as constant travelers, our bodies really demand careful care and rest and feeding, and in much of the world, what tends to be available to us and others in budget situations is shit food that depletes the body of nutrients and vitality, a vicious downward spiral into malnutrition, malabsorption, fatigue, warped hunger sensations, so on, fatigue fueling convenience.
By the end of it, I crave a return to normalcy and routine where breakfast means quality breads and lunch looks like a bowl of greens and dinner a fresh summer soup. I crave constant and steady movement and agility. I crave real, true blue hunger as the real cue for my next meal. I crave balance and repetition, occasions for special meals and treats infrequent, not at every new destination.
Curiously, all of this overlaps with the unavoidable–a return to “civilization.” The closer we get to mega-industrialized, commercial countries, the more processed shit–typically a bread + cheese variety–replaces the fresh vegetables, fruits and grains. Somehow, this is okay with our society, plastic the new vogue, peel totally passé.
For all of this, my body is the proverbial playground, and although part of me regrets the fluffiness, most of me feels enlightened and motivated by the experience, because Michael Pollan is right–eat moderately, mostly plants.
And, to echo the little old ladies in Japan and Buddhist philosophy, eat mindfully, AKA, when you are hungry–not bored or stressed or as praise–and until you are 80% satiated.
So, as it turns out, our grannies’ adages are simple, effective and true, at least, for me, and half the battle centers on tuning out the bullshit and listening to the body. From the world over, these are the lucky thirteens I draw up for myself:
1) Edibles do not come in boxes or wrapped in plastic
2) Sleep an average of 8 hours a night
3) Sweating and humidity are good for my body, mind and soul
4) Dairy, sweets and alcohol are occasional treats, not daily splurges
5) Allow for hunger and use it as a cue to eat
6) When hungry, take the time to eat real, balanced meals; for my culture, this translates to breakfast, lunch and dinner
7) Food is a gift, and when healthy and quality, is worth relishing and eating slowly, not too much, preferably with knife and fork, seated, with a companion, not rushed, groveled or forced
8) Whole foods, specifically vegetables, rice, soups, vegetarian curries, summer salads, sprouted breads, etc. do my body good
9) Snacking undermines my body’s ability to self-regulate
10) Movement is critical for one hour daily, minimum
11) My body actually likes to do physical work and isn’t afraid of strenuous exercise
12) Strong bodies are sexy and poised for a life of adventure and mobility
13) Screen time sucks my soul