When I tell people that I’m moving to India, a common–but strange–response is for them to issue warnings about the food and water. I find this odd for two reasons.
First, said warnings are often issued without much firsthand experience of developing world dining (not including high-brow resorts), and without knowledge of my dining history.
Here are few facts that might help one to better understand my approach. I’ve dined on cold seafood salad in a Phnom Penh cafe. I’ve noshed on snake-on-a-stick in China. I once supped at a home/restaurant in the Peruvian Andes whose latrine consisted entirely of a squat-hole cantilevered out over a cliff side. A couple of days in Bangkok, I consumed nothing but street-food. I was raised on a farm with non-pasteurized milk, and had a father who wasn’t above cooking up a nice-looking piece of road kill. Not a bloated opossum mind you– but I’ve gnawed clean the drumstick of a pheasant that died not by birdshot, but on the grill of a Peterbuilt. (Funny story, spellcheck wanted to change “pheasant” in the preceding sentence to “peasant.” That would have really freaked you out.) So while my home life has been first world, I’ve got a little third world in my gut.
Now you’re probably thinking, “This idiot is infinitely lucky to be alive, and given his behavior he will probably die soon.” Au contraire mon frère. It’s not that I randomly engage in high-risk behavior. Even locals get Delhi Belly if they don’t choose wisely–despite the full panoply of aggressive gut organisms working on their behalf. I’m quite aware of the hazards, and take calculated risks backed up with sensible precautions.
It’s funny that people live in terror of street food–not that there aren’t some carts that one should run from screaming. However, do you really know what the pimply-faced teenager is touching or scratching during the act of assembling your burger at Chili’s? I know exactly what the hands of the old lady grilling my moo ping on Sukhumvit Road looked like. I got a good look because there was always a line that I had to wait in– and gladly so. (FYI – sanitary wipes or hand sanitizer are one thing you should take with you wherever you go in this world.)
I’m not saying that I’ve never gotten an upset stomach, but I’ve done some remote third world travel and never experienced anything worse than resulted from any given trip to Taco Bell.
I’m quite fond of Indian food, and am sure I will cope well with having it for the majority of my meals for the next couple years. Yes, I’ll have to severely reduce my intake of ice-cold beverages and raw foods. (Ice and wash water are the hidden killers that probably cause more food-borne ailments than anything else.) However, ice-cold beverages –while refreshing and pleasant– are not really that healthy for a body in high temperatures anyway. (Flash heating or cooling of things at the other end of the temperature spectrum is bound to cause problems–one’s organs aren’t that different.) While I like raw vegetables, the human body is more efficient at extracting nutrients from cooked food, so there’s a side advantage there as well.
I think people freak themselves out and miss out on some excellent food. One individual who traveled widely once told me that she never ate the local food for fear of getting sick. I felt bad for her. She traveled to the source of some of the world’s best food, and then dined on American fast food–that’s a squandering of no small part of the travel experience. Of course, some people have very weak systems, and that may have been the case for her. (American fast food may be bad for you, but it is uniformly bad throughout the world.)
The second thing that I find strange is that when I was moving to England 25 years ago, no one warned me that I would be going to one of the most gastronomically unappealing places on the planet. Let’s face it, the reason Britain took over India in the first place was so that they could get something decent to eat. Curry is also the reason they didn’t let go easily.
Is there some bias whereby people tend to respond with negativity when one says that one is moving to the developing world, versus positive responses to moving within the developed world? One probably shouldn’t respond with negativity to news someone is moving anywhere, but–if you must– you should tailor it to the individual concerned. For example, if one said to me, “That shrill flute in their music is going to get on your last nerve.” Well, sorry, but that’s probably a correct statement. (No offense, I’m sure it sounds lovely if you were brought up with it, but it will be–at best– an acquired taste for me.)