Friday, June 10, 2011

Mitigating the Inevitable

One of the questions I get most frequently when people hear about my project is, "Will your stomach be all right?" This is, of course, just a polite way (if there is such a thing) of saying, "aren't you going to be spending more time communing with the commode than...well, anything else?"

My usual response to this question is: yes, my stomach should handle itself swimmingly.  I've eaten my share of dodgy food items and have almost always come out victorious.  That being said, it's nearly inevitable that if you eat enough street food you're bound to have some intestinal distress, even if you
—like me—have a relatively iron-clad stomach.

Simpsons lesson #381: Even the mightiest of stomachs has its limits.

Fortunately, there are some ways to mitigate your risk a bit.  The best tip I can offer is to follow the crowd.  This may go against some treasured wisdom about not jumping off bridges just because everyone else is doing it, but this is a situation in which the crowd is probably jumping off of the bridge because there's a violent stomach virus waiting on the other side, so you're better off taking the plunge.  That metaphor disintegrated about six words in, but you probably get the point: the locals know which vendors have a track record of making people ill.  If you follow their lead, you are likely to avoid the worst culprits.

Some other basic tips:

  • Make sure the food you are eating is freshly prepared.  If it looks like it has been sitting in the open air for a couple hours and is not currently the temperature it was designed for, it's probably best to wait for a fresh batch.  Besides, it tastes better when it's fresh.
  • Be careful about raw fruits and vegetables. I wouldn't say you should avoid them entirely (though some would), but at the very least give a quick look around to be sure they are being washed thoroughly with purified water.  
  • Some people recommend taking charcoal pills or Pepto Bismol tablets before you eat. It's easier for your stomach to be pre-armed against microscopic nasties than to try to react after they have already infiltrated your system.
  • A bit of grime (aka "charm") isn't necessarily a problem, but use your common sense.  If there is visible dirt or mold (or rodents) hanging around the food or cooking utensils, you might be better off moving to the next stall.
My main advice is not to be nervous and dive right in. Take some basic precautions, but accept the fact that you're bound to get sick if you eat enough of this stuff. It comes with the territory. If you do find yourself in the throes of dyspepsia, your best bet is to get some stomach pills and a bunch of bottled water and hunker down in a hotel room until you are feeling up to snuff. One thing to keep in mind in these situations is that this may be the time to spring for a hotel room with a Western-style toilet. Chances are that these are not going to be the days that you want to wrangle with a squat toilet.


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