February 16, 2004

Avoiding Food and Sex Like the Plague

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- Next month I am traveling to Ethiopia, so I stopped by Mayo Clinic last week to get my vaccinations. The nurse came in with a fistful of green syringes, each with a tag identifying the bug the needles were meant to ward off -- yellow fever, typhoid, meningitis, hepatitis A and polio.

Once my upper arms were swathed in Band-Aids, the nurse showed me a diagram explaining how to self-treat for diarrhea. A brochure warned me not to have sex with anyone on the trip, not to drink the local water, not to drink anything containing ice cubes made from local water, and not to eat leafy vegetables. A portable water purifier, bug repellant and a mosquito net for sleeping were all recommended purchases.

Was this Ethiopia I was going to visit, or a lower circle of Hell?

What really shook me up was when the nurse looked up for emphasis and warned me severely: "Never eat anything from a street vendor."

No food from street vendors?! After 10 years of traveling as a journalist, one of my sweetest memories -- often literally sweet -- are of the fantastic smells, sights, and flavors imbibed at al fresco food stalls. The savor of our miraculous world is available precisely on the street where most people in this world live, under the blue sky and amid the hubbub of the bazaar.

Sprays and Nettings

In Laos, a penny at a food stall buys you a leafy bouquet of fresh "mak heol," which you carry through the afternoon picking out the pea-sized nuts to eat as snacks. In Thailand the glistening white "rambutan," moist pearls of fruit encased in a soft spiky skin, is the snack of choice.

If you skip the street food "hawkers" of Singapore and Malaysia, you'll miss one of the greatest eating experiences on this earth. Fancy hotel restaurants in both countries compete to hire the best hawker cooks.

Of course I want to stay healthy. I am grateful for vaccinations that can protect my life, and I'll take the shots every time. But something in me rebels against the image of the world that's implied as we erect around ourselves a wall of fears, vaccinations, sprays and nettings.

Tourism is the world's biggest industry, affecting 240 million jobs and producing a half -trillion dollars in sales in 2000, according to the World Tourism Organization. Yet the American tourism industry, the trend-setter globally, sells travel as a form of entertainment. It strives to make international trips more like visits to Disneyland than to anyplace real.

Taking all possible steps to prevent meningitis and other killer diseases is one thing. But succumbing to the view that the world beyond America is rife with danger and disease, which then steels you to visit those places protected by an armament of vaccines and Disneyesque illusions, is another.

Baby Girl

Being human, which means being open and vulnerable within limits, is essential to good travel. This means that as you travel you are susceptible to some embarrassment and even heartbreak. Make no mistake, the real world will show you to yourself -- and that can be embarrassing.

One day while walking to the Tokyo subway, I saw a Japanese housewife making silly noises while playing with a kitten in her yard. "Wow!" I thought to myself. "Japanese people love kittens just like Americans do!"

I was so ashamed when I realized what I'd thought. How little I knew, how unconsciously ignorant and callous I was. How much I had much to learn.

The real world will break your heart too. I held a beautiful baby girl once in Jakarta who was red-cheeked and smiling with spontaneous joy, as little girls and boys do. But she lived in a diphtheria-ridden slum on a vast and stinking garbage heap, and I knew she would likely never grow old.

I still feel the anger of that moment and I cherish it, because it motivates me to remember that little girl and to try to do good journalism in her memory.

So bring on the shots for typhoid, yellow fever, and all the rest. But let's not try to vaccinate ourselves against the complex pains of being human, an illuminating gift of honest travel.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report