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But in our desire to try new dishes, it’s important that we practice good food safety, otherwise you end up like me in the hospital for days...
It was our last night. After two weeks traveling around Costa Rica together, our tour was ending and tomorrow, we would be heading back to San Jose to catch our flights home. But tonight, the tour group was just enjoying each other’s company, watching the sunset over the beach, and eating sushi (one of the only sushi restaurants in Costa Rica). It was a delicious last meal.
It wasn’t until I was on my way home that I felt something amiss. At first, I thought the pain was related to the bad airline food I was eating. Then over the weeks, the intestinal pains got worse. I always ached. Going to the toilet was difficult. I’d never had food poisoning before. I didn’t want to expect or what the cause could be. But one night, the pain was so bad, I made my roommate drive me to the emergency room. By this time, I knew something was wrong….really wrong.
After a few tests, the results came back. I had stomach parasite that was inflaming my lower intestine. I’d need to be in the hospital for a few days so they could determine the type of parasite and give me the appropriate medicines. I spent the next three days in the hospital on IV fluids and painkillers. I lost over 10 pounds during my illness.
No one else got sick. Just me. Why I thought? It must have been the eel I ate. Eel is always cooked because if prepared wrong, it makes you very, very sick. It made me sick. It was my fault for ordering a dish in a destination not known for eel or sushi.
Many parts of the world don’t always practice good food safety. Here are some good tips for staying healthy:
One way to stay healthy is to always make sure you wash your hands before and after a meal. Honestly, this is the easiest and best way to avoid getting sick on the road. If there isn't clean water and soap available, make sure you have an antibacterial hand wash with you.
If the locals are eating there, it’s going to be good. Locals don’t eat at places that are bad or unclean. This is especially true at street stalls in developing countries. If you go to a place and hardly anyone is there or it’s just filled with foreigners, go somewhere else. The locals are staying away from it for a reason. That reason could just be bad food but no need to risk it.
Eating at street food is a time honored tradition in many parts of the travel trail like Southeast Asia, India, China, or South America. Eating street food is delicious. Most of my best meals have been from street vendors. However, street food can be risky. I got sick twice off of street food in Asia.
Check out the vendor before ordering. Are they cooking to order and can you see them cook the dish? Often you will see food stalls with prepared dishes buffet style and uncovered, but how long have they been sitting there for? Good places will have a limited menu (some will even just specialise in one dish e.g noodle soup), so food turn over is generally higher. Is their stall clean? Are the ingredients stored separately?
I was foolish for eating eel in Costa Rica. If there is something strange and exotic but not local, skip it. Locals might not have the right knowledge or skill level to prepare that meal properly. Go with the exotic local food instead - you’ll win there.
Another simple suggestion but one that goes along way to ensure safety. It was because of poorly cooked eel I got sick. Don’t eat any meats or vegetables that aren’t cooked properly. In many parts of the world, food isn’t refrigerated properly and the meat sits out for most of the day. Always get the meat cooked a little extra just to be safe. Even consider becoming vego while you travel if the idea of eating street stall meat is something you are struggling with. Many places in Southeast Asia and India do have amazing vegetarian dishes.
Food safety on the road is a combination of common sense and watching the local habits. If you want to avoid my mistake and not end up in a hospital for a few days, practice common sense and good hygiene while choosing where you eat. Getting food poisoning on the road is worse than any cold or flu. Stay sanitary, stay healthy.
Behind the Backpack
Matthew Kepnes has been traveling around the world for the past four years. He run the award winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian UK, and Yahoo! Finance. For more information, subscribe to his blog.
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Ouch! Nobody likes a stomach parasite! If it makes you feel any better when i went to Costa Rica I was Uber- Careful... ( to the point that i hated myself for being so pedantic). All i wanted to do was surf and not miss out on surfing so i was so strict about what i ate. Guess what... still Got absolutely smashed by something that came with lettuce. I could go into detail... but it wasn't pretty. nope it was a heck of a SH1T time (pardun the pun). I want to be that cool guy who says "whatever" and just eats anything... but i enjoy not having parasites... so i usually order things cooked well / over-done.
I think eating where the locals eat is the best rule you need to abide by. While in China everyone warned me of not eating anything from street vendors. I avoided the touristy areas and stuck close to Universities and where locals where. Ask a random person "hao chi ma?" - is it good? They'll either say yes or direct you to somewhere better. Little restaurants that cater to students are very cheap and the meals are good.
I also got sick from eel. I was riding a dirt bike around Cambodia and ate eel that I found out was pulled from the gutter on the side of the rice paddy we stopped next too. I was very ill and had effects for over a year. I now always take Travelan probiotics with me and eat before each meal and will go hungry or eat crackers rather than risk getting sick. I also nearly died from eating salad in Indonesia- I got very very sick for a week- do not eat I cooked food! I am a vegetarian but eat fish- if I’m in doubt I just stick to cooked vegetables and rice. Don’t risk spoiling your holidays and possibly risking your life. One more tip don’t go out drinking on empty stomach as late in the night when you are hungry you may make poor decisions re hygiene and food.
Never, ever eat salads or raw vegetables.
I have to disagree with the premise that one must only eat at frequented places. So wrong! In fact, they are often the least sanitary as nobody has time to clean, and food is not properly stored for convenience sake. Whereas the little restaurants that are off the main streets and frequently empty keep stuff in the fridge. The owners do the cooking and take pride in the quality of their food. You will be warmly welcomed and served with care. And while new spices and flavors may cause some rumbling and bloating, you won't get sick.
As far as salads, know what is upstream! If the lettuce was grown with water contaminated by sewage and industrial runoff, you will get sick. If the lettuce was grown in a region fed by clean mountain rivers, you will be fine.