the privilege of travel – eating abroad.

Food.  We all have our own peculiar relationship to it, and rightfully so; eating is by far one of the most intimate things that we do.  We take the produce of the land and we ingest it into our bodies.

We live today with the commodification of food so that relationship is sometimes elusive, but it is still an embodiment of our culture.  Even though our food may not come from our local soil; even if it comes from the neighboring county or half way across the continent, when we eat it we are subsisting on a basis of presumptions.  We are eating food that means something within our cultural context.

To travel is to experience wonderful things.  We see new sights and if we are perceptive enough, we may learn a few things about humanity.  But no matter what, if we get hungry, we will not only embrace a new cultural construct, we will ingest it.

Perhaps this is the reason so many people associate the joys of travel with food.  Beyond seeing a place through the lens of a camera or experiencing it through pieced-together conversations in languages not our own, we actually take the place into our mouths and consume it; the air, the humidity, the sunshine and the dirt, everything that went into that harvest, becomes a part of our bodies, inseparable from our being.

We relish in this when we are in places where the cuisine is refined and makes sense to our cultural paradigm.  When we travel to benign and sophisticated places like Italy and France we can immerse ourselves, consume voraciously, and feel like that have embraced an entire country.

And if we are in less culinarily sophisticated parts of the world, maybe even culinarily suspect places, we can seek out the inevitable hotel or resort restaurant that caters to travelers or maybe find the ubiquitous burger stand that looks safe enough.

If we go all in and we eat the guinea pig and the crickets, then we have stories to tell.  In my own case, it’s the morcilla, the blood sausage found in the roadside beer shacks that line the backroads of Puerto Rico.  Almost a rite of passage, inevitably you are invited to indulge in it in solidarity and over beers.

Trying New Things

I wanted to show my children the world so I began travelling with them at very young ages.  Let me rephrase that – I didn’t want to stop travelling once I became a father and the best way to foster inclusion with my children was to suggest that a life of travel and adventure would make them into more sophisticated and intelligent humans.  I don’t think there is much empirical evidence for that – the flip side is that it could make them into jaded little bundles of entitlement, but it makes for a good story.  My wife went along with it, and we’re doing our best to steer toward culturally sensitive as opposed to snarky kids who have already been there and done that.

It wasn’t long before I realized that the quirky predilections of childhood eating habits would be nearly impossible to satisfy on the road.  Conventional wisdom seems to be that you should encourage adventurous eating at a young age, and embrace the local food culture of whatever place you are visiting.

Unfortunately, for those touchy years of early childhood, adventurous eating sometimes gets you nowhere beyond a tantrum in the middle of a restaurant experience.  Misery for parents, wasted money, angry looks from fellow diners.  Do I really want to be the loud foreigners with the savage child?  Count me out.

So, I bought a motorhome.

Seriously.  I never thought I would do such a thing.  I spent my backpacking youth not only making fun of people in motorhomes but actually cursing their downright arrogance for having to haul an entire household around with them in order to get their lameness off the couch.

It’s not a big motorhome though.

But it does have a kitchen, which was really the whole point.  We could travel anywhere in the world if only I could be the cook.  Let’s face it, restaurants are a misery for kids.  All that sitting still and waiting.  But with a motorhome, we could be free to roam.  Sure, we might be a bit limited by geography, but that was fine with me.  West coast of North America?  I’ll take it any day.

But abroad?  Abroad is a different story.  And here’s what we’ve learned. It’s not just about being adaptable and getting into the groove of what is locally available.  Let’s not sugar coat it – this is not about raising adventurous kids.  Before we instill a sense of adventure, we need to make sure they’re fed and as healthy as possible.  So, it’s more about finding the comfort zone and optimizing your children’s experience.   It’s about balance and nutrition and all of the different things you didn’t think about much at home because you had it dialed in.

Three weeks into our round the world journey, my kids behavior was declining into chaos.   We seriously began contemplating a truncated version of our adventure.  A version that would end at our first stop, before we really got going.  We had all sorts of doubts.  Was the trip putting too much strain on them, was it homesickness, the stress of too much change?  How could we get them to behave?

We were living in a house in the mountains of rural Puerto Rico.  We had a kitchen so we were cooking some meals, but we were also heavily dependent on food we would pick up on day trips and what was available at our local supermarket.  Although we tried to mix in some things that would remind them of home, to the extent that we could find the right ingredients, it was a tall order.  We couldn’t find the bread they were used to so we substituted what was on the market shelf.  Do as the  locals do, as they say.

Then, one day my four-year-old started addictively bingeing on hot dog buns.  What was going on here?

It took us some time to realize that she had fallen into an addiction:  the carbohydrate load.  We couldn’t track down our whole grains from home and our substitutes seemed to all revolve around enriched flour, which I soon learned is absorbed by the body in essentially the same way as pure sugar.  For kids who were raised on healthy foods, this was a shock to their system.  Of course they couldn’t calm down! They had’t ever consumed so many simple sugars and empty carbs in their entire lives.

In the end, our mistake was illuminating.  Not all places have access to the kinds of foods and ingredients that people who are privileged enough to have grown up some place like California might have.  In our haste to embrace the simple rule of travel that says that cultural sensitivity demands that you not be above the local customs, we neglected to look into the nuances of parenting and the subtle needs of little people growing up on the road.

We’re still all about questionably fried snacks sold from food trucks by the beach and I still don’t back down from blood sausage.  Our approach is now more holistic.  Our kids still get their fill of pastelillos and surrellitos, but this is offset by balance.  Balance is key.