Normally, I don't see it as my place to give advice to Rush University Medical Center, but in this case it's totally warranted. Before leaving to travel around Ecuador, I visited the hospital's travel consultation center, where a helpful nurse instructed me on typhoid shots and malaria pills.
What she totally left out, however, and what appeared nowhere in the thick packet I received warning me about brushing my teeth with a bottle of Jack and having unprotected sex with mosquitoes was TD—traveler's diet.
When you take a trip for the weekend—whether it's to San Francisco to visit some friends or back home for Thanksgiving—you're not concerned with what you eat, and you're certainly not straining yourself with much exercise. Now stretch that period out over a month, and throw in the facts that I'm road-tripping and my vacation doubles as work (so I'm even less inclined to take time out of the day to make any movement that might raise my heart rate above "chewing on beef fat").
This is the perfect storm of traveler's diet, in which the most nutritious meal I might eat in a day is beans and fried chicken from some roadside Ecuadorian chain chicken joint. Afterward, I'll be so impressed with the health consciousness of this meal, I'll reward myself with an Ecuadorian doughnut, which is like a regular doughnut, only twice as big and the vendor is picking his nose when he hands it to you.
Because my travel consultation also advised me to not drink the tap water, I've resorted to ordering beer with every meal—only a beer here is a $2 "grande," which is Spanish for "two beers." It has the calories of Magic Hat combined with the flavor of Keystone that's sat in the sun for three days.
We pass through towns known for their ice cream or pastries or cookies. After eating in Cayambe, known for a stick of cooked butter and salt with a pinch of flour known as a bizcocho, my traveling companion asked, "Why can't an Ecuadorian town be known for its celery sticks or it's lightly seasoned broccoli?" Then we found out Cayambe also is known for large strips of wet melty cheese that are like eating blocks of whole milk. We ordered 10.
The excuse we make usually involves the word "culture."
"Well, we have to eat this fried fish in butter fish sauce because it's a culturally important dish of the Ecuadorian coast."
"I'll have the big basket of pork, salted pork and pork rinds because that's the culture of this beautiful country!"
"Wow, what inspiring human and ecological diversity! Over 20 indigenous peoples, the most biodiverse regions on the planet, and only a month to experience it all? I'll have the two cheeseburger meal—wait, that comes with the chocolate pie? I love Burger King."
That's what travel is about, though, right? Experiencing the world outside of your comfort zone, challenging your preconceived notions, meeting people from across a rainbow spectrum of experience and wonder.
And eating an entire pig in one sitting while its decapitated head stares at you from across the restaurant. Put that in your travel consultation, Rush.
RedEye special contributor Stephen Markley is the author of "The Great Dysmorphia" and "Publish This Book."
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