One of the things I love about long term budget travel is that I always lose weight. I don’t have to watch what I eat or exercise for my health. The secret is in all the humping of backpacks, climbing and negotiating seemingly endless steps, and walking everywhere. That and the food, whether it’s the availability of food, its desirability, or its safety. Finally, there are the travel and environmental stresses which naturally make me eat less.
We are currently in Oaxaca, Mexico, and there isn’t a day that goes by we don’t walk at least three miles, but more commonly six or seven miles, to fulfill our normal daily activities of shopping, banking, eating out, or visiting the odd interesting local church, museum, or other attraction. All this walking adds up and after a couple months on the road we can see the effect as our clothes begin to get looser. It seems funny that when traveling the idea of walking a couple miles roundtrip to eat at a particular restaurant isn’t unusual, but at home we would never do this.
Food availability is another issue. Even though we often have access to a kitchen, usually it’s a shared kitchen, so we are limited on space in the fridge and typically only store foods that we use a lot or plan to consume soon. That means we don’t normally have a lot of snack foods lying around. If we want a snack often we have to walk somewhere to get it. It’s not like back home where our trip involves fifteen steps to the kitchen for a snack. Also using shared kitchens frequently means waiting for a time slot to prepare your meal…usually not a long wait, but it discourages preparing meals which are really involved and use a lot of kitchen resources. The net effect is that you just don’t spend as much time in the kitchen which naturally reduces your opportunities to feed. Another issue with preparing your own food in less-developed countries is that you must sanitize all your foods, particularly unpeeled fruits and vegetables. This additional step makes it more time consuming to prepare a meal, so you are less likely to just pop into the kitchen to make a quick meal.
Another aspect is food desirability. In tourist areas there is usually a decent selection of restaurants with different types of food available. But in some places this is not the case and you are presented with limited food choices that lose their appeal quickly. If the local cuisine itself is boring, then it’s even worse. Sometimes we just get tired of the food choices available. Even the food choices in restaurants targeting tourists may get boring after a while. You can only eat so much pizza on a trip. When I met Dennis in Greece he had been traveling in Greece and Turkey for three and a half months and I remember him telling me that he loved Greek food and when he first arrived in Greece he was in culinary heaven. But after three months of eating the same moussaka, calamari, and other Greek dishes he was sick of eating Greek food. When we landed on the island of Naxos and there was a German restaurant serving schnitzel he just about died with pleasure.
Finally there are concerns about food safety which may limit our choices about what foods to eat when we are out and about. We try to practice good food and drink safety, particularly when eating from street food stalls and comedors in public markets. In countries that don’t practice good hygienic food handling we tend not to eat at food stands much. In Guatemala we encountered a lot of poor food handling and tended only to eat things that we could see being cooked in front of us at high heat and handled properly. In Mexico so far we have encountered much better food handling, even in small food stands, where the cook or server are handling the food with plastic gloves and putting the food and drinks into clean paper or disposable plastic containers and a different person is handling the money.
Unfortunately, despite your best efforts to avoid consuming contaminated food or drink, you may contract a foodborne illness. Then you get to experience the most extreme form of travel dieting.
Assessing the safety of street food is usually pretty easy, since the food is normally simple as well, such as a piece of fried meat or fish with tortillas, so you feel as long as the meat portion is well enough cooked, you’re okay. Now I worry more about food coming from restaurants where you can’t see what’s going on in the kitchen. I learned this the hard way in India when I was in my mid-twenties. I had religiously followed the advice of a seasoned traveler I knew who told me to stick with bananas, toast and omelets if I wasn’t sure about the food hygiene. To be extra sure I went to a fairly expensive restaurant on Connaught Circle in Delhi to get my omelets and toast and felt very proud of myself for taking this extra precaution. A couple of months later I opened the Times of India one Sunday morning and the leading article was an expose on dirty restaurant kitchens accompanied by a picture of my fancy place in Delhi with a latrine perched right in the middle of the kitchen. For all my precautions I was lucky I hadn’t got sick there. The funny thing was later when traveling around on buses, I bought chai and samosas from street vendors nearly every day and never got sick, the same with the potato and bean curry with rice and dhal that was usually the only food available at the bus stops. In fact I developed a real liking for all of this food. My eventual downfall was from contaminated water. At that time in the early 80’s bottled water wasn’t freely available for sale in India and anyone can only stomach so much lukewarm Coca Cola. Towards the end of my trip I was in the market in Delhi and desperate for a drink of water. I found a machine selling water and figured this would be safe. Later, the doctor told me the water in these machines was just dirty water poured in from the back. I was sick for days and felt so bad I was worried I wouldn’t make it to the airport for my flight home. The only good thing about it was I lost over 20 lbs in a week. I couldn’t believe my luck. All my life I had been ‘pleasantly plump’ and the ‘round shorty’ and now people were telling me I was too thin which was a lovely change from ‘you’ve improved a terror, you’re bursting.’ First thing I did when I landed in London was go to a jeans shop and buy the smallest pair of jeans that I could fit in to. I doubted I’d get much, if any, wear out of them but these jeans were a testimony that at one minute in time I could fit in to them.
Other factors that limit food consumption while traveling are altitude, heat, and long windy bus trips. When it’s hot I just have a tendency to eat less. I suppose it’s my body’s natural response to keep myself cooler. Also, I just read an article which talked about people eating less at high altitudes, something about it affecting the hormone leptin which controls appetite. We have been above 5000’ for most of this trip, and at nearly 7000’ for our month in San Cristobal. This may be one of the reasons I haven’t felt very hungry on this trip. Finally, there is the effect of traveling, especially long bus trips. I haven’t had a bad bout of travel sickness on this trip yet, but the day after every long bus trip I don’t feel so good. I know it’s because I don’t stay hydrated well enough during bus trips and I also don’t eat much before or during the trip from fear of being sick on the bus. I’ve negotiated all the bus trips very well, even the hellish 14 hour drive through the mountains to and from Palenque, even though that was the one time I resorted to taking my travel-sickness medication. But if I add up the days on long bus trips and the not-so-good days after that works out to a bunch of unplanned dieting days.
People coming back from a week or two on a cruise or at a resort often complain that they gain weight. According to a poll on cruisereviews.com the average weight gain on a seven day cruise ranges from five to ten pounds. The numbers are similar for all-inclusive resorts. It’s a good thing these kinds of vacations are short. The by-product of long term, budget travel is usually the opposite. If only whatever I lose while travelling would stay off when I get home.