On Food and Adjusting to Squalor: how not to crash-land in “the third world”

Settling in to third-world travel can be rough. I guess the nice term for it is “Culture Shock.” It might be more aptly called, “getting-used-to-the-stink-of-urine, broken-uneven-sidewalks, trash-everywhere, being-constantly-stared-at, being-propositioned-every-minute-by-a-peddler, choking-on-the-stench-of-moth-balls-at-grocery-stores, never-having-a-proper-toilet, not-being-able-to-eat-foods-you’re-used-to, and sucking-in-a-disgusting-amount-of-pollution.”

Typical street in the Philippines... takes some getting used to.

I consider myself lucky to be the type who can make it through this negative haze to discover the treasure trove on the other side (adventure and life lessons for under $20 a day!). The transition is always brutal, but I’m happy to report being on the downhill stretch. My hotel room is the perfect example. Before transition perspective: dark, no window, flaking paint on the vanity, stained electrical outlet cover, dirty silicone around sink, towel threadbare, exposed wires on the fluorescent tube lighting the room, stained bedside table, dirty mirror, desk chair is red plastic, knees touch the door when sitting on the shared toilet down the hall.

The ridiculously steep, narrow stairs at my worst budget accomodation so far.

After transition perspective: this place is AWESOME! The vaulted ceilings are wonderful when compared to the last Hobbit-esque place I stayed. It’s got no window to let in the sound of crowing roosters and the ubiquitous late-night karaoke. It has a dual-voltage outlet! It has a sink! The towel is a real bath towel instead of an oversize wash-cloth! I don’t have to get out of bed to turn off the light! It has a bedside table! And other surfaces on which to put things! The bathroom is CLEAN! And has a real toilet seat! And free toilet paper! And a real shower (as opposed to the “bucket shower” found frequently in budget accommodation — yes, a tap and a scoop). And it’s CLEAN! And I don’t have to walk up flight after flight of narrow, sketchy stairs to get here. And checkout is at 1 p.m., not 24 hours from when I checked in. And the bed is long enough for me. And the mattress doesn’t curl up at the ends. And the pillow isn’t lumpy and too big. And it’s close to all the places I want to go each day (shops, food, internet). And it’s almost HALF the cost of the first, nasty place I stayed!   Life is good after the adjustment to the Third World is complete: Hotel 45, I love you!

An ice cream flavor I probably won't try (Quezo Real.. basically "cheese.")

Another potential adjustment for westerners might be the food. I say “might” because there is fast food galore here. If I were so inclined, I could just eat fries, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, burgers and fried chicken everyday. I would end up sluggish, low on energy, bloated, twenty pounds heavier, and vaguely uncomfortable, but at least it would be familiar food! Ummm… yeah. No thanks. Instead, my current diet consists of fruit from the market, peanuts with garlic slices from the street vendor, and whatever looks good in the window at cafeteria-style eateries.

My serving of vegetables unwaveringly contains green beans and eggplant (my favorite!), with random appearances by squash, okra, and other veggies. If I’m lucky it comes in coconut milk.

The many kinds of eggs available at the market... quail eggs on the left, "salted" eggs on the right, and chicken eggs at the back.

Once I was very unlucky and it came in a slimy substance that stretched like saliva between my fork and plate. I choked down a few bites. It’s the only thing I haven’t been able to stomach so far. Thanks in part to my time with the Manila posse, I’ve eaten some things that most people I know would find interesting at best, and horrifying at worst. My favorites so far were squid cooked in its own ink and cow tongue.   Honestly, if you’re a lover of meat so soft it falls off the bone (mmmmmm… pot roast!), you should try this meat that was never attached to a bone to begin with. Sooooo good!

Looks tasty, right? It is! Lengua (tongue) is super YUM!

Sisig (see-cig) is pig ears chopped up into tiny pieces and cooked in spices. The chewy white parts are a bit weird, but for the most part it’s tasty! I tried a regional dish in Batangas consisting of noodles, quail eggs (these are everywhere), and liver. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t have any stand-out flavor. I probably wouldn’t eat it again for the same reason I tend not to eat meatloaf — what’s the point?

If you’re into trying new foods (and can think of pieces of animal you’re not used to eating as “food”), I recommend a cardinal rule.

I can't spoil the surprise in the caption. Read the paragraph to the right to find out what delicacy this is...

Only ask what animal a dish is from before you’ve eaten. Afterward you can find out what part it is, exactly, that is so delicious. I broke this rule at breakfast this morning. The woman said the dish I was pointing at was pork, but it sure looked like some nice beef in a tasty gravy and red-wine reduction to me! Not able to leave well-enough alone, I asked why it was so dark. Mostly I just confused the poor server who didn’t understand, “What’s in the sauce?” Finally, the young guy in line next to me interjected. “The darkness comes from the pig blood in the recipe.” Oh. Right. Like in Cambodia at the meat market when I saw that brick of dark clay on the butcher’s counter and my friends told me a few hunks of the blood brick are great in soup. Of course it was delicious, like just about everything I’ve tried.

I just can't see eating this. Is it really good?

One thing I probably won’t try is Balut — a half developed duck embryo served in its shell. The egg section at any market is full of variety. There are chicken eggs, duck eggs, balut, tiny spotted quail eggs, and bright fuschia colored eggs that have been buried for 24 months in salt-brine-mud. (This one doesn’t sound very nice either.) I struck up a conversation with the egg-selling teenage guy at the market about the salted eggs and asked him if he likes balut. Next time I see him, I’m thinking about asking him if he’ll eat one if I buy it for him.

The creepiest bug in the WORLD!

Okay — one more food tip before I call it a day here. If you like to keep a small stash of food on hand like me, if you think cockroaches are vile creatures, and if you loathe the stink of moth balls — you’ll need to break out your “bear bag” skills (or learn some!). Cockroaches are a fact of life in the tropics. Give me spiders, give me snakes, give me mice*, give me ants… just please don’t give me cockroaches. I honestly feel an overwhelming sense of anger and hatred (read: fear) whenever I see one of these pint-sized beasts. (The babies don’t bother me… it’s the two-inch long Papa Roach who is my enemy.) Like all creatures of the world, they are drawn to the sugars/fats/carbs/proteins we call food. Moth balls will keep them away (which is why many grocery stores REEEEEEEEK), but they’ll also keep ME away. My solution is to put all my food into a plastic bag and then find a way to hang it in the air. It’s worked so far!   (Latent note to self: just as toiletries also have to go in the ‘bear bag,’ so they need to go in the roach bag, apparently.

All this talk of food has made me hungry. Off to the market! ♣

* as if to prove my point, a little mouse just stuck its head out the gap in the corner under the sink. Guess I have a roommate! (I am going to go inquire about mousetraps though. Sorry little guy.)


  • December 3, 2011 at 5:21 am

    Yum…peanuts with garlic slices!!! But honestly Jema….I DID NOT like cow tongue and will never eat it again!!!

    • December 3, 2011 at 5:31 am

      Maybe I’ll sneak it to you sometime and tell you after… just to be sure. 😉

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