How to Survive the Nightmare of Not Being Able to Eat on Vacation
Congee in Chiang Mai
The plan for Chiang Mai was puffed donuts fried in open tins, the creamy flesh of a whole fish, plates piled with slippery noodles studded with basil and hot peppers. The plan was markets and stalls, cafes and restaurants.
The plan was scrapped almost immediately after an unexpected day trip to the emergency room. The plan transformed into dry spaghetti nights and bare toast mornings, devoured with the slow chew of the hungry mind and the busted stomach.
My sole souvenir from a month of backpacking was a stomach bug, vicious and leggy, running rampant in my body. In the hospital waiting room my mind flooded with misty flashbacks of tap water on a toothbrush, the haphazardly rinsed skin of a raw pear rubbed on my sunscreen and grime smeared t-shirt. I trekked back to the hotel with a purse full of stomach pills and strict orders from the doctor: “Nothing spicy. Nothing colorful. Nothing interesting. Simple foods—and not much of them.”
I was too weak to leave the hotel, taking each colorless meal in the restaurant. For days I watched a dining room full of people munch the crisp cheeks of fried fish, spear velvety mango and sticky coconut rice with fork tines, slurp sunny yellow khao soi, full of curry and noodles and fat. My husband’s plate was a tapestry of unattainable desires, slathered in curry paste and raw herbs.
It was the opposite of what you want to do in a new place: Stay in bed. Peel the paint off the walls with your endless gaze. Plain toast. Water. Pills. Repeat. In a week I exhausted bread, rice, and noodles. In lurid detail, I pictured microwaved oatmeal quivering in a bowl, dusted with cinnamon, a pinch of salt. I dreamt of a handful of dry cornflakes, consumed in my faraway kitchen, where I could cook plain foods made just how I liked. Pallid and drained, with rumbly guts and a sharpened mind, my appetite began to negotiate. If I went home a few weeks early, I could get better, maybe. I could get full, definitely. I began to look at flights.
Shimmering under a bog of steam, congee arrived one morning to temporarily banish dry toast and depression. Pearlescent and salty, full of texture and heft, it waited in a crockpot at a hotel breakfast buffet. I had never liked congee before, but suddenly it was a beacon of hope, each bite soothing my stomach’s endless twitch, smoothing the wrinkles in my tense heart with its porridge-y tendrils.
Pale geckos slunk across the walls while green-eyed cats with ornately striped fur watched them, hunting. Tuk tuks sputtered and chugged outside, the rosy grey light of early morning flooding the sky. I dipped my spoon again and again. I refilled my bowl. Here was something new enough to chase away the rot of homesickness edging my insides, something solid enough to push me forward. The congee never returned, but I stayed.