The Bungled Adventures of Iron Stomach (and his Sidekick the Traveling Foodie)
It is a poor choice to begin a food article with the word diarrhea in the opening paragraph, but then again many of my cuisine choices in foreign lands are irrational (though delicious) and tend to lead to the aforementioned malady. Nevertheless, for the two-dozenth time I earned my traveler’s diarrhea, this time sampling Peruvian fare.
The parasite had found me many times before (or maybe I tracked down this bug). Once in the improperly cooked chicken of Melbourne’s Chinatown, again on the buses of Nicaragua when the women sold cold meat in plastic bags, another time it swam as ice-cubes in my Bloody Mary in Mexico. Most of the people who know me find this odd. Back home my stomach is infamous. It has the potential to consume and manage any cuisine produced Stateside, which, in the end, may have been my stomach’s downfall. The food in America has not only nourished my gut, but also beefed up its ego. Under the red, white, and blue my stomach knows it is impervious to parasites. (Only once did it fail to handle a dubious meat patty at Knott’s Berry Farm). Yet, like Narcissus, whose vanity and looks led to his own demise, my iron stomach is its own Greek tragedy. In a new land, my digesting organ is a tragic hero. It views itself as this great warrior capable of tackling any enemy, but falls prey to the smallest of organisms. The expression “your eyes are bigger than your stomach” is a fallacy; for me, truth lies in this statement: “My eyes fail my stomach, often.”
In Peru, where the pollo is plentiful and the ceviche daring, my eyes ruined me yet again and my iron stomach rusted once more.
It fought smartly at first, avoiding tap water and iced drinks, tepid teas and street meat. Instead it feasted on pollo a la brasa, those chickens gyrating on the spit, perspiring on the birds below until the delicate balance between crisp skin and succulent meat is achieved. I even hesitated to dip the birds, which were already rubbed with spices, cumin, and lemon, into the light green mayonnaise-based hot sauce. But not doing so would have been like going to a seafood restaurant and ordering a hamburger.
When my stomach felt comfortable in this new land, just like Narcissus did as he leaned further and further over the pond to reveal more of his reflection, my stomach moved on to ceviche, a likely culprit. There was the ceviche simple, a tender white fish just plucked from the ocean soaked in limejuice, as well as simple’s evil cousin mixto, which includes the shellfish. Iron gut dabbled in both, slurping down the soft bellies of clams and the sand-flecked orange muscle of mussels. Even the bright tones of the sweet potato, the raw red onions, the cancha (Peru’s unpopped side dish of corn), and the lime-drenched yucca that accompanied the ceviche now seem as culpable for my stomach’s demise.
Other traitors could have been the café con leches, which were notoriously milk served with instant coffee. The disease could have been in the corn tamales, which the toothless women in front of the fruit market sold while swatting away the flies and flea-infested stray mutts. Maybe the fruits were to blame, like the native pecae, a long, hard green encasement harboring twenty-something purplish-green embryonic seeds coated with a sweet pulp that looked like moth cocoons. Or could the parasite have traveled by bicycle with the pan-man, who sold fresh bread and sweets while honking his horn incessantly like a goose choked by its butcher? Was it as simple as the tap-water-washed salads. Maybe I paid two soles (66 U.S cents) for the bacteria when I purchased street-chicken sandwiches or when I bought the one sole hamburguesas (a whopping 33 U.S. cents) from a woman whose restaurant doubled as her family’s dining room. I recall now as the family watched The Simpsons, they laughed. Were their chuckles for Homer or my inevitable plunder?
Whatever the agent, my gut’s reputation lost credit. Even the antibiotic Cipro, the traveling stomach’s greatest rival, failed to help. I was in the surf town of Chicama when the turmoil began. Chicama has the world’s longest wave and as I pumped down the face of the wave, which traveled for two kilometers, I was using more muscles than just legs in order to keep my own ego intact. Sorry stomach, I said, you’re not taking us both down. On the sprints back to the hostel the wetsuit felt like a straightjacket.
Worse than the wave were the two buses from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile. Insult tried to meet up once more with injury. The first ride was twenty hours and it had a broken toilet. The bano on the thirty-hour journey said solo urinario. When the drivers finally did pull over, I tiptoed cautiously to the bathroom. Let’s just say by the end of the trip, I was well invested in the Chilean economy through bathroom fees alone. Every bump the bus hit was a ceviche chop, the turns were pollo punches. When the bus stopped at one of the drug checkpoints the inspectors thought it curious how antsy I was and how quickly I sprinted off after they examined my luggage. Upon my return from the side-of-the-road restroom the agents took me into the back room. Armed with latex gloves and their incomprehensible Chilean dialect they pointed at some picture on the wall of a crotch clothed in tight white underwear. They wanted me to drop my pants. Luckily it was a partial strip-search and there was no probing around in certain areas; though one of the Chilean authorities rummaged through my sack (backpack).
After finally making it to Santiago, the pharmacists there prescribed for me a new pill and though the three pharmacies I went to all offered me different instructions on how to administer the pill, they all agreed on one thing.
“Eat plain food.”
“Like rice and beans and chicken?” I asked.
“No!” they panicked.
“Fish and yucca?”
“Heavens no! Plain broth,” they instructed.
The news felt like a new sickness. A kind of death. It was the tragedy of Adam in the Garden of Eden-touching that lomo saltado or empanada will release all sorts of evil the pharmacists agreed. So I was forced into a type of exile, walking the streets of Santiago like some excommunicated sinner while the silver bodies of fish and dangling octopus tentacles beckoned for me in the Mercado Central. I felt like I was in a museum and the vendors that shouted at me were the security guards. Although I knew they were beckoning me to eat and buy, I only heard: “Step away from the exhibit.” Even the fruit stands stood like luscious ancient pyramids. The bricks of oranges gave way to apples and the avocados rose towards a pinnacle of bananas.
Later on, at a restaurant, the waiter teased my corroded stomach with recommendations never sought.
“Pastel de Choclo,” he said, showing me the Chilean version of chicken potpie, with a corn crust instead of pastry.
My stomach, like a good soldier, followed its orders and apart from its heart ordered the soup. Afterwards, my impotent stomach marched on and hoped, down the road (actually over the Andes Mountain range), it would be able to perform once more for its steak waiting in Argentina.
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