Eating on the Road


My husband and I just started our sixth month of being on the road (out of a total of seven) and I’ll admit: I’m exhausted. This no doubt is partially due to our current itinerary — our train to Hanoi arrived at 4:55 this morning — but I think the effects of long-term travel may finally be catching up with me.

As is often the case when I’m tired, I’m more irritable than normal — toward salespeople, toward motorbike drivers (there are over 2 million in this city, and crossing the street means taking your life in your hands) and, alas, toward my diabetes. Or, to put it more specifically, I’m irritated by having to think about things that other travelers on my early morning train never have to consider.

Take, for example, Vietnamese coffee. After traveling through Russia, Mongolia, China and Nepal — countries that appreciate weak Nescafe in a way that I never will — my husband and I were thrilled to find out that Vietnam has excellent coffee. (And, for that matter, baguettes. Who said the French colonialists never did anything good?) It’s strong and rich and just delicious. The problem is, most people drink it with condensed milk.

Now, I’ll admit that I actually love condensed milk. Back in my pre-diabetic days, I used to make chocolate-covered peanut butter balls as a holiday gift, presumably for my grandmother, but also for myself. You made them by mixing peanut butter with condensed milk and then dipping the results in chocolate. Totally delicious. But my favorite part was almost the condensed milk itself, thick, sweet and creamy. I used to eat it by the spoonful.

Now that I’ve got Type 1, those days are obviously over. Or at least they had been, before I ordered a Vietnamese coffee with milk and, upon finding that the bottom of the cup contained a sweet surprise,  found myself thrust into one of those awful diabetic moments — the “I know I shouldn’t eat this, but it just tastes so good” experiences that are temporarily amazing but regrettable immediately afterwards. Seriously, it’s a great combination: really strong coffee poured on top of a thin layer of condensed milk. Were I not pancreatically challenged, I’d start drinking it at home.

But alas, I am. And after one or two indulgences, I’m now getting tired of not being able to order coffee with regular milk. Only about one in four waiters understand what I’m trying to ask for, and even when I think I’ve successfully communicated with what’s known round these parts as “fresh milk,” I often end up with the condensed version just the same. (It reminds me of a time recently when I ordered a ginger tea without sugar and was frustrated to see a layer of honey at the bottom of the cup — when I pointed it out, the waiter simply responded, “It’s honey, not sugar.” Dammit.  He’d gotten me on a technicality.)

But of course, that’s not the only difficulty of diabetic travel in Asia. The toughest part is the rice and noodles. In Chinese, for example, people often greet each other with the expression “Chi fan le ma?” It literally means “Have you eaten rice yet?” and illustrates just how tough it is to get by on a non-carb-based diet. Apparently the same expression also exists in Vietnam, and according to the teacher at a cooking class my husband and I recently attended, no meal is considered complete without a nice big bowl of rice. A typical breakfast here is a bowl of pho — noodle soup. Or a big, crunchy baguette. Suffice it to say, I’ve been eating a lot of omelettes.

This usually works out okay, but there are times — getting back to my point about irritability — when I find myself forced to eat food that I do not want to. At bus stop buffets, for example, when a long bus ride is broken up by a forced lunch break at a restaurant that gives a commission to the driver. We’ve been subjected to a number of these, and they usually feature some sort of questionable meat (not my favorite) and a hearty selection of noodles, rice, or bread. I normally try not to get resentful about my diabetes, but I’ll admit that if I’ve been sitting on a bus for several hours — already not a good blood sugar situation — and then have to watch other people mindlessly chow down big plates of rice makes me really, irrationally angry. Fuck you, I think to myself, looking at other tourists slurp down a bowl of noodles without a care. Fuck you and your pancreases.

For what it’s worth, I recognize that this is not very nice.

But I trust that a few of you out there know what I mean — those moments when you’re tired and cranky and hungry and you just wish that, for one meal at least, you could say screw it to your carb counting and just eat what’s on offer. And since you can’t, you get irritated at those who can. It’s funny to be jealous of other people’s internal organs, but I’ll admit it — there are moments when I am.

Luckily, Vietnamese food offers many delicious low-carb choices. I’m eating them all.

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12 years ago

SO know what this feels like.  It sucks.  Major.  Thanksgiving and pretty much any large family gathering is an exercise in this, but that’s nothing like the month-long time scale you’re dealing with.  I envy your sense of adventure and “risk” in your travel adventures.  I just don’t think I’m up for it anymore.

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