Taste for the wild can mean going hungry
Food is an important part of life so, naturally, it’s an important part of travelling. Trying “disgusting” foreign foods – sheep’s brains, fish lips, grasshoppers – is always good for a story. Sometimes eating out can seem to be the whole point of being abroad. You know the thing: “just a local place we found . . . in a cave . . . you eat what Karim cooks . . . his abalone chowder and the spit-roasted foal, ah, to die for . . . only eight euros a head, can you believe it, and that included three bottles of saffron wine . . .”
But sometimes when travelling it’s good to accept that one might have to miss a meal or two. Good, too, if one can survive happily on nothing but gritty bread for a few days.
These minor discomfits can be the price to be paid for reaching those corners of the world where there are no restaurants. Indeed, remote travel could be defined as going to places where the locals eat only what they can grow or raise or catch themselves. Real wilderness travel is often to where there aren’t even locals, and so no food.
Author Peter Matthiessen wrote “I do not exult over food, which does not fascinate me unduly”. This has been fortunate for him. In The Snow Leopard, his account of two months of arduous trekking over the Tibetan plateau, he describes an unremitting diet of tsampa, roasted barley mixed with rancid yak butter.
Irish travel writer Peter Somerville-Large, also trekking through the Himalayas when researching To The Navel of the World, details the same monotonous diet except he seemed to suffer greater numbers of days when there was nothing to eat at all.
Dervla Murphy is equally matter of fact about short rations and non-food days in In Ethiopia with a Mule. At one point she writes “my supper consisted of two minute raw eggs, sucked from their shells, and a rusty tinful of fresh milk.”
And further into many weeks of travel she adds “my emergency rations are at an end and as I write I rumble”.
Extreme travel requires food as fuel, not a dainty pleasure. During a month cycling 1,000km across the Sahara all I could buy locally were dried dates, couscous, sardines and milk powder. I made catering easier by just mixing the four ingredients together each night and boiling them into a fishy gruel. On trips by horse, bicycle or on foot across Central Asia, through South America and in Africa, I learnt that if you’re not enjoying the local diet then you’re just not working as hard as the locals. Real hunger makes all food taste good.
But the ability to cast a cold eye on food and then pass by doesn’t just benefit austere types crossing deserts or mountains. When you’re next on a plane and faced with the over-priced, tasteless food on offer, why not just skip a meal. Because you can eat far better and cheaper when you get to wherever you’re going.
And you’ll be hungrier by then too, and so enjoy the food all the more.