On the southern island of Davao in the Philippines, two armed guards and a hulky guide led me through the jungle to Malikongkong, a remote village on top of a hill. I spent three days there, the guest of honor, sleeping on the dirt floor of the village pastor’s home, sipping corn coffee with honey and creating little houses from sticks and pink tabebuia flowers with native kids who found my blue eyes and fair skin so wild.
Back in the city of Cebu, my host took me to get my hair cut. She got a kick out of watching the giddy hairstylist lop six inches off my fine, straight, blonde locks, leaving an awkward slice halfway down my mane. The hairstylist “fixed” it by adding layers, “like Britney Spears,” she said proudly.
One evening, we went out for dinner at the night market. Between the laughter and constant, affable teasing, my host family got suspiciously enthusiastic about ordering dessert.
“Close your eyes,” urged one of my new friends with bright lipstick framing white teeth.
So I did. Childlike snickering mixed with plastic chairs scraping across concrete as they inched closer with their precious treat. Someone turned my fingers to wrap around a small cup, an egg, I guessed. Eyes closed, the smell of stagnant juice hit me first, my nose involuntarily scrunching. The chuckling hushed for a moment, broken only by encouragement to, “go on, drink it!”
I put the egg to my lips, tilting it till liquid flowed over my tongue. Dishwater was my first thought. Eyes closed still, their chortles broke into side-splitting laughter. “Eat it!” yelled an over-excited spectator.
So I did. My front teeth sank into soft flesh. Definitely egg, but less rubbery. I swallowed the barely-chewed mystery substance. My eyes popped open, matching the gaze of a dead baby duck, one beady, lifeless eyeball tucked under a half-cooked, sticky-feathered wing.
It was balut, they explained through tearful guffaws, a developing bird embryo that’s considered a delicacy amongst Filipinos. I smiled at my hosts, who were beyond pleased with themselves. They really got me, the foreigner with the Britney Spears haircut. Little did I know their good joke had eroded a bit of my innocent, amicable rapport with meat.
Barely a year later, I was sitting on a velour couch under fluorescent light bulbs in the home of a Togolese family. I’d spent the first part of the evening pounding fufu, a mealy mash made from the cassava plant. The fufu was meant for soup specially prepared for us, the guests of honor.
It was a typical night: Me smiling naively, following the little French I knew, while my friend, Emily, who was fluent in French, charmed the socks off our hosts. I sipped beer as it was passed around and politely dipped fufu in the broth, trying to avoid whatever was taking up the majority of my bowl.
The oblong body was dark and shriveled. It rocked heavily anytime the liquid was disturbed. I knew I’d have to confront this object eventually — couldn’t be snobbish and not eat everything offered to me. This was West Africa, after all, where a local makes about four dollars on a good day. So I made a brave tap to roll the thing over. Four poky feet and the de-whiskered snout of a dead rat flipped belly-up.
I didn’t react — just spun the lump right back face down and grabbed a clump of fufu. I did my best to swallow the tough protein, buffering it with bigger bites of fufu and longer, deeper swigs of beer. Turns out rat tastes quite similar to other lean proteins, like chicken or turkey. Grass cutter, they called it, heralded as a healthier alternative to red meat.
No longer was I seeing meat as a meal, and thus launched my six-year odyssey as a quasi vegetarian — quasi, meaning I chose salads over steaks, black beans over burgers, but I never, ever turned down bacon. Because bacon is delicious.
Raised in Mississippi on a silver spoon dripping with butter, I knew better than to make my vegetarianism a deal. I’d been hardwired to respectfully accept whatever food was served by my hosts. Only when it was in my own power would I try to stick to my loose principles.
It was easy to be a vegetarian in the States. It was near impossible in Western China. Six years after the rat episode, en route to the Himalaya, our taxi driver spoke no English, so we assumed the stop at the roadside restaurant in the middle of nowhere was planned. The place was nice, and probably busy during tourist season. But it was December, so today it was just two skinny Americans and a hard-working taxi driver hungry for lunch.
Somehow, after six months traveling around Asia, my vegetarian ambitions held strong. I was fascinated by the challenge but quick to adapt when it seemed too troublesome. In more developed areas, it was straightforward to point to a low-res menu photo of simmering vegetables or French fries and make it happen. But this roadside restaurant menu had no pictures. An adventure presented itself, and I bit.
In between travels, I’d studied Mandarin Chinese at the University of Montana. My Taiwanese teacher would send my writing to his colleagues abroad. Filled with pride, he said my Mandarin characters were true art. My speaking, however, was appalling.
“Wo bu ro,” I said as tonally-accurate as I could to the waitress. In my mind, I’d said, “I don’t eat meat.” Who knows what she heard.
Unimpressed, she blinked and shuffled out of the dining room, returning with the chef, who smiled and ushered me back to the kitchen. He gestured to victuals stacked on metal shelves surrounding the stove and prep area. A dozen staff watched, curious, as the chef and I made lighthearted of our struggle to communicate.
I saw this as my chance to explain not what I couldn’t eat, but rather what I could. So I did what we do best when language fails us: point. With a big smile and most ardent nod, I pointed at every vegetable in the kitchen: greens, carrots, peppers, potatoes, anything with a root or stalk.
Everybody clapped as the chef thumbs-upped complete understanding. It was a success. I was escorted back to the dining room to wait. Meanwhile, the driver and my companion ate their hassle-free dishes ordered forever ago.
I was only a little self-conscious that my order was such a deal, but felt good trying to stick to my moderate convictions. Ten minutes later, a bowl appeared. Rice. A promising, predictable start. The waitress brought another bowl. Boiled lettuce and onions — classic.
Then another waitress delivered a plate of boiled potatoes, followed by a pot of boiled carrots. Then boiled peppers. And on it went. The staff proceeded to present a boiled edition of every provision I’d pointed at in the kitchen. I was mortified but faked a great performance to eat it all.
My companion made me suffer alone, spicing up the experience with his smug mirth. Even the driver joined in the mockery. By the time we left, I was stuffed with soggy veggies and, once more, acquired a bunch of new friends I’d never see again.
It’s not like I stopped being a vegetarian after that experience. I still tried, but never again like China. It’s way more fun to just be the guest of honor, open to whatever animated, impulsive fare drips off the silver spoon, hoping for bacon. 6
When she’s not drooling over bacon, Joy Martin is probably working up an appetite somewhere in the San Juan Mountains. Find more Joy at joydotdot.com.