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discovering how to eat in Indonesia with ten thousand food allergies

Updated: May 9

My stomach hasn’t felt completely right since my sailing trip around the Komodo Islands.

For four days and three nights, I lived aboard with 39 strangers, traversing through the stretch of islands between Lombok and Flores. We slept side by side on flimsy foam pads, shared a bathroom and a half with no proper shower, got group seasickness as a fun bonding experience, and ate each meal family-style. Between snorkeling with whale sharks, stalking Komodo dragons, hiking at sunsets, and dancing on pink beaches, we spent our time sunbathing on the decks, playing games, reading, connecting about travel and our lives back home.

The experience was once-in-a-lifetime, which made the dietary hell I went through worth it. Family-style meals typically exist outside of my dietary limitations of no dairy, gluten, or eggs, and grain-avoidant when I can. Aboard, family style meant rice and cabbage, four days straight, BLD. That’s a lot of rice for someone who, until three weeks prior, had not eaten rice for half a year.

In January, I started a six-month-long functional medicine program that enlightened me about my body’s series of dysfunctional systems: shot adrenal glands; allergies to diet staples; hypoglycemic; imbalanced hormones; too little good gut bacteria versus too much bad; and an eerie presence of black mold toxins growing inside my body. I’d been living sick for so long that optimal health seemed like an unrealistic, idealistic, projected fantasy.

Long story short, my health fantasy became my healthy reality and I felt clean, clear, and so damn good for the first time in forever. The 360 diet transformation, 30+ daily supplements, intense heavy metal detox, countless blood draws, and lab testings - it was far from a happily ever after but it was all worth it. I felt free.

Now, what this means for travel is that I keep a storage box, not dissimilar to a craft organizer, as priority #1 when it comes to packing my 36L Osprey. The craft-box-turned-supplement-storage houses my digestion aids, low blood sugar regulators, toxin-binding pills, and all the other goodies needed to make me feel like a healthy, functioning, non-stomach-ached, and indigested individual. I am basically a walking pharmacy. Need Pepto Bismol? I got you. Unsure what to do about Bali Belly? Try charcoal, probiotics, and spirulina. Can’t shit? Aloe vera, and make sure to eat lots of fiber.

But even the promise of a portable pharmacy is no match for the unpredictability and unplanned nature of travel. An empty stomach after a day of travel limits my ability (patience) to find food within my functional dietary standards. Sometimes a rice dish is exactly what you need to feel full and fulfilled. Sometimes, you’re stuck on a boat eating rice and cabbage and drinking orange juice and vodka for four days straight and when you get to shore the last thing you want is more effing rice but you’re in Asia and in Asia eating rice is like breathing air.

After the sailing trip, I didn’t have much luck in Labuan Badjo, where I poisoned myself with soy sauce, prawn chips, and questionable salmon sushi. Mataram, where I stayed one night to extend my visa, was hopelessly non-touristy, therefore non-allergy friendly and extremely pro-rice.

For my scuba diving certification, I returned to tourist hotspot Gili Trawangan which meant allergy-labeled menus (hallelujah!) and the possibility of a meal with no rice (rejoice!). I frequented The Banyan Tree often, sometimes two times a day, trying everything on the menu that was labeled both gluten-free and vegan. My favorites were the Chia Pudding and the Tofu Peanut Stirfry, with an honorable mention to the Chocolate Peanut Breakfast Bowl.

Still, my stomach was unsettled and my skin started breaking out, breaking a clear streak I’d had since cutting out gluten and grain. Maybe from the rice. Or the ciders and joss shots*. Or the vegan gelato that was always only 50 meters away. Or the joss shots. We can only speculate.

(*Imagine putting an EmergenC packet in a shot of vodka but the EmergenC is actually equivalent to a powdered can of Redbull - this is the atrocity that is a joss shot).

Lots of travelers experience some kind of adjustment in their digestion when exploring Southeast Asia. For me and my uber-sensitive, semi-functioning systems, when something goes out of whack, it has a rippling effect on other parts of my body. Stomach aches are the main indicator that something has gone awry. Then lower energy throughout the day, acne if I'm unlucky, usually some kind of cold symptom, and a bit of frustration.

It was that frustration that next took me to Ubud to do a self-prescribed rice detox. Ubud, a vegan powerhouse with a diet-specific population concentration, is a city with little emphasis on nightlife (and joss shots). The perfect place to settle my belly and catch up on some blogging.

I actually started feeling worse. My throat was scratchy and I had a paranoid cough, my stomach, still upset. I was sore from overdoing it in acro yoga and hostel-bed-ridden for two days, hoping this was the part of the detox where things got worse before they got better.

I decided that I unfortunately need to avoid rice for a little bit. And sugar. Oh, and drink more water. Let my body return to normal. Fill up on good veggies and protein sources. It was a good run, but I want to travel long-term so I need to resolidify my diet and rebuild my foundation for health. Let rice and sugar come as often as the new moon and green smoothies like the morning sun.

It’s hard though when I romanticize food so much. Like wow, you have made a vegan, gluten-free double chocolate brownie with a scoop of coconut ice cream and caramel drizzle just for me? Oh wow, your deep-fried coconut-crusted Mahi Mahi may or may not use egg as a binder and isn’t cross-contaminated? Joy.

In the past, a large component of travel joy has been centered around eating, especially local food. I miss Italy when my allergy ignorance enabled me to indulge in carbonara and chocolate croissants and pizza, oh god the pizza.

When dishes at warungs (local Indonesian family-owned joints) commonly have rice, egg, flour, and most likely soy sauce, the menu narrows from a country’s entire cuisine to about four combination options: vegetables in curry broth or vegetables stir-fried, and will I have chicken or tofu and tempeh (fermented and condensed soybean)? Western places are great for labeled menus and tripling the bill.

Even as I write this I don’t feel 100%. I’ve taken the day off of yoga, again, and have sought out cozy places to eat foods that nourish me: leftover chicken soup on my hostel’s rainsoaked rooftop, a turmeric latte with coconut milk at a library cafe, a green juice paired with jackfruit ‘steak’ at infamous Zest.

As most of this blog post has been about my ailing health, I want to end on a high note.

I’m cultivating a shift to see food as fuel for travel joy - I can nourish myself and indulge in the fact that I feel healthy enough to be traveling the world long-term, and that I know how to take care of my body’s specific needs.

I remind myself to be patient and kind. That good health is attainable, I’ve experienced it and I know it’s not just some vegan TikTok fad fantasy. My body is much wiser than I am, I just have to get out of its way with all that rice and all those josses. Travel and health don’t need to be separate, and neither do food and joy. This is a lifestyle that I can and will cultivate for myself: a joyful and healthy travel diet to sustain all my passions and all my projects.

So next time seasick I’m on a boat with 40 strangers all eating family-style for four days, I’ll be sure to say “extra cabbage, hold the rice.”

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