Right now my roommate is pouring a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast. In a sense I am jealous of her ability to (so far) digest a bowl of pressed oats, sugar and commercially processed non-fat milk.

What's for dinner?

Me? For breakfast I’m having a bowl of chicken broth I cooked for at least 3 hours and some butternut squash I roasted yesterday. Breakfast never seems easy. I would love to go back to my simple coffee and pastry, but no more.

For the past month I have scoured the city for the best and most inexpensive organic produce and quality meats and butter. I chop veggies, I soak nuts or seeds overnight. I’m learning to make fermented beet kvass, sauerkraut and kefir. Sometimes I feel like, ‘If only I could just pour my breakfast out of a box.’

On the other hand, I’m not jealous at all. I consider my digestive ‘problem’ a fantastic opportunity to learn about my health and to change my eating habits (which I formerly thought “weren’t so bad”). And the best part? I get to feel better than I have in years. Yes: I am beginning to feel better than I have in years.

My roommate has a shelf full of processed foods. Canned soups, Bisquick baking mix, macaroni and cheese and boxed cereal probably make up 75% of her diet. With a little iceberg lettuce, ground beef, cheese and gallons of non-fat milk thrown in, that pretty much does it.

This is the Standard American Diet.

However, she doesn’t smoke, she drinks alcohol in extreme moderation (two hard ciders once a month are a big night out) and does not drink coffee or tea and rarely soda. She exercises daily with a 30 minute bike commute to work, and pretty much never eats at fast food restaurants.

Now is her diet looking a little better? Yes, according to most health standards, it’s “not that bad.” But even so, she could have allergies (she does) or digestive problems (“I’m never regular”) that are directly related to what she eats (or maybe more importantly –  does not eat.)

Even I used to routinely eat mac & cheese, but thought I was being good because I limited my processed food intake. And, since it was organic and from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s I thought it was superior to the blue and yellow Kraft boxes kept in my roommates’ stash.

However, it turns out my diet wasn’t so great after all.

Probably my biggest error was my traditional morning pastry with coffee or a latte. Here you have wheat and milk, two foods which are among the most difficult to digest and commonly cause food intolerances.

Also, I was guilty of not  taking time to really prepare my meals. I would just snack on sunflower seeds or tortilla chips, or make a sandwich, or drink a glass of juice, considering that no single one of those foods was particularly bad in itself — but when my guts started telling me differently, I knew I had to make a big change.


I can’t quite believe the stuff I find on the sidewalks around here. I live near Green Apple Books (one of the best bookstores in the city) and every once in a while someone sells their good used books and leaves the rejected ones in the street. I guess they don’t know about the FREE BINS in front of the store. Usually they’re books like “Your Inner Skinny” or “Windows 98 Hints and Hacks.”

But this time I got a hardback copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (I would never, ever buy this or even check it out from the library, but free? I’ll take it), Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (I read Blink but not this one yet), a couple of David Sedaris books (you can’t go wrong with David Sedaris) and an extra copy of Coetzee’s Disgrace (I’ll give it to someone). I also got Mitch Albom’s sequel to Tuesdays with Morrie – I can’t imagine it will be as good or make me cry like Morrie, but you never know.

I could have taken the French grammar book and InStyle magazines, but opted instead for the neat, dark wicker basket that held the whole stack. With all the bed-bug frenzy lately (it comes around every 10 years or so — I remember the last time) I am going to watch it carefully, as it looks like a Trojan Horse, all shiny and beautiful. Maybe put it in my freezer for a few hours to be sure to kill any lingering critters. But all in all, I’d say it was a good evening’s catch.

To top it all off, there was a small bottle of Prada cologne in the bottom of the basket. I’m not sure if it’s for men or for women, but it smells a little like the neck of a freshly washed Latino man before he gets too sweaty at the Salsa club, before putting my left hand on his shoulder feels a little like dipping my arm into a fish tank that needs cleaning. That initial lingering smell is…heavenly.

I think about food a lot lately. Actually, I am a little obsessed with it. I still think its true that we Americans have low standards when it comes to our food (see my rant in Re-entry March 3, 2010) . We’ve mistaken things like boxed orange juice, margarine and even soy products for “food”. Yeah, sorry to say — soy isn’t really all that good for you. Unless it’s fermented (miso, tempeh) it’s over-processed and can cause certain problems if you eat too much.

Roasted beets

From all of my reading over the past 3 months, including the fascinating cookbook by Sally Fallon, “Nourishing Traditions” and articles by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD (who developed the GAPS diet –a modified form of the Simple Carbohydrate Diet) it turns out that fermented foods were a cornerstone in our ancestors’ diets. I find it fascinating that grains and dairy – the two food groups most difficult to digest – were traditionally soaked or fermented. Fermented foods add probiotics to our diets, and it’s turning out that these little bacteria are ESSENTIAL for a strong immune system. How did our ancestors know that?

Or, to look at it another way, maybe there’s a little co-evolution going on. We need the probiotics in so many ways. Did they first come into our systems from foods, and then take up residence there? Did they evolve to help us? I’m sure you know someone who’s lactose intolerant. Someone figured out that fermenting milk made it easier to digest. But what made the lactobacillus bacteria decide to take up permanent residence in our gut? Thank god they did, because we really can’t do anything without them. And, without the good ones, the bad ones take over. If the good ones aren’t there, for example, we can become more susceptible to Salmonella. Now there’s a traveler’s health concern!

More and more, poor struggling parents of autistic kids find that if they improve the intestinal flora the symptoms go away. Same for depression. Anxiety. Those epidemics we’re having recently–autism, obesity, asthma? There is a connection to the food we eat.

Recently some friends were having a conversation on Facebook about Free Range Kids.

Not being a parent, I didn’t feel qualified to comment. But instantly I thought of Kurdish kids — now those are Free Range.

I am awake at 7 in the morning. One of the smaller children I’ve met is playing outside in the street. I think he is about four. There are no adults around, no other children, he is banging a stick against the ground. We’re in a tiny village. The houses are made of mud. I can feel the sun just starting to warm the air. What is he doing all alone out there?

The answer is, there is no reason for him not to be all alone out there.

Kids in this part of the world are independent. There are about a hundred adults in the village to watch out for them. And virtually no dangers. No one is going to kidnap him, no sexual predators, just miles and miles of farmland dotted with small villages like this one.

Kids who don’t live in the village have already made a career for themselves.

In Diyarbakır, the historical capital of what would be “Kurdistan” in Eastern Turkey (just that simple statement is politically loaded; the historical Kurdish name for this city is Amed) I met this boy. He wanted to give us a tour of the mosque. Actually, his English and knowledge of history were pretty good. I imagine he makes a fair amount of tips each day.

This little spitfire (pictured below, with his sister) is only three years old. He roams freely, playing amongst the goats and chickens and wandering around practically on his own, to and from the playground, with minimal supervision from his older sisters. We’re in the suburbs now.

Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned. –Lenore Skenazy, Free Range Kids

Although Lenore Skenazy is a New York City parent who allows her 9-year old to ride solo on the subway, I see some similarities. Whatever the “range” of your living area clearly a child needs some freedom to roam inside it. Whether your area is New York City or a village in Eastern Turkey, kids need room to explore.

Kurdish boys, at least, must grow up to be independent. Girls may stay closer to home, but some go to university and leave their families. Much about their lives is both very traditional and very uncertain. That’s because of the ‘politics’ I mentioned earlier — war could be in their future, or peace. That’s not something a kid on the NYC subway deals with every day. Or is it?

One person loves and the other doesn’t reciprocate. It happens to everyone at some time. Heartbreak as acute as a bee sting, only 20 times more powerful. No, make that 200 times. That tentative overture, a profession of love, can be rebuffed as easily as a fly by your beloved. And suffering a heartbreak too easily recalls the tortures of the ones before.

Love is strange; it can come like an immediate feeling, centered in the heart. Usually prompted by lots of hopes and expectations or followed by lots of hopes and expectations. Love ‘is a nice dream’ according to at least one non-romantic. But I don’t know where love would be, if it weren’t for the exercise of the heart that heartbreak provides.

A penguin shows his love at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

There’s research that shows the heart really can ‘break’. Tiny muscle tears in the heart can result from emotional trauma. There is even a “Broken Heart Syndrome” (Takotsubo cardiomyopathy) that mimics the symptoms of a heart attack. And — I’m not surprised — it affects women more than men.

The late Dr. Paul Pearsall, MD quoted a Hawaiian saying, something like “break my heart so that it may become even larger.” Is it true? Does heartbreak make the heart capable of loving even more? I hope so.

What attracted Bill Carter, a guy from Chico, California to Bosnia during the 1992-1996 Siege of Sarajevo?

Bill wrote Fools Rush In in 2005 and it is one of the most intense memoirs I’ve read. A search for release from grief drove him to board an aid bus to Sarajevo, to die if that’s what happened, to save others if that’s what happened, or to get U2 to broadcast the Sarajevan’s struggle for survival, as fate would have it. All but his death actually occurred.

How did Bill end up in this extreme situation, evading sniper’s bullets that were not exactly meant for him? Partly a subconscious death wish after losing his deeply loved fiancée to a car accident, and partly his extreme selflessness that directed him to do anything necessary to help. It is an interesting dichotomy. When a person loses their ego, a sense of needing something for themselves, what are they capable of? In his case, something extraordinary. The satellite uplinks broadcast on a huge screen at U2’s “Zoo TV” tour happened because of him. You could even say he helped stop the war.

I had the luck of meeting Bill Carter at a Writers With Drinks literary event in San Francisco. I was still processing my 6 weeks traveling in the Balkans and our conversation couldn’t have been more timely. How do people survive through a war like that? How do they go on? He also made Miss Sarajevo, a film I have yet to see. The title is taken from the beauty pageants that went on underground while the bombing went on above.

Map of the frontline, based on the 1984 Olympics map

Sarajevo's frontline during the Seige

Sarajevo impacted me like no other city. Traditionally a model city where Muslims, Croats, Jews, Christians intermarried and did not label people by their religions, it is the true region where East Meets West. A ancient city that has hosted everyone from weary Arabian nomads to 1984 Winter Olympiads, Sarajevo feels like a city that survived. During the Siege, they planted vegetables in window boxes. They hid in their basements. They braved bullets to get drinking water each day. They drank, they partied, they fought.

I will never forget speaking with an ex-Bosnian soldier, now a tour guide, who was about 15 when the war broke out. “There was no choice. If you were living in Sarajevo at this time you either fought as a citizen or you joined the army.” He was shot twice. He could have had a military career, but he decided to give tours of the Sarajevo Tunnel to make sure people keep talking about what happened there. The adolescents who survived the Siege are now 30-somethings deciding the future of Sarajevo, of which Bill Carter is now an honorary citizen. Bill told me, “It’s odd. People don’t exactly miss the war, but they miss the way that people came together to help each other. The intensity of surviving, of living life each day.”

When I was about 5 years old, my big brother mixed melted vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce together in a big bowl, stirred it up, ate it and told me, “It’s poop.” Of course, I believed him.

This is the same brother that persuaded me to sample Tabasco sauce out of the bottle because it “tastes like sugar.” He put some on my tongue and I ran away crying. These are the obligatory big brother-little sister tortures that come written into big brothers’ DNA. There’s probably an evolutionary mechanism at work.

Other than these incidents, I honestly did not suffer much torture from my siblings because they were so much older than me. My brother was 11 and my oldest sister was 16 when I was born.

Perhaps because of the age difference, the poop incident stayed with me. I truly believed my brother. I don’t know at what age kids’ fascination with poop peaks, but I do remember around the age of 8, I watched another 8-year old friend torture her toddler brother by making him eat his. I was simultaneously in awe of the power she had over him, and disgusted.

What does all this have to do with travel? Well, if you’re going to be a traveler, you might need to re-explore this childhood theme and get re-friendly with your poop. Not eat it, of course, but at least get more familiar with it than you would probably like.

*****Warning***** The following contains poo pictures.**

So far I have done and redone seven poo tests and I still don’t know what’s wrong with me. The “traveler’s diarrhea” that many sojourners get has not fully resolved itself in over a year.

Three of many poo tests.

I’ve been tested for parasites, Giardia and stool leukocytes. I’ve seen four doctors in three countries, had ultrasounds and blood tests. I’ve tried four different types of probiotics. The most effective ones were the little blue capsules that I bought in a Skopje, Macedonia pharmacy. The second best came in a little glass jar from an Istanbul pharmacy and cost about $2 dollars. The most ineffective was purchased off the shelf in a health food cooperative in Olympia, WA after I returned.


I’m now trying a $16 bottle of refrigerated probiotics from Whole Foods, hoping that will do the trick. In the meantime the MD is using the dreaded ‘colonoscopy’ word and the acupuncturist is giving me herbs that taste like dirt. Some one or combination of these things may help, and I suppose that is just the price I pay for the adventure of traveling to strange lands, eating strange foods and strange bacteria. I probably wouldn’t trade any one of my travel experiences for a year of chronic gastrointestinal distress; but if I had I might have enjoyed things a bit more along the way.

I can’t seem to get away from travel books. Even Julia Child’s My Life in France, a book that conveys her love of France as much as her love of French cooking, is a travel memoir. It’s about fitting in and growing to love and adapt to a new culture. She says several times that France is her “spiritual homeland.” Her observations of American culture vs. French culture in the 1950s are not so different from today. She grows to see some Americans as closed-minded, easily degrading France without having been there.

I think the first time I felt a “spiritual homeland” was in Mexico. I remember commenting to my Dad (and he agreed) that “people know how to treat people here.” Of course, I was the visitor, so any other social hierarchy was hidden to me. I have felt it again and again in other countries I’ve been to. I think it has something to do with the Traveler’s Ethos. I don’t know if that is a real term, but I’ll capitalize it anyway.

For me the “Traveler’s Ethos” has to do with the way one is treated and treats others. The traveler community often bands together. Travelers help one another in ways they wouldn’t normally do while at home. Information is freely shared, accommodations are often shared, food is shared. One time in Skopje three of us made dinner for the entire hostel, about 25 people. Why? I guess it’s the Traveler’s Ethos. You do it because it’s just the way things are done. When so much kindness is extended to you, you extend it to others. It becomes a pleasure to ‘treat people as they should be treated.’

If we Travelers adopt this sort of Ethos it’s only because we are following the examples given to us by our hosts. In many parts of the world, the guest is of utmost importance. They must shown the best treatment, the best food, and given pounds of gifts to take home with them.

Last year I visited Crete and at the end of my visit, my friend’s parents wanted me to take home a bottle of homemade wine and a 2-liter bottle of homemade olive oil.

My friend Eva and her Grandmother, at their home in Crete

I was backpacking and these heavy items not only wouldn’t fit in my bag, I couldn’t imagine hefting it afterwards. I very reluctantly asked, “Could I take a smaller bottle of oil?” Knowing it was a little bit rude, but there was absolutely no way I could carry it. Ruder yet would have been to decline the offer. And I didn’t want to take it to the bus station only to give it to a stranger.

I got it back to where I was going, and it was the most delicious wine and olive oil I had ever tasted. I’m sure they knew it would be. Cretans are very proud of their food and history. Almost every family has a family farm, and the quality of their food is very high.

The traveler is not only meant to partake while away, but to take a piece home, to remember the shared experience of being there. In a way, hospitality is a form of advertising: so much is given to demonstrate how much there is to give.

Where is your “spiritual homeland?”

I just finished reading The Geography of Bliss, One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. It is essentially a travel book which means I get to write about it here on my travel blog. 🙂

Usually, people travel/backpack/tour intending to find some measure of happiness.  But in this case, Eric uses the premise of investigating happiness as a way to travel around the globe. (Clever, Eric!) Actually, I got a little mad at him towards the end, with his endless, searching questions. Wasn’t he happy yet? After all, he’d been to Bhutan, Qatar, Thailand….I mean, come on! Didn’t being fortunate enough to travel to all those places make him happier?

The Geography of Bliss is not a touching story of personal transformation like Eat, Pray, Love. But it is well-researched, well-reported, and thought-provoking. Reading about happiness is exciting. Are people actually happier in Bhutan or Japan? And why? Maybe I can be happy there, too! (According to UK and US researchers Oswald and Wu, California ranks as the 46th happiest state. 46th. Hawaii, not so surprisingly, is #2).

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A few weeks ago on the Today show, editors from Self magazine and Lonely Planet (LP, what happened?) gave some of the lamest “tips” for solo women travelers I have ever heard.

The gal from Self said, “Leave your itinerary with someone at home. Then check in with them at cybercafes along the way.” That’s it? That’s your advice?

So here are some detailed tips for solo women travelers (some for men, too) based on my own wacky trials and errors:

1. Go Alone, but don’t Stay Alone

According to Self, 85% of women polled want to meet people on their trip. And 63% are worried that they’ll be alone. Traveling alone doesn’t mean that you’ll be alone — quite the contrary. A solo woman traveler is likely to get more attention (oftentimes unwanted). But all smuttiness aside, you can use your solo-status to your advantage. Depending on where you are, people may be more willing to help you, host you, or invite you (just use your discretion! For example, families can be great to hang out with). Unless you’re traveling alone to focus on writing your novel or attend a silent meditation retreat, a little company will make things more fun. Follow the tips below, and you will meet some cool travel companions. The best part? You won’t be tied to their itinerary – you can go your own way anytime you please.

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