Traveling within your own country is hard enough if you are on a special diet. International travel adds some additional challenges. (Like we need more challenges!!) Some things remain the same though, whether you are traveling close to home or far away: (1) You usually take along some food you can eat while you travel, (2) you find accommodations with a kitchen so you can prepare some (if not all) your own food, and (3) you try to avoid foods while eating out that you know are problematic. (See these posts for more info on traveling on a special diet.) Some of the problems you can encounter when traveling internationally include: (1) Running out of the food you brought because travel takes longer. (2) Encountering problems with the accommodations and not being able to speak the language to resolve the issue. (3) Not being able to read the food labels in stores or menus in restaurants. (4) Not being able to order special food at a restaurant because of the language barrier.
Recently I went to China, where I could not read or speak the language. I can tell you I was concerned about traveling to the land of soy sauce and rice since I can’t tolerate either of those foods! It turned out OK though; read on for the full story….
First, I decided to pack my food with ice in a resealable bag rather than use Blue Ice. Blue Ice would have thawed during the long travel time and airport security would have disallowed it. With ice, I could refill my bag at the airport (pay for the ice) or on the airplane (ask the stewardess). It is important to double bag your ice because it will leak (trust me on this one). Also, bring lots of resealable bags on your trip. I forgot to check how many bags I had prior to leaving and as the week wore on I started to run low, so I skimped on the double bagging of the ice towards the end of my trip and paid for it with water everywhere.
I found that once I got off the plane, it was easier to discard any food that I didn’t eat during my trip than to declare it during customs. I just went to a grocery store as soon as I could to buy more food!
I also found that using my hands (in a kind of sign language) works when I can’t speak the language. While trying to board a flight within China, the inspectors were holding up my cooked food from my food tote in a questioning manner. I simply pointed to the food, then motioned towards my mouth like I was eating the food with a spoon. They got the message, and once they dumped out the melted water from my ice bags, they allowed me to board the plane.
Tip 1: Use ice instead of Blue Ice and bring lots of resealable plastic bags.
Tip 2: Discard any food left over from your flight before going through customs.
Tip 3: Use hand motions to communicate when you can’t speak the language!
Our first accommodations had a kitchenette which would have been just fine, but it was not stocked with anything! No pots, pans, dishes or utensils! By the time I figured that out, the office for the apartment was closed for the day! That meant I was going to have to get creative with what I ate or how I cooked it!
Tip 4: Check out your kitchen supplies as soon as you get to your unit so you can call the office for supplies if needed before the office closes.
I was able to buy some produce at the grocery store that evening to use in the microwave in my daughter’s unit. She did have one plate which was helpful! I also bought some yogurt for additional calories. I had no idea what was in the yogurt because I can’t read Chinese and I didn’t want to ask our guide about every little detail, so I figured I would just eat a little of it. In general, yogurt doesn’t work for me due to the histamine content but I really needed some calories so I ate some (along with some diamine oxidase enzyme supplements).
Since I was in China I did want to experience some of the traditional Chinese food. We had a friend who was showing us around and she spoke Chinese which was very helpful, especially for talking with the hotel staff about the lack of kitchen utensils and for ordering food at restaurants. At one Chinese restaurant, we ordered some Kung Pao Chicken that was as plain as possible.
We also ordered regular Kung Pao Chicken, along with many other dishes. I took 4 diamine oxidase enzyme supplements (just in case they helped) and ate very small amounts of the food. Just to taste it. Some foods I avoided completely, but I at least felt like I had tasted some traditional foods!
Within an hour of that meal, my GI tract was not happy. I didn’t sleep well that night (woke at 3:30 a.m.) and I had a headache up to a 4 (10 being very painful) the next day. My right hand was sore, especially my middle finger. What really surprises me about this whole food intolerance issue is how the symptoms can be so varied. The headaches and not sleeping well are pretty standard when a food doesn’t work for me, but the joint pain is so random! This time it was in my right hand, specifically the fingers and especially the middle one. Sometimes the pain is in my elbows, sometimes my wrist, sometimes my knee, and sometimes my Achilles tendons. It would be easier if it was always the same place! I still was very functional that day, which was good since there was lots of sightseeing to do!
Tip 5: Try a food if you want to (but not if you have food allergies)!! Eat only a very small amount so if the food is problematic you can still function (hopefully) the next day.
In one restaurant the menu was in English and it said roasted vegetables with olive oil. Well, I can eat that. But when the food came, I could tell it wasn’t just olive oil. It looked like it was salad dressing. Upon inquiry, it was salad dressing, making the food not edible for me.
Tip 6: Realize that whatever you order in a restaurant may not be what the menu says or what you requested. This happens everywhere, not just in other countries!
I was fortunate enough to have wonderful hosts at the bed and breakfast where we stayed in the next town. They took me to a local market where I was able to purchase fresh vegetables and fruits. Yum! It really is fun to shop at the local markets and experience what life is like for people in another country. I enjoyed this as much as sightseeing the major attractions!
Tip 7: Enjoy shopping at the local markets for food you can eat. It is a fun cultural experience!
I was able to use their kitchen to cook in (this had been discussed prior to our reserving the unit).
And our hosts even taught me how to cook lotus root in a wok! I tried just a little bit the first day and when I realized it was OK for me I was able to enjoy more of it over the next couple of days. It is tasty!
Tip 8: Learn how to cook a new food!
Our last night, we stayed at an airport hotel that did not have a kitchen. I had resigned myself to knowing that I would probably not feel that great since I didn’t have control over what foods would be available for me to eat. I was very surprised and encouraged the next day to find foods at the breakfast buffet that I could eat! They had lots of fruits and vegetables available (yes, vegetables for breakfast)! I was really happy! They even had a juicer so I could make my own juice!
This was by far the best breakfast buffet I have ever been too! Breakfasts are hard for me in restaurants because I can’t eat eggs, wheat, rice, corn, oats, bacon, ham, yogurt or citrus. In most restaurants, that is the entire breakfast menu! Not this place! I was in heaven. I had something to eat!
(This isn’t all I ate, but I wanted to show you some of the vegetables that were offered for breakfast!)
In the hotel we stayed at there was this sign next to the bathroom sink:
It was a good reminder to not drink the water. We knew that and so we drank only bottled water. Our friend gave us toilet tissue at the start of our trip since it is not provided in most public restrooms in China. What we didn’t know is that soap is also not provided! I didn’t bring nearly enough sanitizing wipes on the trip! I will remember that lesson for our next trip to another country!
Tip 9: Check the food and water safety of the country you will be visiting. Bring your own toilet paper and sanitizing wipes just in case you need it for the public restrooms.
For the flight home I had none of my own food so I really did have to rely on what the airline offered. Fortunately, I had a very attentive stewardess that noticed I was eating only certain foods. She asked me what I could eat, and then brought me everything she had in those categories. I was so grateful to her!!! At least I didn’t starve on the way home!
Tip 10: Ask the flight attendant for ice to keep your food cold if you brought food with you. If you no longer have any of your own food, ask if there is any extra airline food that you can eat.
I did much better on this trip than I thought I would. I had good energy for all our sightseeing adventures. Truly I walked miles and miles on some days, and for someone with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, that is really saying a lot! The days I felt the worst, were the days following when I ate some of the food that I thought would be a problem for me. But I didn’t eat enough of those foods to cause a huge problem.
This trip would not have been possible without having a friend along that spoke the language. So when you travel to another country bring a friend that speaks the language!! It will make a world (no pun intended….well maybe a little pun 🙂 ) of difference!
Tip 11: Bring someone along that speaks the language of the country you will be visiting! They can help plan accommodations before the trip starts, help troubleshoot problems when they arise and help order food. And best of all, they will make the trip fun! If you don’t have a friend that speaks the language, plan ahead and make some flash cards of phrases that will be helpful for you when shopping for or ordering food.
International travel while on a special diet is challenging, but with some planning, it is doable…..and fun!! Happy traveling!