How did I end up here?
I ask myself as I crouch next to a tree, beside the sea, at 3 am, vomiting up my dinner. A small group of pigs is snuffling nearby, ready to clean up after me.
About three weeks earlier we arrived in Dili, Timor-Leste. We had spotted a little food market on the waterfront on our way in and thought it would be perfect for our first dinner here. Eat like the locals, street food! We wandered down to where ladies sat, dusting flies off skewers of meat with plastic bags tied to sticks. It was most likely the same meat we saw on our drive past at lunchtime, and quite possibly the same meat that was out yesterday. We chose one at random and were given a plate to select our meat sticks. We chose a few different types, which she then doused in sauce and reheated over an open fire. She added a couple of small parcels of rice, wrapped in woven palm leaves, and a cob of grilled corn. We sat at our dining table and picked a stick at random. We were optimistic that it was beef and it tasted passable, but after a good 5 minutes chewing the tough flesh we had to give up, we just couldn’t get through it. I picked another, making the foolish assumption that is would be the same I bit down, hard. Now, I do try but I am not the best at jiggly meats, and what had I bitten, probably liver…so soft…so textural.
And so we ate rice, and tried not to expire under the heat of the little package of spicy sauce she had also included. ‘I’ll fight you for the corn’ I said. Oh dear; we couldn’t even chew that, it was like eating un-popped popcorn kernels. Our soft western teeth and gums just cant handle it. But proudly, we didn’t get sick. We hadn’t eaten much but we didn’t get sick!
And so, how did I end up, a few days later, vomiting under a tree? We had driven three hours out of Dili, it was well past lunch and we had not seen any options for food for hours, when suddenly we rounded a bend and there was hut after hut set up as food stalls . We stopped. Enthusiastically thinking about what we might have to eat. We picked one, sat down, and the lady lifted the lid on the plastic container sitting on the table. Chicken skewers and rice. Just sitting out on the table, no reheating, ‘as is’ with a bit of Ketchap manis. ‘Oh well’, we said ‘at least we didn’t get sick last time’. Famous last words.
So I pose a question to you, as someone who has always been cautious about eating ‘local food’ or ‘street food’. I always hear people talking about how incredible it is, and how it is ‘real travel’ to eat this sort of thing. Is there good tasty street food out there, or is it all like what we ate? Are these street food connoisseurs just eating at the tourist friendly, sanitised markets and calling it local immersion?