Let’s get one thing straight—I am not one of those cutesy, adventurous people who take a lot of physical risks. That goes for pretty much everything in my life, but most especially to international travel.
In fact, I lean toward boring. My mom has taught me that if I have the option of doing something that will almost definitely hurt me or make me sick, I just shouldn’t do it.
And that is why I haven’t eaten a single thing from a street vendor in Indonesia.
Some of the other ETAs are braver; they say, “You can’t waste your life away being careful! Whether it make you sick or not—you have to take advantage of this experience!”
I say that I am quite comfortable wasting some of my life away being careful.
Some of Yana’s friends took me around Palembang yesterday. They are very, very nice people who speak elementary English. (Although here an “elementary” level speaker would definitely be an “intermediate” speaker of Indonesian in the US.) We went to the zoo, watched a group of young students run around and take turns getting terrified on the zip line, and then we headed to Kemaro Island. I was very excited; this island plays an important role in a terrific legend about a Chinese king and a princess from Palembang. A shrine to the king and an old recently-renovated pagoda are the biggest attractions.
“Would you mind if we stopped to pray and have a quick lunch at my house?” Didi asked me.
I said of course I didn’t mind. So I sat there awkwardly in his living room while everyone else prayed, and soon Didi’s older sister brought in bowls of “model,” a sort of fish stew, for everyone. I’d had model before, and I don’t really like it, but I didn’t want to be rude.
So there I sat, alone and sweating in a traditional Indonesian home, sipping on the broth of this soup and trying to avoid eating the puffy chunks of an unidentifiable piece of fish.
Eventually everyone came back into the room and starting slurping away. I tried to tactfully explain that I just don’t really like fish but that the broth would certainly be enough to fill me up until I went home.
Trying to make conversation, I said, “Wow, Didi. It must take your family a long time to make this much model.”
“Nope,” he said. “My family doesn’t make it. We just bought this from the vendor around the corner.”
Destiny, you found me after all, didn’t you?
It took exactly two hours. Luckily, we were already on our way home. Didi had to stop for gas, and he asked if I could stand and wait while he filled up. Actually, I realized, I couldn’t stand up. It was the strangest feeling. I stumbled over to a curb and waited there.
By the time we were nearing the end of the 45-minute drive home, I was really struggling. At one point I remember thinking, “If I could just have one breath of fresh air, I’ll be ok. Just one breath.”
But fresh air is hard to come by in Palembang. I felt like everywhere I turned, there was some new nauseating stench—exhaust from the heavy traffic, more of that blasted fish smell, people’s body odor, my own body odor, etc.
Finally, Didi dropped me off and I managed to mumble a thank you before running inside and exploding. Exploding. That’s the most accurate word I can use, I’m sorry. I started exploding at about 5 o’clock, and I didn’t slow down until well into the night.
It was truly horrible, and the whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I hadn’t even LIKED the ten spoonfuls I’d eaten. I was just trying to be polite! Shouldn’t we be rewarded for being nice to people? Yeah, well I was getting my reward while bent over my coveted Western toilet for the next nine hours.
At one point, the power went out. And I decided that right there, that very moment, would probably go down as one of the lowest point in my life: having only eaten a piece of toast and the deathbroth that day, I was starving. I drank three huge bottles of water and promptly threw them all up. The air conditioning had gone out with the power, of course, so I’d had no choice but to wear my underwear around. The water was starting to get low, and if I wasn’t able to flush away the things I was putting into the toilet… I didn’t even want to think about it. And now, here I was staggering throughout my house in my underwear, deep in the throes of self-induced misery, using my tiny flashlight to locate the bathroom before it was too late. And, if it had been too late, I would have been the one who had to clean it up.
Then, for a fun change of pace, I started throwing up blood.
Thankfully, I lived to write this blog, but I did have to miss a day of school. I laid around and ate pieces of plain bread. I watched an embarrassing number of episodes of The West Wing and threw crumpled-up tissues at my computer screen when anyone on the senior staff mentioned Indonesia.
Ironically, the golden time between when I ate the model and before I started feeling sick was really a lot fun. At the back of the shrine to the Chinese king on Kemaro Island, there was a man telling fortunes, and he offered to tell mine for free.
He gave me a big wooden vase filled with lots of flat wooden sticks. He shook the whole thing around in front of a bunch of incense before handing it to me. In Indonesian, he told me to shake one stick out. Misunderstanding him, I poured them all on the ground. He gasped. I winced, sure that now I was destined for some horrible fortune.
I guess you get a second chance in Chinese fortune-telling, though, because we picked up all the sticks and started over. I shook just one stick out. He considered this, and then handed me two blocks that looked like one big lima bean when put together. He said to throw them on the ground. (This time I checked to make sure I was doing it right. I was.) He observed the way they landed and had me repeat the whole thing again with a different set of sticks—shake one out, throw the lima bean blocks on the ground. Then he pulled out a slip of paper from one of about 25 slots on the wall.
“Oooh, good!” he said.
“Oooh, good!” I said.
Didi and his friends tried to translate the words on the paper for me. Apparently the fortune was only good one year from the date it was given to me. They said a holy spirit would come into my life soon and I would embrace it. They said I would do wonderfully in business prospects. They said my marriage would be strong. (Ehh, I guess the fortune writers were playing the odds.)
And they said, at the very end, that soon there would come a time when I thought that I was very, very sick, but that I should trust that this illness would pass and there would be no lasting effects.
An hour and a half later, I was puking my guts out.
Luckily, the illness passed and there have been no lasting effects.