“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans…are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.” — Anthony Bourdain
The Traveler’s Code of Conduct — a body of oral law etched indelibly into the collective nomadic consciousness — is very clear on matters of food: However unfamiliar, unappetizing and/or squirmy, nothing a host serves may be turned down. Especially when you’re a stranger in a strange land. To violate this rule is to violate one of the most ancient and sacred precepts of hospitality — and to reveal simultaneous provincialism and schmuckiness of the highest order.
Here, then, is one schmuck’s tale.
I became a vegetarian 25 years ago, during a 10th-grade biology lab, when my designated dissectee turned out to be the pigeon that broke the camel’s back. Deceased animals placed before me, whether as meals or science projects, had long since induced guilt and a gag reflex. And for some reason, with this one squab au jus de formaldehyde, I was done.
But alas, some 20 years later, my hosts on Yao Yai didn’t get the memo.No, really. There was a memo. Or at least a Special Dietary Requirements section of the paperwork I’d filled out for my trip to this southern Thai island. I was heading there to write about a nascent homestay program. And my friend Lon — always up for a dose of the different — was joining me.
Thus did we find ourselves the newest residents of an isolated wooden shack. It was surrounded by rice paddies and water buffaloes, propped up on stilts, and filled — in our honor — with freshly prepared fish.
Yes, our appointed island home — where two men on motorbikes had just deposited us after a dock-to-door off-road derby — harbored the ichthyological mother lode. Name the Andaman Sea subspecies, however obscure, and it was represented in our welcome buffet. Highly identifiably, in fact: Whatever had happened to these fish between their last swim and their appearance on the day’s menu, nary a scale, fin, tooth or eyeball was out of place.
So I knew Lon wouldn’t be the one to get us out of this mess. Normally, she’d act as my omnivorous wingman, making at least a respectable dent in any non-veg offerings. But anatomically correct entrées were her deal-breakers — grounds for a poker-faced declaration of vegetarianism. And I could feel one coming on any second.
I panicked. And the heat and humidity — augmented by a thousand steaming fish dishes, all enclosed in the house’s tiny central room — didn’t help. Within seconds, I felt woozy. But apparently, no one was the wiser. Our host parents — each a good decade our junior — beamed expectantly, gesturing toward what had clearly taken them hours (him, on the fishing end; her, on the cooking end) to produce. Just for us. The esteemed guests. Oy gevalt.
So as much as I hated being that tourist — the philistine who rejects such generously, lovingly, painstakingly prepared food — I saw no alternative. Especially as Lon was giving me the “can’t help you, dude” shrug.
“I’m SO sorry,” I began, looking back and forth between our new parents, who spoke next-to-no English.
“So, so, so, so sorry,” I continued. “I really can’t tell you how sorry I am. But there seems to have been a misunderstanding.”
Their brows — until now eagerly raised — suddenly descended to the mildly concerned elevations. But still, not a glimmer of comprehension.
So I tried again.
“You’ve prepared SUCH a beautiful meal. So, so, so, so beautiful. Wow. Really, wow. The only problem is, sadly — very, very, very sadly — we can’t eat it.”
Between the fish haze and the fear of offending — both intense to begin with, and rising at equal rates — I wasn’t sure how much lucidity I had left.
My mind raced several years back to another such episode, when Lon and I were in Frankfurt, and I was struggling to order a meat-free meal. After attempting every possible pronunciation of the word vegetarisch — only to be met with the waitress’s blank stares — I finally blurted out, kein fleisch.
Plain and simple. Crude and desperate. The fumbling vegetarian’s version of the Hail Mary pass. But it worked.
So I thought I’d try it again.
Not knowing the Thai words for no meat, however, I resorted to pointing and mime. And in a show of solidarity, Lon soon did the same. By the time anyone got what we were saying, we had performed a veritable Macarena of we-no-eat-fish gestures.
Perhaps it was our virtuoso air swim. Or the way Lon so poignantly pursed her lips and shook her head at once. But something finally clicked — and our hosts nodded accordingly.
Even better than the hard-won understanding, however, was the hysterical laughter. Some things — the unbridled joy of watching two grown women make total asses of themselves, for example — are indeed universal.
And with this single plunge into idiocy, the group dynamic changed radically. No longer were we a collection of strangers, smiling and nodding at a polite distance. There was something familiar (and familial) about the way we were cracking each other up now — a good thing, if ever you find yourself in the otherwise awkward position of awaiting the meal that’s replacing the ridiculously elaborate one that was already cooked for you.
We had tried to convey to our hosts — in our best Pidgin ‘n mime — that there was absolutely no need to come up with a new spread. We truly would’ve been happy with plain rice. But they would hear nothing of it, or simply had no idea what we were saying.
Either way, about an hour later, meal number two showed up. The motor-bikers had been sent back to “town” (a relative term on a one-road island), where some mystery chef had devised a vegetarian bacchanalia: innumerable curries, stir-fries-and every conceivable combination of banana leaf, sticky rice, and fruit.
So we interrupted the activity in progress — a mostly failed, highly comical attempt at teaching each other a few words of Thai and English — to eat. Absent a table and chairs, which don’t come standard with Yao Yai stilt houses, we stayed exactly where we’d been: in a circle on the linoleum floor.
The food was placed in the center, along with the local version of a napkin tray: a red plastic toilet paper dispenser, the starter square already peeking out.
By now, we were famished — as were, apparently, all the neighborhood ants. They showed up as soon as we were served, and without ever breaking formation, marched fanatically over our ankles, calves and thighs to get to the goods.
Lon and I once again began exchanging glances. But to our surprise, no one else did. There was evidently nothing out of the ordinary about, oh, 100,000 ants showing up for lunch.
Failure to eat was not an option. Was it?
“No,” we silently confirmed to each other; it wasn’t.
Pretending not to notice our ant-covered bodies and plates, we’d wait for breaks in the foot traffic. Then — our chopsticks pre-cocked — we’d go in with laser-like speed and precision, hoping to minimize their insect protein content. And really, what was a little syncopated stick work given our already strange-seeming eating habits?
Soon enough, we all started chatting again — and rarely stopped during the three days we spent on top of each other in this tiny home. Of course, no one had the faintest idea what anyone else was saying, but that seemed a minor detail. And a shared joke.
A language barrier is a funny thing. Sometimes, however illogically, you decide to ignore it and say whatever you want to say to a person. Then you search his face for any trace of recognition, only to get a shrug and a smile — the international sign for “Nope, didn’t catch a goddamned syllable.” At which point both parties have to laugh. Or at least we did.
Of course, sometimes understanding what’s being said to you makes it no less funny. Take the Thai word krap. The masculine form of “yes” — and a polite if meaningless sentence ender — it’s also how you kill in front of a 35-year-old American crowd that has a 12-year-old’s sense of humor. Our host father, who clearly enjoyed having become some sort of comedic genius in our presence, obliged with the most liberal sprinkling of krap he could muster. Got us every time.
So taken were we with these absurdly warm, open, lovely people, that even activities we normally wouldn’t sign up for — the admiring of doomed and departed fish, for example — now seemed a perfectly acceptable form of bonding. When our host father and his fishing buddies took us by long-tail boat to behold the waterborne holding pens and walkways they’d set up in the middle of Phang Nga Bay, the excitement was palpable. Never mind the surreal limestone formations that protruded from blue-green waters, or the secluded, powdered sugar beaches — or any of the other greatest hits of the bay area. Though we were dutifully escorted to all of them, nothing lit the boys up the way a mackerel in a net did. So we smiled and nodded appreciatively at every last specimen.
We repeated the exercise (or a variation on it, any way) later that day, as our host mother expertly handled a succession of carcasses in the kitchen. She was so solicitous — always looking up from her work to smile at us and make sure we were having a good time — that we dared not disappoint. If we were going to commit the cardinal traveler’s sin of not eating the things, we could at least ham up our audience participation. And judging from our oohs and ahhs, you’d think fish-gutting was our favorite spectator sport.
That night, our last night on the island, Lon and I gave her a pair of earrings we knew she’d love. (They were the same enameled bohemian jobbies we had loved at her age.) And the following morning, they kept catching the sun as she waved goodbye to us from the dock. But as we waved back — our ferry slowly maneuvering out of its slip — we noticed a much subtler glimmer: There were tears running down her cheeks. Our host father’s, too.
Within seconds, Lon and I were crying ourselves. At which point we realized how quickly we’d all formed this funny little family. The process wasn’t graceful — or by Bourdainian standards, even civil — but God, was it delicious.
Abbie Kozolchyk has written for numerous publications, including National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Forbes Traveler, concierge.com, World Hum, Real Simple and Cosmopolitan. Her website is www.abbiekozolchyk.com.