Year for the Planet Week 14: When Travel Threatens to Undo It All

Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.

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This week, I was in a remote island in Indonesia for a work trip on climate change adaptation as a resident artist of Plan International, a non-profit organization that works for child sponsorship. I was there with some of their staff from Lembata, Jakarta, and Bangkok, as well as two Red Cross staff. I was eager to go because I wanted to work with young people again. I also thought this was a great way to test my new sustainable eating lifestyle. The past three months had me in one place where all my stuff was. Things became routine. What would happen if I were in another country?

Hello, Indonesia!

An important note is that I did not Robinson Crusoe it out here. Lewoleba, the city of Lembata Island, is still a city. And so we were in a comfortable hotel with catered meals. My main concern was the food. By geographic standards, Indonesia is just next door to the Philippines, and I feared they shared a similarly sugary palate.

I was right about the sugar, and it came in the strangest of places, such as the extremely sweet coffee in the morning, and their sweet and tiny bananas. Indonesia has interesting cakes, but not enough to give me a toothache.

Thankfully, the people seemed aware of portion control. And because many Indonesians do not eat meat for religious reasons, there were lots of tofu and fish. Hurray! There were also lots of rice and noodles, and despite having removed most of these from my diet (as I have a tendency to overeat them), I ate them because there were no alternatives, and I did not want to be a terrible guest. Thankfully, I did not feel susceptible to eating all of the carbs in my path as before.

It’s easy to get food anxiety in the beginning of a system shakeup. “Ladies, I just lost 19 pounds,” I wailed to the NGO staff with me. “Trust me, I don’t want them back!”

I had packed some healthy snacks and vitamin D supplements but not much else. I didn’t want to be that picky eater who had to bring special food with her because she was scared of unknown cuisine. The only thing more concerning than being a hypochondriac is one with an extremely large carbon footprint. Also, now was not the time to cultivate orthorexia. I had no qualms about eating bugs in previous trips, so variations of tofu and fish weren’t particularly terrifying. I missed having smoothies and omelettes, but it wasn’t so bad.

Indonesia and the Philippines also share a sad fact of both being among the top polluters of the ocean. I did see similarly over packaged snacks, and this is when I started sneaking bananas to save for later in the afternoon. All of our water came from plastic bottles, which was disheartening.

I liked being around people in development. There are many life hacks to be learned from individuals who, like myself, also travel a lot, but to more remote and insecure places. The first piece of advice was pack my own coffee and tea, in case it gets too sweet or processed. I’m not a fan of these single serve coffee sachets in plastic packaging, but now I am assembling some small glass jars for next time.

Boarding a tiny plane at the Lewoleba airport

My body did adjust to the new things in my stomach, and I had one particularly cringe-inducing moment at the Lewoleba airport when all passengers had to be weighed because it was a very tiny plane. “Oh, crap,” I thought at the number on the scale. It looked like I had gained four pounds, which I suppose was a reality check for me to: 1) Not to care about the number of the scale because body weight shifts all the time, and 2) To accept that I will always have to adjust to new food experiences. I will simply recalibrate when I get back to my regular schedule, and maybe incorporate new things I learned along the way.

Beautiful Indonesia

In the end, I learned not to sweat it, and just to listen to my body and common sense. There were sensible things to say yes and no, too, and when I wasn’t particularly thrilled with food choices, the views of Indonesia and its friendly people more than made up for everything else.

Kudos to Plan International’s Jakarta, Lewoleba, Bangkok, and Manila staff!

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