Whether you’re in a foreign land for 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years, there’s always a temptation to “go native”. This act of untethering that cord to your known customs and courtesies to experience what the locals do is enticing but not without risks.
Those who “go native” in the extreme and live to tell (or blog) about it are the poster-children for this exuberant embrace of the other side of your known culture. I remember the story of one Air Force pilot from my squadron, who on a trip through Africa in the ‘90s had 2 days off from duty and wandered away into the unknown of Tanzania. When he resurfaced into civilization, a ‘la Colonel Kurtz he told of stories of living with some random family off the grid, away from the cities playing drums by the raging fire of some mud hut. I suspect some sort of drugs may have been an invited guest at this party. Nonetheless, “Chuck”, who was a California surfer in a previous life, walked back after going native, even for 2 days and was able to tell about it. But it’s the ones who suffer some sort of malady, disease, criminal mischief or worse, which we tend to blot out of our romantic notion of extreme travel.
I’m building the case for something that’s actually mundane, but excuse me while I set the narrative.
I was in Guam for a period of time and the house I was living in on base had a charcoal grill that was handed down from each temporary duty (TDY) person like some baton. Grilling up steaks, chicken and whatnot are fun and delicious, but after awhile, I was getting either a bit bored or adventurous, or maybe both and was looking for something “native”.
A few miles off base there’s a local supermarket. And when I say local I mean 99% of the customers are Chamorran. Guam being Guam is a US territory, but even there, there are places that locals protect as their own. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to explore the local supermarket. Shopping malls tend to want to emulate western commercialism, but what the locals shop for and eat, in open display, speak more volumes on cultural anthropology than almost anything else.
So, as I hovered around the seafood section I was intrigued by some of the “local” fresh fish for sale (local meaning Philippines and/or Papua New Guinea). The colors, shapes and names of these fish were unlike anything I would see at a Wegman’s back in New Jersey. Should I buy the Rabbit fish or the Parrotfish?
But it was at this moment that a sublime voice echoed in my head. Just like the character Charles Foster Kane in ‘Citizen Kane’, who whispers softly “rosebud”, this voice was quietly saying “Fat Soup”. If you’re confused about “Fat Soup”, please read my blog at:
This nagging voice was telling me to find out how to cook these exotic tropical fish, properly. So, without an iPhone on this island I went back to my rented house and searched using that thing we call the Internet. And while doing a search for “how to cook parrotfish” I found out something disturbing. It seems that tropical fish of the South Pacific tend to eat coral, or local algae, which can contain toxins, which get absorbed in the fish, and when eaten, get absorbed by the human.
What kind of toxin are we talking about? How about ciguatera, which can be a very nasty end to a wonderful experience. It seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, sometimes up to 20 years. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations and even some that mimic Multiple Sclerosis. What kinds of tropical fish can carry this toxin: Groupers (Lapu-lapu), Parrotfish and Barracuda.
Am I exaggerating the dangers of Ciguatera from a supermarket? I don’t know, because after initial research, and the past experience of Fat Soup, which caused the sudden and repeated excavation of every parcel of food and bodily waste from my entire internal organs over a 36-hour period, with the unintended benefit of losing over 5 pounds of body mass, I was just a bit gun-shy.
In the end, I walked away from buying the parrotfish from the market. Was I too neurotic and risk-averse, let alone gastric paranoid? I’m sure. But I figured that in my life, there’s enough weird shit that I have to face every day, that I don’t need the hallucinations from ciguatera to enhance this lovely experience. I’ll go native, but at a time and place of my choosing, and on my terms.