A brief comparison between drinking the water abroad and eating Helios' cattle.
I found Book 12 of the Odyssey to be particularly, and amusingly, relevant to my own traveling experience. I think it is particularly ironic that Odysseus' men survive the clear and present, if still terrifying, dangers of Scylla, Charybdis and the Sirens with relative ease, but are felled almost to a man by their greed for the flesh of Helios' cattle. It's not that I, too, have braved anything as magical or monstrous as the calls of the Sirens or the dreadful gauntlet of Scylla and Charybdis. However, just as Odysseus' unfortunate crew, I have learned the hard way the dangers of succumbing to hunger and forgoing caution in a foreign land.
I was on a school trip to Venezuela with a group of Gallatin students. After the wealth of culinary options available in New York City, the omnipresent menu of arepas, rice and beans grew tedious for most halfway through the trip. Even I, having boldly declared a deep love for the arepa at the start of the trip, found myself wishing I could eat my words instead of yet another griddle-fried cornmeal pocket for sustenance. However, in the second half of the trip we began to encounter Venezuelan interpretations of US favorites like hamburgers, pizza and pasta, which we sampled first with excitement and then trepidation as they revealed themselves as completely unmatched to our expectations.
I'm not saying they were bad, but the hamburger meat was seasoned exactly like beef arepa filling, and the pizza dough seemed suspiciously arepa-like in consistency and flavor. In the interest of full disclosure, the pasta was, for the most part, delicious, but did little to break the monotony on its own. It must be said that I feel bad complaining at all when I think about the meal vegetarians in our group ate on a literally daily basis: "fruit salad" consisting of numerous slices of avocado garnished with a few token pieces of other unidentified fruit, and perhaps a slice of cheese.
Then, near the end of our trip, we encountered a small cart selling shaved ice flavored with fresh fruit juice. Many of us, especially the vegetarians, immediately jumped on the chance to sample a refreshingly local take on that American classic, Italian ice. But, including myself, held back, giving each other knowing looks and muttering dangerous things about the water quality. Having been expressly instructed to avoid non-bottled water and fruit juice, we nevertheless understood why many of our group had chosen to ignore the warning and heed temptation.
Needless to say, half our group was wrought with brutal stomach illnesses by the next day. But if you think this is a smug story of triumph over temptation, you are dead wrong. The next day, the next-to-last day of the trip on the whole, my friend and I, who had both chosen to resist the siren sno-cones, began to rationalize. After all, if we got sick now, our journey was almost over; we'd be free to curl up in our own warm beds with a bottle of NyQuil soon enough. The hot Venezuelan sun and the previous night's drinking gave us a powerful thirst, and soon we were eagerly lined up for our own deliciously toxic Italian ice. Both of us survived the rest of the trip without incident; upon return, however, we were both cripplingly sick for a week and a half. Before this journey I always found Odysseus' men incredibly stupid for eating that cattle; now, it must be said, I definitely understand where they're coming from.