“I wanted to grab a can of Lysol and run through the place”

posted by Sarah Lundgren

Don’t even order it. Don’t pick it up. Don’t take a bite of that grilled cheese— you told yourself you wouldn’t. Sarah, no, you’re supposed to be out exploring the other side of the world, trying new things and learning about yourself, and… oh, too late, bite taken.

This is an example of the struggles I’ve had overseas. I wanted so badly to believe I could keep that promise to myself—I wouldn’t stick to what I knew. I was going to try anything and everything, with a few boundaries in mind (nothing living, writhing, or wriggling). But it was apparent to me from day one I wasn’t going to be as daring as the rest of us.

On that first day, we stumbled through the Old Market—a hazy maze of clothing, keepsakes, souvenirs and art. In the center of all this is a covered area, dark and fragrant, brimming with food and people. The collections of bagged spices and stalls upon stalls of fresh fruit made my mouth water. But when I saw the meat, that changed.

Hanging from the ceiling and being chopped right in front of our faces were rows of cuts soiling in the 100-degree heat. The meat lay out on counter tops that probably got washed once every couple days. Flies buzzed and made homes inside dangling beef. The people doing the work and actually purchasing the food didn’t bat an eye; just a reminder to not take for granted the sanitary conditions at my local supermarket. Never in my life have I ever been so afraid of salmonella. Call me pathetic, but I wanted to grab a can of Lysol and run through the place and escape, spraying a protective layer in front of me as I went.

Attempting to forget those image, I set out with the group on our first Wednesday in town, and our first night without a delicious meal provided by the staff at our residence. We were going to try an “authentic” barbeque place just a couple minutes away. The only foreigners in the restaurant, we earned some stares, but we pushed on and all climbed around a long picnic table awaiting our meal.

Sitting in front of us were crude, silver cooking devices over coals with something that looked like butter melting on top. At the “buffet,” around 30 choices of raw, unidentifiable “meat” that had been sitting out in trays baffled us. After looking around for a few minutes, we realized we were supposed to cook the meat ourselves in these devices after we poured water in them to create the steam and a bubbling pool of fatty water. So, following Lindsey’s lead, we got up from the table and went to check out the selection.

We had NO idea what we were eating. I’m pretty sure some of the group turned to the waiters, pointed at a meat, and made animal noises in attempts to figure out what the options were. I gave up after a couple pokes at some of the choices and walked to the buffet side with “cooked” meats. I got what tasted like overcooked mongolian beef. Then again, the cats don’t have tails here so who knows. I say that jokingly, and I truly hope I never learn otherwise. Kate, one of the staff here, said she’s confident they don’t really eat cat, but some other animals are a different story.

I managed to keep the food down, with a couple Tums, and swilled the warm Angkor beer around my mouth to get rid of the taste. Every time I looked at the group, trying to cook any disease out of their meat, all I saw was Old Market. Headless fish bodies dripping blood next to chatting customers. Women pulling the insides out of chickens and tossing their limp bodies in a pile with the rest. Unnameable sea creatures, still alive, flopping around attempting to escape. No more local food for me.

I knew I was coming to the third world, but I didn’t realize just how much of that third world would effect me personally. I’ve taken for granted the sanitation and standards of cleanliness in America. Never in a million years, at any respectable grocery store, would you ever find meat of different types near each other. Or laying around for any period longer than a moment. Or dirty work surfaces. Or filthy hands. Or bugs. But that’s just the way life is here. And the people can handle it, for the most part. As Megan said today, if the entire world were wiped out and we lost access to technology and medicine, us Westerners would be the first to go. We wouldn’t stand a chance against these tough souls.

And I’ve fully accepted that fact. Assuming the Rapture doesn’t take us anytime soon, I’m going to stick to my clean conditions. I’ve got a weak stomach and I’ve only got three weeks here—I keep telling myself now isn’t the time to be adventurous and then be out of commission with a bug for a couple days. I honestly don’t have to do a lot of convincing to keep myself away from these places.

For those who are of the same mentality as myself, there are still plenty of options around Siem Reap that I’ve fallen in love with. Particularly the Blue Pumpkin—a modern retreat full of expats, tourists and couches for lounging and using their free Wi-Fi. I do enjoy all the spices and sauces that they provide here, something our country could take a lesson on. No matter what I’ve gotten, be it some deep-fried spring rolls or a ham-and-cheese panini, they have a healthy love of spicing it up here. There’s always a delicious side bowl of some kind of sauce I’ve never tried or a spread of something on my sandwich or a heavy dash of red pepper in every bite. I’ve always been one for fiery dishes and it’s helping me come a little bit more out of my cocoon.

If you’re up for anything, already have a love of Asian cuisine, or just have a strong stomach, you’ll be fine here. I’m sure there’s many places I could eat and keep on going other than the Blue Pumpkin, but I just can’t get that market out of my head. For the most part, the majority of the group is really enjoying the food, but I just can’t hack it. I want an amazing experience here, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I don’t think that food is going to be the way I find that. I’m reassured in knowing that the bonding in our group isn’t necessarily in the idea of us all eating together, it’s just being here in this new place, taking it all in and dreaming together about becoming traveling journalists who will change the world.

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