Straight-up Travel Tips - vol. 2 - Compare and contrast

In the last edition of Straight-up Travel Tips I recommended that you stay away from McDonalds because, hey, there's one right around the corner from your house, so why the hell would you go to one in a foreign country?  Well, in today's issue, I'm contradicting myself and telling you that you should definitely go into that McDonalds in a foreign country at least once.  How else will you tell Samuel L. Jackson what they call a Quarter-pounder in France? 

Let me clarify: I'm not recommending you go to Mickey-D's every day.  Don't.  But it can be a mind-blowing experience to check out some of the American restaurants you think you know.  For example, in India McDonalds has vegetarian options (cows are sacred there, folks).  They also offer curry.  In China KFC offers traditional Chinese breakfast items including 1,000 year old eggs and some unidentified gruel.  I'm not recommending this option, just saying it's an option.

Other American-based restaurants have turned themselves inside-out and upside down.  I was blown away when I had a meal at Pizza Hut in Shanghai.  There I found the menu included a wine list, excellent desserts (tiramisu for instance), escargot as an appetizer option, and some of the strangest (and tastiest) pizzas I've ever seen.  It's a sit-down restaurant with a modicum of class. Who would have thought?  I ended up with a mixed seafood pizza topped with smoked salmon and stuffed crust.  

I ended up getting a mixed seafood stuffed-crust pizza topped with smoked salmon.  Awesome.

Another store to pop into is 7-11.  You may be familiar with the rolling heaters they use stateside to warm up hot dogs and taquitos, and walking into a 7-11 in China you would see the same machine.  Only there they use it to warm up spring rolls and the like.  The pretzel machine has been repurposed to warm local treats, and they have staff there specifically to prepare food.  

They can be difficult to spot, but 7-11s are out there.

Even if you don't buy anything, most restaurants are okay with you checking the menu, so take a gander and get in a good laugh.  You never know just how different something familiar may be when inserted in a new culture. 

So why don't these companies give us this kind of treatment here in North America?  Because we never asked to be treated better.  Then again, though the food may treat the locals well, it doesn't necessarily mean that it will treat you well.  More on that next time.


Straight-up Travel Tips - vol. 1 - Cheap Eats

In this, the first edition of Straight-up Travel Tips, I'm talking about eating on the cheap while enjoying the best local culture has to offer.

You want your funds to last, but if you're anything like me, you're staying in a hostel and there's no way to cook, which is often the cheapest way to eat.  (The most I've gotten in a hostel is a microwave in the common room, or an electric kettle in the room)  The leaves three main options: prepared foods from the local grocer, fresh fruits and veg from local markets, and eating out.

Stopping by local grocers can be a lot of fun if you're looking to some insight into the local culture.  Depending on where you're traveling a local market can look totally different from one in your home town.  In Europe you can't find a cold soda to save your life, while in China you can pick up pickled crabs on a lark.  There may be places you can pick up a lark on a lark, but I haven't been there.  Even if you don't end up buying anything, check out the markets to see how different (and often, how similar) they are to the ones you grew up with.

Crabs at an airport quick stop.  Shanghai, China.

Next choice is the outdoor markets you can find in most cities.  These can be fun, but don't get ripped off.  You can always compare prices between stalls, and when you're ready to buy, make sure to hand the shop owner the fruits and veggies you have picked out yourself.  If you just point, often the owner will grab less-than-fresh produce from behind the counter, and when you open your bags you'll find nothing but past-ripe and overly bruised offerings.  Be polite, but firm.  Try to drop by these markets daily to get your five fruits and veg, traveling is no fun when you're sick.

Outdoor market in Hong Kong.

The last choice, when you get tired of apples and pre-packaged snack cakes, you're going to want someone to cook for you, which leads to eating out.  This can get expensive if you're stopping at sit-down restaurants every night.  So look for some good eats out on the street.  Street food may seem seedy, but a lot of street vendors use gloves and good food handling practices, you just have to keep your eyes sharp.  Also, if you want to find a really good place, look for lines of locals.  If the locals are willing to wait in line for an eatery, it's a good bet you'll like what you find.  

I got two rolls of sushi made to order for less than $2US.

Sometimes the food you find on the street won't be so inviting.  I say buck up and try it. When in Rome.  Now, sometimes the Roman diet doesn't agree with you, but you might be surprised what you find that you love.  In Beijing I found out that scorpions are delicious, and taste rather like popcorn.  Even if you aren't the world's biggest foodie, try something new.  Part of traveling is experiencing other cultures and traditions.  Even though you can find a McDonalds almost anywhere in the world, it's not worth it to stick to what you know.  If you stick to what you know, you might as well stay at home.