“Do what the locals do” – they said
Every guidebook, every blog, and every traveller has either said or heard that phrase. And I doubt I am the first to regret listening to it.
After experiencing a day in the hospital, eight rounds of food poisoning, a little old lady getting hit with a car right in front of me and getting held up with a knife, I basically hate the phrase. Now that being said, it generally makes sense. If the local women wear skirts to their ankles, the likelihood is you will get a few disapproving looks if your knees are on show. And if everyone covers their shoulders – or any other body part for that matter – while entering any sort of religious building, and you don’t, you may get a few unfriendly glances, not to mention looking very disrespectful.
But when they say that “if the locals eat it, it must be okay”, I promise you: they are lying. It happens to so many of us abroad, the vomiting, the diarrhoea. So unpleasant, but so familiar. Eating at the Mercado Santa Clara in Quito, Ecuador with my Quiteña friend, I felt certain that eating “chicharrón y mote” (deep fried pig skin and a type of corn), that I would be okay. How wrong I was. While my friend Carolina continued her week, unaffected by her country’s cuisine, I spent two days curled up in a ball, head in a plastic bag – you get the idea. I wish I could say that avoiding street and market food helped me from further bouts of sickness, but in South and Central America, there is no escape (read more about surviving street food here). A month later at a layover in one of South America’s busiest airports, I decided to have breakfast in a busy restaurant. Logic: it’s busy; it must be a safe place to eat. Reality: nowhere is safe. I was then unfortunate enough to spend the final days of my trip in the foetal position once again, along with a day on a drip in a local hospital. And people actually try to tell me they are jealous of my travels.
But this does not apply only to the local cuisine, but to so many of the local customs. I cannot begin to count how many times in South America I was advised to follow or copy the locals on streets and public transport to avoid harm’s way. Which in general seemed to work well: getting around was easy and I had yet to be hit by any moving vehicle (aside from the odd overenthusiastic cyclist of course).
That was until I went to Buenos Aires to meet my friend Caoimhe. We had only just left our hostel in Palermo, so excited to explore a new city, when as we were about to cross the empty street after the little old woman in front of us, we witnessed her get brutally hit by a car which seemed to appear out of nowhere, at a speed that was frightening in such a residential area. Rooted to the spot in shock, we were soon accompanied by about 5 police officers and many local shopkeepers and passers-by, whose questioning only further proved to us that had it been a second or two later, it could have been us, as we learned that such accidents were not as rare as one would expect.