Some of my most vivid memories are of bad moments with good people around the world who I inadvertently managed to shock, confuse, or insult. And all the capsizings, camel snot, and intestinal parasites? I like to think I screwed things up so you wouldn’t have to—and you won’t, as long as you heed my golden rule of adventuring: Do as I say, not as I do.
Q: I’m taking my fast food–addicted sons down the Mekong River in Vietnam. What’s the best strategy for getting surly teens to experiment with the local cuisine?
A. Food is always one of the first things I mention if I’m speaking to young travelers. I’ve found it effective to describe in gory detail how, under the watchful eyes of my hosts, I once ate a barbecued rat—piece by piece—in the high mountains of Arunachal Pradesh (tasted like clam, by the way). I like to cap these lectures off with a recipe for reindeer penis I learned in Lapland.
Meals with a gruesome backstory are big hits in the schoolyard—and earn serious cred for those who have tasted and lived.
So rest assured that when the waiter sets down a bowl of nhong tam (a Vietnamese silkworm delicacy), or some equally outrageous comestible, you’ll have your sons’ rapt attention as you explain that the sharing of food is a vital social exchange the world over—and how this will make a great story to gross out their friends back home. And if all else fails, threaten to leave them at the next village unless they stop pushing those monkey brains around their plate and eat them.
I once took three suburban American teenagers to the hinterlands of Guyana, where they lived, worked, and ate like local Amerindian families. For the first two days, the kids twitched, whined, starved themselves, and begged abjectly and repeatedly for Skittles. By day four, there was less grousing as they participated in a hunt with the indigenous men. By day seven, they ate with a new appreciation, and the oldest told me, as he gnawed on a hunk of freshly slaughtered boar, that his time in Guyana had been “awesome.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Full disclosure: In the course of researching my response, I called my mom, who in the 1970s loaded me, my three siblings, and our reluctant father into a van for a yearlong road trip behind the Iron Curtain. “In my travels,” she said, “I’ve found there are three things you can find anywhere: Snickers, Fanta, and Johnny Walker Red. It wouldn’t kill them to live on Snickers and Fanta for a few days. If that doesn’t work, try the Johnny Walker and let them sleep.”
I do not endorse her advice.
Illustration by Jessie Ford