While traveling in the South Pacific my relationship with food changed drastically. This illustrates the five-month journey I had into eating a natural, local, plant-based diet.
Samoa: A land of beauty ... and imports?
Last February, I embarked on a study abroad journey to the small South Pacific island of Samoa to study globalization and social change. This trip would shape my life in more ways than I could possibly conceive. When many speak of their experiences traveling, they are often described as life-altering. For me, this was absolutely the case, but in a way that I didn’t anticipate. This trip completely transformed my relationship with food.
Before this adventure, I usually ate a relatively healthy diet, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables—especially after moving to the food-conscious state of Colorado in 2012, where finding healthy food is relatively easy.
In Samoa, I dealt with massive culture shock and assimilated more each day. As I was changing, Samoa was, too. Every day, Samoa becomes increasingly more globalized and modernized with imports and tourists, whereas Samoans used to rely on subsistence farming from their own plantations and gardens.
In the 1960s, Samoa committed itself to a Western economy system and created relationships with the rest of our increasingly connected world. Whereas Samoans used to eat food exclusively from their own farms, they are now eating foods sold in stores and street-stands. These foods are extremely high in sodium and sugar, and unnatural, harmful ingredients are the norm. The prevalence of diabetes in the country is rising at a staggering rate, and is directly correlated to the beginning of Samoa’s increase in food importations, especially from New Zealand.
I struggled to find healthy options within my weekly stipend. My program provided meals at the local university, but they were packed with sodium and mystery ingredients. Packaged ramen with spice packets are one of Samoa’s most popular meals. Produce from the farmers' market was available, but it exhausted my small stipend.
When I lived with a Samoan family in a more rural village, called Lotofaga, my diet changed. Being farther away from the city, many families ate off of their plantations. I ate pork from a pig that lived in the backyard, and coconuts straight from the trees hanging overhead. However, imported noodles, crackers, or corned beef accompanied every meal.
The Big Island: A whole new world of nutrition
In May, I flew to Hawaii’s Big Island to begin my solo adventure. I found myself at a local eco-village and used it as my landing place during my stay. For five weeks I traveled around the island. I hiked, caught rides in the back of pickup trucks, and walked through incredibly lush rainforests.
At my eco-village, I was able to go to the garden and pick the different lettuces for my salad, and along the side of the trail I could choose the most delicious, ripe tomatoes. During the night I would hear an avocado fall onto the ground outside of my wall-less bunk and would run outside to hopefully be first to snag the huge, buttery, magnificent treat. More often than not, three other visitors were hunched over in the dark with their headlamps looking for the same treasure in the dark, lush rainforest.
If I was hungry, I ate off of the land. I spent barely any money on food and ate healthier than ever before. The brightest, juiciest mangoes and lilikoi (passion fruit) lined the roads and trails I walked daily. Every morning, I enjoyed coconut water from the fruits of the countless palm trees.
I began to feel my body start transforming. I felt stronger, more alert, more awake, and more vibrant. I tried fruits I had never heard of before, like jackfruit, which has a taste oddly similar to Juicyfruit gum, reminiscent of elementary school. I tasted a rollinia that looked like an alien fruit covered in horns (now my favorite fruit).
The transition from Samoa to Hawaii illustrates the reality of our eating decisions. When the meals I ate weren’t as fully in my control, I felt my health depreciating. When I had access to incredible fruits and vegetables that my peers had grown themselves, I felt my health soar. My loyal relationship with natural foods was solidified.
Of course, most of us do not live in Hawaiian eco-villages. But with natural groceries in almost every town, eating like you do is becoming easier. My advice: Try a mainly vegetarian diet, and experiment with going raw for a few days. Search through your natural food stores for produce you’ve never heard of. My diet is primarily plant-based, and I feel stronger than ever before. Even if you’re not a farmer, and you don’t have avocados seemingly falling from the sky, eating natural, organic foods to fuel you is imperative … and doable!