"Travel while you're young", they always say.
I'll admit that I've let something about myself hold me back from seeing the world. I skipped the exchange program that was popular in undergrad, I acted disinterested in the backpacking trips that many of my friends braved after graduation, and I blame my wallet when people ask why I don't use my vacation days to go on cross-borders trips. My passport is crisp, not crumpled with wear. It isn't stacked with stamps and visas from across the world, but with the same stamps from the same places that I visit repeatedly. The places I know I can trust. At 23 years old, I've officially let my food allergies hold me back from experiencing the world.
It hadn't bothered me too much until recently, as I feel like every time I open Facebook, Instagram, or any social media site I'm bombarded by images of my 650 closest friends in front of the Great Wall of China or leaning against the tower of Pisa, or eating a macaron in front of the Eiffel Tower while wearing a beret and holding a baguette...
And the regret (or is it envy?) has started to take hold.
There are many countries that people commonly make blanket statements about. "They don't value human life over there the same way they do in North America." Or the ever popular, "They'll probably put more peanuts in your food just because they'll think you're being demanding."
It's no surprise that having these statements pumped into your mind from a young age does have an effect on how you perceive the world. Others often generalize whole countries or continents as being out of the question for me. China, India, all of Asia for that matter, are labelled inaccessible for me. My boyfriend and I agree that the best way for me to see Asia in on a cruise, where there will be dedicated customer service agents at all times and who MOST importantly, will speak English. I've always agreed with these ideas, cementing them as certain in my head and agonizing over how awry my vacation would go if I even attempted to order a plain bowl of sticky rice on Khao San road. And it's not just due to the worrying of my family that these ideas persist.
Many of my friends who are from those places say that allergies don't exist over there. Then they follow it up with a statement about how kids might have allergies from birth but probably just die without anyone knowing why. Nothing like a comment about infant mortality rate to entice a traveler.
Now I don't want to sound like I'm blaming my family or my friends for my lack of wanderlust. I personally am the greatest cause of my own anxiety. For years I wore a ring on each hand at all times so I could gauge if my fingers were swollen. In sixth grade while in a small mountainside town in Italy I panicked and took Benadryl after drinking a decaf espresso because I was worried that it might have touched milk and there was no hospital around for miles. Then I passed out in the car and missed the beautiful view on the ride back to our hotel. Every time I'm in Mexico I have a purse full of papers with Spanish translations of my allergies to hand to servers in restaurants, and I still feel the need to use hand signals and frenetic English descriptions to get my message across. And when I go to the beach it's not unusual for me to stick 2 tabs of Benadryl in my bikini top for in case there's a freak food accident.
When I'm out of my comfort zone I'm always on, always thinking and planning ahead. The last thing I need would be to go all day not eating and then get caught in a situation where I literally cannot find anything safe to sustain myself with. To get around this I tend to bring dry packaged goods in my suitcase (Enjoy Life bars especially) so that I have something to nibble on the plane or throw in my purse before a full day of touristing.
The reality is that in some places there are greater risks of reaction than others, and combined with inadequate or sporadic hospitals it could be an allergic person's nightmare. You will never find me sunning myself on an exotic secluded island without a bag full of Epi Pens by my side or doctor with a personal jet's phone number on speed dial (a bit dramatic, but you get the idea). Despite the persistence of my boyfriend, I will not go portaging in Nunavut, and I will likely never sample the street food fare in Thailand.
But luckily for me I love a good road trip. Leaving at 7am and driving straight into the night to a little town or a big city shining with lights is fine by me. My family made it our tradition when I was a kid, probably because it was a way for my parents to get out of Toronto without subjecting my brother and I to anaphylaxis anxiety every time we stopped to eat. "Is your mouth itchy?" could be the tagline for my childhood.
And now my baby nephew has a longer list of allergies than I do. Will he grow up feeling the same way I have? I feel like it's my duty as aunt not to let him hold himself back, but to teach him the strategies and idiosyncrasies I've developed to manage my allergies and fear-of-reaction anxiety. I can teach him how to remain calm when he finds an offensive allergen has slipped into his food. I can teach him to research popular local dishes when travelling to a new place so that he can familiarize himself with the cuisine. And I can remind to stash Benadryl and safe snacks in his luggage and pockets.
As for me, I've improved by leaps and bounds within the last couple years. I have now visited Mexico, a place I used to think was out of the question, several times with only one hiccup (not a severe one).
If you take one message away from this article, be it that despite feeling restricted by your allergies you can travel and you can have an amazing time doing so. You might have to be a bit more creative with where you visit and a lot less spontaneous with what you eat, but you can satisfy your wanderlust with gusto without a trip to emerge.