In The Raw Food World, The Grass Isn’t Always Greener Down South
It seems every raw foodist wants to move to the tropics.
If they cock their ear just the right way in winter, they start to hear the siren’s call and swear that next year their skin will be caressed by the warm rays of the equatorial sun, their mouth filled with the best durian money can buy.
In an earlier age, famous newspaper editor Horace Greeley wrote, “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
If there was an overarching theme to the tropical lust, I’d say it would be this: “The US, Canada, and much of Europe are not fit homes for true health seekers. The produce is shipped long distance, the sun is absent for half the year, and Monsanto reigns supreme. Go south, fruit lover, go south and find paradise.”
Fair enough. I’ve been living in sunny, fruit-abundant Southeast Asia for almost two years, and I’ve certainly loved my time here. I’ve been a bit beguiled, and don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to stuff themselves with with ripe pineapples and nam dok mai mangoes to their heart’s content; there’s plenty to go around.
But in May I’ll be leaving the tropics behind to head back to the United States, and I’ve been thinking about the contrast between where I grew up – stoic, Yankee-filled New England – and this heady place I’ve learned to call home.
The Tropics Through Rose-Tinted Glasses
It’s the job I never wanted: unofficial raw food tour guide of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I’ve been living in this wonderful tropical city on and off since early 2011, and after suggesting it to many and writing about its features, like the best fruit market I’ve ever encountered, Muang Mai, raw foodists have been showing up in droves and asking me to show them around.
I’m generally happy to meet cool people and don’t really mind being a tour guide once in awhile, but their complaints – not so much about Chiang Mai, but about their tropical experience as a whole – have reminded me that many are not willing for forgive paradise for not always being paradisaical.
From fruit availability, to air quality and inefficient and corrupt government bureaucracy, I’ve heard raw foodists rant on just about everything.
So before you pine for the tropics, remember that it’s not perfect.
It’s the dry season in Chiang Mai, and the farmers are setting fire to their fields to save themselves brush clearing work. It’s bad for the soil, but worse, it’s horrible for your lungs. Chiang Mai is in a natural basin formed by the surrounding mountains, and the soot gets trapped in the air. The tuk tuks and song taeos spewing pollution from their tail pipes don’t help matters.
The World Health Organization considers 20 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter to be the safe upper limit for lung health, but three weeks ago the measurement at Chiang Mai city hall was 187 micrograms per cubic meter, a truly staggering figure.
The air is drastically better during the rainy season, of course, but the local and federal authorities are either too incompetent or unwilling for whatever reason to take the measures required to reverse the situation, despite the fact that nearly 40 percent of Chiang Mai residents are reported to have lung problems and it seriously eats away at tourism dollars.
Areas near the coast have the seas breeze to clear things out, but in my travels around Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, and Myanmar, I’ve found air pollution to be a serious problem in at least some parts of every country.
Getting outside the urban areas will let you escape air pollution during the rainy season, but during the dry season the countryside is just as bad because that’s where the farmers are doing their burning.
Air pollution is a fact of life in the tropics, and if you want to live here, you have to get used to it or migrate around to avoid it. People like to complain about the pollution in the US, but even famously-hazy Los Angeles rarely exceeds 26 micrograms per cubic meter.
The winter air in the US may be cold, but it’s clean, and as someone who has spent a lot of time coughing in the polluted air, I value that a lot.
No Place To Lay In The Grass
One of my favorite things about The US, Canada, And Europe is its amazing system of municipal, state, and federal parks. Even the most urban areas have places where people can find a little shade and leave behind the concrete jungle.
Although there’s nothing really special about it, one of my favorite parks is located the unimpressive Connecticut city of Meriden, where I once lived and worked. During the Gilded Age, local philanthropists poured their profits into their communities, and one named Walter Hubbard, made incredibly wealthy by the city’s burgeoning manufacturing industry, certainly left a mark.
On his own initiative, with the permission of no city authority, he singlehandedly planned and carved out a 1,800 acre park, restoring a barren mountain to woodland, laying out carriageways, digging a lake, constructing a stone lookout tower, and planting numerous grassy sitting areas which have only become more beautiful as the trees have matured.
Although the industries that gave him his wealth are long gone, Hubbard Park remains, along with dozens more from the same era; I can think of few finer things to leave the world as a legacy.
In the US, I took parks for granted – you can practically trip over them. But here in the Asia I’ve found them to be the exception rather than the rule. Although recent attempts have been made to build them (Bangkok’s beautiful Lumphini Park was built in the 1920s by a forward-thinking King, and Chanthaburi’s, King Taksin The Great Park is a wonderful, water-bound place to while away an evening with friends), most cities in this part of the world are deficient in parks. Chiang Mai has one tiny one inside the city limits which is sometimes so crowded that you can’t find a place to sit.
To be fair, though, there are often plenty of parks if you’re willing to travel outside the cities. Chiang Mai has plenty of them in the surrounding mountains, which is where I spend a lot of time.
Yet when you just want to get out into nature for a bit without a long trip, it can be frustrating to be surrounded by endless streets of pavement and concrete.
The Trade Offs You Must Make:
When most raw foodists think of the tropics they imagine themselves in some remote bamboo hut by the ocean, munching on mangosteen.
Realistically, this setup is often somewhat hard to come by.
I’ve sometimes stayed in said bamboo huts by the ocean, but when I’ve lived in such perfect spots I’ve done so with the understanding that I’ve made a trade off.
The farther you get from civilization, the farther you get from good fruit selection, good fruit prices, the conveniences most people want like an internet connection, cultural attractions, places where you can buy necessities, and other important elements.
This isn’t really a big deal in and of itself, but I’ve gotten so many emails from people asking me where they can find their all-inclusive dream spot that I have to mention this. I’m fairly certain there is no place that has it all, but if I find it, I’m keeping it to myself
Northern Vs Tropical Fruit: A Matter Of Perspective.
Not long after arriving in Thailand, I asked a produce seller at a market what his favorite fruit was. He paused for a moment, his eyes flitting from the durian to the the canistel before settling on a red sphere bearing the sticker, “Grown in Washington.”
“Washington apples,” he told me certainly. “I love Washington apples.”
This surprised me a bit at the time. How could some ragged, imported apple from the United States compete with the sapodilla and sweetsop grown just miles away? But in the months that followed, when I asked this question I was often told that cold-climate fruit likes pears, apples, peaches, and plums were the favorites, and seen as desirable exotic imports.
Exotic is very much in the eye of the beholder. In temperate climates, the durian is exotic, but the hard winter freeze there allows for a number of fruits that tropical countries can’t grow, or at least can’t grow well. Those fruits are highly sought among people living in the tropics.
Despite being a big fruit producer and exporter, Thailand imports tons of cold-climate fruit. Wishing to replace some of that import locally, the Thai government encourages the hill tribes of the country’s mountainous north to grow deciduous fruit at high altitudes.
And so, high up on mountainside terraces you can sometimes find apple trees, oriental persimmons, and strawberries growing.
But the local apples taste mealy due to the lack of cold, and can’t compare to the higher-quality imports from the north (they sell for a lot less at the markets). Local apples, plums, and strawberries are all pretty horrible. Even the persimmons are sometimes poor.
Although you can get fairly good watermelons, they can’t really compete with the best available in the US. Honeydews and a crossbreed between cantaloupes and honeydews are available, but they’re pretty hit or miss.
So while I’ve been feasting on tropical produce and loving it, I have to say that I don’t miss the temperate-climate fare.
The top cold-climate fruits Andrew has been craving: Cantaloupes, Peaches, Honeycrisp Apples, Persimmons
The Undeveloped Fruit Possibilities Of The North
Westerners are quick to disparage the fruits of their home countries, but it’s partially our own fault that we have such a paltry selection.
Check out most housing subdivisions built before World War II and you’ll find that there once was, or still is, an incredibly variety of fruit selections growing. In an era before supermarkets made them available year-round, most people with some land were smart enough to plant a few fruit trees that were adapted to the climate for maximum taste and disease resistance, not shipability and size.
My favorite plum variety is a yellow one grown originally by my great grandfather in his small city lot. My grandfather took a seedling with him when he bought his own house, and in 2010 my father and I transplanted another seedling to my father’s house to ensure that the tasty line doesn’t die off. I’ve also given some seedlings to a local farmer in the hopes that he can preserve them.
While it’s true that by sheer numbers the tropics contain more fruit varieties, it’s not exactly like there’s a dearth of possibilities in cold climates.
American persimmons, pawpaws, and hardy kiwis are a few of the cold-hardy types that taste delicious, but which few bother to plant, or have even heard of.
I recently wrote an article about a few of the cold-tolerate-but-unknown fruit cultivars out there, if you’d like to learn more.
The Joys Of A Vibrant Fruit Economy
One of the nice things about the the produce distribution system in the United States, Canada, And much of Europe is that it can supply a huge variety of relatively cheap produce throughout the year. Fairly free trade and large population concentrations have brought this about.
Although prices vary depending on what’s in season, there’s probably a place where the fruit you want is in season somewhere in the world, and this system can bring it to you. If you shop wholesale, you’ll be in good shape.
Compare this to a place like Australia, which seems like it should have an amazing selection because it can grow a variety of tropical produce due to its beautiful climate. But the geographic isolation of the continent, the small population spread across the huge landmass, and extremely restrictive government import policies keep produce prices and selection unfavorable.
In some tropical areas, although the quality is good, the selection for much of the year is very limited because the only fruits available are what can be grown in the immediate area. Many of the raw foodists I’ve met in Thailand have come to try the durian, yet they’re often disappointed to find out that it’s out of season when they arrive. At these times you might be able to find some, but the prices are very high and the fruits are often saturated with chemicals and not too tasty.
The Tropics In Perspective
Although I’d been planning this post for awhile, it was spurred by my recent reading of Frederick Patenaude’s, “So You Want To Move To Costa Rica?” which I reviewed yesterday.
I woke up this morning to an inbox full of interesting emails stemming from that review. It seems there’s a large number of people who feel that the only way you can achieve ideal health is to live in the tropics. I want to take a moment to dispel this myth. I lived for years in a cold climate while eating this diet and did just fine.
There are factors like lack of sunshine and vitamin D which can hold your health back, but there are ways to address this.
The tropics are wonderful, don’t get me wrong.
During my nearly two years in Asia I’ve had a chance to really indulge my long-supressed wanderlust.
There’s been fruit hunting in the mountains of Bali and the (less wild) forests around Angkor Wat, trekking through amazing jungles, meeting new friends, hooking up with raw foodists at the Chanthaburi Durian Festival and other locations, and generally just having a fantastic time.
Yet at the end of the day, it’s just a place. Anywhere has the potential to be paradise, and a raw food diet will work fine where you are right now.