'Oysters Are Still the Only Food I Won’t Eat'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader tries to recall his worst travel experience:

Let’s see, the 153AM out of Grand Central can be pretty lively, as can the first train in the morning on Sunday. Taking an overnight train in Vietnam was overrated, as it was dirty, uncomfortable, and sized for Vietnamese people. I’ve had my share of cancellations and so on, including get stuck in Denver overnight a few times, but that’s nothing unusual.

My worst experience though, was flying from LA to Chicago when everyone on the plane got food poisoning, which incapacitated the pilots. It forced a fighter pilot turned taxi driver to conquer his fear of flying and save everyone on the plane.

Surely he can’t be serious.

This reader gets real:

It’s about two weeks after 9/11 and I had been saving up for a year to travel through SE Asia to visit a friend who was working for a NGO in [Burma’s capital of] Yangon. Despite the security concerns over terrorism, I had already cleared off time at work, I was broke, and there was NO WAY I was canceling this trip. As expected, there are no “formal” travel restrictions in place, but the airports/border control are making damn sure that it’s really, really hard to travel.

Essentially, it’s just a complete cluster and I’m already regretting my decision to save a little cash by flying out of Vancouver, BC instead of Seattle. Not only do I have trouble at the [Canadian border crossing in Blaine, Washington,] because the crappy Sanford & Son bus that picked us up from the sketchy part of downtown was over four hours late, but the (usually affable) Canadian agents are not happy with the quality of passengers on our bus.

Many, many hours later (and a forfeited hotel room I secured for the previous evening), I made my way to the airport because it was too late to try to get a few hours of sleep. Surprisingly, I’m on a great flight to Hong Kong with no issues!

Then I hopped a connection to Bangkok, where I would have to wait until the following morning for my flight to Yangon. Bangkok has a shiny new airport now, but in 2001, Don Mueang really wasn’t somewhere one would choose to spend time on purpose. There’s an on-site “hotel” so I figured I’d just stay there. Between the fighting/screaming from the couple in the next room (paper-thin walls), the random men who kept trying to ram their way into my room (the door barely locked), and the non-functioning lights (only light bulb in the room, about 20 watts), I may as well have just chained my bag to a chair and slept on the airport floor because I didn’t sleep a wink.

I had a great time while I was in Burma (a scary-as-hell flight on Yangon Airways notwithstanding), but on the way home I reversed my route and spent some time in Bangkok at a friend-of-a-friend’s apartment while she was out of the country (nice!), and finished my trip back in Hong Kong. My NGO friend knew people in HK and one guy took me to dinner at the restaurant on top of Victoria Peak (touristy, but a great view).

We decided to splurge and get some oysters because I was heading home soon, in four days. Do you know that feeling when you eat something and you know—right then and there—that it's bad? Well, that happened just as I was swallowing one of the oysters ... and it was too late.

I figured I’d been building an iron constitution with all of the street cart food I’d been eating for the last couple weeks, so I wasn’t that worried. I went back to my hotel and right on cue: vomiting, chills, fever, that weird “I have food poisoning buzzing feeling,” and um ... spending some time in the bathroom. I took turns sweating out the sheets in the two single beds that were in my room, while each morning (like clockwork), a woman would bang on my door and yell:

Day 1

Housekeeping: “MRS (firstname)!!! PEOPLE SAY YOU VERY SICK!! WE COME CLEAN ROOM??"

Me: NO.

Day 2

Housekeeping: "MRS (firstname)!!! PEOPLE SAY YOU VERY SICK!! WE COME CLEAN ROOM??"

Me: NO. Please go away, thank you.

Day 3

Housekeeping: "MRS (firstname)!!! PEOPLE SAY YOU VERY SICK!! WE COME CLEAN ROOM??"

Me: NO. But do you have more toilet paper?

Day 4

Housekeeping: “MRS (firstname)!!! PEOPLE SAY YOU VERY SICK!! WE COME CLEAN ROOM??"

Me: ......

On Day 4, I had no choice but to drag my sorry butt out of the room and clamber on to a shuttle bus to the airport because my flight was leaving (for Vancouver, natch). The trip back to my apartment in Seattle was the most miserable multi-day journey I’ve ever taken. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard.

Oysters are still the only food I won’t eat.

If you also have a horror story from hors d’oeuvres, shoot us a note. In the meantime, bon appétit:

I was in Barbados in a rural bar, hungry. I asked for food and they said they had one thing. And that’s how I had pickled chicken feet for dinner. It was sloshed out of a big bin.

Update from Jacob, an “11th grader and avid fan of The Atlantic”:

As a high school student, I haven’t had too many bad travel experiences, but this one’s a doozy, and when I saw your callout I immediately knew I had to submit.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to South Korea for 10 days to present a collaborative science project with my Korean partners. My troubles started at around 5 o'clock the day before final presentations. We had just finished reviewing critique of our rehearsal when I suddenly began to feel sick to my stomach. Wanting to go back to my room, I went to notify Jeong-Minh, the director of the program, and was in the midst of a conversation with her in the hallway when a roiling wave of nausea hit me. I sprinted to the trash can, doubled over, and projectile vomited not one, not two, but three whole times in a spray of half-digested Korean food.

Jeong-Minh just barely had the presence of mind to leap backward out of the splash zone. Hoping against hope this was just a one-and-done vomiting session, I fled back to my dormitory, only to spend the next day vomiting violently into a pink Hello-Kitty trash can with the worst case of food poisoning since the Borgias.

I’m never going to be able to look at that damn cat again without a degree of horror. I would upchuck into the can, manage to fall back into a light sleep in that refractory period of relief just after a bout of vomiting, then wake up 30 minutes later to bend myself back over Hello Kitty and loose another wave. Eventually I was just dry heaving little trickles of bile.

It was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I stopped vomiting after 24 hours, but my stomach was an achy mess for the rest of the trip, and I was holed up against my will in the dormitory for most of it, taking Buzzfeed quizzes to distract myself from the fact that it still felt like Kim Jong was conducting a nuclear weapons test in my intestines.

I’m not sure why the universe saw fit to punish me that way. I have a sneaking suspicion that my weak little white stomach couldn’t handle the platters of traditional Korean food I'd been tucking away the entire trip. It must have been those “specialty” highland mushrooms.