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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

A Bowl of Pho and A Young Coconut...

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

...that was all that kept me alive during my first two trips in Asia. You see, I wasted no time picking up an intestinal parasite. My first port in China was Tianjin -- remember that city from the news in 2015?

There was an explosion of toxic waste in a plant that killed almost 200 people and contaminated several hundred more (read about it here). In the kitchen with my mother, I watched a reporter interview a plant manager, and she asked him, "Were there any residential areas impacted by the explosion?"

The manager stared at her in silence, and the news cut to the next segment.

"They aren't very good at pretending they have nothing to hide. Those poor people," my mother shook her head.

"Well actually...there is nothing in Tianjin," I said. "We had a 40 minute drive from the port to the town center, going about 40 miles an hour on an unpaved road, and it is the most God forsaken landscape I've ever seen. For as far as the eye could see, there were rototilled fields of dirt, or freight cars stacked at least a dozen stories high. Nothing else - until we got to the mall with a few apartment sky rises in the neighborhood - there was literally nothing to see."

Mom stared at me -- sometimes I'm not quite clear when I begin explaining something.

"The manager probably said nothing, because he was irritated by the sensationalist question," I elaborated. "No residences were near the blast, because there are no residences. There is nothing but dirt and freight, for miles and miles on end. The reporter could plainly see that, because she was there - but knew her viewers couldn't see, so she asked the question. He knew Western journalism likes to make China look bad, and that they'd milk as much drama out of the story as possible. So he said nothing."

Mom off-handedly said, "Huh," and got back to her work.

So anyway...when we docked in Tianjin in October of 2013, I grabbed dinner off the ship with a friend, and ingested an intestinal parasite.

Every crew member on a ship very quickly learns that in order to get proper nutrition, you need to eat ashore as often as possible - or at least send someone to fetch you some vitamin supplements. We had been at sea, sailing from Japan and South Korea, and were hungry for anything that wasn't mess cuisine. My dear castmate Cassandra and I set out on a girl's night, to try our luck.

We bounced on a rickety old shuttle bus, breathing orange air filled with dried red clay and smog, until we were dropped at the mall in the city center. The bus drove off into the horizon, and except for the apartment high rises and the mall, there was nothing in sight but environmental desolation. Flat expanses of dirt with the occasional planted tree gradually disappeared off the edge of the Earth, into emptiness swallowed by a polluted haze.

Enough with this scenery, we decided. And into the mall we went. It was huge, and very modern. We walked into many shops, convenience stores, and restaurants. We boiled our own soup for dinner, attempted to use the squatty toilets, and stopped at two different places for authentic Chinese desserts.

But not six hours later, I was doubled over in pain, paralyzed by my need to remain in the bathroom. Thank goodness we had bounced our way back to the ship on that shuttle, and I was safe within my cabin. But oh, that poor girl who shared the suite-style bathroom with me...

Over the next several months, I would experience food poisoning every few days. I'm sure my bathroom-side neighbor believed me to have an eating disorder, because I was always ill but never contagious. And I smelled weird. I missed my crew tour of the Great Wall, and I missed celebrating my birthday in Probolinggo, Indonesia. I found no relief until we made it to Vietnam.

Cassandra urged me to come ashore again, despite my lack of energy, with our favorite colleague and castmate Ray. And they were determined to find some pho. I had never heard of such a thing before, but they described it like chicken soup with noodles. That sounded like a soothing remedy to me, so I dragged myself along.

What wonderful goodness it comforting and satisfying, but not filling. How tasty and exotic! In a clear broth made from the femur of a cow, you had your choice of meat, with rice noodles, onion, cilantro, and maybe some other flavors depending on who made it. You could add what you wanted from a plate that was served with it, of lime wedges, Sriracha, Hoisin sauce, fresh sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeños, and culantro. The latter is a most fantastic herb served fresh, that is extremely difficult to find in the U.S. It looks like a long, thick blade of grass with serrated edges, and tastes like the gentle love-child of lemon grass and cilantro. The only time I saw this herb outside of Vietnam, I was in a hardware store that sold it growing in a pot. I bought it immediately and planted it in my yard, and enjoyed it with Mexican dishes and fresh salads.

Our authentic Vietnamese pho was hot, savory, and packed with flavor. We hunched over our bowls with no conversation as we slurped the soup into our faces - with chopsticks in our dominant hand and a spoon in the other, as we saw the locals do. To add a little sweetness, I ordered a fresh young coconut. To have fluids, nutrition, and electrolytes all in one easily-digested meal was a luxury, and my body absorbed it like a sponge. The pho bowls in Ho Chi Minh City were large enough to submerge your head in, yet somehow you never felt stuffed, even after you drained it. For dessert, I had my coconut cracked open, and I carved out the flesh with a spoon, like eating pudding.

Protein, grains, vegetables, and nuts in one simple meal, devoured on each day I got ashore in a Vietnamese port, saved my life until I was finally able to make it to a doctor stateside. It had sustained me well enough to the point where I wasn't sure if I was still sick, or almost completely on the mend. But at the conclusion of the first test, the doctor looked up and said, "You have an intestinal parasite."

"What kind?"

"The test narrows it down to a genus of parasites that all get treated the same way, so I don't know specifically" he said, and with a flourish of his pen wrote out my treatment plan.

Within 24 hours, I was feeling better, and shedding my parasitic aroma. But even though I lost my parasite, I never lost cravings for my new favorite meal: a bowl of Pho Ga as my main course, with a young coconut doubling as a beverage and dessert.

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