Panic set in almost immediately. I stared down at my plate and then quickly averted my eyes; I couldn’t look at it without being overwhelmed by fear, even though it was laying there, motionless. “It tastes like chicken!” I heard a voice say from behind me; I wasn’t the only one having a hard time beginning the meal. It might taste like chicken, but it didn’t look like it. There were far too many legs.
My travels through Cambodia had been adventurous in almost every way, and that was doubly true for my culinary experience. Some of it was delectable; fish amok, or fish steamed in banana leaves, was a staple in my diet. Noodle soups were plentiful and filling. Fried rice served in a hollowed-out pineapple was as beautiful as it was tasty. And then there were the unexpected meals: snakes. Rats. And, on this otherwise gorgeous evening, tarantulas.
Spiders are commonly consumed in Cambodia; they are easy to find and inexpensive, and they are considered a delicacy. Although I’m always excited to try local cuisine when I travel, during my visit I drew the line at spiders. I have had arachnophobia since I was very young, and even photos of them could send me into a total panic. When I would see them deep-fried and piled high on roadside carts, I would cross the street. I believe in pushing my limits as a traveler. I also believe in knowing where my limits are, and on that trip, anything more than four legs was too many for me.
As it turned out, my dinner host didn’t know my limits. There’s no reason why he would; our tour group was having a local meal prepared by a local family. Dietary preferences weren’t requested in advance, and we knew nothing of the menu other than it would be foods typically consumed by average Cambodians on an average night. That’s how two deep-fried arachnids came to be unceremoniously dumped on the plate in front of me. I was grateful to not be the only one who gasped at the table. Our group, primarily gap year travelers from throughout Europe as well as my good friend Holly and me, were not accustomed to this kind of meal.
I weighed my options. I could take a deep breath, try a bite, and demonstrate my gratitude to our host family for cooking for us. I could hear my parents’ voices in my head reminding me that you must always eat what someone else makes for you when you are a guest in their home. I knew our host family was not especially well-off; this meal had a cost for them, and it would be rude to not touch my dinner. I begrudgingly realized my other options, such as running away or dumping my allotted spiders onto someone else’s plate, weren’t realistic. There was no way out except to face my greatest fear of all.
My host appeared next to me. “Wine?” he asked, extending a bottle to me. “Of course!” I exclaimed, more than appreciative for the brief reprieve. He smiled and poured some of the wine into a glass for me. As he did, I saw two dead, or perhaps drunk, tarantulas floating in the bottle. I glanced at Holly, seated next to me, and her expression confirmed that I was entering a new phase of my nightmare: the wine had spiders in it. We were about to drink spider wine.
I examined my glass and saw no noticeable indicators that it might, in fact, taste like spiders. The glass shook a bit in my hand; it occurred to me it was my hand that was shaking, not the glass itself. Beads of perspiration formed on my forehead. If I could get a few sips of wine into me, perhaps eating the spiders themselves would be easier. More beads of sweat formed. I felt like I was standing in a shower. A shriek at the other end of the table snapped me out of my daze; a few of my fellow travelers were bolting for the inside of our host’s house. I looked up and realized it wasn’t sweat on my forehead: it was rain. I jumped up, clutching my wine but leaving my plate of spiders behind.
From inside, we watched as a torrential downpour drowned what was to be our dinner. A wave of peace washed over me; there would be no spiders for dinner after all. As we waited for the rain to stop, we sipped our spider wine (which tasted far more like wine than spiders) and talked with our host about his life and family. I was shocked to learn his modest, two-room home housed two full families, and all of them slept on mats on the floor. I looked out the window at what was left of our dinner and felt a different wave pass over me; this was more like sadness. It had been expensive to feed us, and it was money that wasn’t especially easy to come by. The rain started to stop, and one of the dinner guests quietly suggested we each contribute a few dollars to offer as thanks for hosting us. When we presented our host with our gift, he wiped tears from his eye; the dollars added up to more than a month’s salary.
The next night, at a restaurant our tour guide selected for us, no one batted an eye when plates of fruit bat and rice were placed in front of us. Despite the fried wings, the bats had a more comfortable number of legs, and compared to the night before it was a welcome feast. Over dinner, I found my mind wandering to just how much my perspective had changed in 24 hours. I wondered how the family who fed me the night before would react to some of my favorite foods; would they, too, have asked for a glass of wine and been thrilled when the skies opened up and washed the meal away? Travel is best when it changes the traveler rather than the traveler changing their destination to meet their needs. I felt like a very changed person.
Next to me, a new friend said she was thinking of ordering a few tarantulas just to say she finally ate them. “What do you think—want to join me?” she asked. I shook my head as fast as it would move. Changing my perspective was one thing. Eating a spider, though? Maybe some things are better left unchanged.
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