Each volunteer clinic setting calls for a few slight variations, but here's my Master List of dining necessities required to not just survive, but thrive, in this unique environment.
I Need to Bring What?
I'm quite used to packing for trips. There are always the usual suspects. Clothing. Toiletries. Makeup. A book or magazine. Maybe even a parka or thick socks for cold weather. But it was quite another thing entirely when I found out the preparation I need to put into packing for a volunteer clinic. Specifically.... food!
Coming Prepared, And Then Some
At every clinic, I and my Amazing Cohort (in this space I lovingly call her "B.") bring our own food. Also at every clinic, we get bewildered looks and some pointed questions, both from others volunteering on the clinic and local residents and hosts. Why in the world would we haul food across the world, when these gracious local hosts have assured us that the food they have prepared is absolutely safe?? Well, there is one big reason.
Many volunteers contribute to the overall success of any mission trip. Some work in the clinic, screening patients, and determining treatment. There are those that prep patients before their surgery. Those that are translating languages constantly throughout the day, helping patients understand what the team is saying to them about their condition, and vice versa.
These people are working their tails off all day! And usually in insane heat and humidity. I don't envy them one bit!
There is one blessing in these roles, though. If any of these individuals were to suddenly feel ill - possibly just for a few hours, or in the worst cases potentially for several days - there's usually someone else who can pinch-hit and fill in the gaps without slowing the process too much.
However, there are also those folks in the Operating Room. The surgeon himself, and his trained assisting staff (that's us!). If the doctor or his immediate assistant were to fall ill..... well, that has the potential to shut down the entire operation. Because of this, our O.R. team chooses to take zero chances with the food we're putting in our bodies.
Thank You Justin's Almond Butter
This means we have to pack accordingly, and we also have to get pretty creative sometimes. Our suitcases are filled with canned chicken, precooked rice, trail mix, you name it. Yes, over a 5- to 8-day clinic it starts to get prettttty mundane, so we work hard to keep things interesting! Here's my ever-expanding list... so far:
Canned goods - tuna, chicken, beans, veggies
Hard-boiled eggs - at least 6
Dried fruit (including my beloved prunes!)
Crunchy tortilla strips
Single-serving Justin's almond butter packets (thank you Justin's!!)
Single-serving coffee packets
And the most important of all.... Cholula or Tapatio!
Even with this preparation, upon arrival, we still have to make a few stops. First purchase: drinking water, and lots of it. We buy several gallons to be used for different purposes. One is used for washing all of our utensils and dishes throughout the week. It is used in tandem with the anti-bacterial wipes. It's also used for brushing your teeth, and potentially used to help wash one's hair at some point through the clinic. The last important use is to be poured each day into a 32 oz. water bottle for drinking.
Our next stop is a local fruit stand. This is where we carefully inspect and select several avocados, mango, papaya, and bananas, assuming they are available and look fresh. All of these are naturally-sealed within their outer coating, and as long as one uses a super clean knife to cut them (it's so easy to miss this part!), they stay very fresh and bacteria-free.
Always An Exception to the Rule
Don't get me wrong, there is always the possibility of finding additional food items locally if we find ourselves in a pinch! If that's the case, the rule of thumb we always follow is that it's been prepackaged and is a brand we are familiar with from the United States. This is not because we don't want to support a local economy - we are supporting the economy by purchasing items there no matter where they were sourced from. But we have found that, as Americans, our internal fortitude is just NOT what others are... basically it seems we're a nation of gastronomic wimps! That's why buying a can of beans that was packaged in, say, Knoxville, Tennessee (Bush's we're looking at you), is a whole lot more reassuring. We just don't have what it takes to properly digest some naturally-occurring bacteria that are ever-present in other countries.
So, that's how it works! Every time. Yes, airport security occasionally will open a suitcase in customs and wonder WHAT IN THE HECK I am doing. I totally get it. And, you know, if I were on vacation, I would be far more willing to take a leap of faith - generally. But in this setting, I don't feel like we can afford to take the chance and experiment with our food, even those meals prepared with the most loving care by the most skilled hands. One less day of the O.R. up and running means as many as 10-15 people don't get their surgery. And the next chance they get could be the following year when our team returns. If ever. It's just not a risk we are willing to take.
And ahhhh you wouldn't believe the masterpieces I've learned to make with canned tuna and Cholula!