Travel is a catapult. It flings you to distant spaces of the world, corners of countries alien and unfamiliar. Far from home, you expect these locations to provide an exotic experience, a unique perspective. But the biggest surprise travel sprung on me were the vast similarities, rather than differences, found between countries, particularly in food.
In the Amazon or the Sahara Desert you still find completely unmatched, profound surroundings, and consequentially, ways of life. But in most cities and towns across the globe, the rotund face of big business pervades.
I’m riding along a highway in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a place I was originally apprehensive of visiting. Before planning to visit, all I knew about Malaysia was that it was a Muslim country. The first time I heard of it was when the Malaysian Airliner went missing in 2014. I had envisioned Malaysia, while watching the news, as a far out place on the edge of the earth. How exotic; who goes there? I thought.
Looking out the window at this highway, I could just as well be home in the US. The same trees and commercial signs blaze past with an abundance of them in English. The roads are kept up and have the same number of lanes, metal dividers, and white painted road markings. The only noticeable difference is the moped-like vehicles that occasionally weave in and out of cars, but mostly ride along the side strip of the road. It took me a minute to realize that at home, I would be driving on the opposite side.
Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited spots in Malaysia, rekindled a delight for travel in me. The charm of Georgetown lies in the prevalence, almost exclusively, of mom and pop shops and local businesses. “It’s like the US was back in the 50s!” my mom remarked.
We travel to taste the local flavors, to catch a drift of daily life in a different setting, in a place with a different background, culture, traditions, and norms than we are used to. Most precious are the person-to-person encounters, connections, and conversations. Entering a small cafe could very well introduce you to the unique aspirations, struggles, and worldview of the family running it.
During our two weeks in Georgetown, we lived in the heart of Little India. Malaysia’s population mainly consists of Malays, Chinese, and Indians. Incense and spices choked the air and Bollywood music energized the streets with blaring hit songs. The food consisted of homemade dishes native to India. The roads were brick and the buildings either crumbling or restored.
We loved this area, despite its exposure to tourism, because it was a rarity of old fashioned values. It represented life before the world became as amazingly connected as today.
Tourism is the 11th largest industry in the world. It is incredible to ponder the vast network that supports the ability to travel. Hotels, tour companies, souvenir shops, etc. popped up all over the place to fill the increasing demands from visitors. Ever since the most powerful food and drink corporations took full advantage of the opening global market, they have been accruing massive growth.
Enter a city, whether Paris, Bangkok, or Amman, and what will you see? Artificial food impostors in the forms of McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Pappa Johns, 7/11, Subway, Duncan Donunts, KFC, Oreos, Lays, Pringles, Hershey’s and more. They are not only everywhere, but are prominent, unavoidable and consumed by locals the world over.
No matter how far off the map you go, you will not escape two nasty, mega corporations: Nestle and Coca-Cola. Run deep into the middle of nowhere, with only a dirt road, no phone lines, and maybe a few chickens and cows. Here, people surely live a pure life, free from crappy media and fake foods. Close your eyes and imagine it, lest you open them and see that Coca-Cola sign above your head or a local farmer sipping a coke on his stoop.
What would happen if something went wrong with all the coke products in the world? Think of the millions of people who have access to it, drink it regularly and would be affected almost immediately.
In countries where it isn’t recommended to drink the tap water, such as Morocco and Thailand, I’ll go grab a cheap water bottle with Arabic or Thai on the label and walk to the check out. I pay for my drink, thinking I’ve just bought some water supporting a local, in-country company. Outside I turn around the bottle and see Nestle displayed in small form across the label. What a disappointment.
Monopolies, by definition, restrict access to the market for other businesses. That also insinuates a weeding out of classic and quaint mom and pop shops.
Of course, there are still plenty of local eateries to be found. And sometimes when you’re needing something familiar from home, Pizza Hut’s pizza might be just the thing. I certainly didn’t mind Hershey’s chocolate filling in for the lack of chocolate in Southeast Asia. But as megacorporations expand, as a larger and larger majority of food stuffs fall into the hands of a small group of producers, expect low quality, expect chemicals, expect a monotonous global market.
The faith you place in travel may disappoint you, if in the end, your cross-world experience lacked a unique culture of its local businesses. Without small business to display quirky, cultural characteristics, the major producers are free to create their own sugar-high, addicted global culture.
Take a quick look at the megacorporation graph in this article to get a better idea of the magnanimity of the control the top 10 producers possess.
Let’s keep traveling, but support small businesses as we do.