On Food and Travel

I fell asleep for 30 minutes in the early part of the flight from Vienna to Amsterdam last week. It was Saturday, September 1, 2012. I initially thought that the aircraft was still preparing for take off in Schwechat international airport until I saw bubble-shaped clouds from my window. We flew up in the air. The whole area of the plane felt so quiet. Maybe the passengers were still sleeping. I do not think I am qualified as someone who has high level of flying experience. But my personal observation tells that taking-off is the time where the passengers would likely go to sleep—maybe unexpectedly.  I saw two flight attendants pushed a trolley towards me.  As they pushed the trolley, I heard one of them said, “Savory or sweet snack?”.

I chose the savory snack. I initially thought that what were inside the small package handed to me were peanuts. But what were inside it were pentagon-shaped salty biscuits. They tasted good. A man who sat next to me chose the sweet snack. I tried to guess what was inside the package he had. Maybe it was a stroopwafel. Or maybe it was a sweet pie. I slowly munched the salty biscuits. I wondered whether they could fall under ‘pretzel’ category. What I munched on were pentagon-shaped biscuits. They neither knot-shaped biscuits nor were the stick-shaped ones. But my pentagon-shaped biscuits were also flavored with salt.

Biscuit, cracker, wafer, and fruit are some good travel foods. It is said because they are foods that I always buy when traveling. Tissues and mineral water are also items that have to be available in my bag. Some people always prepare wet wipes in their bags. I never buy wet wipes. There is too much perfume in them. I have not seen any vending machines, which dispense tissues so far. I also notice that I always buy such foods when traveling by train. I rarely travel by bus. I tend to feel nauseous when traveling by bus.

When I was still living in Indonesia, train was the main means of travel from cities to cities. The duration of intercity travels in the Netherlands, the country where I temporarily stay now, is usually short. The usual time taken to travel from Leiden, the city where I live, to Den Haag, is 12 minutes by an Intercity train. If I took a Sprinter train, the time of travel needed would stretch to 17 minutes. The time taken to travel from Leiden to Amsterdam is 36 minutes by an Intercity train. In response to such short duration of travels, a different mode in preparing travel foods would be created. I would just bring along coffee and bread when traveling by train here. The duration of intercity travels in Indonesia is usually long. The usual time taken to travel from Yogyakarta, the city where I lived, to Jakarta, is 10 hours by a Taksaka or an Argo Lawu speed train. Whereas the time taken to travel from Yogyakarta to Surabaya, the city where I was born and raised, also the city where my parents live, is 6 to 7 hours by a Sancaka speed train.

Long travels may trigger boredom.  There are different activities that people may do during long travels. Some of them may find happiness in sleeping, letting themselves be carried away by dreams, or simply tiredness. The others may choose to continue their works—reading books, working on their laptops. Snacking is operated in an arbitrary manner. It is something that has to be available when needed. Such randomness character of snacks makes them a good traveling companion. There is no guarantee that some particular snacks would cure sudden boredom. Choosing food travels, or snack travels in particular, is a trial and error process. We stand in front of supermarket racks of snacks and try to imagine what they would taste. We try, we try, and we try again. Further, we try to contextualize their taste in particular means of transportation. We may also consider about how their packages would fit into our bags.

On an intercity travel with a night train in Indonesia, an executive one in particular, Kereta Api Indonesia, or The Indonesian Railway, a state owned corporation which is in charge of operating public railways, will serve snack and dinner to the passengers. Snacks are packaged in a paper box. The box has a Kereta Api Indonesia symbol printed on it. Each box consists of bread with fruit jam filling, packaged in a plastic package, and a cup of mineral water. Dinner served in green serving trays. In each tray, we usually would have nasi (rice), oseng-oseng buncis (green beans dish with soy bean sauce), fried chicken or fried egg, and shrimp crackers. I do not know whether Kereta Api Indonesia still provide snack and dinner or lunch, for those who take afternoon executive trains, to the passengers. I did not know when it started but I presumed that since early 2010 to mid of 2011, apart from my usual snack travel, I had decided to bring along a box of bento from a Jakarta-based Japanese fast food restaurant, Hoka-Hoka Bento, or a package of lunch or dinner, consisting of rice, sauted vegetables, and fish or chicken dish.

A further note of snack in the box. My mother used to bring a box of snacks every time she had a meeting in her office. She was a principal of a state elementary school in Gresik. Gresik is a district in East Java province. It is only 30 kilometres away from Surabaya. It is a home for Semen Gresik, the largest cement factory in Indonesia, and Petrokimia Gresik, the largest fertilizer factory. What were inside the box were varied from time to time. Apparently, in her work environment, a meeting is the time where each participant would likely get a box of snacks. I reminisced about the times when I would patiently wait my mother from her work at home, and embraced the snack box from her arms with a heap of smiles.

Snacks, lunch, and dinner services are not provided in economy and business trains in Indonesia. Mobile food vendors serve as stable food providers in such trains. Peanuts, fried tofu slices, chips, different kinds of rice-based snacks, different kinds of bread with sweet fillings, cold drinks. They will freely walk the whole train, carrying their food products in baskets or portable racks, and offering them to the passengers. As they walk along the train, each of them will shout out their selling items. They form a food choir. In their own ways, they have contributed to the train soundscape. As they get out in the next stop, the train is back to its quiet state.

A further note of food vendors and the city that we have just visited. Street vendors are everywhere in Taipei. I went there two months ago. I saw them in front of shops, on pavements, and on street corners of the city. Bakeries. Big bakeries. Small bakeries. Snacks are everywhere. Taiwan is a nation of snacks. I bought a snack from one of the vendors in Taipei City Mall. I do not know what it is called in Taipei. It is a waffle—in the form of fish—with a cheese and corn filling. The waffle sellers were a man and his daughter. Or I think she was his daughter. The recently cooked waffles were put inside a rack, which has a glass sliding door. According to their fillings, waffles will be categorized into several groups. In front of each group, there was a paper signboard with the name of the filling written on it. Cheese and corn. Powdered green tea. Red bean. Each filling was written in English and Chinese characters. Why did not I choose the waffle with powdered green tea or red bean instead? Green tea powder would give the impression that I just bought a healthy snack. I think red bean is healthier than a mixture of cheese and corn. I once bought bread with red bean filling for breakfast.. It was a Sunday and it was the day when the pain from my eyes problem reached its peak. The bread has shredded almond on top. On my first night in Taipei, I bought a round-shaped waffle with red bean filling. It seems that Taiwanese people like red beans.

I think one of the best methods of remembering my days in Taipei is through remembering the kinds of snacks that I had everyday. I bought a package of shredded almonds and dried belacan on my first day in the city. It was Thursday, July 12, 2012. I decided to eat at least two different snacks each day. I ate thin slices of dried fish on the next day. C bought them from the 7 11 store nearby our hotel. The same shop also sold boiled eggs. Two big bowls of boiled eggs were placed on top of a wooden table placed at the centre of the store. A pile of paper plates was placed next to the bowls. The color of the boiled eggs was dark brown. What is the mixture of herbs and spices used for boiling the eggs, I wonder? Are the Taiwanese people perceiving boiled eggs as a snack or an additional menu for meals? I bought a package of chocolate biscuits with shredded almonds in a bakery shop on the street that I walked everyday from the hotel to the conference venue at the National Taiwan Normal University on Saturday night.

I bought a package of chocolate cake from the same shop on Friday night. C bought me a pastry with pork floss filling on Monday night. I bought the same pastry on the night before leaving Taipei. I ate it at the Taipei airport while waiting for my flight to Amsterdam. It was my lunch. While slowly eating the pastry, I was thinking of the shop, which sold ice cream at Shida night market. The vendor sold the ice cream in big cones. Does the ice cream taste good, I wonder? I regretted the fact that I did not buy the ice cream. It seems to me that eyes and impulse buying work in different work principles when traveling.

Vending machines can easily be found in public spaces: library, train station, office building. They are usually placed at the corner of the building, at the corner of the streets, on train platforms. They are machines on which people depend when the needs for snacks or foods arise. It seems that they are placed at places where the need for quick refreshment happens unexpectedly. Vending machines offer a rich variety of things: hot drinks—tea, coffee, hot water, snacks, candies, sandwiches, fruits. I have found some vending machines and photo booths that are placed side by side in train stations in Harleem, a city, which is situated in between Leiden and Amsterdam, and Vienna. Instant and practical are two important characters of vending machines as well as other machines attached to them. They are machines, which deal with a matter of speed. I did a little experiment with a vending machine in a building where I worked three days ago. This building is called Pieter de la Court. It is an eight-story building, which belongs to Faculty of Social Science, Leiden University. There is a vending machine in each floor in the building. But the machine placed in there is the one, which only dispenses hot drinks. If one wants to buy snacks and cold drinks, he or she has to go to one of vending machines lined up on the ground floor. The distance between the room where one sits and the vending machines may influence snacking appetite negatively. I have never used a bankcard to buy anything from a vending machine. So I decided to use a bankcard to buy cracker. The brand of the vending machine in the university is ‘Mass International’. I bought crackers with basil, tomatoes, and cheese cream. It has become my favorite snack. I inserted the bankcard, then the machine asked me the number code of the cracker. It was 47. It is a one Euro snack. The machine did not ask me to type the pin code of the bankcard. After typing the number code of the cracker, a notification that the snack was ready to be picked.

By the time the flight from Vienna landed in Schiphol that day, I decided to buy a box of spring rolls in Kwantung.

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