For years I’ve led you to believe that I travel alone.
That I’m this intrepid female traveler who straps on her backpack and sets off into the unknown. Well, today I’m ready to come clean. I’m ready to admit that I actually have a co-dependant relationship with another traveler who never leaves my side. At times he has been the only thing that keeps me going.
He was with me in Vietnam. In Thailand. In Cambodia. In Laos. Somehow I lost him in Indonesia but he’s been with me again in Costa Rica for these past five months. I often wonder if I could ever live without him.
No, he’s not my boyfriend. He’s not my beautiful lover. He’s not even my best friend… not exactly anyway.
He’s my bacteria. My water kefir. And he lives in a glass jar.
We actually have a pretty incredible love story. This is how it goes.
Once upon a time I had food poisoning with disturbing frequency. This is undoubtedly the least sexy way you could ever start a love story, but it’s the truth. I struggled with Montezuma’s Revenge, Bali Belly, Traveler’s Diarrhea, whatever you’d like to call it, incessantly.
You can imagine the plight of having to use the toilet every ten minutes in a dormitory in Colombia. Or having fever chills in a wooden hut on a Caribbean island with no cars in Nicaragua. How about holding everything in on a long bus ride through the Atlas Mountains or on a boat journey through the San Blas Islands.
I was sick. A lot. And it was awful.
As much as I loved to travel, I often considered if I needed to give it up and change my lifestyle. Eating street food, taking long bus rides, and constantly challenging my immune system had taken a toll on my body.
About a year and a half ago I decided to take a break from traveling and go back to live in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica for a few months to get healthy. I changed my diet, I cleansed, I fasted, but I wondered if I’d ever be able to maintain this health on the road.
I knew that to keep going I needed a rock solid immune system. The problem was that since I was a kid I was always prone to illness and the many rounds of antibiotics I took in my life made matters much worse.
Then I met Graciela. She joined the Reiki course I took at Om Yoga and within a day of knowing her my struggles with immune health came out. A former medical doctor in San Jose, Graciela had turned to alternative medicine and strongly believed in the power of fermented foods in healing most physical and emotional ailments.
“Ya, I know I need to eat more yogurt,” I said.
She proceeded to lecture me for the next hour on why I needed not just yogurt, but kefir in my life. According to Graciela the difference between a strong immune system and a weak immune system came down to one thing, gut flora, and kefir was the best way to get a healthier gut.
Harmful bacteria exist everywhere. In food, in water, in nature, in homes, everywhere. Our culture reminds us of this often in fear-based commercials for paper towels, disinfectants, bleach, all of those products meant to completely destroy bacteria. However our bodies are naturally equipped to handle harmful bacteria with our own army of healthy bacteria. The problem is that so many of us have killed that healthy bacteria in our bodies.
Like yogurt, kefir is made through a fermentation process where healthy bacteria converts sugar into probiotics. Consequently kefir contains thousands of strains of probiotics that fill the entire gut with healthy flora. In addition to protecting you from harmful bacteria, these probiotics improve your digestion and ability to absorb nutrients. Kefir is antibiotic and antifungal and has been used to treat allergies, cancer, candida, osteoporosis, HIV, and heart disease. It’s also full of beneficial vitamins and minerals.
After speaking with Graciela I knew that kefir would be the way to transform my immune health.
So I started making milk kefir every single day. I put it in smoothies with pure cacao and banana. I strained it and turned it into cream cheese with honey, strawberries, and almonds. I whisked it with lime juice and chipotle and drizzled it on my salads. I ate a lot of kefir.
I experimented with other fermented foods as well. I made sauerkraut, kombucha, and ginger beer. Making these foods was fun, they tasted delicious, and I had never felt so healthy and strong in my life.
Then the time came for me to travel again. I knew I would need kefir while eating street phad thai in Thailand and sleeping on undeveloped islands in Cambodia. I also knew that there was no way I’d have access to a kitchen or organic raw milk to make my kefir.
I found the perfect solution.
Water kefir. Unlike the milk kefir I had been using, water kefir grains require only sugar and water to create a probiotic beverage. I knew I could find these anywhere. So I took my glass mason jar, filled it with water kefir crystals, a few tablespoons of sugar, and I flew to Vietnam.
I ate my way through that country with not a single problem. I was the only backpacker in Cambodia without tummy troubles. I lasted through three countries and more than two months without even one cramp.
Besides my kefir jar was a great icebreaker. The moment I set my stuff down in my dorm room people would ask immediately, “Um… what is that?” At breakfast locals would stare in amazement when I explained why I drank it. I happily shared kefir grains with other travelers and locals, teaching them how to feed it and let it grow, so that they could one day share the grains with others.
I thought my days of food poisoning were long behind me. Then Bali happened.
When I arrived in Bali’s airport after making the last minute decision to fly from Cambodia for a guy, my true travel partner was crushed. Literally. The glass jar had shattered in transport. Shards of glass filled the compartment of my suitcase, the smell was wretched, and I had to throw the jar away.
The weird kebab I ate in Kuala Lumpur on my layover hit me. I planned on a romantic reunion in a couple of days but my tummy made other arrangements. Fortunately after flushing my system, fasting for a day, and eating lots of bananas I felt ok by the time my crush arrived.
But just like in my life before kefir I found myself horribly ill every couple of weeks. With a fever in Ubud on Christmas. Blacking out from expelling so much in Gili Air after the New Year. Always experiencing at least a slight discomfort in my stomach.
Things went from bad to worse when I went to Koh Phangan. Most backpackers go to a full moon party. I went to the toilet. For more than ten days. Finally when I felt like I could actually get out of bed, I went to a health café to search for some natural remedies.
By some miracle the Italian couple who owned the place had a jar of water kefir crystals that another traveler had shared with them six months prior. They split the batch and gave me half.
That was nine months ago. My water kefir has been with me through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Costa Rica, and Panama in that time and I haven’t had a bout of food poisoning since. Through this experience I felt more certain than ever that water kefir was the key to staying healthy on the road.
While traveling alongside a stinky jar of bacteria may not be the glamorous life some may want to live, I’m so grateful to have found this travel companion who undoubtedly has changed my life. One day I hope to acquire enough healthy gut flora to not need to rely on my dear kefir so much. For now, I’ll keep him close.
How to Make Water Kefir
One of the best things about water kefir is that it’s so simple to make. All that it requires is a glass jar (no plastic, the fermentation breaks it down), the water kefir starter crystals, sugar, and water. I’ve made mine with all kinds of sweet water including the water that comes from a fresh young coconut (great when you’re traveling in the tropics), plain white sugar, and all natural cane sugar. Most people advise against using honey as it is antibiotic and can kill the kefir grains.
To get started, put the kefir grains into the bottom of your glass jar, pour a couple of tablespoons of sugar depending on how many grains you have and how much water you’re using, screw on the lid, and give it a shake. Let the jar sit and ferment for 24 hours. In the morning if bubbles have formed and the water smells sour it’s ready to drink. Just pour out the liquid, leave the grains in the bottom of the jar, and feed the grains with sugar water again. You can do this daily.
If you don’t want to make water kefir every day, just feed it more sugar so that it takes longer to ferment, or keep it in the refrigerator to let it hibernate until you’re ready to make kefir again.
I love to pour the water kefir into smoothies as my liquid or just drink it plain. If you want more flavor and even more probiotics, you can make fermented sodas from water kefir. Here are some yummy recipes:
Check out this awesome guide, from another pro-biotic passionate world traveler The Ultimate Guide on How to Make Water Kefir.
Where to Find Water Kefir Crystals
The best way to find water kefir is just by asking around your community if there are people who have some to share. Kefir grains multiply, making it easy to spread health and wellness.
You can also find dehydrated water kefir crystals in the refrigerated sections of some health food stores. Cultures for Health and Amazon sell dehydrated water kefir crystals online. When you use dehydrated water kefir crystals you will need to make a few batches of water kefir first to activate them. The package should have full instructions.
How to Travel with Water Kefir
Honestly, traveling with water kefir can be a pain. It can leak, be messy, and be smelly. To me, it’s worth it. To minimize the change of any spilling I pack a large jar and a tiny jar for transport. On travel days I remove nearly all of the liquid, give the grains some sugar to keep them alive, and put them in a very small glass jar. When I arrive at my destination I put them back into the bigger jar with more sugar and water. The fermentation can cause swelling on the lid, so I replace the lid every month or so to keep a tight seal at the top.
Other Probiotic Foods
If you’re interested in experimenting with other types of probiotic foods, which you totally should, here are some great resources:
For more of what keeps me healthy on the road, check out my Travel Wellness Kit.