Traveling Light

By Annie Groer
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, June 29, 2008

I am a woman of many appetites, chief among them wanderlust and cuisine haute and low. Exercise, alas, is way down on that list, so I know how easy it is to pack on the vacation poundage.

Over the years, however, I've come to rely on three break-even strategies while on holiday: Weight Watchers meetings, temporary gym memberships and the constant climbing of stairs.

Not only have these methods more or less worked, they've also provided fascinating glimpses of local life and culture overseas. (No, Dr. Phil, I cannot explain why I find this regimen so impossible to follow at home.)

The trade-off cycle started late in the last century, after a year of Thursday lunch hours spent in a nondescript K Street office suite removing my shoes, most of my clothing and every last piece of jewelry. I would have taken off my lipstick, too, had I thought it would make a whit of difference on that unforgiving Weight Watchers scale. By the time I left Washington for a sabbatical trip to New Zealand and Australia (both lands of divine wine, cheese and fusion cooking), Thailand and Indonesia (both lands of excellent beer and unfailingly satisfying urban and rural delicacies), I was determined to keep off the 20 pounds I had so laboriously dropped.

A week after arriving in Auckland, my Weight Watchers lifetime membership book safely tucked into my passport case, I braved a thunderstorm to straggle into a church basement for the obligatory weigh-in.

As I began my ritual strip, I was befuddled by the procession of large ladies who did little more than peel off soaking raincoats before clambering onto the scales. Some even wore their wellies. I soon learned that health department regulations required shod feet.

As for remaining fully dressed, I could only surmise that they somehow knew the precise weight of a favorite bulky sweater or blazer and mentally deducted it, while I struggled with the kilos-to-pounds conversion and wondered how to determine the number of grams in my chunky gold bracelet without going to a jeweler. The drill continued in Sydney and Melbourne, where I weighed in wearing the same flimsy silk tank top and short skirt, whatever the weather.

Finding a meeting in Bangkok proved trickier because my four-month journey pre-dated the Internet. Finally, an American expat pal located a WW chapter at the U.S. Embassy and arranged for me to join a clutch of fat-fighting diplomatic wives. The good news was that the scale was in pounds, and I was a few ounces down; the bad news was that I had to listen to these women complain about how hard it was to teach their Thai servants to make low-cal American food, many of the ingredients having been bought frozen at the commissary.

There I was, spending a small fortune to stay at the Oriental Hotel and take a Siamese cookery course, which included a trip to the pungent precincts of the city's meat, vegetable, fruit and flower markets. All were stocked with items I had never seen and was eager to try. Hold the Wing Dings and bring on the mangosteens!

After that culture clash, I decided against searching for a WW chapter in Java or Bali, where I was doing so much walking and hiking that I managed to return to Washington in pretty good shape.

In 2002, I found myself in Venice in a rented walk-up flat with my then-husband. The agency listing did not conceal the lack of an elevator; on the other hand, it didn't trumpet the fact that there were 85 steep steps between the street and the living room, either. This turned out to be a good thing, given the quantities of prosecco, pasta and tiramisu we ingested.

The real test came three years ago in Sydney, where we went for an Australian-American public policy conference, to be followed by a hyper-caloric, 10-day binge involving some of the best restaurants in that chef-heavy city and several highly regarded dives.

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