Details of Life on the Road: Street eats, cheap sleeps, budget travel experiences

Getting Sick In India

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This post is about my most recent experience of getting sick in India.

When I first arrived in Southeast Asia – for the third time – four months back, I tried to practice good hygienic practices: washing hands when possible, using hand sanitizer (especially before meals), not eating fresh greens, watching out for ice, not drinking tap water, keeping an eye on where your food is being washed, etc.. I didn’t even brush my teeth with tap water, I still don’t. While I still exercise some of those practices, others have left me.

What was it that made me sick this time? I was doing so well. Was it the two liquidy kurma and paratha/chapati meals I bought from the vendor at a random train station the night before? What about the poori masala I had for breakfast in the morning? Maybe the cold samosa I ate to finish off that breakfast? Could it have been the orange juice I got from that fancy cafe? Was it the vegetable biryani from Indian Coffee House? Or maybe it was their special lemon water (was it made with tap water?)? Who knows.

Many other people on the train were eating from the same vendor, which is a good sign. The breakfast place was a busy corner spot, however, I didn’t see them move too many samosas. The high-end cafe catered to foreigners (but they did ask if my first juice was bitter, and then exchanged it, hmmm). The Indian Coffee House is a popular chain and it was filled to the brim when I was there. My bet is that I got sick from either the kurma, the breakfast, or the samosa  – due to me eating with my hands and having some sort of bacteria on them, probably.

It’s important to keep your hands clean in India, as you eat with your hands here. I ate the train food and the breakfast with my hands. For breakfast I had decently clean hands as I had a shower before heading out. On the train, not so much. Opening the filthy bathroom door, closing the door, washing with dirty water without soap, opening the carriage door, touching filthy money, shaking hands, touching everything with your hands and then eating with them (I didn’t have any hand sanitizer with me). To make it worse, I see dozens of Indian men and women blow their noses with their hands, and pick their nose, and then touch everything, every day. An easy way to get sick and pick up a bug or two. That’s why almost all Indian restaurants have a wash section and it’s customary to wash before and after a meal.

What happened? Well, around 2:00pm I found it odd that I wasn’t hungry. Knowing me, very odd. Anyway, I decided to sit down in Indian Coffee House and have a biryani. I could barely finish the small portion. A couple of hours later while laying down on my bed in the less than average guesthouse in which I was staying I started to get stomach pains. I had my own private sink in my room but no bathroom. I burped and burped but was unable to vomit. With a little help from my index and middle fingers it was no problem. Up came the onions, the potatoes, the red, the yellow, the orange, some rice. Shit, I said. Was that all? After a quick lay down on the bed I knew it was not. Then it really stared. More rice, more breakfast, more orange. Rice coming out of my nose, snot stuck in my mustache. The worst thing was the chili. It was so spicy coming up and coming out of my nose, much more spicy than when I ate it, or so it seemed. Luckily, I didn’t have diarrhea and only had to briefly run to the toilet twice.

I requested a bucket from the front desk so that I could just lean over the bed to do my business. I didn’t know then, but the worst of it was over. I laid on the bed and, in between burping and trying to vomit, read Charles Bukowsi’s ‘Women’. Little did the book help. The main character was vomiting every few pages. Similarly, maybe because of the book, during those miserable hours, I wanted a women in my life. Someone to tell me I wasn’t going to die. My mother, my sister, my ex-girlfriend, my most recent lover. Being alone in a tiny room in India while you have food poisoning is no fun, let me tell you. There were no extra sheets to wrap around my self, the bed was bumpy, and my room smelled like a cesspool – not because of me, but because there’s basically an open swear system right beside my bedroom. Needless to say, these things did not help my situation. I know, however, that it could have been much, much worse – I’m glad I had a bed, a book, a light, a roof, water.

I got out the thermometer and checked it every once and a while. 37.0… 37.5…37.9…38.0…38.1…38.2. Then I started to get worried. Malaria? I hope not. Thankfully, my slight fever stopped there. My vomiting had stopped, too. I was just sore and cranky. A nice German guy across the hall from me went out and bought me some hydration sachets. I mixed one up, drank it down, and went to sleep. I woke up the next morning feeling like 1,000,000 Rupees.

The night before I couldn’t even think of Indian food, and that worried me. In the morning, though, I had my appetite back. I thought that maybe I should keep it safe and simple and stick to some white rice and other bland foods. Nah… one masala dosa please!

I was feeling under-the-weather upon arriving in Pondicherry, too. I was hungover two mornings prior. Then I had a terrible sleep on the next night. Then I took a 13 hour train from Trivandrum to Villapuram, arriving at 5:00am, and sleeping very little. This long train ride was proceeded by one tuk-tuk ride, and one other train ride, and it was followed by two more tuk-tuk rides, and one bus ride in order to get to my then destination, Pondicherry. I was exhausted. Perhaps this contributed to my sickness.

I may have let my guard down somewhat this time around. You’ll have a better chance of not getting sick if you take precautions, such as properly washing your hands before a meal, not eating ice (if it hasn’t been made safely), not drinking tap water, not eating fresh greens (if they’ve been washed in tainted water), not eating the peels of fruits and vegetables, not eating fresh shiny fruit (it may have been dosed in dirty water), not eating cold street food, not eating from a vendor the locals are ignoring, taking the necessary vaccinations, the list goes on and on. However, none of these are fool proof – you can take every precaution necessary and still get sick. Lonely Planet states that up to 70% of people suffer from Traveler’s Diarrhea alone.

I hope I don’t get sick again, but who knows. I recently bought some more hand sanitizer. I usually don’t whine this much – I’m just expressing how I felt and what my experiences were, and I thought it might make for good reading!

Indian food is absolutely amazing: Get it In-di-a!

One Response to “Getting Sick In India”

  1. dianne townshend says:

    Wow Evan, your mom sent me email about your travels and Fly Pei Ad. I was so pleased to get it. I told her that I was so proud of you for following your dreams even if you are her son. Maybe you will write your own version of “Eat, Love Pray”, Hugs from PEI

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