Before our first trip to India, my husband Anthony and I were warned constantly that it wasn’t a matter of if, but when we’d get sick from the food.
“Trust me,” a friend said. “You’ll look at the toilet and think, My body made that?"
When we actually arrived in Delhi, our local guide repeated the warnings we’d gotten back home.
“You cannot eat anywhere you want. The other places, they are not clean,” he explained. “There I can eat and my stomach is OK. But your stomach is not OK.”
And so, like A+ gold-star students, we followed the directions of our guidebooks to the letter, stuffing our suitcases with anti-bacterial hand lotion and wipes, anti-gas pills, antacid pills, anti-diarrhea pills, and travel-sized rolls of toilet paper. We memorized the instructions in our guidebook. Nothing fresh unless you’d cut or peeled it yourself. No water except for that which had come in bottles, and even then, make sure said bottles had been sealed and hadn’t been tampered with.
But, in fact, our problem turned out not to be shitting too much, but rather too little. The Indian tourism industry has become so efficient at safely shepherding Westerners past the country’s landmark sights that pale-skinned travelers like ourselves could glide by easily without being touched by more than a few crumbs of dirt. The only mortal danger my husband and I faced while we were there, was death by constipation.
I dated our gastro challenges back to our first morning in Delhi, when we went down to breakfast in the gilded and wood-paneled Hotel Imperial. We stuck to eggs, oatmeal, and grilled tomatoes, avoiding all uncooked fruits and vegetables that we couldn’t peel ourselves, as well as the pitchers of freshly squeezed juice provided by polite servers in bowties. Watching our fellow tourists gleefully piling their plates high with glistening slices of cut melon and dragon fruit speckled with tiny black seeds or filling up their glasses with pulpy fruit juice, we felt both superior and envious. Suckers! I thought, wishing for just one bite of luscious red watermelon.
“Trust me,” Anthony said, “that fruit is not worth hours of agony on the toilet.”
“Dysentery, dysentery,” I reminded myself and moved on.
After a hectic ride through town, during which our driver was forced to take all kinds of maneuvers to avoid the protests over the recent gang-rape tragedy, we flew to Kathmandu across the border in Nepal, where the next day, we visited ancient palaces carved with wooden skulls and cement-domed
temples festooned with flapping lines of Buddhist flags in red, yellow, green, blue, and white. As we walked the ancient streets, we passed steaming metal bins filled with savory dumplings and sizzling orange fritters that made our stomachs growl. But any temptation to sample the street food would quickly dissipate as a countervailing scent of human excrement, piss, and rotting garbage wafted in from the river.
Like stereotypical “enlightened” travelers from Western countries, we told our guide, “We want to eat where you eat. Take us where the locals go.” In response, our avuncular bushy-mustached guide smiled patiently and led us to a restaurant where the dishes were printed in English on laminated menus, and all the other customers had white faces like ours. Behind us were several tourists from Texas. On our other side was a group from New York.
Sighing, we sat down and ordered several “safe” foods: rice, meats, and vegetables that had been cooked into mush.
That evening, both our stomachs were rumbling as if ready for action. Waiting for my husband to finish in the bathroom, I thought I would explode, but when I actually made it inside and sat down on the toilet, all that came out was gas. After 20 minutes, in which my thighs went completely numb, I gave up. “Anything happen?” Anthony asked when I came out. “Me neither.”
The following morning, our stomachs inflated with hot, painful unproductive gas, we toured narrow lanes of shops where hawkers beckoned us with offers of hot tea and “best” prices. Starved for fiber, we stared hungrily at pyramids of fruit glistening with dirty tap water, which the vendors sprayed over their wares to make them look more attractive. We passed women in saris steadying baskets on their heads with one hand while answering a cell phone with the other, dead bodies wrapped in saffron-colored cloths being born on wooden biers to the river for cremation, and placid cows sauntering through the traffic, pausing only to take thick, muddy dumps.
I was jealous of the cows.
We ended our day at Boudhanath, a magnificent and moving Buddhist stupa where monks in burgundy robes swayed and chanted in unison while incense smoke and Buddhist prayer flags blew over their heads. Worshippers spun prayer wheels and prostrated themselves on the ground. It was a moving experience, both sensual and spiritual, and I would have liked to stay there for a long while taking it in—but I there was something pounding in my stomach, demanding to be let out.
“I’m ready to go,” I told our guide.
As soon as we got to our hotel room, I ran to the toilet, pulled down my pants, and waited. Again, all that came out was more gas.
That afternoon, we took action. After farting our way down the long main drive of our hotel grounds, we waved to the smiling security guards at the entrance, then ventured down the dusty potholed main road in search of a pharmacy.
In most of the neighborhoods we visited in Nepal, the storefronts looked fairly similar to each other, more like auto garages with the door rolled up and shelves crammed with wares on display. If the wares happened to be pastries, you were in a bakery. If they were books and notebooks and pens, you were in a stationary store.
At the edge of a busy traffic circle, we found a storefront where the glass cases were stuffed with various boxes of pharmaceutical products. Two men stood behind the counter talking with a third man next to us and smoking. As we approached, they smiled expectantly in our direction.
My husband and I looked at each other, and then he said, “Hello. We are looking for medicine for the stomach.” He rubbed his stomach. “Not feeling well.”
One of the men behind the counter nodded quickly and smiled. “Yes, yes,” he said and reached into the glass case for a box of anti-diarrhea meds.
“No, no,” Anthony said, unable to explain.
“He wants to go to the bathroom, but he cannot go to the bathroom,” I piped up. “He wants medicine to help him go to the bathroom.”
“Very bad,” Anthony said. “Many days.”
The man standing next to us said, “You want a laxative?”
“Yes, yes!” we cried.
He quickly explained in Nepalese what we wanted. The other two men laughed and one of them rummaged through the various drawers until he found a white box. Rather than sell us the whole box, he pulled out a foil sheet of pills and handed it to us.
“Ducolax,” Anthony read aloud. “Yes, this is what we want. Thank you!”
After paying the pharmacists 30 cents and answering the inevitable “Where are you from?” we rushed back to our hotel room. Anthony popped out his pill first then gave me one. We made a toast with bottles of water—had they been sealed? Had we checked the bottoms to make sure they hadn’t been tampered with? We were too weary to care—and then we drank to our gastrointestinal health.
Hours later, we were rewarded with brown turds, as long as our forearms.
From Kathmandu, we flew back into India to Varanasi to float on the Ganges River, which our guidebook warned was thoroughly contaminated with fecal bacteria and we should take care to avoid contact with at all costs. At one point, a few droplets of water coming off the oars of our boat splattered on the back of my hand. On instinct, I reached for my anti-bacterial lotion.
Next we flew to Khajuraho, to see the erotic carvings on Hindu temples that dated back hundreds of years. This time, when we asked if we could eat at a local restaurant, our guide showed us to a completely empty dining room. We ate our hot vegetable mashes in silence, until a Colombian tour group we recognized from the plane ride between Kathmandu and Varanasi walked in, sat down, stood up again, and then walked out.
Meanwhile, we were back to our old constipated selves. Each morning, afternoon, and evening, we’d lock ourselves in whatever clean bathroom we could find, sit on the toilet, and expel a symphony of flatulence—but nothing else. At meals, I madly peeled oranges like one of those rabid street monkeys who attacked food handed out by tourists with cameras. I sucked down vegetables cooked into mush. I avoided rice, bananas, anything binding. All useless. I could have taken another laxative, but I wanted to go naturally, and it struck me as ridiculous that in India of all places, I was having trouble finding food that would make me shit.
Finally, on the train to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal, I decided to experiment with juice.
We were riding the Shatabdi Express, a train that had been praised to us as one of the finest in India, but actually struck us more as Long Island Rail Road than Orient Express. After it arrived two hours late, we settled into our dingy blue seats and were served a dinner tray by a surly, exhausted-looking steward. Our meal included a plastic-wrapped bun studded with bits of jellied fruit, a bag of dried potato sticks, a plastic cup containing sweet crumbs of something called “Soan Cake,” and a drink box of mango punch, which I sipped.
“That’s juice!” my husband cried out in horror.
“It’s packaged,” I said. “I’m sure it’s safe.”
“I’m not taking the risk,” he said, wincing as he let out a small but audible spurt of gas. We’d long passed feeling any shame about farting in public. “You’ll be sorry.”
But the next day I wasn’t sorry. I was just constipated. Strolling through the manicured lawns of the Taj, I kept one eye on the glorious white dome and minarets, and the other peeled for any deserted corner where I could fart.
We wound up our trip in the white city of Udaipur, which our local guide described as the Venice of India. By this time, I’d expanded my flirtation with juice and was now indulging in melons, raw onion, and even cucumbers. No luck. Finally, I asked Anthony to hand me one of our magic green pills.
The next day, however, there’d been no discernible effect on my digestion. After a day of touring a temple, where we were sprinkled with holy but environmentally contaminated Ganges water, and visiting the city palace, as well as my umpteenth mashed spinach and cheese lunch, I was all gas.
When we got back to our hotel, I found out why. By mistake, Anthony had given me one of our anti-diarrhea meds, which were the same color and size as the laxatives we’d bought in Kathmandu.
That night, I took the right pill, and the next day, we flew back to Delhi for our final 24 hours in India.
In the middle of lunch, I gave Anthony a knowing look.
“See ya,” he said.
But my gastro adventure didn’t end in that restaurant bathroom. It continued that evening and all the next day as we flew home across the ocean, and I shat my way back to health.