Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 8: Travelling With Your Stomach)

At our first meeting on our first day in Delhi, our tour guide Abhi told our group, “It won’t be if you get sick, it will be when.”

He told us cheerfully that “Almost every visitor to India gets sick,” and although he did feel that some of the ailments his charges suffered were more psychologically than physically induced, he was pretty sure that for most of us it was going to be unavoidable that we would come down with something. “You’ll likely feel sick for a day or two,” he said, “but then you will get better.”

I was glad of his reassuring tone, having been advised by just about everyone back in Canada to exercise extreme caution, or risk being flattened by diseases ranging from cholera to dysentery, and symptoms from fever to a prolapsed rectum. (Having a son who serves as the on-air biologist for a series of programs about parasites does not help to reduce your paranoia as you prepare to travel to exotic places.)

However, the problem with feeling as though it is inevitable that some ailment is going to hit you at some point, even if you are assuming it will be mild, is that you spend a lot of time just waiting for that to happen. You do all the reasonable things — like avoiding drinking water out of anything but a bottle you have unsealed yourself, not even brushing your teeth with water from a tap, trying not to let water into your mouth when you take a shower, avoiding any fruits or vegetables you haven’t peeled yourself, and giving a wide berth to food prepared by road-side vendors. Some places where we stayed (such as the “glam-camp” at Pushkar) posted signs to indicate that their fruits and vegetables had been washed in mineral water, but I still wouldn’t eat them. In fact, I didn’t have a fresh vegetable from the time I arrived in India until I reached Goa, where I inadvertently forgot I was still in India and ate a tomato with my scrambled eggs. (Fortunately, it didn’t make me sick, and it tasted great.)

Some of our group avoided meat throughout the trip — and not just the vegetarians. (They didn’t suffer: there are lots and lots of great vegetarian dishes in India.) At times when properly prepared food was not available, mainly on the bus and train trips, we subsisted on pre-packaged products like potato chips (which my British companions referred to as “crisps” so often that it will take me a while to stop thinking of them as that), bottles of pop, and cookies. And lots and lots of bottled water.

But still, a part of me always assumed that nothing I could do was going to prevent my getting an upset stomach somewhere.

As it turned out, the way the stomach ailments went through our group made me think at one point that it could have been a flu bug that someone had brought from home that was being passed from one of us to another — we went down one at a time and then came back up again without much problem. Some people were really sick for 24 to 48 hours — unable to keep anything in their stomachs — while others of us were only mildly inconvenienced. One or two made it all the way through without getting sick at all, while others occasionally exacerbated their problems by enjoying one too many rums the night before: once or twice, imagining what it must be like to have a hangover on a dirty, bumpy crowded bus when it’s about 32 degrees and there’s no air conditioning almost brought on an attack of sympathetic nausea in me.

When the bug (or the bugs) finally did hit me, despite everything I’d done to avoid it/them, I felt almost relieved: now I could stop worrying about getting sick, I thought (although of course I couldn’t let down my guard about what I ate and drank, lest I get something else). When it did happen — somewhere between Udaipur and Ranakpur — I might have got it from a sandwich I bought from a usually reliable coffee chain, or from swallowing water in a swimming pool, or from a restaurant whose meal had caused a few people to feel a bit uneasy — or maybe it was, in fact, just something I’d caught from a fellow traveller. Who knows?

Once you’ve worked your way around travelling with a stomach upset you find that it’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be. You can always ask a driver to stop for you in an emergency — well, of course, unless you are on the train. But what I learned from this trip is that worrying about it ahead of time is almost more hassle than the actual condition.


My tips for those who are travelling to places where they may get sick:

In addition to prescription medications that your travel medical clinic may prescribe, such as ciprofloxacin, bring along Immodium and some kind of nausea-prevention medication. Another way to help your stomach is to consume probiotics, acidolphilus etc. before and during your trip (see first comment below)  

Don’t take the Immodium unless you must — by which I mean because you are travelling in  a public vehicle with no bathroom, or because you need to see some tourist site you’ll never get to see again. It’s better to let whatever is “bugging” you get out. Carry toilet paper in your hand-luggage in case you need to make an unscheduled stop. And bring a rehydration powder that you can add to water if you do lose a lot of fluids in a short period of time. (Add it to bottled water, or you’ll be right back where you started from.)

(Edit: I just remembered that someone in our group brought charcoal pills to stop vomiting. I know nothing about charcoal pills except that once I wrote an article about how some researchers were trying to use a charcoal-based concoction to stop vomiting and diarrhea in kids who had been poisoned with e coli and were getting morbidly dehydrated. I’m not sure how the research turned out, either. I only mention this because I like to be thorough. 😉 )

Rice and bananas are good things to eat if  you have been unwell — stick with them until you get your stomach back for the spices and oily foods. Get extra sleep when you can, but as much as possible, just keep right on trucking….

7 responses to “Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 8: Travelling With Your Stomach)

  1. Thanks Mary, glad you like the pics. We had a great time on that roof looking at the Taj, with the sun going down on a hot day… monkeys all around, parakeets and fruitbats flying over head, local people flying their pigeons and the muezzin’s call to prayer all at the same time, we called it ‘exotic overload’ at the time.

  2. If I may I’d like to expand on this – “there are lots and lots of great vegetarian dishes in India”. That’s something of an understatement as apparently 30-40% of Indians are vegetarian – that’s at least 300 million people. When I’ve travelled in India it feels like veggie is the default food, many places are pure veg and food with meat in it is know as ‘non-veg’. To our Gujarati Brahmin friends (here in Nottingham) meat is not considered food at all. Btw I’m an Indian food obsessed veggie myself so I do admit I have a bit of an agenda here!

    • Mary W. Walters

      You are absolutely correct, Tim. Every single restaurant we went to was described by our group leader in advance as “veg only” or “veg and non-veg.” “Veg” was the default, and I think our tour made an effort to include more restaurants that also served “non-veg” because we were westerners. In fact, for the first time in my life, in India I could understand how someone might become a non-meat-eater and not die of boredom.

    • Mary W. Walters

      P.S. Tim, Your photos are great!! You saw a lot of stuff in Delhi I wanted to see but didn’t. I guess I’ll just have to go back. And Jodhpur looks lovely. And what a great view of the Taj Mahal (with monkey) from your hotel rooftop! I took a bunch of pix of those squirrels too. They have a way of collapsing when at rest I haven’t noticed in their north american cousins.

  3. In life worrying rarely, if ever, helps. It diminishes the the joy of the present and does not reduce the pain of a worried about event or issue if it happens. Concern that inspires taking precautions and developing strategies to mitigate the possible event or issue – smart.

  4. My friend and I always take acidolphilus and bifidus before and during our trips to Mexico, and the extra intestinal good flora/fauna seem to help stave off any difficulty.

    • Mary W. Walters

      Good idea, Amber! Now that you mention it, I remember that one of the group I was in who did not get sick said he was taking acidolphilus.

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