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Traveler's Diarrhea is not a bad thing

Love Letter to Traveler’s Diarrhea

On a fine day back in 2011 I thought my life was coming to an end. That was the day when I almost shat myself to death in Doha’s airport.

Back then, we were living in Dubai and had decided to take a small trip to Indonesia. On our last meal in Jakarta, we entered a nondescript restaurant where dim sum was a big part of the menu. We enjoyed a basket of freshly steamed chicken dumplings and, considering the portion wasn’t satisfying enough, went on for a second round. “I think these are a little undercooked, don’t you think?”, said Ashray. “Ahh.. not too much. Let’s just eat!”, replied naive little me. The good ‘ol ingenuous traveler who thought wasting food was the biggest sin a human could ever commit.

I should have known better than to eat those raw chicken dumplings...

I should have known better than to eat those raw chicken dumplings…

 

Fast forward a couple of hours, when we were already at Jakarta’s airport boarding our flight to Dubai via Qatar, and that’s when I started thinking that “let’s just eat” wasn’t such a brilliant idea after all. Over 8 hours up in the air went by with gas, cramps and cold sweats.

As soon as we landed in Doha’s airport and made our way to the transit security line, I told Ashray:

I need to go to the bathroom RIGHT NOW!

I made my way to one of those thankfully always spotless bathrooms the GCC had gotten us used to, and thought that my final day had come. As I sat on that Qatari toilet, my brain signaled to my body that my bowels were finally free, and I could release all the shit that was sitting inside of me during the flight.

Exactly what I felt!

Exactly what I felt!

 

I pooped so hard, so flowingly, and so painfully, that I felt I was going to pass out. My eyes were seeing white and I was now dependent on my butt to somehow feel I was still on solid ground. I spread my arms wide open and tried to hold on to the walls of my cubicle. As I felt like I was certainly going to faint, I was faced with a dilemma: if I remained sitting at the pot, I would pass out and fall down. If I sat on the floor to avoid fainting, I will end up shitting all over myself while laying down. Whatever way it went, it wasn’t going to be pretty.

As I could hear other travelers coming in and out of the bathroom, I finally gathered some strength to alternate evacuating my guts, with sitting on the floor to allow my vision to become clearer. After repeating these steps for a couple of rounds, I heard a voice in the background. “Baby, are you still there? Are you OK?” More than 20 minutes of earth shattering bowel movements had elapsed and Ashray was obviously worried that I had gone down the flush myself. “I’m OK.. I’m OK! But I can’t get out of here now…”

You can exit the bathroom like this... or on a wheelchair!

You can exit the bathroom like this… or on a wheelchair!

 

After a few more minutes, my body must have expelled the dim sum from earlier that day, and everything else I had eaten during the previous week in Indonesia. No more crap. No more strength either. At that point, because I was way too weak to walk, Ashray had called for a wheelchair to take me across security. I was too shy to take it and ended up dragging myself through. But because the chair had already been requested, airport staff directed me to the airport’s clinic. Apparently, when one shows signs of being sick, airlines may request a certificate that will assert that you are OK to board the flight. I get it. No airline would want me to discharge the way I had just done on board. The doctor said I was good to go. And so we boarded and took off. I puked once inside those paper bags airlines place on the seat in front of you, and we finally reached Dubai safe and sound. I slept like a baby that night, and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t eat something that I am not 100% sure of ever again…

How I felt up in the air, somewhere between Doha and Dubai

How I felt up in the air, somewhere between Doha and Dubai

 

That wasn’t true, though. A few months after this trip, we became full-time travelers. We went on to explore Latin America for an entire year and, of course, many other upset stomachs came up during that time and afterwards. Even though that first diarrhea I experienced as a traveler was agonizing as hell, I have come to develop a sense of adventure when it comes to bloated tummies, loose motions and Delhi Belly. You see, every time your body reacts this way, you may feel weak, but this is actually a process that makes you more resistant.

What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!

During our travels, I have become sick way more times than Ashray has. Even when we were eating the same food and drinking the same water. Why? Well, I am quite convinced that it is because he grew up in India, and I was raised in Portugal. In India, you generally have more exposure to different levels of hygiene and water from various sources. You eat street food, the weather is more extreme… there are a variety of factors that train your system to adapt and survive, according to the circumstances. It is known that exposure to bateria early on in life helps you develop a strong immune system. Even though I am a countryside girl, I didn’t have as much exposure growing up. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still change that as an adult. In fact, after several years traveling to different parts of the world, my overall resistance to upset stomachs is way, way higher than before. I am not saying I love having diarrhea. Anyone who knows me well will confirm that I love a good poo joke, but I am of course not as fond of it when the joke is on me. Yet I have come to embrace loose motions for what they really are. It’s your body training, fighting and getting ready for more!

Checking out the street food scene of Bali

Checking out the street food scene of Bali

 

Whenever you travel abroad, you can either choose to do so in an environment as sterile as you can, or you can embrace things you wouldn’t necessarily do or try at home. After all, you did go somewhere to experience different things from those you get at home, right? If you never eat the street food, let someone cook for you in their humble home or wash your teeth with running tap water (even tough your guide book told you to use Evian whenever possible), you will keep limiting yourself in the future. I am not saying you should go and eat those popsicles they sell in Old Delhi, with water that comes from only Krishna knows where… but those deep-fried vegetarian samosas are certainly not going to finish you off. You may feel gas, you may feel heavy, you may even have a burning anus the next day when the spices exit your system. But, the next time you do it, you will feel all of those symptoms in a much smaller proportion, as compared to when you started putting yourself out there.

Traveler’s diarrhea is a phenomena one must embrace with an open mind. Specially for those who’d like to travel in so-called developing countries and experience places for what they really are.

If you start feeling cramps, don’t be scared. Think that your body is adapting itself and change is often painful. And sometimes that pain simply ends up radiating towards your nether regions.

Don’t bother with anti-diarrheal medicines unless your loose motions haven’t stopped in several days. Your body knows best, allow it to expel whatever it thinks needs to be taken care of. Clean yourself with water and avoid irritating your anus with the constant rub of toilet paper. Most of all, remember to keep yourself hydrated and, if you are in a country with fresh young coconuts available, drink their water as it is the best isotonic beverage nature itself produces!

Neil deGrasse Tyson quote on bacteria

Neil deGrasse Tyson quote on bacteria

 

Learn how to love your guts in sickness and in health!


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4 Comments

  • Great and funny report. We know the feeling! Stay healthy!

  • Penny Says

    Zara:
    What an awful experience for you! Why did you go to Indonesia anyway? I won’t even purchase food from there when it’s available in my local USA grocery stores for the reason you suffered from! They just aren’t that clean in their ways.

    I’m glad that you were OK! Dairy products such as milk, yogurt will stop that condition if you don’t want to use the over the counter medications.

    Hope you have better luck in the future!
    Penny

    • Zara Says

      Hi Penny!
      We traveled to Indonesia because it’s a super interesting destination. From a cultural point of view, nature, people.. and even food! To be honest, we didn’t have any other bad experiences. And, even in this case, it wasn’t a matter of lack of hygiene per se. The meat was under-cooked and so I ended up sick. I don’t think it’s because of the way they handled the food as such.
      Please don’t think that all folks form Indonesia aren’t clean. Truly, it isn’t so. My international diarrhea stories (from all around the world) are a living proof of that this could have happened anywhere!

  • OMG I can’t even begin to tell you about the times I’ve had traveller’s diarrhoea… it’s really quite common, but on three occasions I’ve been hospitalised… Generally my rule is this – if I feel like I’m still somewhat in control, then I’ll try and ride it out. If it’s crippling, then that requires medical attention. The three times I’ve been in hospital, I haven’t been able to stand up, with it coming out of both ends every 1 – 2 minutes for a couple of hours – I suspect that’s not so much traveller’s diarrhoea as dysentery :(

    I try to go for vegetarian food if in doubt (unclean vegetables rarely make you as sick as unclean/undercooked meat might). At least one of the times that I’ve been hospitalised it was due to undercooked chicken (the others… well I’m still not sure about what caused them exactly). Once I boarded a flight in Delhi and fell sick enroute to Australia – some of the longest hours of my life :/

    And yeah, you can build immunity. It might not be exactly the same level, but life in Pakistan is helping me :)

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