Tuesday, September 18, 2007

An Inconvenient Bug

Sometimes when you travel, you pick up a free souvenir that you could definitely do without. This little present is microscopic, but let's it's presence be known at the most in opportune of times. I am talking about an inconvenient bug a.k.a food poisoning, food borne illness, non stop vomiting and the runs. You get my drift. I am quite proud to boast a UN assembly of bacteria and viruses, peacefully (most of the time) co-habiting in my intestinal system. However, this does not mean that I am immune to sickness. There are times that one bug will assemble an army so large that it can literally reduce me, a grown human, to be on my knees, hugging a cold toilet for comfort.

My first experience with food borne illness that I can recall, happened 3 years ago in Thailand. I was heading back from Chang Mai to Bangkok on 12 hr train ride at night. Earlier that day, I had taken a Thai cooking course, and I thought it was a bit strange that I hadn't washed my hands, in fact, nobody had washed their hands in my class. Oh well, we happily consumed a 6 course meal without much thought. Until later on that night., at about 11pm on the train, I started to feel a bit ill, and very warm. I got down from my bunk and headed for the washroom. There I broke out into a sweat and felt the nausea crawl up my throat. With one hand I held on to the rocking side of the train to steady myself, as I emptied the contents of my stomach. I stumbled all the way down the corridor back to my bunk to lie down. I cannot imagine a worse place to be sick than on a rocking train, except maybe going a merry go round or a roller coaster. Every 20 minutes I would have to climb down from my bunk and walk down the corridor to throw up. To make things worse, I started to sweat orange on my clothes, as my body rejected the fake tanner I had put on the day before. ( I was embarrassed to come home white after 3 months of travel, so I applied a fake tanner). I decided to give up on cleanliness and opt for practicality, and sat outside the bathroom door. At this point one of the train conductors was rightly concerned. He asked me in broken English, if it was a baby. I said “No Baby…Food poisoning” So he produced charcoal of some sorts and I took it because nothing could be worse then what I felt. He also offered me his make shift bed that he was resting on, right across from the bathroom, and I gratefully took it. I arrived at Bangkok airport exhausted and presumably smelly, and then I took a flight to Malaysia where I fell asleep as soon as I sat in my chair on the plane.

Another episode happened a few years later when I was working in Cape Town, South Africa. This time I think the culprit was Shish Taouk (the Labenese shaved chicken on pita with yummy garlic sauce). My second day in Cape Town I woke up not feeling so good, but I assumed it was because I had sun burnt myself the day before. So I got a bottle of water and hailed a cab and headed for work, to inspect the kitchen. The car ride was not pleasant and my nausea continued. When I arrived the kitchen I informed the quality manager that we maybe shouldn’t go in to the kitchen just yet, because I was unsure if I was sick. So we spent the morning looking at records. At one point I was feeling better so I said lets go into the dry storage area and look at the food. The moment we walked in there, the heat of the storage room immediately brought back the nausea full force. I was ill a few times, but wanted to keep working since I had a tight schedule, so we went back to looking at records. After eating a few bites of bread, and throwing up some more, I decided it was time to pack it in and go to my hotel. I realized that I would have to see a doctor or else I couldn’t return to the kitchen. Luckily my hotel was 5 star, so they had doctors that could come to your hotel room, instead of waiting 6 hours at a local hospital. The next morning a doctor came to my room (a very handsome doctor I might add) and he diagnosed me as having some food borne illness and prescribed antibiotics. I also made sure to get a note saying I would be safe to return to the kitchen to continue my inspection in two days, so they couldn’t try to refuse me.

The last time I was sick,was this year in April, when I was working in Lima, Peru . I spent four days with my friends in-laws, who graciously cooked for me, and played tour guide. Although we ate out a lot, I think the root cause of my illness came from my friends mother in-law. She would leave stew out overnight, and one time I saw her leave cooked rice in her rice cooker for a few days. Which I believe she later served to me, because it was cold and I hadn’t seen her prepare any rice that day. So I tried very hard not to eat any of the rice, but I couldn’t appear to be rude either. The next day I was working at the flight kitchen, I was telling the quality manager all the Peruvian foods I had tried, she was amazed that I hadn’t gotten sick. I think I may have boasted that I was immune or something like that. But that wouldn’t last long, as I was soon running for the toilet. I had to fly out right after work the next day, you can only imagine how I was looking forward to flying for 9 hrs to Amsterdam, having a 4 hour layover and than flying another 7 hours home. My stomach was constantly gurgling and producing the most foul smelling gas. I spent most of the flight going back and forth between the washroom and my seat. When I landed in Amsterdam, I sought out a pharmacy and bought some diarrhea pills for the flight home. This worked quite miraculously on the way home, and led me to falsely believe I was well the next day. It took me a week to finally see a doctor and get some antibiotics. It will always be remembered as the week I couldn't have any coffee, or good tasting food (at least without any drastic consequences) and it seemed to last an eternity.

The moral of the story is, eating out in general (at home or abroad) is like playing Russian roulette. When your numbers up, it's up. But you might as well enjoy the good run while it lasts.

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