Rediscovering the Pleasures of the Palate

Food poisoning, or Traveler’s Diarrhea, goes by a number of slightly witty, often geographical monikers among travelers and expats. Among the most common are “Delhi Belly” in India, “Montezuma’s Revenge” in Mexico, “Torremolinos trots” in…Torremolino. In China, I’ve seen it referred to as “Mao’s Revenge.” Given its frequency amongst those traveling from industrialized Western countries into the more sullied waters of developing world sanitation, it’s practically a rite of passage. I see the airport banner: “Welcome to our country! Here’s some toilet paper.”

It’s caused by a few common biological booboos: bacterial infection, parasites and viruses. I’m not sure which one it was that recently got to me, and from what food I ate that it arrived. But I cannot recall such violent sickness as that first night, an endless rat-wheel of nausea and hallucinatory naps, from which I’d be woken to rush to the bathroom for more vomiting (“tu”) and explosive diarrhea (“fu xie”). I stopped flushing after a while just to save on water. At a particularly deep point of doubled-up misery, I tried to sit up and meditate on a thought other than physical pain, but my gut hurt too much.

There are few things like sickness to remind you of the fragility of your situation, particularly when alone in a foreign country in which you cannot communicate. Thankfully, my small community of friends and cheap calling cards provided wonderful support and solace. I even had a friend deliver cans of Western soup he’d biked out to Wal-Mart to pick up just for me, bless his soul (alas, I did not own a can opener).

I’d heard a number of complaints about hospitals in China, but found my time at Chengdu No. 2 to be fine. My accompaniment, a cheerful, round-faced Chinese colleague who has spent eight years studying in Denver, paid the 10 yuan (about $1.50 USD) fee at the front register, and we did the rounds, providing blood and poo samples (mine was seaweed-shade) before they stuck me in a bed and gave me a couple of pouches of saline drips. When I got some throw-up on the bed, they promptly came to mop it up and wrap over the vomit.

A few days later, following my first return t0 school, I had dinner with a recent friend. She possesses the most exotic and marvelous English name I have heard in China, perhaps the world over. It is “Ypsilanti”, and apparently, she found it in a book (one with dragons and knights, I imagine). Ypsilanti works at a Balinese-looking pizzeria/bar near my apartment and speaks enough English for us to communicate, though not particularly well. The last time I’d visited her bar, she chatted with me over my laptop screen.

“I think we can be friends,” she said sweetly.

“I think we can too.”

As we left her workplace, I explained my predicament in its relation to where we would eat. I’d gingerly climbed my way up from water and saltine crackers to rice porridge and even un-troublesome whole foods. Still, caution was to be exercised.

She mustn’t have gotten the message, because she took me for shou kou, the common nighttime Sichuanese street food. The operation involves skewers of vegetables and meat (largely innards) you pick yourself, from racks that are left in the open air. Sanitation standards tend to be dubious. This shouldn’t matter as much, given that the food is then given the classic Sichuan twice-over: it’s boiled in a large wok-like pot of oil, then brought to your table, to be dropped in one’s personal bowl of oil and hot peppers. Alas, both oil and hot peppers were not on the cards for my stomach that evening. Horrific visions of me staring once more into a toilet bowl for the next few days plagued our meal.

Not looking to make the situation an embarrassing one, I ate a few of the vegetable skewers, apologizing profusely for my inability to eat more heartily. She then tried to take me to a number of other places: a pizza joint, a teahouse. Try as she might, I couldn’t do it, and we ended up going to a little Taiwanese dessert house that specializes in milk curd, which I tried with medicinal ginger tea.

My stomach, it turned out, is back in fighting form, and it’s a rejuvenating feeling, after re-educating myself to eat solid food, to be able to walk past the stalls and noodle houses of Chengdu and think: “I can eat that…I can eat that…I can eat that.”

I was overcome with excitement the first time I had to go pee–the first time in three days–and practically cheered the first time something approaching firm stool was released from my bowels.

“I’m stooling! I’m stooling!” I gushed mentally, in the way that new parents might about their child. (“She’s teething! She’s teething!”) Maybe I should have left it there to admire.


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