India Travel: Delhi Belly at Best
A few weeks ago, I sat on a hard, metal chair in 100-degree heat at Leopold’s Cafe in South Mumbai. An expat hangout made famous in the Gregory Roberts novel Shantaram, Leopold’s is where a runaway convict from Australia finds friendship. Scanning the room of sweating Westerners, I winked at my husband Bryan, proud of our hip, literary stop, and bit hungrily into a “safe” chicken sandwich. I instantly noticed the spices. Coriander? Cumin? I began to ask Bryan for my allergy pills, but before I could get words, much less food, out of my mouth, I keeled over, never to see a sari or smile again.
Thankfully, the last, nightmarish portion of the aforementioned scenario did not actually happen to me. I am indeed alive, possessed only of catastrophic, obsessive-compulsive thinking and a raging array of allergies. The Leopold’s sandwich did contain bones and sketchy sauce, but the instant I tasted a spice to which I’m allergic, I washed the poison away with a chug of water, pushing the plate aside. I left with my life and a commemorative “Leopold’s” t-shirt.
My fear about experiencing such an event became quite real, however, upon my husband’s choice of a 40th birthday trip. We had recently agreed that when the newly aged between us turns 40 he should receive a trip to any destination in the world. In this arrangement, the other spouse would be denied a vote; he would just have to plan the adventure. This winter, citing a desire to dramatically expand our senses and sensibilities before we become feeble and close-minded, Bryan used his ‘anywhere’ gift to visit the one place I had categorically rejected 10 times: India.
The trepidation I sustained about traveling to the exotic South Asian country gorgeously depicted in Slumdog Millionaire (and, it should be noted, the latest Mission Impossible) wasn’t just any American’s hangup about not being able to drink or brush your teeth with the local tap water. “Delhi Belly,” as Indian traveler’s diarrhea is sometimes called, was actually the most mild of my concerns, including: hepatitas A, malaria, rabies, typhoid, poor Internet access, and having to wear the same three outfits 21 days in a row.
I had a much larger challenge to do battle with my humbly active imagination: I cannot eat most Indian food. A documented sufferer of Oral Allergy Syndrome (yes, it’s real), I cannot chew, swallow, or digest an array of food that spans the alphabet. That means no apples, avocado, bananas, beer, carrots, chili peppers, cumin, and coriander, to say nothing of eggplant, ginger, kiwi, mustard, olives, peppers, peaches, pears, plums, red wine (possibly the worst food group to lose), and a few other items that might pop up on a menu in Delhi, like sesame and tamarind. In fact, aside from dear, innocuous basil, I cannot stomach any herb or spice, which poses a problem in a country where such items are not only culturally sacred but utterly unavoidable. Asking an Indian waiter to ditch the spices in your dinner is like requesting a well-chilled bottle of Zima in France. You insult a nation.
Bryan and I dislike group tours, so my job was to book every hotel and restaurant, find local guides, and figure out knotty logistics on an ambitious agenda. Over three weeks, we would visit New Delhi, grand capital of the world’s largest democracy; the sacred river Ganges, viewing cremation sites along the ghats at dawn from a boat; majestic, mountainous Rajastan where we’d ride elephants up to the Amber Fort in Jaipur; explore bustling, crowded Mumbai (think two New Yorks, both needing a desperate paint job); relax on the party beaches of Goa (would it be more like Ibiza? Or Daytona?); and of course, view at sunrise the romantic Taj Mahal, wonder of the world — which for all the beauty and fuss on the outside of the grand masoleum, doesn’t actually have much but two dead bodies inside. McMansions in my New Jersey hometown aren’t as classy, but at least there’s furniture.
Our shared goal was to see things we had never seen before and appreciate the country that would soon boast the largest population on the planet. Bryan would taste everything. I would taste as little as possible. If I ate any of the aforementioned ingredients (and possibly any number of others I didn’t know about), I would initially feel discomfort in the throat, tingling, followed by fluffiness in the tongue. My first line of defense would be to swallow water, followed by Benedryl, the fast-acting anti-histamine. Not terrible on the scale of stroke, cardiac arrest or stabbing, but a bad attack could lead to anaphalytic shock, which is potentially deadly. If things turned dire, the plan was to stick one of my two Epi-Pens into my thigh, right through my poor Seven for Mankind jeans, and head to the nearest hospital. Not to be squeamish, but I am terrified of medical care outside Manhattan, much less in rural India. My employer gave me the phone number for an emergency evacuation service, although such a flight would take me to Singapore, which I didn’t find comforting. They love spicy too.
Preparation, I assumed, was the surest strategy to success. My company’s nurse gave me an armful of inoculations and horse-size antimalarials. I booked us accommodations at incredibly expensive five-star hotels, including several modern, elegant, service-focused, award-winning Oberoi Hotels where I was assured on-site medical help and continental food options. Another hotel was in Rajastan, where I booked a “luxury tent” at the brand-new Rasa Resort, a boutique hotel designed by a star architect. (My only shock there was they didn’t have a liquor license). I also brought a full medicine kit: My daily Zyrtec allergy pill; two different forms — pill and liqui-gel — of Benadryl; and the two loaded Epi-Pens (not sure what two would do for me — would I stay on after a first disaster? How much do I love my husband?). The second, far less exciting layer of meds, included boxes of Immodium, Pepto Bismol, Advil, and Malarone (for malaria prevention). I was a walking CVS and thankfully not pegged by the TSA as a drug trafficker. (I also brought cute little rolls of travel-size Charmin toilet paper. “Monuments might have holes in the ground for toilets,” I warned Bryan as I packed.)
My most important stash, however, was a supply of so-called “nutrition” bars. Fearful there’d be days during which I might not even eat, I had 27 of these in a Zip-Loc. Most nutrition bars on the market are made with nuts or almond butter, so I held a week-long taste test of more than 20 brands from Whole Foods to find something I could safely eat — NuGo dark chocolate chocolate chip. These came in handy during long travel days when the only food options were in-flight meals on Kingfisher Airlines (for obvious reasons, we opted not to fly on its competitor “SpiceJet”) as well as cheese and mayo sandwiches for sale in the airport, at which even adventurous Bryan shook his head. Even in the new air terminals, there wasn’t much else to eat. (As someone who works in advertising, I know the so-called “brand value” of actually being valued. I wrote to NuGo to let them know they were important to my experience and they proudly posted a photo of my stash on their blog. They hadn’t been to India either.)
The trip was wild. We spent three weeks traveling through four Indian regions, all with different food, languages and history. In Delhi, we saw grand monuments such as India Gate, prayed in the Bahai Lotus Temple (gorgeous piece of architecture), and enjoyed a tuk-tuk ride through the serpentine streets of Old Delhi, past thousands of shops with wedding supplies and below dangerously dangling electric wires along which monkeys scurried. The holy river Ganges in Varanasi was as mystical as we had heard, and from a small boat we watched a haunting cremation service at dusk along the ghats. The sheer volume of garbage in the streets, however, everywhere got to us, and if I could suggest anything to the beautiful people of this amazing country, it would be to organize an all-India ‘Clean Up Day.’ One billion people could pick up one billion pieces of trash. It could work.
Being gay wasn’t the problem I thought it would be, although public displays of attention are frowned upon for anyone. For us, “friends” became a double entrendre with a wink, although sometimes hotel staff didn’t know which of us was which and called us both my name, ‘Mr Zucker.’ In Jaipur, a city famous for its crafts and the arts, a store owner proved his homo-friendly attitude when from a bottom drawer he dramatically presented a binder of Kama Sutra drawings of phalluses and poses. He was both surprised and disappointed when we blushed, buying only an elephant print for my sister. My thinking was not prudish but pragmatic: I didn’t get caught bringing Cipro into the country; I certainly wasn’t going to get caught bringing antique porn out.
Everyday meals were inexpensive compared to The States, and, happily there was good variety of food choices. Our fancy hotels had elaborate western-style buffets for breakfast, so I would load up just in case I encountered problems later that day. Lunch was trickier because we would often find ourselves on a tour or in the middle of a town far from our hotel. Our first real Indian meal was the first day in New Delhi. I braved a paper masala, a giant tubular dosa, or rice pancake, filled with flavor. Two bites in, however, I did taste too strong a spice. The warning sensation started in my throat, and I disappointingly had to reach for a bottle of water, careful to hear the musical snap of a breaking seal so I could be assured it had not been covertly refilled with tap. The attack was averted, and I didn’t need the Benadryl in my pocket nor the Epi-Pens I had optimistically left in the hotel room. On the opposite side of the table, carefree Bryan happily feasted on two colorful curries. So I didn’t have to face the waiter or imply that I didn’t like the food, he took a few bites to put a dent in my dish too. It’s embarrassing, especially in a country with millions hungry, to barely touch your 300-rupee dish.
Bryan was proud of me for being such a good trouper and thanked me repeatedly for both taking the trip and my flawless logistics. (He’ll never know it was a miracle that the driver in Agra showed up after I had given the wrong date.) In our 11 years together, we have always traveled well together. “Is there something you can have?” he’d sweetly ask while I anxiously reviewed a menu, convinced I’d find nothing. Several nights, he suggested Chinese or Italian food, a gift to me of less worry, more choice.
As it turns out, even on Indian menus, there usually was something tempting I could order. For example, I fell in love with plain Indian yogurt — not as thick as Greek yogurt and not as wimpy as Stonyfield. Eating it every morning, too, may have helped us build up natural defenses against bacteria throughout the trip, a potential fact that braved Bryan to one day add ice to his diet Coke. Ice!
At every meal we also enjoyed nan, Indian’s famous and inexpensive flat bread, which comes in plain, butter or garlic. While I will always be a devoted Francophile, I’d now argue that a good nan is even better than a Paris croissant — and far less messy. I think the Indians agree; we passed a Le Pain Quotidien in south Mumbai, and it was completely empty.
Obviously chicken and lamb were also plentiful. I managed to ingest morsels of both with little or no spices, drowned in yogurt to dull any possible discomfort. Cow was, no surprise, a rare find, but after visiting several markets and witnessing a guy smoking next to a dead goat hanging on hooks surrounded by flies, I lost my appetite for a steak anyway. That half the country is vegetarian hardly seems surprising now. And while I couldn’t drink big, cheap bottles of Kingfisher Beer like Bryan, I could pour myself into Indian wine. Sula Winery’s Savignon Blanc is crisp, delicious. Like New Zealand’s grapes but even cheaper. The Sula brand must be well-regarded too; it’s the official house wine of the luxury Oberoi Hotels chain.
Tell anyone you’re traveling to India, and the most likely response—after they widen their eyes with jealousy or anxiety—will concern the Taj Mahal and the food. I can’t imagine now who would go to India and not make a point to see the latter wonder, and I’m sure there are as many who couldn’t believe I had no intention of eating Indian dishes in India. Of course, I know I missed out on a lot, but I also know via my photo album and disproprortiantely huge new frame of reference all that I took in from the travel experience. In the end, food is obviously a big part of getting to know any culture, but I will argue that one can also achieve that by riding local buses, taking photos with school kids, touring neighborhoods, navigating regional airports, sipping martinis while watching sunsets over the Arabian Sea — and, well, riding elephants, just as long as you don’t taste their snacks.
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