Every traveler knows this rule or learns it the hard way.
It’s a joke of nature that you can’t chose the memories that you forget, and the punchline is that the worst ones tend to be those you remember most clearly. I can’t fathom all the experiences that I’ve had traveling to beautiful, incredible places, being in interesting situations, and meeting amazing people, where I’ve said to myself, “You have to remember this,” only to forget. Then there are those memories of mortified faces and people screaming as they claw over themselves trying to get away from you that will forever be burned into your easily recallable memory.
I puked on the plane from Urumqi to Almaty. The bag blew out a hole as I stumbled through the aisle trying to take it to the trash in the back of the plane — you can put the rest of this story together for yourself.
The first rule of not getting sick while traveling isn’t don’t drink the water, it’s don’t eat the ice cream.
In various places in the world people make ice cream by hand and sell it in the streets. It looks good, it smells good, and every local is stuffing their faces with it all day long. You think to yourself: if there is anything wrong with this ice cream then everybody surely wouldn’t be eating it. But this is a false conceit. You’re an outsider with an outsider’s stomach which is very different than being a local with a local’s stomach. Travel is the ultimate way to make your body resilient to the bacteria of the world through a continuous amount of small exposures. But sometimes even a mere brief exposure proves to be too much.
Now the handmade ice cream that is sold in the streets of the world is a special concern because the modus operandi of its manufacture often consists of refreezing the unused, melted portion and then re-serving it. This is pernicious because it’s a dairy product that is reconstituted who knows how many times and sits out in the sun for who knows how long. This increases bacterial growth, and if you’re not used to it you get sick.
Every traveler knows that you don’t eat the street ice cream. It’s one of the prime warnings of travel that you either hear and heed or learn the hard way.
Well, I found the ways that the Uighurs in Urumqi make ice cream interesting, so I talked with them about it, took pictures — did my thing. Part of doing my thing often means making friends, which often means being offered food as hospitality. In this case I was offered the ice cream they were making. I ate it, readily knowing how bad it could be.
It wasn’t until I sat down on the plane later that night that I felt the gurgling. By the time the fasten seat belt lights came on and the plane began rolling out to the runway I knew I was going to ralf. When those plane doors close you’re trapped, so I collected as many puke bags as I could. An hour later I was using them.
I took my food poisoning to the immigration line waiting to be stamped into Kazakhstan. It was there that I had a thought that I haven’t considered before in 16 years of travel:
What would befall a man who vomited and was clearly ill when going through immigration?
“Hello sir, what do you intend to do in Kazakhstan?”
You’re in noman’s land after you go clear exit immigration and board an international flight until you get through immigration on the other side. Would a country reject a sick, puking person in the name of national health? No, sorry, we don’t want any. Would the country that such a person would be subsequently sent to deny them entry as well? Sorry, we don’t take your kind here either. Would they send you to quarantine? Or would they just call for the janitor to clean up your mess and pass you along without a second glance?
I had no idea, but I really didn’t want to puke there. I held it in . . . until I made it to the roof of the hotel.
I’ve never really been overtly prone to travel sickness. For an extended stretch when in my early 20s I thought I was invincible, claiming “stomach of steel” status. I went everywhere and ate everything. A few months across the north of India eating anything I wanted without ever getting sick was my ultimate glory. But the next time I returned I was dealt a mortal blow to my gastrointestinal ego: I got sick, real sick. There are many references to this ordeal on this blog, but I eventually had to leave India and back to China, where only the herbs of Traditional Chinese Medicine could put me back together again.
Realizing the limits of my stomach made me more cautious about what I ate. I started asking myself the typical question of the tourist: will this make me sick? I now had a new limiting factor on interacting with other cultures that I never considered before. In a very direct way, being cautious of food put up a barrier between me and the people I traveled among. Especially outside of the West, food and friends go together, and when you make a new acquaintance one of the first things he or she is going to do is try their best to stuff some food down your throat. Many travelers before me have learned the lessons of this the hard way, and most of us toughen up and learn how to say no. But this keeps people a little more at a distance and moderately limits how close you can get. Eating together is to socially bond.
As for me, I now ask the question: “Is this situation worth puking for?”
Can I garner enough information to write about and insight into this culture to justify potentially getting sick?
As for the ice cream in Urumqi, I felt the gamble was worth it, and I lost.