Calum McSwiggan

Delhi Belly

In Eat on June 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Indian Chaat

‘Food is our common ground, a universal experience.’

– James Beard 

India had opened my eyes to a whole new world, a beautiful yet frightening world, a world that both exhausted and dazzled me, a world that I was glad to finally be leaving behind. I was so used to having my guard up, that when I landed in Thailand in the early hours of the morning, I was ready and prepared for conflict.

Away from the relentless Indian heat, everything seemed so inviting. A cool breeze swept through the eucalyptus scented air, offerings were scattered everywhere I looked, and everybody smiled and bowed as I walked by and took in my new surroundings. I stepped out onto the street and looked around for a taxi, remembering my nightmarish first night in India, and decided to not take any chances.

I approached the most professional driver I could find, dressed in a suit, a tie, and a smile, he opened the door for me and helped me climb inside. The windows were tinted and the cool air conditioning made me relax into the luxurious leather seats, it was only when I asked him to take me the long journey west that I worried about the price. I asked hesitantly, half expecting to be thrown out onto the side of the motorway and stripped of my cash, but he quoted me a price that would barely buy me a cocktail back home.

I felt safe and secure and like I could finally let my guard down. This place seemed like a safe haven where absolutely nothing could go wrong. I watched the twinkling lights disappearing as we drove out and away from the city, and comfortable in this new world, I began to dream about my destination.

I was on my way to work with some of the world’s most dangerous animals while living in harmony alongside Buddhist monks. I racked my mind for the words I would say when I arrived, but I only drew blanks. I didn’t really know what to expect, and like a nervous teenager going on the first date, I practised what I’d say to them over and over in my mind. First impressions were important, but what do you say when an abbey of monks offers to feed and house you for the next five weeks?

My mind drifted and I began to think about the horrors I’d seen in India. A lorry driver pulled from his vehicle and stripped of his belongings, a tortured elephant with its spirit crushed, and starving children sleeping in the streets. I couldn’t shake those images out of my head, and just as I thought I’d escaped India for good, I felt a stabbing sensation in the bottom of my gut.

I sat upright and shuffled uncomfortably, taking a sip of water and trying to breathe through the pain, but my stomach only clenched tighter and searing pains shot through my whole body. India was not through with my yet, you can take the boy out of Delhi, but there’s only one way to take the Delhi out of the boy, and boy is it not pretty.

Sweat began to pour down my forehead, and the flowers that hung on the mirror were beginning to nauseate me. It was as if there was a banghra party in my stomach, and everybody had  explosive diarrhoea. I tapped the driver on the shoulder, and as calmly and collectedly as I could, I asked if we could kindly pull over. Ten minutes, he said with a smile, but I shook my head, let the frantic tones grow in my voice, and told him it was an emergency. Nearest Western bathroom is ten minutes, he repeated, but I was insistent and mistakenly told him that any bathroom was fine. 

Less than twenty four hours prior, I had stopped on the way to the airport for one last taste of Delhi chaat. I coiled my way through the lively streets, hopping over running and laughing children as I browsed the contents of various pans and griddles. Meat sizzled in the heat of open flames, and like wild magic dust, puffs of spice filled the air, catching my attention and pulling me this way and that. I set my eyes on a rich chicken curry, but just as I was about to ask for a cup, a chicken squawked noisily as it was slammed down and decapitated out of sight. I shook my head politely and turned to another stall and began indulging in vegetarian delights.

I took a small bowl of dahl and washed it down with mango lassi, sampling vegetable pakoras and fried paneer until I couldn’t eat another bite. I knew that the food was unhygienic and prepared in the filth ridden streets, but it tasted so good that I just didn’t care. I finished it all off with a small bottle of Thumbs Up, a drink known for being sickeningly sweet and renowned for turning Westerners insides to mush, and now, at the side of the Thai motorway, I was paying the price for my decadence.

I hung onto the latchless door as it repeatedly swung open while I squatted over a six inch hole and violently threw up into the filthy broken sink. The stagnant Indian heat was returning, and as my whole body became immersed in sweat, I realised there was no toilet paper. I looked around for an alternative, and flicked on the tap in hope of a fresh clean stream of water to drain away my vomit, but not one single drop came forward.

I thought about that emergency toilet roll I’d fortuitously never had to use in India, it was still sat inside my backpack in the trunk of the taxi. I peeled my t-shirt off to try to cope with the intense heat, and sheepishly called for the driver to bring over my bag. I waited for a few minutes before there was a timid knock at the door and the dignified suited man stood shielding his eyes and presenting me my backpack.

Leaving the bathroom in the cleanest way I could manage, I got back into the taxi and we continued on our journey. I had to ask my driver to stop thirteen more times before we arrived at my destination almost three hours later than we should have done. He dropped me outside my hotel along The River Kwai, and when I offered him a generous tip, he shook his head and instructed me to get well soon.

By the time I lay down on my bed, the morning sun was beginning to rise, and it was already time to leave. I sucked in the cool air conditioned air, and used the bathroom twice more before accepting that it was time to meet the monks. I jumped into the back of a truck and rolled up into the temple grounds almost thirty minutes late. All of that practising what to say went straight out of the window, and I was sure to have left an unforgettable impression, as I leapt out of the vehicle with panicked gusto and asked for the nearest bathroom.

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