Diarrhea Diaries: A Guide to Surviving Traveler’s Diarrhea

***Caution! This post contains serious potty humor that may not be suitable for those with a weak stomach. Reader discretion is advised.

It all started in Agra when I discovered the best deal ever: breakfast for 15 rupees. For 15 rupees (roughly 30 cents) I got two eggs any style, four pieces of toast, butter or jam, and coffee.

Amazing, right?

Wrong! And here’s why: I wouldn’t have a solid poo for the next two weeks.

Now, solid poos were already few and far between on my trip through Asia, but two days after that breakfast I went from having what doctors call “loose stools” to what I call “sporadic waterfalls.”

I had Yosemites, I had Niagaras, I had all sorts of waterfalls – and lots of them. If they sold Depends adult diapers in India, I would have bought them in a heartbeat -it was that bad.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s go back to that café in Agra, as there are a few details I forgot to mention.

The first thing you should know is that I ate at this café four times. It’s not that the food was good (it wasn’t), or the coffee (it was made from powder and had mysterious oily swirls in it), but I certainly filled up on the eggs, butter, and toast. Also, I came back for dinner and ate more extremely cheap food of questionable quality. Call me incredibly cheap or call me a glutton for pain. Either would be accurate.

The next thing you need to know is that the restaurant was run by a seven-year-old and his five-year-old brother. They both worked in their pajamas.

You may be thinking to yourself, what were you doing at a restaurant run with child labor? The answer is simple: I was in India.

The five-year-old worked in the kitchen while the seven-year-old served the tables at the rooftop restaurant overlooking the Taj Mahal. He seemed rather sick, but then again, most of the kids I saw in Agra looked pretty sick.

An old man overlooked the operation from a mauve couch in his house below the restaurant. He didn’t move, but he barked orders (at what were presumably his kids) throughout each meal.

Looking back, I should never have eaten at that place. But, it had a great view and I kinda felt sorry for the kids when they lured me in with their 15-rupee deal.

“Best deal in town,” they said, and I couldn’t argue with them. It was true.

Fast-forward 36 hours later. I’m on an overnight train headed from Agra to Jodhpur, “The Blue City” on the edge of the Great Thar Desert.  I awake in the middle of the night feeling funny, search for my dung roll (aka toilet paper) and head to the toilet. Squatting over a filthy stainless steel hole, feeling the breeze from the tracks below, it began.

I wasn’t in waterfall mode yet, but that time was fast approaching.

When I arrived in Jodhpur, every guesthouse was booked… except the Green Guesthouse. The concrete walls were textured with chipping flakes of sea foam green paint and the door to my room was made of mesh. Oh, and the toilet just so happened to be up two sets of stairs and on the far side of a rooftop patio.

The next two days were a workout in more ways than one. Not only was I running up and down stairs, but once I got there, I spent several minutes in squat position (a serious quad builder). And let’s be honest, this wasn’t the kind of toilet you read your Chicken Soup for the Soul on.

I still managed to roam the town. What can I say? I’m a zealous traveler who won’t let massive stomach cramps and bouts of waterfalls cascading out of my bum let me down – not when I can go to the pharmacy and self prescribe myself a magic cocktail.

After spending most of my first day in Jodhpur in bed, I vowed to walk around the second day, exploring both the massive fort and the hilltop Umaid Bhawan Palace. I clocked in three waterfalls at the fort and thought I had nothing left when I reached the palace. Right after taking a decidedly bizarre picture with a wildly mustachioed palace guard, I turned in a panic and made a mad dash for the outhouse. It seems there was a never-ending supply of geysers just waiting to erupt from my butt.

On an evening walk through town on my last night in Jodpur, I did something I haven’t done in 26 years. I pood my pants. Not a lot. But enough. It wasn’t Niagara Falls; it was more like leaky faucet.

Miraculously, things improved after that. The waterfalls became less frequent and more bearable and slowly I graduated to loose stools (a vast improvement).

Once you poo your pants, you’ve hit rock bottom. It’s all uphill from there!

——–

Back home I never talk about my poo, but on the road in less developed countries, it’s a daily topic. Sometimes an hourly topic. And it’s not just me. Strike up a conversation with strangers in a café in India and the conversation will inevitably harken back to poo.

“Did you get sick yet?”

“Whole day on the toilet?”

“Hospitalized!?!?”

Just when you’re knee deep in a stranger’s poo story, someone in the group excuses themselves, reaching into their bag for some toilet paper with a knowing smile.

“Wish me luck,” they say, winking.

Your gunna need it buddy!

Advertisements

I (don’t) Hate Hanoi

I spend a lot of time writing about places I like.  It’s easier.  It’s much harder to defend yourself when you have nothing but complaints.  If I said I liked a place, you’d probably accept that at face value.  But, if I say I despise it (present tense, the feeling remains) then I have to answer the inevitable questions “why?  How could you miss ___, ___, and ___,” or, “maybe you didn’t understand the city, its people, its ways…  Maybe you didn’t give it time to sink in.”  But, sink in I did for two weeks’ time – more than any other spot on my travels through Asia, and I don’t wish this misfortune on anyone.

Therefore, I’d like to say in advance that I apologize to all who are offended by my comments or somehow disagree with me that Hanoi is a crowded, chaotic, soulless eyesore fouling planet earth – a city with all of the maddening theatrics of modern Asian megacities but none of the cutesy charm.  Hanoi festers, “I WANT TO PUNCH SOMEONE” feelings, traps pent up frustration and, quite literally, threatens you with death at every footstep.

I enjoy walking, it’s one of the most basic things we humans can do.  Perhaps, of all my grievances, this is the greatest: in Hanoi, it’s impossible to walk.  Then again, it’s impossible to drive either.  The city is just too big a clusterfuck to go anywhere.  Crosswalks, if present, are not observed and the pedestrian has absolutely no right of way.  What walking does occur is more like collective group pushing.  Maybe everyone’s smiling while they do it, but you can’t see through the masks they wear to keep out the thick smog.  Even the sidewalks, a normal haven for walkers, are overrun by eager motorbikers.  The streets of Hanoi are like Frogger level ten – the plucky music replaced by snarling horns and you have no frogs left for any mistakes.

Back in my university days when I ran out of Dining Dollars for the school cafeteria and wanted to avoid studying, I’d trundle up the road to Saigon Café.  It was my favorite restaurant in town.  The food was impeccable and the owner reminded me of a Vietnamese version of my Aunt Sally.   I loved that place.  It was the only place in town I’d splurge on an appetizer and a main course.  If Vietnam was like Saigon Café…

It wasn’t.

As it turns out, all the tasty food comes from the central and southern parts of the country (hence “Saigon” Café).  The north was cold Pho territory.  I was a fan of the Americanized Pho I’d had in the past, but the streetside real-deal in Hanoi was dog food (as in meant for dogs, not made from them…. we’ll get to that in a minute).  I’ve prepared tastier instant noodles in my microwave.  And the meat…

In Vietnam, my bowl movements took a turn for the unsavory.  After a chance late-night encounter with a green-looking sausage, I returned to my strict vegetarian diet (for the umpteenth time).   If you saw the disemboweled carnage on display, unrefrigerated and infested, you would too!  “Oh, and, by the way, we eat dogs and cats.”  Virtually every Vietnamese I met told me this in the first five minutes of conversation, like an icebreaker.  Several markets specialize in this kind of meat and eating out around town, well, you never know.

In Hanoi I took to self-catering, relying on my old travel companions Peanut Butter and Jelly.   Yet, it was a chore going to the supermarket, getting my food shoved in bags and thrust back at me with incorrect change and a stern frown.  “Here, I give you piece of candy instead.”  No, I want my change!

In every other Asian country I’d visited, I instantly learned to say “hello” and “thank you.” In Hanoi, I never learned those words – nobody used them.  By a ratio of ten to one, more people honked at than ever spoke to me.  I’m being bitchy I know, but that’s how this city makes you feel.

 

I got stuck in Hanoi; stuck in streets sludge and stuck in a conundrum.  Due to varying passport issues (a lack of empty pages) and Visa problems (the Indian Embassy in Hanoi balking at my request to just paste their visa over the one for Laos), I was to stay in Hanoi for two weeks.  The maddening part was that, had the comrade at the border used one of my half-used pages to plop the entry stamp for Vietnam, this problem could have been solved in one of Asia’s friendlier capitals.  But no, he used a brand new page, effectively incarcerating me in Hanoi.  Hanoi for the holidays.  The two weeks in every year that it’s best to be in a Western, Christian country.

Christmas came and went rather unspectacularly.  Yet, Hanoi was the perfectly insane setting for New Years.  This was the city’s first year embracing a full-on celebration of the Western Calendar’s brightest day, inviting international Djs to turn the streets around the Opera House into a flashy dance party.  Everything was unruly and exciting until the clock rang midnight.  We screamed, clapped, and then the Vietnamese ran home in observance of the midnight curfew.

Or, maybe they wanted to get a few hours of shuteye before their sunrise exercise class.  By 6:00am the next morning, the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of downtown were a frenzy of floppy hands and glittery track suits.  The lake was line-to-line jazzercise classes a la Richard Simmons with a boombox.  Those too cool for aerobics plunked a birdy back and forth playing badminton without a net (badminton being the favorite sport of the Vietnamese!).

Hanoi’s main attraction was its unpredictable hysteria – hysteria being both hysterical and frightening.  For example, the town’s two main sights were the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.  One was a capsule holding the body of the great leader swimming in formaldehyde, while the other housed a circus of many acts (a large scale model of fruit, a space room dedicated to the challenger explosion, Picasso replicas, Ho Chi Minh’s fan and hat, and a giant, bronze statue of the leader just waiting for group photos).  Trying to make sense of these things was far too tiring.  It was best to accept it as part of the greater hysteria, or at least that’s what my hotel receptionist Viet told me (his brother’s name was, quite seriously, Nam).

The worst thing of it all was that, by the end, I kind of came to terms with Hanoi.  Despite it all, the organization of the disorder fascinated me.  Crossing the streets emboldened me.  The messy, busy clutter slipped into the background and became part of the landscape, for better or worse.  Maybe I don’t hate Hanoi… but it hurts me to say that.  When, like a chameleon, I picked up on the rhythm of life and slipped into the mix, it thrilled me in a sinister way.

Ten Reasons to Visit Vientiane

A Sparkling Clean Oasis

Chances are your journey to Vientiane will not be direct and arriving from Hanoi, Phnom Penh, or Bangkok, you will be struck by the immaculate streets of Laos’ capital city.  Vientiane may just be the cleanest city in all of Southeast Asia.  With meticulously angled shrubbery and manicured roadside gardens, you’d hardly believe you were in one of the poorest countries in the world.  Hosting the Southeast Asian Games in 2009 (for the first time in the games 50 year history) Vientiane is opening its doors to the world – a small city with big dreams.  Imbuing a pride often found in capitals, the residents of Vientiane work hard at the upkeep to make their city the shining example of a prosperous future.

Upmarket Accommodation

Aided by a change in migration in post-tsunami Thailand, the past few years saw an unprecedented boom in tourism for Laos.  In search of the laidback, “authentic Asia” that many feel is lost elsewhere, tourism numbers rose from 14,000 in 1990 to over 1 million in 2005.  As a result, Vientiane’s old flophouses received an overdue make-over and accommodation took a notable swing for the up-market – although prices remain fair.  Expect to pay between $8.00 and $30.00 USD for a room with a balcony in the old quarter.

Dirt Cheap French Food

Waking up to the wafting scent of freshly baked baguettes and crispy croissants, you might just forget where you are.  In fact, to find bread in such quantities is a rarity in Asia.  Yet, in Vientiane, the lingering refinements of French Indochina rule the city’s culinary scene.  Vientiane is, perhaps, the cheapest place in the world to indulge in wood-fire steaks, soufflés, pates, and a cold glass of Sancerre.  Most restaurants line the crisscrossing rues of Vientiane Central or you can combine dinner and a movie at Centre Culturel et de Cooperation Linguistique.

Beer Lao

Founded in 1973, Lao Brewery Co Ltd was a joint venture between foreign investors and Lao businessmen.  After National Liberation in 1975, the communist government took over.  But, in 2005, the government went in a joint partnership with Carlsberg Brewers bringing the beer’s production levels to an all-time high.  From the government to the hands of the people, Beer Lao is the national beer.  Its lager, light, and dark varieties blow Thailand’s Chang Beer back across the Mekong.  Produced in Vientiane, Beer Lao is one of the nation’s largest companies, sponsoring sport events and beauty pageants as well as splashing its marketing across the country.  A cold Beer Lao at sunset on the Mekong is a Vientiane must.

The Riverside Night Market

The mighty Mekong River stretches from Nepal to southern Vietnam and as it meanders through Laos, it acts as the border with Thailand.  Along its banks, Vientiane’s night market comes to life.  On a long stretch of the recently revitalized riverfront, plastic chairs are artfully arranged as hawkers present the day’s catch for your approval.  The fresh and unbelievably cheap fish is then cooked to your liking and served (face and all) on a bed of rice and greens.  After dinner stroll down the river to check out local craftsmen or head back to town for some Tiramisu.

A Funny Sort of Nightlife

When the sun sets over the Mekong and the merchants pack up and away, Laos’ night workers take to the streets.  Revving engines, hiked up skirts, and splashes of red are instant indicators that these are not the conservative, demure girls of the daylight.  With the dramatic game of cat and mouse below, you may just kick back on the balcony with a Beer Lao and watch the show.  But, if you’re prepared for a night out, this small capital city has a surprising number of bars and clubs.

Temples, Temples, Temples

While not as omnipresent as temple-heavy Luang Prabong, Vientiane boasts some bold national treasures.  The blaring, golden Pha That Luang (Laos’ most important national monument) is cornered by four temples – two of which remain erect.  Wat Si Salet is the oldest temple in Vientiane with an audacious 2,000 silver Buddha images and 300 seated and standing Buddhas in wood, stone, and bronze.  Craving more statues?  Head to Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), one yogi-priest-shaman’s bizarre testament to a merged Hindu/Buddhist mythology.

Friendly Locals

Learn this word: “Sabaidii,” (sa bye dee – hello, welcome) and you’ve unlocked the door to the land of 1,000 smiles.  The warm, welcoming faces of the Lao people are so infectious, you will find yourself singing “Khawp jai lai lai,” (kop chai lye lye – thank you very much) not only because you like the sound, but because of their bewildering radiance.  The Lao citizens don’t have much to be happy about.  The French, Brittish, Chinese, Japanese, and Siamese have all drawn lines around this land and after years of strict socialism, the country remains in the World’s Least Developed category.  Yet, the Lao people refuse to let hard times get them down.

Crumbling French-Colonial Architecture

While the French-Colonial government did not have the budget for the grand constructions in Hanoi or Saigon, these nevertheless impressive villas are perhaps more visible in tiny Vientiane.  Now home to museums and embassies, these crumbling, porch-encased mansions tower above the city’s modest dwellings.  Previously reluctant to promote colonial architecture as an asset for tourism, new generations of local authorities have come to embrace it as an intrinsic link to their recent history.

Laidback Laos

Nothing moves very fast in Laos.  For some, this can be a test in patience, but the reward is an oasis from the bustle of modern, motorbike-crazy Southeast Asia.  Because any journey onto the patchy roads outside of Vientiane will inevitably take four times as long as the kilometers may have you estimating, an open, flexible attitude will bring nothing but smiles and good times with the carefree locals.  The lesson in this?  Stay put in Vientiane for a while.  It is not a doing city – it’s a do nothing city.  After a few days, the city oozes into your head, grabs you by the heart, and sets you free with a Zen-like zeal.


Top Chef Thailand

I’ve never been to a Canadian restaurant.  I’m sure that they exist, but I’m not sure what exactly they’d serve.  The international culinary map is marked with such thick borders.  We’re spoon-fed lentils from Morocco and finger our way into Ethiopia’s injera but don’t dare to sample from elsewhere in Africa.  We plow our way through a Brazilian barbecue and feast on Peruvian chicken, but would struggle to find South America’s other offerings.  Each continent has its culinary ambassadors and a country’s size is no judge of its membership into this élite world of global gastronomy (when was the last time you went to a Russian restaurant?).  In Asia you have the big guns India and China fighting over the buffet sector, Korean BBQ hitting the middle road, and Japan and Thailand reaching for upmarket chic.  Most countries whose food makes its way into our neighborhood shopping malls and big city streets are either rich and powerful or large and numerous.  There are obvious exceptions to this rule and I have always wondered why these small counties food gets noticed.  Are they that different from their neighbors?

If you asked me one year ago what my favorite food was (other than pizza), I would have said Thai food.  It’s funny how you can come to love this one thing about a country so much and have no idea of its origins, preparation, or even ingredients.  Why have I grown up eating Thai food and not Lao, Cambodian or Burmese?  After a month overdosing on rice and noodles and an intense day of cooking instruction, I have discovered some of the answers.

Appropriately, my lesson began in the market.  At a table lined with rice-filled bamboo baskets, we learned to differentiate the plain (red, brown, basmati, jasmine) from the sticky varieties – the refined from the unrefined.  Across the way, behind buckets of premade curry pastes in a traffic light formation of red, yellow, and green, a primitive machine squawked as it pressed and pumped out cream from furry brown coconuts.

Most Thai dishes begin with oil.  It is important to cook with the most tasteless oil available and we were shown palm and soy to use depending on the cooking temperature.  Our instructor Tommy, an unusually buff Thai, warned us never to succumb to our Western tendencies and overpower Asian cuisine with olive oil.  Teaching us where to shop in the curiously tidy market, Tommy led us around to another stall to locate Oyster, Mushroom and Fish sauce – the three main flavors in noodles and stir-fry.  He assured us that a hint of fish sauce is essential in every Thai dish.

From the market, we drove sixteen kilometers north of Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, to the organic farm.  It was at the farm that we would cook our dishes.  Wandering through the effervescent garden, Tommy pointed out the staple ingredients.  It was important to know the look, smell, and flavor of each item we used to tailor our dishes to our own personal taste.

“How do you call this?” Tommy asked, pointing to a lime.  “Right,” he continued, “Thais can’t pronounce that word so we call it a lemon.”  This made sense.  I’d been ordering lemon juice all over Thailand and got lime every time.  “Unlike the lemons you use back home, you cannot cook with a lime.  It turns to vinegar.  We use lime to flavor a dish once it has already been cooked.”

Thais use two kinds of lemons (limes), the traditional one found in our supermarkets and the lumpy Kaffir.  Each has a different purpose.  The traditional lime is utilized for its juice while the Kaffir’s leaves and skin add essential flavor to curries and noodles.

Around the garden we were introduced to roots and herbs both familiar and exotic – three types of basil (they favor holy), Thai ginger, ginseng, lemongrass, long bean, coriander, and most important – chili.  Thais are known for the heat infused into everything they cook.  Instead of salt and pepper, their tables have chili sauce and chili flakes.  Instead of catsup, they use chili paste… and the food is already hot.  The smallest chilies pack the most punch and the more you chop one up, the more the flavor disseminates.  If you don’t want the dish too spicy but still want the flavor, Tommy recommended choosing a larger chili pepper and removing the seeds.  In the end, the test of a well cooked meal is a spoonful with equal parts sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.

Thai men measure a woman’s prospects for marriage by her curry paste.  She must be strong and sturdy enough to pound a paste out of spurting roots and spices.  This is a tiresome task and I can attest that I would make a horrible Thai wife.  Muddling a paste with the pestle was the first step in our five course class and it was also the hardest.  Red curry is my absolute favorite Thai dish so I was doubly disappointed that it was my poorest result.  The coconut milk should be cooked on medium to maintain a liquid base and mine was as thick as peanut butter.  If you’d like to outdo me (and it won’t be hard) try the recipe at the end of this post.

In Thailand, there is no such thing as a low-carb diet.  Carbs are all there is to eat.  My five courses at cooking school included curry (with rice), coconut soup (with noodles), chicken stir-fry (over rice), spring rolls (with rice noodles), and mango (on a bed of sticky rice).  Rice and noodles!  In the month I spent in Thailand, each day’s big decision revolved around rice or noodles?  If you are curious what I ate this holiday season as you sent a toast of wine atop your honeyed ham, the answer is rice or noodles (with a toast of whiskey, rice whiskey!).

Stir-fry is a typical dish for most of us, so I thought I had this one down.  For me, stir-fry was a lazy process – a progression of vegetables based on cooking times.  The thought had never occurred to me to chop each vegetable in such a way that together they would cook equally.  In Thailand, this typical street food is fried on high for three minutes of dramatic flip-floppery by chefs who wield spatulas like weapons against popping oil and piping flame.  What took me thirty minutes should take three.  Stir-fry is a race against time and a talent I have yet to acquire.  I have no advice on this one because, again, mine was a mild failure.  If you’d like to try pad thai at home check out the recipe at the end of this post.

From the recipes below you may note to add the fresh herbs after the dish is cooked.  This was one of the most important lessons Tommy taught us, vital to every cooked dish.  He’d laugh and repeat, “Don’t worry.  Everything is in your cookbook… except me!”

After gobbling down some mango sticky rice and cleansing our palates with fresh lemongrass tea, the class was over.  We removed our red aprons, bagged up a stack of leftovers, and collected our recipe books with everything (except Tommy) inside.

This was my first cooking class, Thai or otherwise, and if I learned anything, it’s that I’ve been doing so many things wrong.  I am top chef of the casserole and master of the oven, but Asian cuisine is all about the stovetop and this is a whole different field of expertise.  It takes quick-thinking, a bit of flair, and a lot of rice and noodles.

As a populous democracy in an otherwise communist region, Thai food and culture has crossed its own borders and reached the world over with its fresh, unique, and accessible offerings.  Maybe we don’t eat Lao, Cambodian, or Burmese cuisine because they too have started eating Thai.  Once the nose-burning spices become bearable, they soon become desirable.  Western food begins to taste dull.  In Thailand, they don’t have many restaurants in our sense of the word.  This concept was dreamt up by someone else.  But, for us in the West, it makes a good platform for discovering this country’s amazing (and amazingly spicy) delicacies.  We go out for Thai food but rarely endeavor to cook it at home… now’s your chance to take up the challenge…

Red Curry:

***Unless you are an aspiring Thai wife, save yourself the trouble and buy red curry paste in the international section the supermarket!

Ingredients:

1 cup of sliced eggplants (or other vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, or potato)

¼ cup of smaller pea-like eggplants

1/3 cup of sliced onion

70 grams of sliced chicken (substitute for another meat or tofu)

1 tsp. of sugar

1 tbsp. of fish sauce and soy sauce

3 kaffir lime leaves

2 stems of sweet basil

1 cup of coconut milk

1 cup of water

Cooking:

Pour the coconut milk in the pot and turn on to medium heat.  Stir until oil appears.  Add red curry paste and chicken and stir until almost done.  Add your vegetables, water, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, salt and turn the heat up.  Stir a little.  When everything is cooked, turn the heat off and put the sweet basil and lime leaves in.  Serve over rice.

Pad Thai:

Ingredients:

80 grams of rice noodles

1 cup of bean sprouts

2 tbsp. of tofu cut into small pieces

1 egg

1 tbsp. of chopped pickled white raddish

1 tbsp. of crushed roasted peanuts

2 tsp. of white vinegar mixed with 3tbsp. of water

1 tsp. of sugar

1 tsp. of fish or soy sauce

1 tsp. of leek or spring onion

1 tbsp. of shrimps (or chosen meat)

1 pinch of chili powder

3 tbsp. of oil

1 pinch of salt

3 cloves of crushed garlic

Cooking:

Heat up the oil on the wok on medium heat.  Place tofu and fry until crunchy.  Then, turn the heat down to low.  Add garlic, pickled radish, shrimps, chili powder and stir until fragrant.  Add vinegar mix and noodles and turn the heat up to medium.  Stir-fry until the noodles are soft.  Turn the heat down to low.  Make a place by moving the noodles to another side of the wok.  Add the egg and scramble.  Add fish sauce, sugar, salt, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, and leek (or spring onion) and turn the heat up to high.  Stir-fry thoroughly until well mixed.  Serve with a piece of lemon (lime) and fresh salad.

Good Luck!