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!

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Indians Taking Pictures of Indians at the Taj Mahal

Sitting With the Undertaker Watching the Bodies Burn

Lashman kind of looked like an Indian Spike Lee.

He was small, wore thick-rimmed glasses, and walked with a swagger. They’re both directors too. But, while Spike directs award-winning films, Lashman is a director of a different sort.

He’s a funeral director – per se. It’s a job he was born into. A job his kids will inherit. It’s not just a profession, it’s the life he was prescribed.

Each day, Lashman orchestrates a crowd of Doms who march dead bodies through the streets of Varanasi.

The Doms are members of the untouchable caste, yet they have the remarkable task of carrying out a devout Hindu’s final ritual. Cloaked in gold and ribbons, the body of the deceased is paraded around town on a bamboo stretcher before it’s taken to the burning ghat along the shores of the Ganges River.

Once there, the body is set on fire.

——

Varanasi is shrouded in an intense spirituality that can be overbearingly foreign to a Westerner. The devotion to rituals and adherence to caste can make one simultaneously uneasy, confused, put-off, fascinated and repelled.

The banks of the Ganges have an almost Times Square-like busyness – that same sort of quizzical appeal and frenetic crowd.

Moreover, every day in Varanasi feels like eavesdropping on a party. Life in Varanasi plays out like the scene after a major celebration in any other city – except here it’s every day.

Why are there fireworks in the sky? Why is there a marching band in the street? Because it’s Varanasi.

It’s kind of like being a little kid at an adult’s party. You’re curious, in awe, and not quite sure what the hell is going on?

——

Even though the sacred water of the Ganges has become septic, pilgrims and locals still flock to its shores to bathe and cleanse their souls.

For Hindus, Varanasi is the most sacred place on earth – so much so, that to die along the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi is to be released from the cycle of rebirth.

For centuries, thousands have flocked here to spend their final days. Yet, with life expectancy rising to 64 in India, those who arrive thinking they have days left to live end up staying for years in crowded ashrams hoping that each day will be their last.

The belief is so powerful that those who don’t have the resources to wait simply jump into the Ganges or commit suicide.

Others quietly talk local doctors into mercy killings.

In a city where people come to die, Lashman is an important man.

I met Lashman on a bench above his ghat, watching the bodies burn along the banks of the sacred river below.

He wore thick black goggles – presumably to deflect the glare of the flame. Whatever their purpose, they gave him the look of a blind magician, tending to his sorcery.

Yet, Lashman’s work could hardly be called sorcery.

Though he oversaw the finite ending of a spiritual journey, he talked of his work quite frankly.

“You want a good burn, you buy the sandalwood. But this is expensive. You buy the cheap wood, it takes longer, doesn’t burn so good. You don’t buy enough wood, body doesn’t burn all the way. This is bad – very bad,” he said, nodding his head.

Lashman turned to me and smiled. His teeth were died red from chewing on betel nut, a mild stimulant common in the Asian tropics.

Stored behind the ghat is the eternal flame from which each person is cremated. Lashman told me he makes sure to walk around the fire five times a day to honor the five elements: fire, water, earth, air, and ether.

Below the eternal flame, are huge stacks of wood; the family of the deceased, according to their means, buys one of many funeral packages on offer, including a certain quantity of wood, sandalwood sawdust, ghee, other ritualistic paraphernalia, and a priest’s services.

If the family cannot afford enough wood, as is common, the body is burned in stages, with the Doms on call to push in the extremities after the center has collapsed.

In a town where fanaticism trumps order and chaos comes in daily doses, the process of death is a remarkably efficient business.

Each body is allotted roughly three hours.

—-

Not only is Varanasi one of India’s most colorful cities, it’s also one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

In this ancient town that quite consciously sidesteps modernity, Lashman runs Harishchandra – what you might call the second best burning ghat in Varanasi. Manikarnika, about a mile upriver, boasts up to 200 cremations a day.

Though Manikarnika is considered the main burning ghat, Harishchandra is often referred to as Adi Manikarnika (the original creation ground).

At either ghat, there is one thing noticeably missing: women.

The burning of the body is not to be looked at as a sad event. After all, this is not just an end, but also a new beginning.

Indian men fear that women would bring too much sorrow to the event. Therefore, they’re not permitted at either of the cremation ghats.

According to Lashman, “You bring the woman, she starts crying. Then, before you know it, poof! She jumps in the fire.”

Lashman is an old man. His grandson looks after much of the operation now, carrying on the great family tradition.

Together, the whole family lives behind the ghat, tending to the eternal flame round the clock and spending their lives releasing their brethren from the cycle of life.

When each process is complete, the ashes and pieces of bones are gathered by the eldest son or a senior male of the family and consigned to the waters, where the Doms stand with wire nettings to dredge up the ash and mud, hoping for a gold tooth or nose ring that may have survived the fire.

It’s a business, after all.

Yudhisthira says in the Mahabharata, “Each day death strikes, and we live as though we were immortal. This is the greatest wonder.”

For Lashman and his family, there is nothing morbid about death.

At the end of the day – no matter the divides – it’s our common fate.

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Big Shots: Varanasi’s Cast of Characters

MarkontheMap is back in India!

Later on this week, MarkontheMap spends an afternoon with the undertaker at Varanasi’s famous burning ghat.

The Last Jeep Out of Darjeeling

Before, when I heard the word “Darjeeling,” I thought only of tea and toy trains.  Now, I think of torches and a midnight escape.

My guidebook mentioned checking in on the political situation before heading to Darjeeling, but by the time I read that I was already in the jeep halfway up the foothills of the Himalaya.

I had wished to transfer to the toy train (made famous by Wes Anderson’s 2007 film, “Darjeeling Limited”) at New Jalpaiguri and ride the winding track up to Darjeeling.  A recent mudslide prevented that from happening.

Instead, I piled into a jeep with far too many passengers and braced myself against my bag for the bumping ride up into the heavens.   Having just completed my first overnight train ride in India from Kolkata, I was in no mood for 5 hours in a crowded jeep blasting Indi-pop – but that’s what I got.

After hours spent squished stiff, we raced through the clouds and emerged at the mythical mountaintop city of Darjeeling.  Were the clouds gone, I would have seen Everest from here.  Yet, the clouds never parted.  They sensed something was boiling.  They didn’t dare let the sunshine in.

I spent four days in Darjeeling and never once saw the famous Himalayan peaks.  Four days wandering through the clouds, not seeing up nor down until all I could see was the fire ahead and the headlights of the last jeep out of town.  Four days in a city that I would be forced to leave.

But what a four days they were…

Darjeeling was a famous hill station in the days of the British Raj.  In the mid-19th century the colonial government set up a sanatorium and a military depot.  Subsequently, extensive tea planting occurred in the region, resulting in an internationally recognized crop that ranks among the most popular black teas in the world and provides much of the economy for the town.

The poor roads and remote location keep mass tourism at bay in this romantic and mysterious region.

Darjeeling is nestled along the elbow of India’s eastern arm in close proximity to the Tibetan, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Bangladeshi borders.  Consequently, to venture further afield, one must first obtain a permit from the Indian government.

I had no intentions of leaving Darjeeling for the nether regions.  My intentions were to stay for a week, breathe the fresh air, and escape the chaos of the low country.  But, India is addicted to a daily dose of unpredictability.

The people of Darjeeling run the gamut of Indo-European and Asiatic features.  With a large Tibetan refugee community, Newar Nepalese, Bhutanese, and sprinklings of semi-nomadic Himalayan tribes, the streets of Darjeeling offer an eclectic mix of characters who congregate daily in the town square, Chowrasta.

The origin of the name “Darjeeling” is most likely from the Tibetan words ‘Dorge,’ which means ‘thunderbolt,’ and ‘Ling,’ which means place or land.  Quite literally, it is the ‘Land of the Thunderbolt.’  Originally, this was the name given to the Buddhist monastery atop Observatory Hill but, over time, became the name of the entire surrounding area.

Two local boys in their early twenties beckoned me to join them on their walk up to Observatory Hill.  For them, this hill represented the ultimate Zen paradise.

Monkeys paraded about on the staircase up.   As we approached the hilltop monastery, we were absorbed into a thickly wrapped web of Tibetan prayer flags.  This oasis at the top of the hill was a religious carnival of color where locals gathered to thump gongs and gurgle baritone odes.  I’d never been anywhere quite like it.  So flashy, yet so serene.

I spent the following days wandering through the tea farms, chatting with local shop owners and learning from a slew of local tea experts about a drink that I had never thought much about.  Each seemed to share the same opinions.  Tea must come with milk, green tea is only to be used for medicine, and black tea should be served several times a day.  You can sniff out a top grade tea by blowing hot breath into a handful of leaves and waiting for the aroma.

At the Happy Valley Tea Estate, a drunk man who claimed to run the place took me on a tour of the plantation.  Picking started in March and there were not many people around when I arrived during pruning season.  What I could gather from his slurred and jumbled English, was that the buds of the tea bush are picked, placed on a mesh table and blasted with 8 hours of cold air and 8 hours of hot air.  This takes away 30% of the moisture, and then the buds get compressed in a series of machines and go through fermentation.  The tip of the bud produces the highest quality tea, then the larger leaves, and the stems go into the tea bags.

There are 84 tea gardens in Darjeeling.

Each night, I holed up in my cold, unheated room with a cup of tea and fell asleep in my wool hat and gloves, buried under four blankets to try and block out the Himalayan winter.  In the mornings after tea, I ordered a bucket of boiling water, mixed it with the cold tap water, and splashed liberally as I rubbed a bar of soap over my goose bumped body until I could take it no more.

Somehow, I found this daily routine quite satisfying.

On what would become my final morning in town, I started the day at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (better known as the Darjeeling Zoo) where wild monkeys patrolled the perimeter laughing at their caged brethren.  At 7,000 feet (2,150 meters) this is the highest altitude zoo in the world, and it specializes in Himalayan Wildlife like the rare Snow Leopard and the Tibetan Wolf.

Also within the zoo grounds, was the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), which had a fascinating exhibit on the mountaineers who’ve braved the world’s highest peaks.  HMI is one of the premier places in the world to learn the science and art of mountaineering and its first managing director was also the first man to climb Everest (alongside Edmund Hillary), Tensing Norgay.

When I left the museum and zoo grounds, I noticed that the road was closed and that all cars were stopped from leaving town.  Soon, all shops closed their doors and I asked a policeman what was going on.  He informed me that three men had been shot in a nearby town and that an independence strike had begun.

Ghorkhaland is the name of the proposed state in India demanded by the Nepali/Gorkhali speaking Gorkha ethic group in Darjeeling and the Dooars and Siliguri terai contiguous to Darjeeling in northern West Bengal.  The movement for a separate state gained serious momentum during the 1980s, when a violent agitation was carried out by the Gorkha National Liberaion Front (GNLF).  Things subsided for a time, but in 2008, a new party called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) raised the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland once again.

On February 8, 2011 (my fourth day in Darjeeling), three GJM activists were shot by the West Bengali police as they tried to enter Jalpaiguri district.  This led to violence in the Darjeeling hills and an indefinite strike called for by GJM.

Every store (save the Chemist shops) in the whole of Darjeeling shut its doors, while the citizens of the city took to the streets.  All roads out of town were shut, and pink posters flew up across the town stating GJM’s demands.

In Chowrasta Square, tribal families with elaborate nose jewelry sat on park benches next to young activists – everyone had something to say.

Down the street from Chowrasta Square, the West Bengali Tourism Building was set on fire.  I had stopped by this building twice that morning to find out information on the zoo and museum, but they were not open.  Perhaps, they sensed what was to come.

The whole town rushed to watch the fire as I looked around confused wondering, what am I to do now?  The roads were closed, the people angry, and I was stuck on the top of a Himalayan hill station with no way down.

I asked several people (the police, the lady at my guesthouse, another set of tourists on the street) what should I do?

What could I do?  Nothing it seemed.  Some said I should stay and wait things out.  Others said I should pack my bags and see if I could somehow bribe an official for a ride out of town.

I wasn’t terribly frightened, but the fact that the tourism building had been targeted irked me.  The police warned that strikes happen frequently, but that this one could be different because several activists were shot.

I waited out the afternoon in my room.  By dinnertime, the woman who ran my guesthouse informed me that the road would open for three hours that evening and, if I wanted to leave, this would be my only way out.  I packed my bags, marched to the bottom of town, and caught the last jeep out of Darjeeling.  In a jeep made for five people, I sped down the mountain well after dusk with 15 fellow passengers – inside, on top of, and hanging onto the frame of the fragile car.

The strike in Darjeeling lasted nine days.  For nine days, the town was paralyzed and shut off from the world.  The night I left, GJM protestors torched several government bungalows and looted ammunition from a police outpost.  There were several more deaths throughout the week and, though the town remains open again, the situation is still unresolved.

–Postscript–

After an unhappy night in Silguri, I caught a bus to the nearby Nepali border.  Finally, I thought, I could see the Himalaya without the clouds, without the protests, and with a bit of peace and quiet.

Little did I know that my plans would again be thwarted by a group of unhappy protesters in the political minority.  Little did I know that Maoists still existed in this day and age.

The Maoist Rebels (who hold a famously brutal reputation in rural Nepal) were holding a protest at the border.  All roads into the Nepali mainland were closed.

After my late night escape from Darjeeling, I was stuck in Nepal at a hostile border – the last place any traveler wants to be.

Check back for more MarkontheMap later this week as the blog heads to Kathmandu, Nepal!

Strange World: Erotic Art

Later on this week:

MarkontheMap heads to the Himalayan hill town of Darjeeling where political turmoil leads to a late night escape.