Last year, Bre and I decided to spend our week-long spring break in India. If you’ve been to India, you know that it’s not the kind of place you spend a week in; the staunch subcontinent is host to a plethora of towns and beaches and breathtaking historical landmarks epitomizing the convergence of cultures and religions. It goes to say that we kept very busy on our trip. We were breathlessly carted from New Delhi to Jaipur, and we spent our time in town on a marathon tour of everything India had to offer. It was exhausting, but incredible.
Being a devout Gandhi fan, I enjoyed India and relished every moment I spent on the land where Gandhi had changed history, collecting rupees with his face on them and snapping many a photo of Gandhi statues and Gandhi’s hauntingly beautiful tomb with its ever-burning torch. But – and this may shock you – what I was really looking forward to was the Taj Mahal. After seeing the Colosseum and Machu Picchu, I was on a ‘world wonders’ kick and needed to check the Taj off my list.
Agra was the last leg of our trip, and we rolled into town feeling sweaty and sunburned. Unlike New Delhi and the pink city of Jaipur, Agra was a bit aggressive; the ornately carved mosques and temples were quickly replaced with piles of burning rubbish, and the dry, musty air only became more difficult to breathe. No matter, I thought.
I was going to see the Taj Mahal.
Bre and I woke early the next day and debated wearing our newly purchased saris to the Taj. We struggled to tie them but found ourselves unable to figure them out. Later, I would discover that this had been a blessing in disguise.
Our tour guide, Salim, picked us up at the hotel at around eight in the morning. We had experienced quite a few different tour guides throughout the trip, but Salim was our favorite. He was bright, hilarious, and chock full of facts about everything. He’d made the drive from Jaipur to Agra memorable by giving me a pickle and singing us Bollywood songs.
As we drove, I began to feel a little carsick. This is understandable, when your driver weaves in and out of traffic like a convict in a high speed car chase going against traffic. Despite the air conditioning, the Agra heat seemed to penetrate the car; I sipped my water and tried to breathe, reassuring myself that once we got out of the car, I’d feel fine.
“You have a tonga ride booked, so we will drop you off here, and meet you at the gates of the Taj Mahal,” Salim told us, showing us to our tonga. (A tonga is a horse-drawn cart, and arriving at the Taj via horse-drawn cart sounds far more romantic than it actually is. In reality, it was a five minute ride a few meters up the street in a rickety cart drawn by an emaciated horse.)
Once in the tonga ride, I felt slightly better, but not much.
“You don’t look so good,” Bre observed.
“I’m feeling a little queasy, but I think it’s the heat,” I told her.
We got out and followed Salim through the gates and into the Taj Mahal. As soon as we were on the property, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all, the majestic architecture, and the sudden urge to vomit. I don’t know where it came from, but my stomach began to feel as if I’d just emerged from a twister. Salim immediately launched into an intricate description of how and why and when the Taj was built. As an avid fan of history, I longed to savor every word, but instead I found myself struggling to stay calm.
“Give me your camera,” he instructed. “Now we are going to take all of the pictures in front of the Taj Mahal. Just like all the tourists.”
He spent endless minutes positioning us in front of the Taj Mahal in ways that required intricate contortion. I could feel my sweater sticking to my skin as beads of sweat began crawling down my neck.
I was not hot. I wasmelting. My face was damp, my arms were clammy, and I was beginning to feel dizzy.
Relax, I told myself. You’re at the TAJ MAHAL. Enjoy it. This will pass. It’s just the heat.
Repeating this mantra, I followed Salim and Bre toward the Taj Mahal, where we finally sat in the shade to take off our shoes before entering. As Salim went on about how the foundations are weakening and the Taj might sink into the earth in a number of years, I clung to the bench, the world spinning around me.
It’s not the heat. Relax. Maybe I can ask him to leave early. Yes, that’s it. I’ll go inside, walk around, and then leave.
Once inside the cool, marble structures, I hoped I would feel better. Instead, my vertigo abated slightly. As we looked at the tombs, my urges to relax were suddenly replaced by a panicked strand of thoughts.
Oh my God. I’m going to puke. I’m going to throw up all over the Taj Mahal. Has anyone ever even DONE that before? What will they do to me? I’m going to deface a sacred monument, a world wonder. Oh God. I’m going to puke.
In a frenzy, I stumbled out to the open balcony and sat on a ledge in the shade.
“Are you okay? You look very pale,” Salim observed.
“I really don’t feel well. I think I need to go home.”
“OK, well why don’t you sit here in the shade for a moment and rest. See if you feel better,” Salim suggested.
“You do look really pale,” Bre added, looking concerned. Then, they disappeared to the edge of the balcony to take pictures. Irritated and battling the urge to keel over, I sat waiting, deciding then that if I did throw up, it would be Salim’s fault. After what seemed like hours, Bre led Salim over and said, “You look really pale. Do you want to go? We can skip the palace tour afterwards.”
I nodded enthusiastically, and Salim frowned.
“Are you sure? We haven’t finished the tour yet.”
“I just need to lie down.”
Salim nodded, still looking disappointed. Grateful and sweaty, I guiltily left the Taj behind me as we walked for the gates. We emerged onto the street and the hot air mingled with the pungent odor of burning garbage slammed my nostrils.
I don’t remember sprinting to the garbage can. All I recall is gripping the rim of a rusty garbage bin in the middle of a busy street outside the Taj Mahal and vomiting. Bre took off in the opposite direction, horrified, and Salim jogged after me, holding back my hair while I puked all over my white sweater, my water bottle, the garbage can, everything. Around me, men on benches eating their breakfast watched, but I didn’t care.
“You reallywere sick!” Salim chuckled, as if I’d been making the whole thing up. “I will get you a water.”
There was no room for embarrassment. I felt as though my stomach had been emptied of some vile thing, and I felt almost cathartic as we walked back toward the car. I could probably go back and finish the tour, I thought, but figured the hotel bed might be a good idea before the palace visit.
I was disillusioned.
The moment we stepped foot into the hotel room, I hurled myself into the bathroom and threw up again.
“I think you have a stomach bug,” Bre said when I came out.
“But how? We’ve eaten the exact same things every day. Why aren’t you sick?”
“You’ve been drinking milk in your tea. I hate milk.”
“You don’t think it was the pickle, do you?”
“No, it’s the milk.”
“How long is this going to last for?”
“Probably six hours or so.”
Mortified, I glanced at the clock. It was ten in the morning, and we had a train to catch back to New Delhi at six in the evening. The thought of being sick on a train in India was enough to make me feel sick all over again.
I spent the next six hours in the bathroom, sick to the point of exhaustion, while Bre lounged outside by the pool. The Lonely Planet warned me about this, describing the gut-wrenching illness as “Delhi Belly,” a hideous misnomer that makes a six-hour, hellish ordeal sound like an endearing cartoon character you might find on a cereal box.
With eerie precision, every twenty minutes I found myself racing from the bed to the toilet. I placed towels on the bathroom floor and attempted to nap beside the toilet, but I was too cold; my teeth were chattering even as cold sweat poured down my forehead. The hotel staff sent up bottles of ice water, but I couldn’t keep the water down. My sickness was magnified by the fact that I was completely dehydrated with a sandpaper throat and I couldn’t consume any of the delicious, wonderful, hydrating, quenching ice water sitting in a cold glass perspiring by the bedside. In a fit of rage, I downed the glass for a moment’s satisfaction before falling over the toilet again.
We had to be out of the room by five, even though our train left at six, and no matter how much Bre begged the staff to extend the room, they forced us to leave it. Weak and wanting nothing more than to spoon a toilet, I gathered my things and went down to the lobby bathroom, where I lay down on the bathroom floor, head on my backpack, moaning something fierce.
I am not dramatic, and it takes a lot to want to lay down in a bathroom in India. The hotel staff were horrified and called a doctor.
“I don’t want to see a doctor,” I moaned. “Leave me alone.”
“You must see a doctor. You are ill, in our hotel.”
A small crowd had gathered around us in the lobby, watching as the doctor removed a stethoscope from a metal box bearing the year ‘1920.’
“She has a stomach bug. I asked you if we could keep the room, but you said no,” Bre repeated as the doctor handed me some pills.
“She can’t lay in the bathroom,” said a clerk of some kind. Bre continued to argue as I glared at them scathingly through damp hair. Finally, they sent us back up to the room with a glass of lime soda. If Heaven has a taste, this was it. Whether it was the pills, the biscuits I’d been given, or a combination of those and the soda, I immediately began to feel better upon drinking it.
Salim showed up a little after five to check on me. Six hours had passed, and so had the last twenty minutes; I still felt weak and queasy, but I did not feel the urge to bolt into the bathroom.
But a day filled with stomach aches and misery wasn’t over yet. It was at this moment that Salim decided he wanted to set me up with his son.
After telling Bre how fantastic it was that her husband lets her travel, he turned to me and asked what my husband thought. After telling him I didn’t have one, he said, “Well, your boyfriend?”
“No,” I replied.
“No? No boyfriend? How! Well, I have a son, and he is single. How about I fix you up. What a great idea!” he exclaimed. “I could be your father-in-law. Eh?”
I tried to smile as he pulled out his cell phone and squinted. “Here, I’ll take a picture, we’ll send it to him.”
“No, no, that’s okay.” I replied.
“Here,” he said aiming the phone. Then, with a puzzled glance, he asked, “Aren’t you going to sit up for this?” What’s really shocking here was not that I’d spent the day vomiting all over myself, but that I didn’t want to sit up for a picture.
“No,” I said. “Let him see what he’s getting himself into.”
Salim took the picture anyway, honestly believing that any man would find it impossible to resist this:
It was with immense relief and unparalleled gratitude that I boarded the train to New Delhi at six and got to our hotel in one piece (though our room had flooded and we had to wait an hour to get a new one).
I can now say that I have sampled every aspect of India and survived to tell the tale. And whether it was the milk or not, I have never consumed milk in a foreign country since India, unless I’ve purchased it myself from the store and it needs to be refrigerated.