In Harm’s Way: Sick in India
Part One: From Dharamsala to New Delhi
Last summer, I came to India for a three-week trip and got sick with a intestinal bacterial infection that would not go away. After about seven days, I started taking the antibiotic I had brought with me, Levofloxacin, and suffered crazy, psychotic-like, nervous-system side effects from the antibiotic. It seemed to interact badly with the anti-malaria drug I was taking, which I found out later, itself, can cause psychotic episodes and was used by the military in Abu Graib and other places to torture prisoners. After many sleepless, hallucinatory nights, I came home early.
A couple of week ago, I started writing about getting sick in India. I have not finished it yet, but now need to write about our current scare.
After my adventure last summer, I worried during the course of the past year about bringing my family to India, potentially, and unnecessarily, putting them in harm’s way. Jennifer and I talked about it and at the end of the day we decided that I shouldn’t turn down a Fulbright Fellowship to India. We would be extra careful with food, water, and cleanliness, not take any anti-malaria drugs, as we would not be in high-risk areas. People take children to India all the time.
Over the course of the year, the nervous-system side effects from the Levofloxacin, which in some people have been permanent, subsided, so I was feeling better about coming. (Levofloxacin is of the Quinolone family, which includes the commonly prescribed Cipro. I would be very careful of using them. Most people do fine with them. I will never touch them again. Read the warnings, if you take them.) We got another class of antibiotics from our doctors.
When I arrived in India this past April, a month before my family would arrive, I would barely eat anything that I had not boiled or fried the living hell out of. I ate a lot of rice with sautéed veggies and peanuts or paneer (Indian cheese) with spices like garam maslal, inventing new Indian dishes every day. After a while, I started buying mangoes and melons, as you can eat things you can peel first. Of course, you have to wash the outside peel first, and dry it, so that as you peel it you don’t contaminate the inside.
By the time Jennifer and the boys arrived, I had little systems for cleanliness in place. A mantra for the hands, was “wash, dry, sanitize.” Luckily the apartment had a water filter on the wall by the sink, so we could get safe water for drinking without having to treat it. We filled the sink with soapy water and soaked all the fruits and veggies before rinsing and drying them. We made sure all the dishes were absolutely, completely dry before putting them away. Of course, we never bought food on the street. We sometimes took our own little glasses to cafes to use with the bottled water.
We went to Dharamsala and the weeks went by with only occasional tummy trouble that might last a day or so. We took Pepto-Bismal tablets when necessary and all seemed fine. Then, at one point I got something more serious, tummy trouble with fever and chills and diarrhea for a week. Jennifer has written about this, about how in the middle of the worst of it, we also ran out of water. I’d have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, which meant going out and down the outside stairs. Jennifer had to take a bucket and fill it up from a little pond in the garden in the dark and pour that water into the back of the toilet. I took the antibiotic I had brought, and the illness cleared up in a couple of days, with no side effects.
Our two months in Dharamsala came to a close and we were about to travel to Pune, via Delhi. But Jennifer now was sick. Diarrhea and nausea. It wasn’t clear how serious it was going to be.
We stopped at a local chemist and got motion sickness, anti-nausea medicine for, which everyone took, for our ride out of the Himalayas. It was a beautiful drive. Everyone slept except me. We passed through beautiful, lush country, with rivers cutting through high canyons, villages nestled along the riverbanks, orchards, gardens, fields full of summer vegetables, open air markets in the towns. We passed through the driver, Anup’s village, and he was excited to point out the things he spent his life around. We were stopped on the road several times because of mountain roadwork, and got to our train station in Panthankot, a city in Punjab, just a half hour before the train. Our first time to take one of the famous Indian trains. The open air platform was hot and the air stuffy. A group of young guys who looked like trouble kept their eyes on us. I stared them down.
The Indian train system is one of the marvels of the world. It’s incredibly cheap and can take you anywhere you want to go in India. It’s the chosen means of transportation for most Indians, except the more wealthy, who are flying more and more. My friends at the ashram in Pune, mostly middle class, recommend hiring a car for trips of three hours or less, and flying for anything longer.
We got a 2AC accommodations. That means “air-conditioned, second class.” There are three classes of air-conditioned coaches and three classes of un-air-conditioned coaches. The un-air-conditioned classes are pretty much a free for all. I’m not sure if one gets assigned seats, but the people in the cars are piled on top of each other, heads sticking out the windows to get whiffs of hot air. Guidebooks tell Westerners to get air-conditioned, 1AC if possible. In 1AC, you basically have a little separate carriage or closed off part of a train car. Four bunks for four people. No one else. We couldn’t get one of those, and settled for 2AC, which turned out to be a little section composed of two bunks separated from others by a curtain. Not bad.
Of course we worried about dirt and germs.
Jennifer was sick. But she said there was no way she was using one of the train bathrooms. She doesn’t even like to use public bathrooms in the States.
Jennifer lay down on her lower bunk and slept. The boys were allowed all the Mine Craft or videos they wanted in their upper berths, and I listened to music and looked out window. We would be an eight-hour ride, from 1:00 to 9:30, p.m.
We rattled through the wide, Indus-Gangetic plain. Rice paddies laid out like patchwork mosaics of water mirroring the white hazy sky. Men with their dhoti’s rolled up stood in the water, upright or bent over cutting green sprouts of rice with dark, curved hand-sickles. Labor-intensive work in the 100 plus heat.
We stopped at stations, none with signs, and eventually I worried that we might miss our stop when we got to Delhi.
I told the boys, who also worried, and myself, that it would be one of the largest train stations in the world, so I didn’t think we would miss it. We were right. At about 9:10, we stopped at a dark station with no signage and people started gathering up their bags. I asked people in the car if this was Delhi, and they said the next station was Delhi, about five minutes away. We got everything ready, our four suitcases and four backpacks. The boys would have to carry their backpacks and pull a large suitcase each. Jennifer would exit first, with the boys in the middle, and I would pull up the rear.
As we pulled into the station, we entered yet another Indian world. The lighted platform began to appear. Then, the masses of people. Untold numbers. The train stopped. People started down the aisle. I yelled to the family to stay close together. “It’s going to be really, really crowded. Watch out for pickpockets!” When we got to the steps to descend between the cars to the platform, we saw the seething mass into which we were going to descend. Everyone hurrying, pushing, shoving. We had the boys between us. Jennifer went first. Someone helped her get her suitcase down off the train. Then, Aidan and Kellen. When someone offered to help, we were torn between saying, “Thank you so much!” and “Get the hell away!” So worried were we about scams and touts. Then, as it was my turn, I came down the four steps, the train started moving! I leapt off with my backpack and suitcase. “What the hell?” We were in the moving mass. It was like a river half-stopped before a log jam, water swirling and buckling in eddies and whirlpools, runway channels and currents that could whisk you away in a moment.
We got out of the main rush beside the train and circled ourselves around our suitcases. We warded off touts offering help. “The hotel driver is supposed to meet us right here outside our train car,” I said. They’d assured me at the hotel that he would be right here. They had asked for our train car number and seat numbers. It would be “No problem!” But now, how would we ever find the driver in this seething chaos? Jennifer said, “I need a bathroom.” This is something Jennifer never says. Ever. This was bad. She was going to use a bathroom in an Indian train station. I could not imagine finding one or anything else!
Jennifer thought we should take a large free-standing staircase behind us that led up to elevated walk-overs that passed over the many tracks in either direction. I thought we should wait right there for the driver. She thought the walk-overs would lead to the outside and we’d find our driver outside. So we climbed the stairs. Poor sick Jennifer hauling up her suitcase up each of the five or so flights. Poor boys hauling their own. I carried two suitcases part of the way. We didn’t know whether to accept help or not from faces that appeared spectral like out of the masses. At the top, we stopped. We looked in both directions. The walk-overs were filled with people. All was incredibly hot and stifling. Jennifer said, “We’re going to stay here. You find out where we should go.” “What about the bathroom?” I said. “I can wait.”
I looked back and forth. The walk-ways seemed to lead nowhere, just into other elevated walkways as far as thy eye could see, filled with more masses of hurrying people, shoulders, chests bumping each other. Some led through doorways with no signs. There were no signs anywhere. There were no information booths. There were no porters or station guards. We were in a giant endless maze swarming with people. I was afraid to leave the family. I didn’t know where to go, what to do. I knew Jennifer needed a bathroom. I had a moment of nausea and panic, a train below roaring like the Minotaur at the end of the seething labyrinth.
“Excuse me, sir. Is this you?”
I turned around and encountered a tall man in a beard and dark blue turban pointing at a sign in his hand. It took me a couple of minutes to reorient myself, to bring my consciousness up out of its dark chasm of terror to be able to read the sign.
It said: “Maidan’s Hotel. Michael Sowder.”
“Sir, is this you?” He asked again.
Our hotel driver, or rather, our angel, our Virgil materializing out of that inferno of chaos and peril, stood before us in the flesh, with wide, clear eyes and an open, kind face.
“My name is Om Kaur.”
“O, my God.”
We nearly fell to our knees.
Next Post: “Old Delhi, New Delhi, Delhi-Belly, Hell in Delhi.”