Down and Out in Kirtipur, Nepal
Tendrils of jasmine-scented incense nipped at my gag reflex. Grandma chanted softly in a language I didn’t understand as she ran the backs of her leather hands around the perimeter of my face.
“This is Nepali medicine.” One cousin caught my eye from across the room, mistaking my physical discomfort for uneasiness with the ritual. I forced a smile and did my best to stare at nothing. I tried to match my breathing to her voice until the sting of smoke forced my eyes shut for good.
Three a.m. the night before, I was woken by slug to the gut. I lashed out at my phantom offender, only to feel a series of unmistakable convulsions run from my naval to my throat. I leapt into the darkness, spiderred hand-over-hand along the walls of my homestay until my feet met the cold concrete of the bathroom floor. Most westerners in Asia complain about having to eat so much rice: tasteless, heavy in the stomach, and impossible to get down without sufficient amounts of (often expensive) water. All this is true, but swollen with stomach juices and flavored with bile, rice is a thousand times worse if you attempt digestion the other way around. The vomit hit my mouth before my knees hit the ground. I hadn’t drunk tap water today, had I? No evidently I hadn’t drunk enough water of any kind.
I supposed I had this coming. Asia is renowned for the crimes it commits upon the glutinous traveler’s gastrointestinal tract. From heavily gingered catfish pulled from the muddy beds of rice-fields to heaping massaman curries and creamy paneers, I’d made my taste buds the main ambassadors to the countless regions I visited in the past four months. Asia wasn’t simply a place I could satisfy my daily caloric intake for cheap, it was a gastronomical orgy. But, as they say, there’s no such thing as a free meal. And even as I attempted to return this one, I was sure I had other bills to settle. Plus some interest to boot.
I’d spent the last few days with a Nepali family in the township of Kirtipur, a 30-minute bus-ride into the green hills surrounding the Kathmandu valley. Grandma spoiled me with sweet teas and biscuits while mama prepared feasts of stewed lentils, curried cauliflowers and mutton gravies (not to mentioned those endless oceans of rice.) After a grueling marathon of night-buses and mountain treks through Myanmar—a monastery floor acting as my only full night’s sleep in the week prior—the family had taken me in on my second day in Nepal with a mission to spoil me rotten. All those meals and I hadn’t been able to wash a dish—guests are gods, as they say in Hindu culture. No, it definitely couldn’t have been mother’s cooking that did me in. Then what was it? My mind flashed red as my body attempted to turn itself inside out once more.
I hoped the family couldn’t hear my retching. It was four now, and I couldn’t bare them waking up and making a fuss. I’d vomited in this same bathroom only two days before—a pathetic hangover puke, the result of far too much fermented rice liquor. I shrugged the event off before anyone had a chance to ask what was wrong. I had always been an expert puker; in fact, it was a ritual of mine every morning throughout grade-school (as well as semi-regularly well into my adolescent life.) I pointed at the scarlet scar that bisected my neck and explained the baby’s fist-sized tumor that left a hole in my cerebellum—the balance portion of the brain—shortly after my third birthday and how it had fucked with my equilibrium ever since.
You’re lucky you were born in Canada, the son said. In Nepal you would be dead.
My forearms throbbed as I struggled to stay elevated above the porcelain bowl. Pearls of sweat chilled the back of my neck. My teeth hurt. For three years now, Asia had made a habit of kicking my ass. In 2010 it popped my travel-injury cherry and damn-near my eardrum while I swam next to whale sharks in the tepid waters of Southern Leyte. One ‘doctor’ attempted to solve the problem with a lance and I spent the next week trying to lip-read my way through the Philippines. Even after my hearing returned, painkillers and antibiotics remained a meal staple for the remainder of my time abroad. In 2011, I put a piece of coral through my right foot off the north coast of Vietnam and the one-two punch of a bacterial infection and an allergic reaction to the local anesthetic used during the extraction process sent me home a few days later. But none of these incidents seemed so bad in retrospect—writers have a knack for romanticizing disaster. What doesn’t kill you makes your memoirs stronger! I was back in Asia again before 2012 was through.
Fever has a way of attacking the body from the inside out. It trickles into your brain and corrodes your train of thought. It reminds you of your pillow back home and that shower faucet that takes you less than a second to get the temperature just right. You’re lucky you were born in Canada, the son’s words echoed inside my sweltering skull. In the grayish-blue of pre-dawn, I could see hills outside the bathroom window. They reminded me of home…
I pulled my eyes away and grounded myself against the plaster wall. Nepal is phenomenal, Jeff. Your trip has only just begun. I wondered which one of the 320 million Hindu gods was responsible for food-poisoning—that would make a good detail when I told this story years from now. I check my cellphone: five a.m. Any time now, dawn would break.