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Travels with a tender tummy

My stomach is an ill-tempered traveler. It dislikes new foods, fancy cheeses and unknown sauces. But I fear that my stomach dislikes me most of all. 

It wasn’t always this way. In the past I held an unwavering faith in my belly’s ability to process food. Our agreement was simple. I’d eat whatever I wanted and my stomach would dutifully digest it, be it blood sausage or a Twinkie. We were a team that took on new foods like well-trained tag-team wrestlers. Together we conquered deep-fried Mars bars, sautéed rattlesnake, and a half-eaten burrito discarded in a junior high garbage can without little more than a burp. The fearlessness we brought to the dinner table evolved into risker eating behavior as international travelers. Freshwater fish of dubious quality, steak tar-tar from potentially mad cows and even an ever-dangerous Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese all entered, passed through and exited in an orderly fashion. Little did I know that my stomach and I were headed for troubled toilet waters.

Time together in Africa proved that the mutual love of food is not enough to sustain a digestive relationship. As a traveler and volunteer for a development organization I was briefed on the dangers of parasites, amoebas and worms. I was told to avoid well water and eat only fully cooked foods. No fresh fruits, vegetables or salads.  A ceramic, pump-handled water filter and shatter-resistant water bottle were constant traveling companions those first few weeks. However our relationship deteriorated as my culinary exploits grew bolder. After 16 days I gave up on boiling water. It tasted greasy. In another week, I gave up iodine sanitizing tablets. I didn’t have the patience. Soon the lure of cold, fresh water on a hot, dusty afternoon proved our undoing. The water filter looked on as I ate and drank without concern. While I enjoyed not worrying about whether meals conformed to travel guidelines, I fell in love with the new respect I received from host families, guests, and friends when I disregarded pretentious Western sanitary standards. As I ate fistfuls of greasy red rice and fish from a communal bowl, I felt confident that my stomach would rise to the gastrointestinal challenge.

Within days, I experienced the first digestive rebellion. My stomach transformed from a loyal friend into a vulgar and belligerent traveling companion. Three agonizing nights and cramp-filled days left my stomach and I dehydrated, emaciated and with a new respect for indoor plumbing and two-ply toilet paper.

My gut begged me to return to a life of filtering and safety measures. Despite empty promises, I found myself back to pushing my intestines to their limit in exchange for local respect. I couldn’t be bothered with a melancholy stomach.

A few weeks later, on assignment in a remote village, I proved too shy for latrines during the day and too scared of the cockroaches at night. My stomach, having no such hang-ups, appealed to me with increasing urgency. It wanted a toilet and didn’t care what it smelled like. We bickered for five long days and left the village cranky and bloated. Our violent arguments had been replaced by a very uncomfortable silence.  I reached for baby blue laxatives and bowls of lettuce –a strictly forbidden food for travelers in third world countries- in hopes of opening a dialogue with my cantankerous gut.

As months passed, we fell into a vicious cycle of abuse and reconciliation. I’d binge for weeks on unfiltered water and street vendor food followed by hours when I clutched feverishly to the pink Pepto-Bismo bottle like a cheating lover begging for forgiveness. I’d buy bottled water for a few days like a smart traveler before street food and free l’eau du robinet brought me back to my stomach abusing ways. In an environment where travelers suffered from many types of ailments -malaria, parasites, rashes -it was easy to lose perspective.  My stomach and I had reached an all-time low. But our quarrels and frequent latrine trips seemed mundane in comparison to a close friend who had her wisdom teeth removed by a local dentist without the relief of anesthesia.

Particularly bad intestinal incidents became colorful war stories. A cup of tea I accepted from a vendor transformed into a nuke that rocketed through my bowels. My stomach had me running to the hostel, Pepto-Bismo in hand, where I spent an hour communing with a purple plastic bucket. The pink bottle, so fondly referred to by other volunteers as Pepto-Abysmal, did nothing. Its medicinally delicious flavor was soothing but completely ineffective except for its ability to turn both vomit and diarrhea a disconcerting shade of pink.

My stomach and I eventually returned home after a year in West Africa. I felt like a triumphant latrine hero, but my stomach, embittered and rude, complained of prolonged intestinal abuse. Its pleas caught the attention of professionals. A doctor’s visit later confirmed that my sanitary philandering had infected my stomach with parasites. My belly had become a safe-haven for thousands of multiplying microorganisms. My stomach was less than pleased. We’re in therapy now, but frankly our relationship will never be what it was. If only I had known that in hurting the one I love, I was hurting myself.

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