Don’t be a wallah with water

Last week Harry took sick. He got a nasty fever, with his temperature up to a scary 40.5 °C (105 °Luddite). He was sweating and shaking at the same time. I didn’t write about it earlier because I thought a jokey post would be in rather poor taste if he died. But he survived, so now he’s fair game.

To set the story in context I’ll need to say a word or two about hygiene. The Indians I’ve met are extremely hygiene-conscious. When they share a bottle of water, they pour it into their mouths without touching their lips. They’re bloody good at it too, rarely spilling a drop. Try it; it’s harder than it looks. Harry’s got it down pat, but I have to rest my hand on my chin like a spazzo who still needs training wheels.
Another example: one day on set, Laura sat down and put her feet up on an equipment case. The technician concerned gave her quite a serve. The soles of your feet are considered the filthiest part of your body around here, and it’s quite an insult to put them on things or show them to people.
So the awareness is certainly there, it’s just directed at the wrong things. The equipment cases, for example, sit around in the dirt all day. The very same dirt that the soles of our shoes have been touching, in fact. The real hygiene issue has become mixed up with religious/superstitious ideas, reminiscent of the dietary restrictions in the old testament.

Similarly with the bottle thing; it’s certainly true that some diseases can be spread by saliva (like TB, which you’ll find in undeveloped countries and, er, the USA). Nonetheless, there are other, much nastier, things to worry about over here than spit. People often comment on the seatless toilets in India. They tend to maintain a discreet silence, however, on the absence of toilet paper and soap. We’re staying at one of the ritziest hotels in town, and even here you have to request them specially. The expectation is that you’ll just splash your arse clean like everyone else, then give your hands a rinse.

squat toilet

Now given that food is eaten with bare hands around here, and many foods are also prepared with bare hands, stored at room temperature and served lukewarm, you can begin to see why this is the discerning microbe’s preferred holiday destination.

Then there’s the tap water, which is untreated groundwater, often contaminated with traces of sewage. That means it’s bursting with the fresh, natural goodness of viruses, bacteria, amoeba and other faecal pathogens. And with no chlorine or other artificial additives, it just has to be better for you, right? When I travel, I insist on all-natural groundwater. Billions of people can’t be wrong – Drink Shit!™

Harry drinks

But seriously folks, you want to be drinking bottled, treated water. And you want to break the seal on it yourself:

There are other rules you can follow, like avoiding raw vegetables and peeling fruit yourself, but basically if you’re here for more than a few days, stay within sprinting distance of a lavatory. At this point I can’t resist quoting Irvine Welsh’s immortal words on the topic from “Trainspotting”:

“Ah whip oaf ma keks and sit oan the cold wet porcelain shunky. Ah empty ma guts, feeling as if everything; bowel, stomach, intestines, spleen, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and fucking brains are aw falling through ma arsehole intae the bowl.”

Four of us five goras here have had the runs to date. And so, contrary to popular mythology, have a good many of the Indians working on the film. One was hospitalized; another quit and went back to Mumbai. This reminds me of my trip to Pakistan a few years back. Our van was crawling through heavy pedestrian traffic, and one of the pedestrians stopped, casually vomited, then kept walking. Our foreign-born tour guide said her local workers ignored her pleas to boil their water etc, and were therefore regularly unable to work, sick as a dog. Mumbai itself has occasional outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.

So that’s the context in which Harry fell ill. We bundled him off to one of the local hospitals. The hospital and doctor were recommended by my travel health people, SOS International. They’ve been great; don’t travel the undeveloped world without them. If you get really sick they’ll even evacuate you to a top hospital in a private jet fitted out for intensive care.

Here’s Harry’s bed in the emergency ward.

Bhuj emergency ward

Here’s a closeup. Note the bloody handprint on the bedframe, and the unidentified stain on the brown mattress cover, which I chose not to investigate further.

bed frame

And remember, this was the best in town. SOS told me they don’t have people treated there; they get them stabilized, then ship ’em elsewhere pronto. Here’s the sink, which went unused. Now where’d that soap get to?

spot the soap

We had him moved to a room of his own. It had an ensuite, complete with bonus items at no extra charge:

mystery substances

How thoughtful of the previous occupant.

Even with a fever Harry never lost the drinking magic.

Harry drinks again

The nurses and cleaners wore fairly dark blue or grey uniforms, like mechanics (don’t show up the stains like those pesky white ones). If you want more detail, Harry will probably tell all in his blog. To cut it short, I was so enchanted by all this that I bought him a plane ticket to Mumbai to go to a proper hospital. Laura accompanied, in case things got even worse on the way. The final verdict was the usual gut bug, but combined with probable malaria. Although the tests were negative – apparently malaria parasites can hide in your liver between bouts of fever. Creepy. He’s taking pills and the fever’s gone. He’s even shooting again, which is good because this episode put the schedule back considerably. Yay artificial chemicals!

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