Indian tummy troubles: not if, but when
Crowds in an Indian market. Photo: Getty Images
It's like a mantra, a Hindu-style chant with all the spiritual power of the sacred "om". In India, you find yourself mumbling it over and over again: "It's all part of the experience, it's all part of the experience, it's all part of the experience."
No one would ever claim India is an easy country to travel through. It takes infinite patience, a Gandhi-like spirit of goodwill and an acceptance that all of the bad stuff, the dodgy stuff, the annoying stuff and the weird stuff is "all part of the experience". You can't travel and expect everything to be the same as it is at home. It's all about the differences, whether they're things you like or things you don't.
There are times when you wonder why you do it, why you put up with all the things India throws at you. It's dirty. In fact, let's not pull any punches - it's filthy in some places. Despite public signs that say things such as "Littering opens evil's door" there's garbage everywhere, strewn across the streets and clogging up the gutters. Evil's door is well and truly ajar. That could easily get to you, as you tip-toe through piles of food scraps and empty plastic bottles but you just have to keep chanting: "It's all part of the experience."
Travel tummy bugs are just part of the deal.
Stomach issues aren't a case of "if" in India but "when". And the answer to that is usually "pretty soon". Every traveller through the subcontinent has a dodgy stomach story. It's impossible to get away from: whether you're eating snacks from the street or enjoying silver service at the best hotels, "Delhi belly" will get you. Pretty soon your trip becomes a mental calculation of where the next bathroom facilities will be and what your chances are of making it to them in time.
The act of eating itself can be a strange ordeal for the uninitiated. You sit down in a crowded restaurant sharing a table with four or five of your new Indian best friends and order a thali, the all-you-can-eat lunch special that most places serve. Around comes a banana leaf, laid out in front of you. Right, that's the plate. Then comes the rice, the curries, the chutneys, the pappadums and the pickles. What doesn't seem to be arriving is the cutlery.
Then you remember: there is no cutlery, except for those five digits on your right hand. It's a case of mixing everything up on the banana leaf, then grabbing a handful and shoving it in your mouth. Or, in my case, somewhere near your mouth. My father, a demon for table manners, a June Dally-Watkins in his own right, would have a heart attack at the sight of his son digging in fingers-first but what choice do you have? And anyway, when the food actually makes it to your mouth it's amazingly good; well worth a few dirty fingers and an altered sense of tabletop dignity.
Public transport - where do you start? Let's do smallest to biggest. Cycle- and auto-rickshaws are cheap but that's only after the requisite haggling. In some places this is a simple and easygoing negotiation - in others, it requires the drinking of chai and some very serious to-ing and fro-ing. Before you know it, half the morning has been eaten up in your search for a well-priced ride. Then you climb aboard for a hair-raising dash through the honking trucks, mooing cows and beeping motorbikes that make up your typical Indian road.
The buses are hot, crowded and of questionable mechanical fitness. They leave when they leave, arrive when they arrive. Some break down, so you pile out of that one and hail another as it trundles past. Or, if it's going slowly enough, just grab a handle and leap aboard. This, of course, is all part of the experience.
Indian trains are like no trains you've seen before. Thieves roam the more popular tourist routes but a few simple precautions are usually enough to thwart them. The more pressing concern is the crush of fellow passengers around you, the inadequate whirring of the fan above you and the huge boxes of what-the-hell-is-that that someone is trying to wedge under the seat in front of you. Like the buses, the trains leave when they leave, arrive when they arrive. You can only shrug, sit back and take in the scenery.
Everything in India can seem like a challenge. Getting from A to B is a challenge. Buying things is a challenge. Walking the streets is a challenge. Ignoring the dirt, the poverty and the stress is a challenge. You frequently come back to that original question: why do you do it? Why do you put yourself through all of this? The answer, of course, is that India is worth it. Easily worth it. And all that bad stuff? It's all just part of the experience.