Even Through Vomit and Diarrhea, One Can Find Strength and Compassion
Jaipur, India | November 2015
The yellow and green auto-rickshaw screamed through the streets of Udaipur, the high pitched wale of its horn echoed through each narrow alleyway as its three wheels kicked up a trail of dust behind us. I was running late for my overnight train to Jaipur and the driver wasn’t wasting a second. Each jerk and bump of the ride brought a punch of queasiness to my unsettled stomach as I feudally trying to convince myself that having made it three weeks in India without the notorious “Delhi Belly,” I would evade the inevitable. With a nine-hour train ride ahead of me, I wasn’t about to succumb to it now. As we screeched into the buzzing entryway to the train station, I blamed the ominous feeling that reverberated through my whole body on the bumpy ride.
I had booked a last minute ticket so the only availability was in sleeper class, famous amongst travelers for the grim, hot and claustrophobic conditions. It often acts as an unwelcome right of passage in India, but I didn’t mind, it was one of those sacrifices that one makes to travel without a fixed itinerary. After paying the rickshaw driver, I dragged my feet down the platform. Despite there being a chill in the air, I felt a layer of perspiration building on my face along with a looming ache in my joints. I shook it off and made my way aboard the train, shuffling through dozens of locals all bustling through the same narrow passageway. I pushed my way through to my bunk, one of six small beds stacked three high in two narrow rows. I gestured hello to four Chinese hipsters and a quiet Indian guy, who were all frantically laying the sheets down on their individual sleeping pads. I shoved my pack under the lower bench and climbed up the shaky ladder to the top bunk to follow suit. Soon after the train started moving, the car went dark and all the madness quieted down. A few light snores arose throughout the train car as I laid my head on the lumpy pillow to drift away.
I can’t be sure how long I had been lying there before my eyes sprung open with the horrible realization that it was happening; I was going to be sick and nothing was going to stop it. I frantically scrambled to the foot of the bed and tried to find my way down. In my hurry, I missed the steps completely, barely catching a grip of the strap that supported the bunk from the ceiling, lightening the impact, but straining my neck in the process. Once I got my feet on the floor, I ran towards the dim light peaking out of the doorway of the train car. Feeling my way through the dark train, I tried to swallow down the erupting volcano in my stomach. Throwing the door open, the foyer was dimly lit with a sickly yellow hue, barely illuminating the toilet sign. I hurled myself toward the door, kicking it open just in time to unleash hell. I aimed as best I could for the famed “squatter” toilet, a ghastly hole in the floor offering full view of the tracks below. I spent the next several moments projectile vomiting into that hole while making a variety of horrific noises as blood vessels bulged through my eyes and forehead.
After the eruption subsided, I leaned back in utter exhaustion praying that this would be a one-and-done bout of food poisoning. I tilted my head back against the filthy train window, which gave me my first opportunity to observe the nuances of my meager surroundings. I spotted a cockroach scattering up the wall towards a single dull light that was emitting an irritating buzzing sound. I peered around the metal paneling of the squat hole and up the walls, realizing there were hardened feces everywhere. How does shit get that high up the walls?, I wondered. Feeling another bout of puking coming on, I realized this was my inescapable reality. As much as I hoped it wouldn’t get worse, it was going to.
For the next seven hours, I crawled in and out of that squatter toilet, feeling the full effects of whatever infectious organism(s) I had consumed. With each bout, I got weaker and more dehydrated. Each time I tried to choke down a little water from my quickly dwindling bottle, I’d throw it back up. For what seemed like hours, I didn’t see another soul. Finally, a ticket conductor swung open the door of the foyer, seeing me sprawled out on the metal floor outside of the toilet. I looked up at him helplessly, too weak and exhausted to try to communicate through a total language barrier. After a few moments, he stepped over me and continued on his way. I was all alone.
I longed for friendship, for human connection, or for someone to take care of me. I needed some semblance of familiarity, but those things were nowhere to be found. In those moments, despite being only a couple of months into my Pit Stop, I would’ve jumped straight on a plane and flown home if I could have. It wasn’t an option, however, and I had no choice but to endure through all by myself. Shifting my thinking accordingly, I rationed my water. I remembered that I had little powder rehydration packets somewhere in my backpack, which would come in handy if and when the puking stopped, assuming I didn’t pass out first. To conserve energy, I tried to sleep on the foyer floor in between trips to the toilet. I tried to map out a plan to get off the train, avoid the barrage of street hustlers and find my way to a reliable taxi if I was still sick. The more I put the situation on my own shoulders, the more confident I felt that I was going to be okay. At some point in the midst of it all, I drifted off, awaking to a small ray of sunlight beaming through the foyer window, indicating sunrise.
Knowing I must be close to Jaipur, I struggled to get myself up off the dirty floor, finally feeling like the worst might be over. Slowly making my way back to my bunk, there was once again activity in the train car as dozens of passengers scrambled around like ants, preparing to disembark. I must have looked as bad as I felt because when I got back to the bunk, a 20-something Indian guy asked me, “sir, are you okay?” When I told him that I’ve been very ill all night, a look of concern and compassion came over his face. He immediately invited me to sit down on his lower bunk and got on his phone. He asked me where I was going and before I knew it, he had ordered me a car that would take me to my hostel. We spoke for a few minutes until the train finally stopped. He gave me his business card and told me if there’s anything I need, I have a friend in Jaipur. I thanked him for his kindness and we made our way towards the parking lot, where he found the car he called for me, made sure the driver didn’t rip me off and waved goodbye as we drove off.
As the morning light grew brighter, I slouched in the back seat of the taxi and stared out the window, observing building after building of yet another new city. Upon finally checking into the hostel, I found some tea to try to rehydrate before collapsing into bed with my whole body still aching. When I awoke several hours later, I felt a new level of ease. As dire as the circumstances seemed on that atrocious overnight journey, I had made it out in one piece. I felt greater self assurance in my own strength, but also a new level of comfort with those around me. Despite the vast cultural divide between the locals around me and myself, human compassion was alive and well. Regardless of how alone I felt the night before, I learned that I wasn’t, which was a lesson that I could carry with me into the rest of my Pit Stop.