93. Testing the Limits of an Immune System

Testing The Limits Of An Immune System: So much foreign bacteria. In the dust I breathe, on the shoes I put on and take off at every temple, in the water I wash my hands with, in the banana lassi I just drank and all over the 10 rupee note I passed to the vendor who sold me the banana lassi I just drank. I carry these little bottles of liquid hand sanitizer with me, the kind that evaporates in a chemical reaction that creates an alcohol-heavy perfume cloud detectable by anyone within 25 feet of my hands. I’m sure it actually does help just a little, but more importantly it creates the illusion of helping a lot. Anxiety abated, enjoyment enhanced. Almost every Western tourist here is carrying one of these little bottles of clear goo – talisman against disease! – and in a crowded traveler’s restaurant at lunchtime you can make a game of counting the whiffs of sani-smell that coincide with the arrival of each table’s meal. Now William and Jessica can eat safely, groaning with gastronomic pleasure as they press lips to grimy spoons, teeth to dirty bread, willfully overlooking the fact that we’ve all done little more to protect ourselves than throw a pine tree air freshener at a landfill. Ignorance is delicious.

What’s less delicious is the near constant state of low-grade mystery illness that I am living in. This kind of travel requires it, it’s inescapable, save for those rare souls who are so unnaturally healthy they could survive a poisonous snake bite simply by drinking a little orange juice and taking a long afternoon nap. I know a few of these people and I hate them as much as I love them. Especially when, on every third or fourth night in India, I wake with chills, a cold sweat and a little hint of fever that temporarily convince me of the onset of malaria. Or dengue fever. Or chikungunya, charmingly nicknamed “the bone crushing disease” because of the blinding pain it inflicts on every one of your joints. Sometimes this night fright turns out to be the beginning of a more common communicable ailment – the chest cold I took on in Manila and the flu I commuted from Malaysia to Singapore – but in every other case, it’s been symptomatic of mild food poisoning or invading amoeba, dispatched only after much ado in the water closet.

I’ve also pressed my luck for five months on this trip, through very tropical, very rural areas, by not taking my prescribed anti-malaria medicine. Other travelers we’ve met have been taking it since they began their trips and all had stories of quirky symptoms, especially the bizarre, fantastical dreams and nightmares it encourages. This one intrigued me, so coupled with the timing of my journey through this mosquito-friendly monsoon season in India, I’ve finally started swallowing some of my three-month supply of Malarone. And just last night, between bouts of veg biryani-induced chills and body ache, I dreamt that I, along with rapper Ice Cube and several members of the cast of Cheers, were an elite band of secret operatives, somehow snow skiing for peace and justice through a Nazi occupied portion of the Swiss Alps. All I want to do now is sleep and dream.

I can’t help but wonder though, does any of this mean I’m unhealthy? I know that every few nights these foreign bacteria are attempting a bodily coup, a forceful overthrow of my fragile immuno-democracy. By Western medical standards, I probably am unhealthy and if I were having this kind of frequent intestinal revolution and uncommon cold recurring at home, I’d probably be banging on doors at Kaiser Permanente looking for a clinical diagnosis. Preferably something with a long, redemptive Latin name. Treatable by something with a long, reassuring technononsense name. But I’m so happy now, happy and content nearly every full day, and many of those days are spangled with moments of pure, grand euphoria I seldom know back home. Emotional well-being trumps minor mystery illness, though I’m pretty sure it’s useless against chikungunya.


  1. kate says:

    Jesus. You’re as skinny as my brother.

    Whatever, kid, continue to enjoy yourself. I’ve had what Jacob calls The Poops on and off for months now – and all I’ve seen are some racist cowboys trying to take over Colorado.

    Keep on keeping on.

  2. S says:

    Your brother’s not skinny, he just wears big clothes.

  3. The Chez says:

    It’s just that we’re overly clean freakish here in the States.
    Anyway, a dream involving yourself, Ice Cube(who you should consider substituting Mr. T for) and Cheers members has to be worth the sickness…..