March 1, 2017
If you are going to pull up stakes and move to a different country then you’ll have to deal with lots of changes. Language, food, and climate differences will put you under lots of stress. Culture shock will occur and you’ll have to deal with that too. But probably the first big change will happen deep inside you. No, I’m not talking about the psychological effects of leaving home and living in a strange land. I’m referring to your bowels.
Remember long ago, after a visit to Mexico, President Jimmy Carter caused an international incident when he talked about “Montezuma’s Revenge”? It’s a real thing. Here in Thailand it is sometimes referred to as “Bangkok Belly”, but less likely to cause an international uproar, we could use the term “traveler’s diarrhea”. Well, even if you take lots of care about eating clean foods, and drinking clean water to avoid the dreaded “runs”, the bacteria we all have inside our guts that we need to assist in our digestion and absorption of nutrients are different in different parts of the world. And sometimes our gastrointestinal tract rebels against these alien microbes.
However you refer to it, you’re going to get it. Hopefully it will be the simple kind that you can “stop” with over-the-counter meds. Once in a while it will be lots worse. Don’t ignore it, stay hydrated, see a doctor if it doesn’t clear up in a few days, especially if you have stuff coming out of multiple orifices. Once you are here a while you won’t be bothered too often. The once illegal aliens in your bowels will become acceptable citizens.
To help you identify this problem, and to know that when it happens to you that you are not alone, I want to share some of my gastrointestinal anecdotes with you, aka, the non-euphemistic term “Poop Stories”. You may already have, and if you don’t, you most like will have, lots of your own stories to tell, no doubt. These stories are lots of fun to tell, AFTER the fact.
I missed that class
Back in 1969 I went to Peace Corps training on the Big Island of Hawaii. We had three-months training in the Thai language, Thai culture, and in Teaching English. Our trainers tried to prepare us for just about everything we would encounter when we began our volunteering in country, the dos and don’ts, the food, the religion, the Thai houses, kitchens and bathrooms.
One important lesson was how to use the Thai squat toilets. Back then, these were just about the only toilets one would find. So all the volunteers were made aware of and shown how to use them. One problem I had, on the day of the toilet lesson I was away at the training center’s clinic getting a yellow fever injection. So, a few months later, when we got to Bangkok I had never seen or even heard of these squat toilets.
We were paired up and spent our first night in-country at a Bangkok hotel. We got to Bangkok at about 2 am and before turning in for the night I needed to use the toilet. I went into the bathroom and right there on a small platform I encountered the first squat toilet I had ever seen. What do you think you would do if you were in my place?
Instead of describing my first Thai faux pas, minutes after arriving in country, here are some pictures describing how and how not to use a squat toilet. See the picture on the bottom right? Yes, that was me.
Well, for the next three years I lived in a small cabin, with light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and no screens or running water. And my outdoor toilet was, yes, you guessed it, of the squat variety. And through necessity I became an expert, a skill this 70 year old body fortunately doesn’t need to use much anymore since the sit-down variety are found almost everywhere, and if you are lucky and encounter one of those computerized Japanese “smart” toilets, you’re in for a treat. But like I should have done before coming to Thailand, you might have to take a lesson or two in how to use them (A Westerners Guide to Japanese Toilets).
Meeting the ambassador
Being from the “Mean Streets” of New York (Scorsese shot his movie with De Nero only a few blocks from where I grew up), the idea of meeting an ambassador was pretty daunting. But on our second day in Bangkok our Peace Corps group was scheduled to meet the ambassador, Leonard Unger, at a welcoming reception at the U.S. embassy. As excited as I was to enter the rarified air of the international diplomatic corps, I had one small problem.
The day before, probably with a little hubris, I had eaten noodles from a street vendor, and loaded my bowl with about a dozen red hot chilies (or rat-turd-peppers in the translation from Thai). And as hubris, coupled with chilies and alien bacteria will do to you, I got as sick as a dog.
I quickly learned to use that squat toilet in my hotel room. It only took about a dozen visits in the first hour, and with a fever and sweat pouring out of my pores and other stuff pouring out of “wherever” I got on the bus to the embassy. I had a sinking feeling that my entry into the world of high government was not going to go as I had hoped.
Even though I grew up on the “Mean Streets” I had learned something about etiquette and diplomatic protocol. I must have learned what I knew from my readings, which were extensive for a street kid. For example, I learned which fork to use by reading Miss Manners in her New York Daily News column. So I must have learned about “receiving lines” sometime about then.
And so here I was, on my first formal receiving line. There were the embassy’s diplomatic corps, followed by Mrs. Unger, and then the ambassador himself. The cramps hit me as soon as I shook the first hand. By the time I got to the ambassador’s wife I was close to exploding. The wonderfully gracious Mrs. Unger extended her hand and said in a warmly welcoming voice “Welcome to Thailand, son”.
And as in the line from the Kenny Rogers’ song The Gambler goes, “And the night got deathly quiet, and his (my) face lost all expression”, and all I could say at my introduction to high society, something I had dreamed about and wished for since I was a boy was, “Where is the bathroom?”
Now another person might have been put off by this. Another person might have been offended. The gracious Mrs. Unger, seasoned diplomat as she was, knowingly took me by the hand and lead me down the hall, to a small bathroom, the sit-down kind, where I remained for the duration of our reception.
Once again I learned, be careful what you wish for.
Friends come for an unexpected visit
Many of our Thai friends seem to like to surprise us by showing up unannounced to stay for a visit. Two of our friends now make sure to call before appearing on our doorstep, and with good reason.
Regular “Bangkok Belly” is more or less an inconvenience. That is not the case with another affliction travelers encounter, food poisoning. I have come down with food poisoning a few times. It takes the form of super diarrhea and projectile vomiting, two activities I could easily eschew. Food poisoning usually lasts for about 24 hours and if you survive you’ll be about 10 lbs. lighter, and exhausted. Exhausted were what my unannounced visitors were the next morning after a night dealing with the aftereffects of my bowl of lunchtime Tom Yum Noodles had done its worst.
At the time, we lived in a one-room wooden house which we used on the few weeks a year we spent in Chiang Mai. It contained a small kitchen, small bathroom, a bed, a table, and a few chairs. So when our friends appeared and asked to stay the night there was nowhere for them to sleep but for some mats we had on the floor. Picture this, middle of the night, they are lying on the floor, between my bed and the bathroom door. That’s when my battle with food poisoning ensued.
I had no choice but to walk (and later climb) over our friends (a big no-no in Thai culture) to get to the bathroom. Not only the fact that all night they had to endure the groans and other sounds related to my illness coming from within the bathroom walls, but I had to make this nocturnal excursion (and I really counted) 27 times that night.
Our friends wisely waited until we moved into our permanent home and built a guest bungalow before making their next visit. And of course, they called first.
In the jungle, the mighty jungle
I once had one of those one-up type arguments with a friend on who had been the poorest growing up.
Me: We were so poor that in the tenements we lived in, many of us had to go down the hall to use a shared bathroom. And my bathtub was in the kitchen.
My Friend: I was so poor growing up in Kentucky that we didn’t even have outdoor plumbing. When we had to go we went out into the corn fields.
My friend won that argument.
Once when I was out trekking in the northern Thai forests we spent the night in a Karen village. When I felt Nature’s call I asked the headman where the bathroom was. He pointed out the door. It was pitch black at night and when I got to the door and looked out all I could see was the jungle. The headman gestured again, out the door. He meant that, like my Kentucky-bred friend, I was to do my duty “outside”.
So, without a flashlight, I ventured out into the dark forest and with the light of a few stars found an empty spot that looked appropriate. Being now skilled in squatting I simply dropped “trow”, collected a few leaves from a nearby tree and proceeded to answer Nature’s call.
Just then I heard a rustling of the bushes around me. Then a low groan. I know that tigers have been long gone from this area, but what about leopards? The rustling came closer. The groans louder. And I was only halfway through my present activity. I was sure I was going to die an ignominious death with my trousers around my ankles.
Then bursting out of the bushes came the most enormous black pig I had ever seen. He came right up to me, checked out what I was doing, pushed me aside, and proceeded to devour my current contribution to the forest floor. I quickly finished up and took off, as my hog friend cleaned up after me.
No wonder, even with the whole village using the forest as a bathroom, the land around us was completely clean of any sign of such use. They had their own cleanup squad. I tried not to think about that pork we had that night for dinner.
A Balinese farmers market
I don’t want to sound like Thailand is the only place one encounters gastric discomfort. Probably the worst I ever felt was when I got a case of “Balinese Belly” while visiting that enchanted isle.
I was enjoying a wonderful evening meal up in a mountain village on the verandah of an inn overlooking a huge volcanic caldera. A thousand feet below and about a mile away was the cinder cone of a volcano which exploded with a column of black smoke every 15 minutes or so. When the sun set, the black smoke turned into a fiery red shower. Since there was no electricity in the village, with only lantern light, the show was spectacular. That is until the well-known symptoms of another assault on my intestines kicked off.
Knowing that I only had about a minute before I would erupt like the volcano, I asked our host for the WC and she said to go out pass the small field next to the inn, turn right, and about 50 yards down the road you’ll find the village outhouse. I grabbed the lantern, the only one they had, and set off.
Wearing my sarong, and surrounded by every dog in the village barking loudly, I only made it 25 yards. Oh, did I tell you that halfway down the road the lantern had gone out?
I cleaned up with a torn-off strip of my sarong, and followed the sound of the exploding volcano back to the inn.
That night, at least a dozen times, I never made it to the village outhouse but settled for the small field next to the inn. My sarong was now in shreds, almost completely stripped away, when morning came.
When I finally awoke I heard a commotion outside my bedroom window. I pulled the curtain aside and looked out. The field next to the inn, that same field that had been the scene of my nefarious doings, had been turned into a morning farmers market. There were the fruit sellers and vegetable vendors setting up for the day, and right next to each stall was a bit of stained grass, and behind each, hanging on the branches of the bushes, was a strip of what appeared to be sarong cloth.
Still sick, I quickly packed up, hopped on my rented motorcycle, and made a speedy exit out of town, never looking back.
Happy travels and may you survive to have lots of good stories to tell.