It’s an unfortunate truth of the universe that getting frustrated by something, even deeply, passionately, violently so, will not make it simply go away. Particularly when the thing frustrating you is inside your GI tract.
I was hoping the last bout of trouble would be the last. I seemed to regain my strength in Varanasi and, as I walked along the colourful ghats of that holy city, I found myself refilling with a sense of optimism for my travels to come. It hadn’t taken long to catch up on the organization of the photosets I’d fallen behind on while ill, and my journal and computer were filled with notes with which to write my next several blog posts. Furthermore, I was excited to move off the tourist circuit to the lesser travelled state of Jharkhand, and it’s national park, Betla. I’d allowed myself to get more down than I should have for something as unavoidable as intestinal illness, and it had been painting a shadow over my ability to enjoy my time in India. But now, with the sun shining down on me and the open road ahead, everything seemed rich and vibrant and promising once more. ‘Don’t let the bacillary dysentery grind you down’ and such.
And some exciting opportunities were springing up. A Couchsurfer I’d met in Jaipur had invited me on a May trek to Gangotri I was incredibly keen to do, as well as an even more exciting trip – to Ladakh via the Manali-Leh road. It promised to be a beautiful, if challenging, ride, and I’d started sending out feelers to find a riding buddy as Pete was unlikely to still be in India come August. I’d also begun inquiring about farm-stays in Nepal, both to experience a bit of that culture and to stretch out my finances while I waited for the Ladakh pass to open.
In the meantime, I was sitting atop a jeep as it tumbled down the dirt road of Palamau, keeping my eyes out for the unlikely possibility of a tiger spotting. After a largely uneventful tour, the jeep pulled to a stop near a trio of Gaur. I stepped down from the jeep, noting how my stomach was beginning to protest each bump in the road, how tight the waist band of my pants was suddenly beginning to feel. As Pete and one of our guides made their way up the steps of a observation tour, I walked around the corner of it to vomit up the grapes I’d eaten for dinner.
Things turned bad fast after that. Just a couple hours after we were back from our tiger-less safari I was writhing on the rock hard mattress of our $4 accommodation, struggling to keep water down for any longer than 5 minutes. What I didn’t violently retch up passed through my system as diarrhoea shortly afterward. My thirst was violent, and I was constantly pouring water over myself, both to cool down and to give my body the illusion of hydration. Several meds from the village doctor provided only the mildest relief and, after an agonizingly sleepless night of almost constant retching, we were off by jeep at first light to the nearest town and its government hospital.
Alleviation was slower this time under the IV. By the third saline drip the vomiting had lessened but still not stopped entirely. I was, infuriatingly, too tired to sleep. As I writhed on the bed, modest Indian nurses continued to tug down at the fabric of my skirt, attempting to cover me more entirely. I idly wondered how one would say, ‘I really don’t give a fuck if anyone can see my knickers right now but thanks for the effort’ in Hindi. A gentlemen claiming to work for the Hindustan Times asked if I minded if he took my picture while the doctors worked on me. Looking to bank good karma for future photos I might want to take I told him ‘sure, whatever’.
I wasn’t feeling so much better by the time we returned to Betla. It took a lot of energy to get the bikes packed up, but Pete and I both agreed that it was best to make the short 25 K journey back to Daltonganj, where we were more likely to find both A/C and cleaner food. And, should my condition turn worse still, proper medical attention.
It didn’t turn worse but it didn’t improve much either. Even after a small, cautious meal of fruit and a full night’s sleep I was still feeling weak in the morning. And a 200 K journey in 37 degree heat stood between us and our next destination, Bodh Gaya.
The ride pushed me to my limits. It started hard, when I slid out on a dirt road. Normally, I’d have dropped a leg, foot firm to the ground, and supported the bike to prevent it tipping. But I’d struggled even to load the 350 lb bike; controlling it and its 80 lbs of gear was just beyond me in my weakened state. I brought the leg down but did little to stop its descent, instead rag-dolling from the seat to wipe out, grinding my shoulder raw against the gravel.
I scuffed out my knee and elbow a bit as well from the fall, but wasn’t seriously hurt. Hrithik was likewise; his front handbrake had been wrenched out of shape, but was still usable. What killed me was the sympathy in the faces of the men who had rushed over to help me right the bike. The feminist in me bristled at their concern and offers for help, at the very same time that logic made me concede that, in that moment, I needed it. But I had spent the last month and half watching gape-mouthed Indians turn their heads as I’d blown down the road, stunned to see a woman riding. Not a scooter, but a Bullet, a real bike. Their faces surrounding me in that moment seemed to silently accuse me that this was why women shouldn’t. Another pain on others.
We did make the ride, though the roads were atrocious in areas and I had a couple scares along the way. I didn’t feel as sharp as I’d like to while riding and, in retrospect, I should never have been on the bike. But I was already feeling bad about being a burden on Pete, about slowing down our travel, and didn’t like the idea of making us linger in Daltonganj. So we pushed on.
In Bodh Gaya my heart sank when, after another night’s rest, this time in a soft bed with A/C swirling around me, I still wasn’t getting my strength back. I got in contact with friends back home and, with their help, finally did the research on dysentery I should have done when it first onset back in Agra. And the news wasn’t good.
Turns out dysentery, at least at this level, doesn’t just run its course and pass like, say, a norovirus does. It could come and go and come again. It could get worse. It could get dangerous.
I needed to find probiotics to rebuild my utterly destroyed gut flora. With them, I might be able to rebuild my strength throughout the month. Without them. . .it could be three. If it didn’t get worse first. It was strongly suggested to get out of the climate.
. . .I decided to be depressed for a while.
I thought about how difficult it had been to make this major shift in my life, and how fiercely I had wanted things, upon starting this new stage, to work out well. I rubbed at the tear at my shoulder and stared down at the constellations of mosquito bites covering my flesh, took note of the many pounds I’d dropped in too short a time and considered how much of my time in India had been spent simply recovering my health and trying to find my feet. At which point, I wondered, was it just not worth it to try riding it out? At which point do I jump ship?
And to where?
The answer to the second question at least turned out to be, ‘not quite yet’. But plans do have to undergo a massive overhaul, several points of which I’m fairly gutted about. Ladakh is out. As is Nepal.
Pete, god bless his Yankee soul, was able to find probiotics at a pharmacy in town and, having started on them, I’m finally noticing the first improvement in my health. I’m banking, for the moment, that that improvement will continue. The Gangrotri trek date is still over a month away; feasible that I’ll have my strength back for it. And, if I don’t, I need to return to that area anyway to offload the bike. Whatever happens, my finances demand I at least need to do that.
If things go further south, I’ll have no choice but to hop a train back to Rishikesh, offload the bike, and get my delicate, caucasian butt back to the Western world, where I’ve a far better chance of rebuilding my health. There’s no use lingering here if it’s only to lie in a bed, futilely hoping my less than reliable immune system will suddenly decide to begin functioning.
No matter how common an occurrence, it’s frustrating when the universe doesn’t work with you. Particularly when you’re in the process of initiating an already challenging course of action, getting repeatedly knocked down by fate can be painfully disheartening. But, as always – hell, then most of all – it’s imperative to think not on what’s gone wrong, but what you can do about it. To keep your focus on what fortunes you do have, and to count your blessings for those.
I’m eternally thankful for the amazing support structure of friends I have. Without them, a life on the road would be truly lonely indeed. I’m also thankful I haven’t run my finances so tight that I have no escape routes, should I need them. I’m thankful for the small improvement I’ve seen in my health today, finally, and hold onto hope that that increase will continue, and see me healthy again for Gangotri in May.
But if it doesn’t, that’ll just be one more thing I’ll have to accept. Because wishes ain’t horses and crying about it doesn’t get you anywhere. Besides, I don’t have the fluids to spare.
So for now it’s a pause in Bogh Gaya, where I’ll be continuing to spend the next couple days ingesting probiotics and keeping my fingers crossed that they, paired with rest, will start me off on the path to recovery. It’s said that Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment here, while meditating under the Bodhi tree. Enlightenment might be a bit of a tall order for me. I’m hoping a working GI tract is a more reasonable request.
Come on, Universe. Work with me, here.