Well, at least “wishing I was dead” experience.
Every country has a story… of food borne illnesses. Wrenching, draining, exhausting, spirit killing cramps and body clearing diarrhea and vomiting. My sister says I’m an extreme eater, which isn’t entirely true, but truer than not.
But that day at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on the river in Phnom Penh, I was trying to be mindful.
Iced beer with lime – and an overhead fan. A view of boats over where the Tonle Sap and the Mekong meet. Soon I’d be out on the river, too, heading downstream on the Mekong to the delta and Vietnam. Nice relaxed afternoon before heading on. Beer with lime and ice, according to the person who introduced me to it, is a southeast Asian trick best performed with a crisp lager, and Bia Lao is my personal favorite. One must ask, as I did, if the ice is good, meaning made with clean water. This was the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and they had been not poisoning journalists and pretenders for many years, in, during and after the wars. So I was assured.
That afternoon I squeezed into a small boat that would meander down the overhung narrow passages of the lower Mekong, across the malarial and still disputed frontier. The first few hours passed with lots time to daydream and watch the water go by. As we neared the border, the shores came closer and in the late afternoon the village children played, swam and washed in the dwindling daylight. We stopped first at the Cambodian border stop. Stamp Stamp. No problem. We then pulled into a small dock at the Vietnamese border. We all struggled ashore with our packs and bags and checked in with the immigration agents. There, on a dirt path up from the river, beneath the enveloping growth, was a 10 ft. long conveyor belt baggage scanner. The stop took about an hour, and evening was deepening.
The river narrowed yet more, and we pulled up into the dock at Chao Doc – the first town in Vietnam, and a much fought for territory by the Khmer Rouge*. Definitively a rural frontier town, at the time I was there, little English was spoken and few visitors seen.
I found myself a cheap motel and headed out for some dinner. All of this was done with no English. It is so much easier than most people think to get by in the basic things without the local language. About 2 or 3 in the morning, in the small room of the hotel, the pain started and I was running to the bathroom. By about 5, I knew I needed a doctor. I went downstairs and communicated the need for help. The clerk’s friend rode into the hotel from outside on a motorbike and I got on the back. We set off across the waking town in search of medical help. The driver pulled up to one store front, but the image of dental plates on the window didn’t promise a doctor.
As I felt like falling off the back of the bike, we pulled up in front of an unmarked little storefront. There was a flat wooden bench-like examining table and a few bookshelves in front. A woman came out from the back and motioned me to the table. Having delivered me to someone else’s care, the bike driver took off. I settled back on the bench and she started talking to me. I pointed, she poked, I groaned, she nodded.
I needed the toilet desperately and she pointed me to the back. I found a squatter in a closet off a kitchen. From a crouch, I stared at a week’s worth of dirty dishes stacked against the wall about a foot from the hole. All of this was foggily resonating in my brain, but any alarm bells were deeply muted.
I dragged myself back to the table, and my attendant was rifling through a drawer of plastic wrapped pill samples. She pulled out a few and had me swallow them. Meanwhile a man showed up who I think was a doctor: he was wearing a button up shirt and slacks with a belt. He started to ask me questions, which of course I couldn’t answer, or understand. Then he asked me again in French. That I could, very marginally, deal with. That got me off the table and on to the next van to Ho Chi Minh City.
The 8 hour ride was spent with my head out the front-seat passenger window, getting rid of what was left in my stomach. We crossed the river by ferry, heading north through small villages and trailed by hundreds of motorbikes who followed in my noxious backwash. The main road was pretty much a straight shot from Cantho to HCMC, so we barely slowed as we passed through communities. As we pulled into one, there was a bus on one side of the road, and people lined both sides, pointing and gaping at something in the road – the body I stared down at as we drove past it, as my head hung out the van. A road casualty of the bus, we gathered, his motorbike scattered wreckage nearby. We didn’t hit him, but skimmed past and kept on going. I’d looked death in the eye that day.
Making it to the SOS hospital by evening, I survived on a week’s rations of Pho and bed rest. I’ve had worse cases of food poisoning, but not more memorable. I later learned that the good restaurants in Phnom Penh did buy ice manufactured with purified water in nice big blocks.
The ice is then smashed on the ground behind the restaurant and hosed off, before it’s used for drinks. Is the ice made with good water? Yes! No problem.
*”Aside from its river scenery and hilltop vistas, An Giang province, in the heart of what Cambodians consider to be Kampuchea Krom, bears many of the same war-time scars as neighbouring Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge regime, Pol Pot’s forces made a number of bloody incursions along the border with An Giang. In April of 1978 a massacre took place in the hamlet of Ba Chuc, some 50km southwest of Chau Doc, with over 3,000 people killed.” http://www.travelfish.org/location/vietnam/mekong_delta/an_giang/chau_doc