I suspected I was going to get food poisoning in Burma from the moment I sat down for my first meal. The noodles tasted as filthy as the streets outside the restaurant looked; the plate gave off the same stench, albeit a fainter variant of it.
But I was still on my feet after a week of successively more toxic-seeming food, so I assumed I was out of the woods.
“I’ll have the fish,” I announced to the woman who’d invited me into her home to eat, after I spent the day exploring the nearby village of Inwa. I was practically defiant.
And totally premature – the all-too-familiar fatigue, chills and headache began to set in just a few hours later.
“I’ll be fine,” I insisted to my travel companion, a nerdy fellow from Tennessee I’d met at the airport in Bangkok a few days earlier. “I’ve had food poisoning enough times to know what to expect. I’ll be well enough to get on the boat tomorrow to Bagan morning.”
“Tomorrow” is an operative term when you spend the entire night in transit between your bed and the toilet, crawling on your hands and knees because you literally can’t stand up. Needless to say, I didn’t board a boat that day.
But I definitely took a trip! It’s fucking trapped in there, I thought, and began clawing the point on my belly where I had determined the demon was located. Why won’t it leave? Why can’t it leave?
I did everything I could to expel the pathogen, save for finding a sharp object and performing surgery on myself. But as the morning light grew brighter, I was still seated on the toilet, empty of literally every solid, liquid and gas that wasn’t part of my body. And I was still full of food poisoning.
“Is something wrong, sir?” The receptionist asked, as I slithered down the stairs like a snake and into the lobby.
“I need to go to a doctor,” I whimpered, and hoisted myself off the bottom step and onto the floor. “Now.”
The silver lining of the pickup ride to the doctor’s office is that I realized it was indeed possible to feel worse than I did. Things about Burma that had initially charmed me – roads that clearly hadn’t been paved since the British left; cars made for leaded gasoline running on unleaded – were now the bane of my existence.
Although the drugs the doctor prescribed me – seven unique medications, from antibiotics, to activated charcoal, to narcotic pain pills – did little to actually make me feel better, stepping into the sun had provided me with the energy to stand up.
And, eventually, to walk. “I need to back to Bangkok tomorrow,” I whimpered to the travel agent who’d booked me on the boat trip I never took.
She looked upon me with concern “Why you no go to Bagan?”
“I feel like I am going to die!”
“Ah,” she nodded, as if this was something she heard every day.
Of course, I don’t know how near-death I actually was; in spite of the fact that he sold me enough medicine to fill a small carry-on, the doctor hadn’t seemed particularly alarmed by my condition.
But I felt bad enough to do something I’d never done before and have never done since – cut a trip short, travel suicide of sorts – so I’m going to assume I was pretty close.