STORY: Surviving Food Poisoning While Traveling
While I feel I could do a much better job of getting off the beaten path and seeing some far-flung and exotic destinations, I’ve certainly been to my fair share of places that your average traveler might be a bit wary of traveling to and experiencing with an open mind. When I mention some of the places I’ve visited over the year, inevitably people feel the need to steer the conversation into a rather awkward place by asking one of my most hated travel questions – “Did you get sick eating the food there?”
Perhaps it depends on the individual, but personally this is one of the questions that I find the most difficult to answer with any semblance of coherence or tact. At the end of the day this person, whether a stranger or a dear friend, is asking you whether you got the shits or blew chunks while on vacation. Plain and simply. A reasonable question, sure! But not one that I find any less awkward due to said reasonableness.
Luckily for me after years of traveling to some clean and not so clean destinations, I’ve always been able to confidently answer that question with a resounding “Nope!” For the most part I have what I’d consider an ironclad stomach. A bowl of curry at a questionable Indian restaurant? Got it. Grilled meat at a Cambodian roadside stand? Devoured it. Tuna salad sandwich on a ferry boat in Zambia? No worries. I’ve eaten my way through a myriad of dishes across the globe and never experienced anything more severe than a few cramps and the meat sweats.
Until I went to Germany.
Ah, Germany. A bastion of efficiency and modernity. If you’d feel safe and comfortable eating food anywhere in the world, Germany is likely toward the top of that list for most people. The work ethic of its people is legendary and I imagine that efficiency is applied to hygiene and food preparation with zeal. Yet this is where I met my downfall – where my stomach’s streak of perfect trips was destined to come to an end.
I’m still not 100% sure where I got sick. I only ate two meals that would be within range of causing illness, so the list of suspects is short. Lunch was spent warming myself with a big bowl of potato soup from a small German restaurant near the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin along with a run of the mill currywurst and some french fries. It filled me up on a cold January day and I was ready to head back out in a little under 30 minutes. Later that night I wandered out of my room at the Best Western Spittelmarkt and found my way at an Indian restaurant. I ordered myself a nice platter of spicy curry with rice and bread and thoroughly enjoyed the meal.
Between those two meals, I think there’s a tendency for people to assume it was the Indian food that would be the cause of my future distress, but I’m not going to go down that route and I remain open minded about the source of my illness. The cause will forever remain a mystery.
All I know is that after what appeared to be a rather restful night of sleep I awoke with a start in my bed as a rumble started to emerge from my stomach with such ferocity that I bolted straight out of bed. A bit disoriented, I took a few seconds to come to a few realizations:
Sunrise had yet to occur.
I had fallen asleep with the television still on.
My stomach was in such distress at that moment that I wasn’t quite sure if I was on the verge of hurling or crapping myself into oblivion.
Once I had fully processed #3 I did all that I could to make it into the bathroom before digestive apocalypse arrived. It’s all a bit of a blur but I feel like I could have given a Romania gymnast a run for her money with the vault I did over the bed frame and into the cold tiled confines of my hotel room’s bathroom.
My stomach was a mess. I was a mess. Life was a mess.
I genuinely cannot recall a time in my life where I felt more ill than I did at that very moment shivering on the toilet clutching a trash can in my lap like it was a leg on the last helicopter out of Saigon. At one point in that 45 minute long session of pure hell I felt like I was on the verge of sobbing.
“Why God, why? I’ve been a good guy I swear.”
And as if to answer my prayers my body stopped trembling and my pores stopped sweating and it seemed like the worst was behind me. I felt so sick and disgusting that I immediately decided that the best course of action was for me to shower, drink as much water as I could possibly stomach at that time, and crawl back into bed to sleep off whatever it was that had just ravaged my body.
That worked quite well until I suddenly woke up at 7PM in a dark room with the same rumbling in my stomach that had heralded disaster earlier that day. And again with the vaulting, exploding, shivering, and near sobbing. After that bout of illness I debated whether I should brave putting on some clothes and finding a pharmacy, but being the guy with the ironclad stomach I was convinced I’d be alright and again drank as much water as I could and decided to try to sleep it off and see how I felt in the morning.
Surprisingly I awoke the next morning feeling quite healthy. Chipper in fact. I made my way out of the bed happy and confident that I had indeed fought off my first case of food poisoning. Despite feeling better I was still a bit weak so decided that I would spend the rest of the day packing up my belongings, grabbing a solid meal, and relaxing to avoid over-exerting myself. I had a ride to catch on MAV’s Metropol overnight train service from Berlin to Budapest that evening and I really wanted to make sure I was in tip-top shape for my arrival in Budapest as I’d already lost two full days in Berlin due to the illness. So I did just as I planned and even hired a taxi to drive me the short distance to the train station.
Waiting for the train to arrive and even the first half of my journey down to Budapest went well. I still felt a little less than perfect but I had managed not to have to run into a bathroom or throw myself over the nearest trash can for just about the entire day. After a few hours watching town after town roll by my window and reading a few chapters in my Kindle, I laid down on the rather spartan bed provided to me and zonked out, fully expecting to wake up the next morning a bit more refreshed and ready to explore.
And as is usually the case with all plans, that’s not what actually happened.
I awoke, yet again, with a start in the middle of the night. The cabin was dark and there was a pretty heavy amount of light streaming through the window. We were stopped at some town in what appeared to be the Czech Republic from the sign I could barely make out in my groggy state. I rolled over to avoid the glare from the lights and it was only then that I realized that it was quite possible that it wasn’t the light that had woken me, but the unholy bubbling and gurgling coming from my entire torso.
I quickly threw on my shoes and some clothes and stumbled down the train’s hallway to the bathroom located at the very end of car. I still thank God on a weekly basis that it was unoccupied and I didn’t have to wait for someone to finish up. Despite the lack of sudden urgency I had experienced in Berlin, this bout of illness was almost crippling. Worse than before and unlike the earlier struggle in Berlin it did indeed bring me to tears. I was so sick in so many different ways that I didn’t know what needed to be addressed first. I left my heart and soul shattered on the floor of that dirty train car bathroom after a good 30 minutes of torture before limping back to my cabin to take a few sips of water and crawl back into bed only to awaken a half hour later knowing full well that I was going to have to drag myself back down the hallway.
This process repeated itself over 15 times during the remainder of the trip. From our departure in that little town in the Czech Republic until our train pulled into Budapest’s Keleti Station, I probably spent a total of an hour in my bed and the remainder shaking my fists in fury at the sky in that cramped little bathroom. The cabin attendant brought me some tea and food in the morning about 45 minutes out of our final stop but I couldn’t manage to bring myself to consume anything other than a few sips of the tea. As we pulled into the station I quietly patted myself on the back not only for making it through the night, but also for having had the foresight in Berlin to know I might still be a bit weak and asking my hotel to send a driver to pick me up at the station. My original plan had been to take public transit to the hotel from the train station but that clearly was not going to be viable today.
The train stopped and the only thought I had in my head was finding the hotel’s driver. Luggage clasped in my hand, I slowly started making my way down the hallway to exit the train when I heard a voice calling out behind me. It was the train’s cabin attendant and he evidently wanted to have a word with me.
“Sir, you are not well. I saw and heard you all last night. I called our office and they are sending medical staff to see you. You must wait here.”
So there I was trembling and on the verge of collapsing on a cold January day in Budapest clutching my luggage in both hands like a lost child and hearing that I must remain on the train so that an ambulance can come take me to the hospital. I felt so helpless and angry at the same time. I didn’t know what to think and I didn’t know what to do. So I did what any insane, ill American would likely do in my situation – I got obnoxiously indignant and refused to cooperate.
I flat out told the cabin attendant that I would not wait and proceeded with renewed energy off the train. Much to my surprise the cabin attendant followed me and trailed behind me, shouting out in Hungarian to nearby train station staff what I’m assuming loosely translated into “Stop this American patient zero, he will vomit and defecate the bird flu across our great nation.” And yet onward I pushed through the gauntlet of Hungarian men yelling out at me to cease and desist. At the end of the train I could vaguely make out a solitary man holding up a white placard which I just knew held the 7 letters that made up my last name. He was my promised land, my salvation. He was my ticket to a warm bed and shower.
I marched up to the driver and quickly stammered out that I was the person he was waiting for. No sooner had those words left my mouth than the swarm of angry Hungarian men descended upon us, screaming at me and this poor man from the Hilton. Bewildered and confused, it took him a few seconds to get his bearings and understand what was being said. Finally he waved his hands around to silence everyone and turned to me saying, “These men say you are very sick and must go to the hospital. Do you want to go?”
Despite my body screaming for help, I replied “No, I want to go to the hotel.”
And with that he simply nodded, gave me a quick “OK”, grabbed the luggage out of my hand, and started walking toward an exit. I followed him with all the strength I had left and the swarm of angry Hungarians trailed after us like a pack of hungry dogs. The luggage was tossed into the trunk and I was shepherded into the back seat of a Mercedes before we slowly pulled out of the train station’s parking lot leaving that disaster of a train trip behind me.
Thankfully the drive to the hotel was swift and the check-in procedures at the hotel equally swift. Despite arriving at the hotel at around 9:00 AM they were merciful and had a room all set for me. I managed to hold myself together until just after I closed the door behind me in my hotel room and then it was back to the then all too familiar procedure of allowing the illness to ravage my body.
I was scheduled to be in Budapest for four days and by the third day I had yet to leave my room and had resorted to spending the night laying on the cool marble floor in the bathroom because it was simply too much effort to move back and forth between the bed, toilet, and shower. In retrospect I’m still not sure why I hadn’t simply just gone to the hospital at that point. It was pretty clear that I was battling something that was beyond just your every day run of the mill traveler’s bug. Was it pride keeping me from going? Fear? I have no idea. What I do know is that I was on the edge of a breakdown, and if things didn’t start getting better soon I would definitely have to ask for someone to help me make it to a hospital or clinic. I called home to talk to love ones and get their advice on what I should do. We all agreed – I should go to a doctor in the morning.
With that in mind I went back to sleep (still on the floor of the bathroom) and by some miracle when I awoke on that fourth day, all was right in the world again.
I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was the chicken soup I finally managed to eat that evening? Maybe it was the four servings of Activia yogurt I scarfed down before passing out in the hopes that I could restore some balance and bacteria to the war zone that was my digestive system? Or maybe it was just my time to be done being sick. Whatever it was, I woke up on that last day in Budapest feeling almost new again. I certainly wasn’t perfect, but I knew almost immediately that finally – FINALLY – the worst had passed me.
I took a shower, packed up my things, and spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the historic quarter surrounding my hotel and eating my first taste of solid food in almost six days. That night I hopped a train to Munich and managed to enjoy that journey far more than the one that had brought me into Budapest. The rest of my trip passed without incident. I was weak and had little appetite but I never found myself ill again after that last awful night on the bathroom floor in Budapest.
It remains the first and only time I’ve ever experienced illness while on the road. I’m genuinely hopeful that nothing like that ever happens to me again. Travel has brought me so many amazing experiences in my life and yet this one stands out as by far one of the most horrific and terrifying experiences of my life.
So that’s my horror story of strife and digestive pyrotechnics. Anything worse or similar you’d like to share with me?