It finally got me. The deadly blister on the heel of the fantastic ex-pat experience. The reason, perhaps, why 70% of Americans don’t own a passport. The inevitable initiation that tests how much you really like your new exotic environment, all the beautiful sunshine, and the exciting development work. The devil-child birthed through the marriage of a new microbial environment and the occasionally dubious sanitation practices of my adopted country.
It seems rude to talk about dubious sanitation practices, and it makes me want to retract that statement. On the other hand, many, many people who have lived here for a very, very long time have told me that the most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food. (They usually say this as a way to minimize concerns about terrorists attacks. As in, “Nah…don’t worry about bombings. The most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food.”)
But, as we all know, I love food. I don’t ever want to be on the wrong side of food. So I started the relationship slowly and carefully, testing things out to make sure I wasn’t going to get burned. And everything went so well at first. I watched, sympathetic but relieved, as one by one, every member of our team went down except for me. It was immediately clear every morning whether a target had been hit: obvious in the haggard look of the haven’t-slept, the grimace at the sight of breakfast eggs, the cautious “Oooh, no thanks, my stomach isn’t doing so well.” I, however, seemed immune. As the days passed and nothing got me, I grew cocky. I thought my naturopath-recommended regimen of probiotics, herbal tinctures and something called “Omphalia” was a good luck charm that could ward off all invisible nastiness.
As happens in so many relationships, I grew complacent. Maybe I forgot to take my omphalia once in a while. Maybe I really wanted that salad of raw cucumbers and carrots at a random restaurant and decided I deserved it. Maybe I wanted to eat an apple without peeling it first. Maybe I should have known better.
I guess I shouldn’t get too graphic. (Although modesty gets thrown out the window early here. It no longer makes any impression whatsoever when one of my colleagues announces it is their turn to “sit by the door” during the meeting in case they have to run out, emergency-style). But let’s just say that of the many things I thought I would try for the first time upon moving to South Asia, giving a stool sample to a total stranger at the American Embassy was never on that list. Too much information? Well, I did promise you tales about parasites in an early post long ago, when I was still sitting blithely in Boston downing raw, unwashed vegetables by the truckload and not even knowing what activated charcoal is (answer: a pretty handy thing to have around).
The good news is, I don’t have parasites. Just a particularly nasty helping of bad bacteria that hitched a secret ride somewhere, in something I ate. It could have been anything, so no plate, no treat, no delicacy is without suspicion now. The chicken sandwich that was part of my daily lunch routine at the Guest House, the delicious lamb curry at that restaurant at the Marriott, the harmless looking smoothie from the American Club (although supposedly they are extra vigilant there). Like a girl who’s been dumped for the first time, I’m no longer as trusting as I was before. From now on, only the safest of food should apply.
I’m finally on the upswing, after being totally laid low and feverish for 24 hours, pretty miserable for an additional 48, and working not so much “from home” as “from bed” on the worst day of the experience. A combination of probiotics (doubling up on the dosage really does help), lots of water with a heavy dash of Celtic sea salt to replace lost minerals, an all-bland white toast diet, and the super nice people at the embassy’s health unit are to thank for my recovery. I’m still here, still in love with Pakistan, and almost ready to eat again.