It’s one meal I’ll never forget. A day before I was about to catch a bus to Nepal, I celebrated a successful tour of India as a young and inexperienced backpacker with tandoori chicken in a seedy drinking den in Patna. I bet you can guess what happened? At 3 a.m. I made a desperate dash for the toilet as it seemed that the chicken was in violent disagreement with my gut. Horrors of hell! It wasn’t looking like I was going to go travelling anywhere soon—in fact it felt like one of those days when you cannot survive more than 10 feet away from the lavatory.
I could go into graphic detail here, but I’ll spare you the scatological aphorisms and haikus. Suffice it to say, this is not a holiday memory I’ve ever posted selfies of or even recorded in my private photo albums. If anything, I’ve never told anybody of my ignominy, not even my wife, but in hindsight it is a hilarious episode to throw into a travelogue to raise the stakes. Did I make the bus to Kathmandu? Yes, thanks to around one kg of Imodium that turned my intestines into a block of concrete.
Another time, about 10 years later, I was being taken around by a stubborn guide to every single batik shop on Sri Lanka’s sunny west coast. He seemed hell-bent on getting me to buy enough batik to clothe an entire generation in hippie garb. That was when I started to experience telltale burps; evidently some kind of gastric malfunction derived from dicey seafood. The only reason I continued to shop with him was because I hoped one of the shops had a customer loo. Finally I found relief in one grimy backyard bathroom, but for days afterwards, my tummy continued to feel like a carton of champagne bottles about to self-detonate. As I was checking out of the hotel on my final day, with the train to Colombo about to leave, the manager refused to let me go and kept asking, “Why didn’t you order food from the room service? We have king prawns.”
“Can you book me a tuk-tuk? I need to be at the station in seven minutes!”
“Sorry, phone is out of order.”
I simply threw 1,500 Lankan rupees on the counter to cover the room service meals that I never ordered and ran. As I was jogging towards the railway station, a tuk-tuk passed by. “Colombo train?” the driver asked.
“Train is 8.45,” he said and pointed at his watch. It showed 8.45 a.m.
Fortunately, the train was delayed as usual. I asked the station master for the nearest restroom, because by now my tummy felt as if those champagne bottles believed that New Year’s Eve was just minutes away.
“It’ll come,” he said.
“What will come?”
“Toilet is on train. It’ll come in half an hour.”
Needless to say, the nearby coconut grove got its fair share of fertilizing that day and I got a funny column out of it. A third time, just the other year, a colonic catastrophe was caused by one of those oh-so-delectable fried mussels known locally as kallumakkaya that are a speciality served in Thalassery, the fishing town in northern Kerala. Out of culinary curiosity, I had been snacking on them all day. One individual must have been in a sour mood at having been deprived of its shell and thrown into sizzling coconut oil, only to see its life pass by. Clearly, it didn’t like being inside my tummy and started knocking on all emergency exits at around 2 a.m., sending me out of bed to projectile vomit into the wastepaper basket in Room 44 at the Hotel Malabar. Afterwards, I decided to name it Fred, to humanise it and also as an homage to that legendary turtle soup served in New Orleans at the iconic Galatoire’s where, as per tradition, the waiter always leans forward after setting down the tureen to whisper, “Its name was Fred.”
According to my research there have been some world records in this specific field among travellers. The highest known score so far is 37 t.t.b/h. (37 trips to bathroom per hour). In my 25 years of professional travel writing, I’ve sometimes felt like I’m about to breach that seemingly impossible limit, but it has never gotten that bad. By now you’re obviously wondering why I am going on about these farty aspects of travel.
The larger point is that over the years, I’ve had thousands of extraordinary meals ranging from grilled kangaroo in Australia to fried silk worms in Shanghai, from the national dish of boiled super-hot chillies in Bhutan to the weird rotten shark delicacy so beloved in Iceland, from curried goat intestines in Zimbabwe to corn dogs in San Francisco, all of which have given me miles of ideas for writing. And since 50 per cent of my travel writing is about local food, I’ve suffered as many forms of tourist diarrhoea as the Eskimos have words for snow. Yet the occasions of “Calcutta chromosomes”, “Kathmandu killer-craps”, “Pharaoh’s farts”, “Istanbul intestine”, “Beijing burps” and so on are an integral if annoying part of the overall sightseeing exercise. But even when that yummy, spicy chhole in old Delhi gave me the predictable Delhi belly, I tried to take it in my stride by humming, “Chhole ke Peechey Kya Hai?”
On the one hand, if I played it safe, I may not have suffered any inconvenience—some backpackers tramp around for years without a snafu, but they probably spend their time on the road eating yoghurt and nuts without appreciating any country’s gastronomic treasures. As for me, without Fred and his bacteria-infested buddies, I would not have been writing this piece today. Or hundreds of other stories, in which foreign eating habits become an essential and deeply intertwined part of the larger narrative of a place and its culture. So the above examples, distasteful as they may seem to dignified readers, illustrate three important aspects of successful voyages: 1. the need for preparation (never go on the road without Imodium) 2. the need for adjustment (learn to use coconut groves creatively) 3. and the need to be human (even if it is painful, give it a name like “Fred”).
One crucial aspect of travel, and that not all travellers keep in mind, is the need to analyse oneself and one’s reactions—both physical and mental—to what happens on the road, and in so doing achieve enlightenment. What have my tummy chronicles revealed to me about the art of travel? That the best laid plans don’t always work and that even then one ought to make the most of the situation. In other words, we could, for instance, bank on catching the ferry from Calcutta like the gentlemanly Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, but our train might run out of railway tracks somewhere in Central India. In Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about those early days of tourism, this unforeseen change in travel plan results in the memorable scene where Fogg rescues a virtuous maharani from a sati pyre and later marries her. Every trip we undertake needn’t result in marriage with a native, but the idea is to be prepared for the unexpected.
The art is therefore about learning to adjust when conditions change and accommodate another passenger when the bus is overcrowded. I was, for example, once robbed of all my money and travel documents by miscreants on a train in Assam, but the other passengers offered me bidis and snacks until I got to Delhi where a hotelier recognised me from previous visits as an unfussy guest, so he offered me free accommodation until I got my things in order. At other times, when I’ve had no such luck, I’ve slept on railway platforms in Salt Lake City or flea-infested bus stations in Africa or under a bush in Copenhagen.
It is the price that a frequent traveller pays, but all such minor disasters are just that—minor disasters—when compared to the larger project of the many journeys of a lifetime. There’s indeed something ridiculous about expecting everything to go perfectly without hitches. Staying at and eating in a five-star is not a safeguard either, so one may as well dive right into the adventure and take the farts as they come with the art.
Situations where one negotiates the unexpected and manages to retain an optimistic approach, rather than taking the next flight home to sulk, are the moments when one’s resolve is tested in order to reap the rewards later—hopefully. At least in theory these instances enable us to understand more about ourselves (and how to deal with crises in life) and other people (humans are essentially kind and social). Incidentally, I learnt the art of patience one day in the Himalayas when I reached a bus stop on a winding mountain road and asked the uncles hanging about if the semi-deluxe was expected soon.
“Yes,” they agreed.
I waited with them but nothing happened.
“Is it coming today?” I asked half an hour later.
“This week for sure,” said one of the men who knew a bit of English.
“This week! Why didn’t you tell me an hour ago?” I shouted back.
“Or next,” he replied coolly.
I walked to the nearest village to find accommodation until a bus came around, but I also realised that these uncles by necessity spent much of their lives waiting for transport that might or might not show up—while I was free to move on. That was 25 years ago and my first real trip anywhere in the world, but it was followed by much more learning on the road. Point is, we should interact with strangers (who are locals, the real people, while we are the strangers who just pass through) roughly in the same way that we act with our own friends. Of course, to call yourself a genuine artist of travelling, presupposes that you have backup plans—scans of important documents in the Cloud, sufficient insurance coverage, a global SIM and a kilo of Imodium—because the creative solutions that you (or others) think up on your feet are only as useful as they turn out to be.
Nonetheless, the moment you make it down alive from a steep mountain after having lost sight of the trekking path in the mist, or talk your way out of a tricky situation in which Egyptian desert militia are about to pepper your taxi with machine-gun fire and you reach the coast of the Red Sea, it will seem that no matter what absurdities you’ve gone through, the trip was so worth it that you immediately want to do it again. At least I did. Like with most art forms, the end justifies the means. You’re feeling richer and spend hours at the café bragging about your exploits. Like Baron von Munchausen’s legendary feats, your travails and triumphs grow with each retelling. If you sell your story to a magazine, you might get rich.
The final step, then, of any journey is its dissemination or else with time it will lose its meaning. The click-and-go generation might be satisfied with WhatsApping selfies, but that is no long-term solution because as the saying goes: elephants have memories, humans only Facebook. For older generations, holiday documentation was about embellishing one’s trophy shelves with Russian dolls, German schnapps glasses engraved with names of different cities, and porcelain plates where the mouth of the British Queen smiles at the spot the chateaubriand should sit. I too have stocked up on fun objects to use in daily life—a branded Greyhound thermos mug on my desk reminds me of an American overnight bus journey, a soft silk shawl from Antakya brings me back to the Mediterranean end of the ancient Silk Route the same way the polychromatic T’ang style porcelain camel on my windowsill transports me to Xi’an.
However, as we know from thousands of years of travel history, the primary form of documentation is the written journal. Julius Caesar kept one. Xuanzang (also spelled as Hsien-tsang in mustier tomes) did so when he toured India. Mark Twain, ditto. Their writings are now invaluable records of locations and how they appeared in historic times, knowledge that otherwise may have been lost forever.
If your notebook is the old-fashioned, hard-bound type that has a spine, you can stand it in the bookshelf and insert into it printouts of the nicest travel snaps—in a few years the photo format your phone uses will anyway be obsolete—and other mementoes: train tickets, crazy newspaper cuttings, the bill from that restaurant that served the best meal of the trip, exotic bottle labels or the odd foreign banknote. It may not seem like a meaningful activity to the digital generation, but years down the line, when your hard disk has been wiped out by viruses or encrypted by ransomware, diaries with their faded appendages will turn into a gold mine. They are the true history of your personal explorations. And, who knows, the start of a writing career?
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).