Love in the time of diarrhoea

by Kenny Mah

I

Preparation for a trip, especially a long one, can be such a thankless task. There are the flight tickets to figure out: which routes work best, which airlines have the most affordable fares (but not so cheap that service may be unreliable), how to match connecting flights from different airlines, and so on.

I get a headache just thinking about it. The worst part, of course, is thinking about it isn’t enough. I have to actually get all of this done. I wonder if my father had had to endure the same ordeal when coordinating family vacations for us when I was a kid.

These days, this job falls onto me whenever my partner and I travel. Usually I enjoy the planning thanks in no small part to my natural OCD tendencies. Filling our travel itinerary with flight numbers and durations, various airport acronyms (e.g. AMS to GRU, LIM to IPX, and other three-letter mysteries), hotel addresses, bus/train transfers and more fill me with giddy anticipation for the upcoming trip.

This round, however, it’s been a little bit of a nightmare. Our itinerary, which usually fits neatly on a single sheet, threatens to spill over to more than thrice its normal length. The half-joking title of “Our South American Expedition” is now a painful reminder of how enormous an undertaking this is. Who knew São Paulo was so far from Easter Island? They had looked so near to each other on the map.

As I start grumbling under my breath in half-panic as the days disappear and I’m no closer to completing my task, you wander over and pat me on my shoulder, adding sagely, “You can do this, dear.”

I retort, “How do you know for sure?”

“Well, I don’t,” you admit, “but better you than me.”

You wisely walk away before I can aim a stack of visa and vaccination requirements at your head.

Cowherd, Peru

II

The first thing they warn you about when you visit the famous sights of Peru, such as the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu or Lake Titicaca (the world’s highest navigable lake), is soroche or altitude sickness. Symptoms range from mild nausea to full-on vertigo.

The second thing they warn you about is not to eat raw fruits and vegetables due to dangerous bacteria in the soil and water supply. In some South American countries, if you don’t see the food being prepared in front of you, there is always a chance that the more sensitive stomachs will suffer from food poisoning.

No worries, I thought, nothing an obsessive, over-prepared seasoned traveller like me can’t handle.

For the former, I hit the local pharmacy and loaded up on their entire stock of Diamox tablets (acetazolamide) or more commonly known as altitude sickness pills. For the latter, I simply made a vow to avoid the salad bar. (Not difficult since I’m not a fan of uncooked greens anyway; my Chinese ancestors have made sure I prefer my vegetables stir-fried.)

Easy.

Twenty-four hours in the air and two continents later, we are surrounded by llamas, salt mines and more varieties of potatoes and corn than we can sample in this lifetime. A different world: so strange and unfamiliar yet so beautiful.

You are the first to fall for its charms. In this case, almost literally fall, as you stumble on the hotel steps. You’re dizzy, you say, and slightly uncomfortable from the thin air. The altitude sickness pills seem to have worked for me but not you. The concierge kindly offers us some coca tea, made from native coca leaves which are known to help with soroche.

As you lie in bed, you tell me to head out for dinner. Not a bite for you; there’s no way you could stomach another wedge of potato or kernel of corn. Where’s a hot bowl of ramen when you need one?

A couple of hours later you wake up feeling better. I’ve got a surprise for you: cup noodles from the corner grocery. It’s not your favourite spicy Korean flavour but at least it’s not fritas or tamales.

You beam. Who needs coca tea when there’s MSG?

Basket of corn, Peru

III

You’ve always told me I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed but I never really believed you until, almost inevitably and in spite of all the precautions I took, I get food poisoning.

We have just conquered the mountain Huayna Picchu (which overlooks the ruins of Machu Picchu), and I am ravenous. The waitress at the rail-station restaurant tells me they are out of my favourite chicha morada, a Peruvian beverage made by boiling purple corn with pineapple, cinnamon, clove, and sugar.

“Would you like to try some fruit juice? We have pineapple, papaya and mandarin,” she says.

“Mandarin sounds great. Vitamin C is good for you,” I say as you roll your eyes at my favourite habit of belabouring the obvious.

By sunset I am spending most of my evening in the toilet as one loud explosion followed another: Diarrhoea.

I had forgotten that the mandarin juice was probably freshly squeezed and not boiled like my usual chicha morada. Yes, definitely not the sharpest tool.

Rather than telling me “I told you so”, you don’t say a word about the failure of my raw-fruit-avoidance campaign. Instead you make sure I drink enough water and rest enough in bed or on the bus.

Not the sharpest tool in the shed, yes, but sharp enough: I found you, didn’t I?

Lake Titicaca, Peru

IV

I remember being 23 years old and backpacking in Europe alone. I trekked from city to city — Munich to Milan, Naples to Nice, Barcelona to Paris — and making many happy mistakes along the way. There was no planning. I slept on benches at train stations; I got rides from strangers I met along the way; I danced in the streets during a thunderstorm: it was an adventure.

Ten years later I no longer travel alone; I have you. As a couple, danger is a big no-no on our To-Do list. Everything is checked and double-checked before we get into our taxi to head to the airport. (The taxi’s booked a couple of days earlier, of course.)

Holidays are safe, predictable events.

“Come and look at this, it’s so pretty! Which one do you want or shall we buy every colour?”

We are on one of the floating islands of Uros in Lake Titicaca, our feet not so firmly on the ground. Separated from the water by only a few layers of interwoven reeds, I can’t help but wonder if this is the best location for souvenir shopping, much less bargain hunting.

Your soroche’s all gone and my tummy is fine. There is laughter in the air as the Uros children run around in their colourful garb, playing their own innocent games. They aren’t frightened of the water.

I look at you as you hold up another tablecloth resplendent with tribal pre-Inca designs for me to consider, and I realise I’m not frightened either. Travel, much like love, can be scary but not when we’ve got someone to take every tentative step with us and to chase down every good deal.

“Every colour sounds good,” I say, smiling, “Let’s buy a rainbow.”

Inca stone, Peru

It was time when they both loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other moral trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera



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