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Posted by Jessica on Jul 7, 2009
Making Peace with Poo

I brought a friend home with me from Colombia. No, not a two-legged friend. And no, not even a four-legged friend like the little guy we adopted from Thailand.

No, this friend is living in my tummy. He (I can only presume it's a "he" given the trouble it's caused) has enjoyed wrecking havoc in my stomach over the recent holiday weekend here in the States. The fireworks were not the only thing exploding in Cape Cod this past weekend. And thus I am writing today in-between runs (so to speak) to the bathroom.

The traveler

No matter how long you're traveling for or where you're traveling to, you need to make peace with the fact that you will poo yourself (or at least come damn close) at some point in time.

Perhaps Tim and I were were particularly unlucky. But while traveling with one another for 18 months – and even during our shorter travels since then – we became intimately aware of the color and consistency of one another's products when things were going south, so to speak (often through broadcasts announcements through a closed bathroom door). You see, learning these things would give each of us insight into what was coming next, uh, down the pipe.

During our trip around the world, I was sick with traveler's woe for a few days in Argentina, but it hit Tim much harder and he was out for nearly two weeks. In Peru (twice) and again in Ecuador, I got hit for a week at a time with another tummy-bug. But then we didn't get sick again until Thailand, where Tim was laid up for one week and I was affected for a few days. (Of these 7 times, we're pretty certain 5 times were caused by local water. But more on that later.)

And yes, each of us had a few, uh, accidents on our travels too. One of mine happened in the shared kitchen of a hostel. One of Tim's happened on a long-distance bus. But these, my dear friends, are entertaining (if not horribly embarrassing) stories for another time.

But don't take my word for it: the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US estimates between 25%-50% of international travelers develop diarrhea while traveling or when they return home. And remember, even if you're not traveling, you can still get a runny tummy. The nasty bacteria that give folks traveler's woe are the same nasties that live where you live, only you might not notice them as much at home.

Food poisoning, water contamination, unwashed hands...they're everywhere we look, even in the US, even in England. An so there's no point in being scared about getting sick when you travel because it's likely you will at some time or another. But there are a few things you can do while traveling to decrease your chances of becoming sick. And when you are laid up for a bit, there are a few things you can do to make yourself more comfortable too.

At some point we'll share our tips with making yourself more comfortable when you say "whoah!" from the traveler's woe. But for this week, let's stick with some of the basic rules while traveling.

Watch what you eat

One of the easiest ways to keep healthy while traveling is to watch what you eat. Seems simple, right? But what exactly does that mean?

A good rule of thumb is don't eat at establishments that seem particularly unclean. Keep in mind that when you travel what you think is clean and what is really clean might be a bit different. Eating at a restaurant on the side of the road with a dirt floor, toilet paper for napkins, smog and soot from the traffic located two feet away, and feral dogs wandering about isn't always comfortable. But it's probably clean.

Don't eat salad or lettuce in countries where you can't drink the water. Remember, veggies and fruits are often washed in local water and can soak it all up. So push the lettuce to the side and eat around it. But if you eat a little bit of it, don't worry. It might not bother you in the slightest.

Many travelers will tell you to avoid food carts like the plague, but we tend to prefer them because we can see the food being cooked in front of us. (Though the real reason is simply because food cart food is tasty!) Think about all those reality TV shows where Gordon Ramsey is exposing rats and cockroaches and mold in kitchens throughout the US and England. Now, would you like to eat at one of those establishments? Or maybe you'll opt for the food cart, where (with your own eyes as opposed to a hidden camera) you can clearly see how clean and how well-cooked everything is to order?

(I'm not suggesting you avoid restaurants, of course. I'm only suggesting that food carts aren't more likely to be filled with nasty things than your own kitchen.)

If you want some fruit for a snack, stick to fruits that have outer layers, like pineapples, bananas, or mangoes. Any fruit that you have to peel to eat is a fruit that wasn't washed, soaked, or rinsed in local water. Or, if it was, it was protected.

Be careful what you drink

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than a billion people don't have access to potable water. It goes without saying that access to clean water is a much bigger issue that goes well beyond a mere travel blog, so we'll just stick with the travel part, shall we? Given that many developing countries you'll travel in won't have water you can drink from the tap, you'll become good friends with bottled water. Inexpensive and available nearly everywhere, bottled water is amazing. (For those concerned about adding more plastic to landfills, there's always the water purifying route too.)

Depending on how sensitive your tummy might be (and where you're currently traveling), you might also want to fish out those ice cubes from your drink (or just drink it quickly before the ice melts) and pass on the freshly squeezed fruit juices if they're mixed with water too. Technically you can brush your teeth with local water (I never did, but Tim always did), but just be sure not to swallow too much. And you'll be fine showering anywhere, assuming of course you're not gulping down the water while you scrub.

It should be noted that water quality isn't always clear cut. For example, while you can't drink the tap water in Cambodia, you can partake in their ice. Those giant blocks of ice you see being delivered on the backs of motos? They're made from purified water, so there's no need to take them out of your beer. (Don't ask, it's just what they do there.) But if you're unsure about the water quality in the country you're traveling in, it's probably best to be more cautious until you can find out for sure from research online, in your guidebook, or from the staff at your hotel or hostel.

And lest you think this is something that only happens in countries where the water isn't potable, take the lesson of my oldest sister to heart. She gets traveler's woe when she drinks tap water while traveling in the US. (I'm sure she'll be super pleased that I shared that tidbit with all of you!) When we traveled to Mexico City, she was fine because she was drinking bottled water. But when she traveled to Philadelphia a few weeks later? She got sick because she dared to have some water at her hotel. (And before someone makes a comment about Philly water, she's gotten sick from the water in other major US cities too. Scout's honor.)

Listen to what your Mom always said

I shouldn't have to say this one, but really: wash your hands after using the toilet. (And yes, washing your hands in the local water is fine.) I personally don't go out of my way to touch anything in a public bathroom, so I'll sometimes use a bit of paper to open and lock the stall door, for example. (Though that's not really because I'm worried about getting sick. I'm just kind of picky about what I touch in public bathrooms.)

If there's no sink available (or if the sink seems dirtier than your hands feel!), then remember the joy of hand sanitizer. Whether or not the stuff really does anything, I don't want to know. But I certainly feel better after I use it and so Tim always has some in his pocket when we travel.

If you're really good then you'll wash your hands before you eat too, but I'll admit I've never been that good. If you're a nail biter, it might also help to cease and desist that activity while traveling. Though I definitely failed on that one too.

I've noticed that the grocery store near us provides Clorox wipes next to the grocery carts. I've seen a few people in airports using them too. I personally think that's going a bit over the top, but if it makes you feel more comfortable (and you have a backpack large enough to carry the number of wipes you would need while traveling), then go for it. Just don't be surprised if you raise a few curious eyebrows out in the world. (Should I mention the American mother and daughter behind us in line in Bogota? While wearing surgical masks inside the airport, they were also dousing their hands repeatedly in hand sanitizer, so much so that my eyes started to burn. Oi.)

A little dirt and a few new germs aren't going to kill you. (Well, usually not.) So washing your hands, keeping your fingers out of your mouth, and using hand sanitizer now and then should do the trick just fine. (Don't forget to sit up straight, feed the dog, and do all your homework too, of course.)

In the end, so to speak

No matter how particular you are about what you eat, no matter how careful you are about what you drink, and no matter how many times you wash your hands, it's pretty likely you'll still get sick with the traveler's woe when traveling. (And don't even get me started on the usual things like strep throat and flu. Just because you're not at home, doesn't mean you don't get sicky!) And that's okay. It's not the end of the world. It's just a runny tummy in another country.

All you can do is try to make healthy, informed choices while you travel (i.e. know where you can drink the water, avoid water-clogged veggies, etc). Don't go overboard, of course, just do the best you can. And if you get sick, take solace in the fact that at least when you return home you'll be able to say something along the lines of, "You think this cold is bad? This is nothing compared to the stomach flu I had in Tanzania last year."

(I know, it's a very small solace, but we have to find joy wherever we can when we're sitting on the toilet all day long. Right? Right.)

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July 7, 2009 at 11:13am
I'm going to Brazil later this month, my first international trip in many many years. I always enjoy your tips and as someone who doesn't deal very well with uncertainty, they are quite helpful to me. While I do like your pictures, I was relieved that none accompanied this post. ;)
Jessica the hedgehog
July 7, 2009 at 4:36pm
LOL! You know, I was tempted to include a few photos of squat toilets in Cambodia…but then I thought if folks had already worked up the nerve to click on a link that says "Making Peace with Poo" then there's no need to push 'em over the edge. :D

Thanks for the kind words about our tips (and our photos). That's really lovely to hear. :) I hope your upcoming trip to Brazil is a success! We haven't made it to Brazil just yet, so I'd love to hear all about your time there when you get back. :)

Philsie
July 8, 2009 at 11:40am
Do you use your elbow to open doors?..or maybe touch stuff
Jessica the hedgehog
July 8, 2009 at 1:28pm
When you guys visit us in a few weeks, China is going to nibble your ears off when you're sleeping. :)
JamieO
July 9, 2009 at 4:32pm
We always said in Central America, "You know it's a good day when you can trust a fart."
Isn't it amazing how, erm, intimate you become not only with your own poo– but the poo of those traveling with you? It seems to be a topic of conversation daily.
Deb
July 10, 2009 at 8:35am
Trust you guys to make even a story about poo sound amusing! Great advice, especially the part about the food carts – they have the yummiest food and often the cleanest! You made me hungry.

You guys are way more careful than me – I am opposed to hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial soap because I think some germs are good for building immunity :). Luckily, in all my travels I have only had two bouts of stomach problems, both my own fault for eating things I knew I shouldn't have. One ended up having a permanent effect on my digestive system and led me to become vegetarian because of it (I drank a lassi at a dodgy restaurant in Calcutta – baaaad move!).

One more thing to add for people to be aware of: the 'water bottle scam' where they refill water bottles with tap water and sell it again, with the cap replaced to make it look like new.

I actually find the food in developing countries to be healthier than in North America, since it is usually fresh from local producers who don't use pesticides. I often have 'runny poo' for two or three weeks after returning home from a long trip, until my stomach adjusts to the chemical-laden foods we sell here.

I hope you've recovered by now Jessica, and have ditched that extra souvenir you didn't mean to bring home with you!

Jessica the hedgehog
July 10, 2009 at 4:07pm

We always said in Central America, "You know it's a good day when you can trust a fart."

JamieO – LOL! You had both Tim and me smiling with that quote. We'll have to use that when we go to India later this year. :)

Isn't it amazing how, erm, intimate you become not only with your own poo– but the poo of those traveling with you?

It's definitely amusing, isn't it? When we returned home, I forgot that talking about my poo wasn't really normal (while sitting around a table with friends and a few beers) like it was when we met other travelers on the road! :)

Jessica the hedgehog
July 10, 2009 at 4:12pm
Deb – Thanks for the well wishes (and the tip about the water bottle scam)! It's been about 10 days and I'm finally feeling human again. I had put off taking the Cipro because it had seemed like I was getting better…but after 7 days in the bathroom, I said enough was enough. (Ah, how I love thee Cipro.)

I have made a very big mental note about not having a lassi in Calcutta. Or at least not at a dodgy restaurant. I'm so sorry to hear how much trouble that caused. :( Have you found traveling as a vegetarian to be more challenging?

Deb
July 17, 2009 at 2:16pm
"Have you found traveling as a vegetarian to be more challenging?"

It depends on the country – some are easier than others. Argentina in particular was difficult since they have such a meat-based diet.
Usually it's not a problem, most countries have delicious vegetarian dishes. But I will on occasion eat chicken if there's nothing else available.

Jessica the hedgehog
July 17, 2009 at 6:52pm
I can definitely see how Argentina would have posed a bit of a problem. Even Tim (who is as carnivorous as a person can possibly get) was begging for salads and veggies at the end of our three months there! :)

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