Camera and Flask
The Photography of Steven Gray


Camera and Flask // Steven Gray: Photographer. Storyteller. Artistic journalism and storytelling around the globe. Based in Pensacola, Florida.

Travel Blog: Why you should always stay hydrated in India, a story.

India, Day 11

Yesterday, I wrote about staying safe in India. I waxed knowledgable on the people and the culture. But that doesn't change the fact that sometimes I am just plain stupid and create problems for myself.

If there is one aspect of travel that is ubiquitous across the entire world, it is "stay hydrated." I mean, more than just when traveling, it's always a good idea to keep some water on hand. However, I have not been known to always do the smart thing...

I'm going to be changing the format of future posts in order to cover more events.


Day ten was surprisingly cool for monsoon season. The weather was still humid, but the clouds were thick in the sky and we were shielded from the brute force of the summer sun. As we motored all over the area in an open-air tempo, stopping along the way to eat a pungent meal of curry and drink a cup of chai, I never even broke a sweat. I was upbeat and feeling supremely happy that everything was going so swimmingly, as seen in the spontaneous self-portrait I took while driving home after our final village visit. Hanging out of a tempo, big grin...yeah, keep smiling dummy. Conditions were so clement that I completely forgot to inform my host that I needed to stop somewhere and refresh my depleted supply of bottled water. I had only been in the country for a week and a half, still not long enough for me to risk drinking more than an occasional sip of the native water. I had expended my last bottle of purified water that morning and the lack of palpable heat caused this not-so-insignificant fact continued to evade my full attention until we arrived back at the house that night, and by then I figured I would just wait until the next morning and pick up a few liters of water en route to the train station.

That evening, I went to bed around 9:30pm. Both the electricity and the generator were out of commission that night, so we didn't really have the option of functionally staying up later than that anyway. Not that we would want to; when you're up before the sun each morning and stay busy all day, there's rarely any need to stay up for long after dinner. This is one of the many common-sense aspects of life that come into sharp relief when you are separated from electricity and the internet for more than a day. [Food for thought.]

Returning to the the house generator was incapacitated that night and we had no electricity whatsoever, the fans that usually run at night to move the air inside my hosts' cement home also took the night off. Because of this, the air indoors was just like the night air outdoors: hot, humid and deathly still. I might have attempted sleeping outside, but my previous evenings at this location had been spent under siege by the local mosquito population. Discretion being the better part of valor, I stayed under my mosquito net indoors. That was the only smart decision I made that day, one which I negated by deciding to sleep in my synthetic polo shirt instead of my white t-shirt, which was the only breathable, cotton article I had packed for the trip. The logic behind this decision was that it would minimize the growing number of wet clothes in my duffel bag. My host’s wife was kind enough to wash my clothes for me while I was there, but even when it was dry outside, the humidity was almost thick enough for fish to safely venture out of the streams and explore the overworld. In this environment, even my quick-dry fabrics were still damp after two days spent on the line. So, in another example of less-than-stellar decision making, I slept in the same polo I had worn but not sweated in all that day.

Fast forward.

I half-awoke sometime between 1am and 2am and passed a bizarre hour in that strange Neverland between awake and asleep. You know the feeling you get when you're really tired and are aware that you should be asleep, but you stubbornly try to finish watching a film or reading a chapter in a book anyway? This is the same feeling that accompanies staying up too late at night, manifesting itself in nod-offs during a class or a church service. It has been my experience that these situations climax with a sensation of falling just before you wake up feeling startled; a feeling appropriately jargoned as "the kick" in the movie Inception. That morning, I was stuck between being awake and being asleep, but the kick never came. In that fugue-like state, I honestly wasn't sure if I was lying on a bed in India or camping in the woods outside Buford, Georgia. Yes, Buford, Georgia, just northeast of Atlanta. Don't ask me why my mind went there--I have friends there but I've never actually been to the town itself--I can only say that the mind does strange things when you can't wake up.

After a long time spent down the rabbit hole, I came to full consciousness just in time to check the assault of some mosquitoes who had found their way inside my netting; either a group of advance scouts or kamikaze-style assassins. After reducing the brave warriors to smears on the palm of my hand and wiping the remains on the net as a warning to their brethren, I took stock of my situation.

In India.

Lying on a bed.

Sweating profusely.

I don't know who originated the phrase "sweating like a stuck pig" or what the exact criteria is for that state of being, but I was there. And I knew something else was wrong. I wasn't just hot and sweaty, I felt constrictions on my neck and arms where there was no reason to feel them. I gingerly peeled off my shirt to get fresh air on more surface area on my body, but I was past the point of no return, the feeling wouldn't abate. There was no fresh air anyway; I was inside a cement house and there was no breeze coming in through the windows. I became aware of a creeping dizzy feeling, even while lying still, and I had a feeling that bad things would happen if I stood up. So I remained still for two more hours.

Around 4am (I was logging the hours on my watch), my need for fresh air trumped my dread of nausea. I heard voices in the next room and knew that if anything did go wrong, at least I would have some help available from people who were already functionally awake. Slowly, carefully, I eased myself upright and ventured out of my cavern of mosquito netting to the wooden door leading outside. I swung the door open and leaned on the frame. The air outside was just as still as the air inside, but marginally cooler, which was some relief.

But my relief was momentary. Something else wasn't right; in fact, many things immediately started being very wrong. I wasn't wearing my glasses, so the world as I saw it was already an indistinct conglomeration of shapes that looked more like mold spores than trees and buildings, but after I stood upright for just a few seconds, they were worse than blurry. As I looked at the purple horizon, the blurry shapes melted together into a dark, formless mass. Then the mass dissolved into a blue-black nothing. As a consequence of my standing up, all the blood had drained away from my head, and I was blind.

Now, I was legitimately worried, to put it mildly.

Then I felt a new sensation. I hadn't felt it in a long time but I recognized it instantly, and even in my overheated state it formed ice crystals in my bloodstream. It was a peristaltic spasm; a tell-tale cramp in my stomach accompanied by a seismic rumble at the southernmost end of my lower intestine. The warning signs had arrived; the prologue to a horrible story of which I was about to be the main character. I was dizzy, blind, and now the clock was counting down, 24-style, to a nuclear holocaust in my keister. To quote Harlan Ellison, "I have no mouth, and I must scream."

I called for my host. He rushed in from the next room, as much or more alarmed as I was, closely followed by a few of the orphans. I told him only half-coherently that I needed to get to the bathroom and tried to feel my way there on my own. On his part, he assumed I was out of my head, because he tried to guide me back to the bed. I resisted the motion and remember the moment now as a wash of hallucinatory lights and colors as I spun around in place, resisting the gentle tugs back to the bed. I finally managed to grab hold of something solid and collected my scattered mind enough to say, calmly and severely, "I need to get to the toilet. Now." In the land where people season food with the primary goal of smugly asking their western guests if it is too spicy for them, this statement always carries weight. The words were hardly out of my mouth before I was towed to the latrine by several eager sets of hands.

Crouching over the outdoor keyhole toilet, all self-consciousnessness nullified by the necessities of the situation, I spent a long period doing those unpleasant things that one does at latrines during times of gastric distress. My sight mercifully came back while I was crouched, which brought as much mental relief as the toilet trip in general brought physically, and over the next hour I figured out the correlation between my blood pressure and the act of standing up.

About an hour later, after my angry digestive system had completely emptied itself and I had sat on the outdoor stairs sucking in lungfuls of a tardy morning breeze, my host went out to get some water. After a few minutes, I felt good enough to stand up, albeit very slowly and with great care not to life my head too high, and I staggered back to bed, where I wracked my brain to deduce why my usually healthy body had collapsed into such a malfunctioning instrument.

Was it the chai I had from the roadside stand yesterday?

The chicken curry at lunch?

The turtle curry we had for dinner?

That turtle was really ugly before they cooked it...why did I eat it?

Before I could fall asleep again, I pulled out my phone and texted my mother and a nurse friend and told them what had happened. My nurse friend, a longtime servant in India, texted back first and told me exactly what was wrong with me. All other variables aside, I had classic dehydration. She gave me detailed instructions, both for standard treatment and what to do if it didn't respond to the regular protocol. I noted the advice, also taking a moment to log and timestamp my symptoms in my journal before I dozed off. I was exhausted from the inside out, and in my fuzzy mind, there would be plenty of time for treatment after I slept some more...

An hour later, I awoke to the hairiest Indian man I had ever seen looming over me. If had told me that his name was Esau, I wouldn't have even blinked. He held out a furry hand. In my frame of mind at that time, after five days of every Indian man in the state tripping over himself to shake hands with the gora, I assumed he was simply being friendly, and, groggily and automatically, I grasped his hand and shook it, weakly. He smiled and adjusted his grip--he was a doctor, and he was taking my pulse. My host had already walked into town and purchased a few bottles of water, and it only took the doctor the work of a moment to appraise the situation. He gave me rehydration salts for the water and some pills for my stomach; and spent a few minutes in conference with my host before leaving.

Upon the doc's advice, I tried to eat some soft-boiled rice to get some carbs back into my system, but to the introduction of solid food my body stolidly said "no." My colon had been empty for several hours, and after a few bites of rice, I vaulted out of bed with willpower borne of need, and sprinted outside to lean over the wall at the side of the house. In a few heaves, I expelled all of the undigested ephemera that was still in my stomach. Despite the violent reaction I had to even the blandest of foods, my hosts' nonetheless continued urging me to eat for the rest of the morning, but it would be a long time before I would want any food that day. I simultaneously avoided disagreement and gave my body time to sort itself out by sleeping as much as could.

I slept off and on until the noon hour, breaking up my naps with trips to the toilet. You see the little fellow giving a cheerful thumbs-up? That's Ajay. He was the best unlicensed medical care provider I have ever met. It was the weekend, and the kids weren't in school. Every time I went to the bathroom, Ajay stayed close. He was not about to let me pump my own water to wash my hands or rinse the toilet. Whenever I emerged from the latrine and went to the hand pump to draw a bucket of water, he cut in front of me and insisted on manning the pump himself. I don't know if Ajay will ever see this, but I want it known to the world at large that this kid is the bomb.

After a long morning of long naps and long calls, my host roused me out of my most recent nap a silver lining to brighten my bad day. Our train tickets were confirmed, and it was time to go. Happy that something had gone right that day, I shambled up out of bed and pulled on my pants and the loosest shirt I had in my bag. Still weak and mineral-deprived, I emerged from the front door to see Driver waiting for us. For all the craziness that was involved in my trip to India, when I was in that region in particular, it was always comforting to know that we had a reliable constant in our Driver.

Together, the three of us made our way up the path one final time and stepped into the Bolero. With the benefit of rest and rehydration salts in my water, I had rallied a bit back at the house, but my body lapsed back into an unshakable malaise after hiking the scant 150 meters to the Bolero. I let my head hang and tried to fall back to sleep as Driver did his thing, carrying us through the ever-changing skein of traffic with his trademarked brand of pragmatic recklessness. On his part, he was also concerned for my wellbeing. The best English he could speak was "no problem," but we had worked out a system of thumbs up and nods to communicate as needed, and like my host, it pained him to see what had happened to the visitor.

On the way into town, we made two stops. On the first stop, my host and Driver got out of the Bolero and returned with a glass of what my host called "curd." Told simply that it was "good for loose motion," I chose not to imagine the last person who might have drunk out of the glass and downed the yogurt-like concoction. With a name like "curd," I expected something like buttermilk, or perhaps something strained from milk or paneer. This drink, however, was thick and sweet, and after my morning of rice and retching, it tasted like nectar from heaven's own fruit. I suppose that they were unable to procure a true "curd" and gave me the next best thing they could find, which in hindsight I guess was a variation on a mango lassi, complete with cashews and dried fruit on top. While it might not have been as efficacious for soothing the stomach as actual buttermilk, I was nonetheless grateful for its cool sweetness.

Our second stop was in the market, where I asked for a young coconut with a lot of water. It slipped my mind at the time that coconut is replete with magnesium, and therefore more of a laxative than what was ideal for me at the time, but all I could think about at that moment was the bounty of naturally-occurying electrolytes contained in coconut water. I still didn't have an appetite, but I nonetheless craved the friendly taste of tropical fruit, making the curd/lass and coconut combination very soothing.

Another hour passed before we arrived at the train station. It was about 4pm when I bid a final goodbye to Driver, vowing at some point to send him a t-shirt that said "King of the Road." Driver left, and I followed my host into the station. I was greeted with what was, for a westerner, a completely disconcerting scene. I definitely wasn't in Kansas any more, a fact substantiated by a teeming crowd of individuals, couples, families, beggars and Ghandi look-a-like Hindu holy men filling every spare centimeter of space in the station. Some were walking about and others filled benches from edge to edge, but most of them were rested on blankets on the station floor. Surrounded by towering stacks of food-filled tiffins, families of all shapes and sizes talked and played card games while waiting for their train. The whole scene might have seemed quaint and cheerful, except that it had rained earlier in the day, and the floors of both the station and the platforms were slathered in a thick layer of conglomerate filth. Thousands of bare footprints, mounds of food wrappers, rats in the corners and frequent jettisons of paan juice erupting from almost every male mouth in sight offered some clues to the possibilities underfoot, and I made the conscious choice to not think about it further as I followed my host through the crowd.

It was just a little bit after 4pm now, and I asked when our train was due to depart.

The answer came casually: 6:30pm.

Cue an unveiled reaction of shock and horror on the American's face. Apparently, as I would learn that night and from future experiences, trains are an exception to the usual rules and customs of Indian culture. In a land where "five minutes" can mean as much as forty-five minutes, and being "on time" often requires being no more than thirty minutes late, no one ever arrives less than two hours early to board a train. I suppose it's one of the few usable excuses to knock off work early.

The timing of this latest learning experience could not have come at a worse time. Sitting on the three inches of bench where my buttocks had found purchase, I bit my lip hard to avoid making even harsher remarks at or about everything that happened around me. Exhausted and already traveling without enthusiasm, the knowledge that I was sitting in a petri dish, surrounded by a seething mass of people who were all hacking, hawking or fingering their navels, I was having trouble finding my calm center. My state of mind deteriorated further as the train's arrival was repeatedly pushed back, imprisoning us on the platform for what became an extra hour. For the first time on the trip, I gave up trying to put every inconvenience down to a cultural difference or a defect in my own impatient, western character. I scratched "this day has been hell" into my journal, among other unfriendly descriptions and turns of phrase.


After a purgatorial three and half hour wait, the train arrived, and the jubilation I felt cannot be described in mere words. If I had been able to dance without fear of restarting gastric irregularities, I would have frolicked onto the train like Dick van Dyke in his prime. Circumstances being what they were, I settled for a quiet shuffle up the steps and down the aisle. The Indian train lines have a cruel practice by which they hold twenty reserved seats open on each train until the day of departure, and I had heard of people regularly going to great pains to get a confirmed seat on their trains, including camping out at ticket offices overnight; something westerners only seem inclined to do when bargain electronics are involved. However, this train was mercifully not overbooked for this leg of the journey, and we were able to enjoy plenty of room to sprawl out and sleep overnight. After stowing my clothing bag under my feet and wedging my Gearslinger full of valuables (passport, camera, phone) between myself and the wall of the train car, I ate my first solid food since the ill-fated soft rice of the morning. Fruit was still the food that appealed to me, so I forewent the train's offerings of bryani and samsosas and ate a few baby bananas. And, praise be, they stayed down.

Feeling somewhat at ease for the first time all day, I leaned back against my bag. My head was clearing up a little bit, and I was cognizant of and regretful that I had allowed myself to be such a poor sport for the several hours we spent on the platform. It was reminder of the luxuries I enjoy every day back home, and how much I had hitherto treated my journey like a camping trip instead of real life. What I encountered at the train station--the filth, the crowds, the ever-present risk of tuberculosis--that was and is everyday life in India. As is illness. As is waiting overnight in competition with 1.2 billion other people for just the possibility of a confirmed seat on a train. I had the full experience of life in India in the concentrated space of one day, and I couldn't handle it. Since arriving at the train station, I had been determined to milk my misery for all it was worth, regardless of the great pains my host had gone to to make me as comfortable as possible.

I shook my head at my own childishness and drifted off to sleep, thanking God that the day was finally over, and curious to find out what the Indian train system would be like in the light of day.