As someone who has travelled fairly extensively in Asia and is a vegetarian, I considered myself immune to all but the most insidious cases of food poisoning. You get used to scanning for the gastrointestinally problematic. Check the ice, avoid the salad, look for the popular street food stalls, is it hot? Can you peel it? It becomes second nature when travelling in Asia. Singapore though has incredibly high food safety standards, you’d be hard-pressed to get sick here without having to import some Indonesian tap water. As easy as it would be to fall into blasé patterns, usually I’m very aware that as soon as you step off an aerobridge at Changi you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. My history of digestive trauma has been fairly well-documented, but the last episode was years ago, at the end of my last trip to India. These factors meant that my food guard was down on our recent trip to Europe. Way down. As in, “Europe, do your worst!” down.
It was a perfect storm. Living in Asia snobbery (“Please, if that road-side lassi stand didn’t make me sick, nothing will!”), assumptions of vegetarian immunity (“Bacteria eats rotten flesh, not me. Veggie power!), combined with a long spell between attacks (“I am the possessor of the iron stomach! Haahahahaha!”). Naturally, it all came crashing down, in Barcelona of all places. A beautiful city of culture, art and architecture, and one that’s famous for food and drink too. On paper, we did everything right. A restaurant close to our hotel, in the tourist district but still crowded with locals every day. We ordered a selection of tapas, nothing that we hadn’t tried before, nothing outlandish. Everything tasted great. We paid and retired for the evening. Everything was fine.
Until a few hours later. I woke to Partner 2 leaping out of bed to stagger to the bathroom and make some very upsetting noises. The full spectrum. Use your imagination. When he came back to bed, his face was grey and his hand shook as he took a sip from his water bottle. “I don’t think that dinner was good. How are you feeling?” I was fine, I told him and made some assorted comforting noises and sentiments. Partner 2 is a bit notorious for having a delicate stomach, as much as he loathes to admit it. I was not concerned. It must have been whatever meat he and his sister shared.
As Partner 2 lay sweating in the foetal position, just waiting for his next urgent dash to the bathroom, I went back to sleep. Empathetic as always. Looking back on it now seems like a horror movie when the girl goes down into the dark basement alone. Stop, stupid girl, obviously you’re going to get murdered! But it’s always too late. Hindsight is 20/20.
Sure enough, an hour or so later, I awoke to stabbing pains in my stomach and ran to the bathroom to revisit dinner. Again and again. In between attacks of vomiting, I remembered two things. The first that males generally have faster metabolisms than females. The second, and more critical point, was that no-one had ordered any meat. We had all shared vegetarian tapas.
After a fitful few hours of sleep punctuated by sprints to the bathroom to purge any remaining stomach contents, there was a resigned knock on the door. Partner 2’s sister was at the door looking like she’d been hit by a truck. We all sat on the bed trying to comprehend the fact that in just a few hours we had to get in a taxi and go to the airport, then fly to London, then sit on a train for an hour. Drugs. We needed drugs. Partner 2 and his sister bravely went on a mission across the road to the chemist while I threw up a few more times for good measure.
Retrospectively, it could have been a lot worse. The hotel gave us late check out and the medicine we procured gave us a few hours of precious vomit-free sleep and meant we could keep down some water. By the time we had to head to the airport, after some sleep, electrolytes and a shower, our collective condition has been upgraded from “Kill me now” to just “Awful”. Needless to say it was a long taxi ride, I clutched a plastic bag fearfully, the electrolytes I had drunk threatening to reappear at any moment. But we made it. I even ate something at the airport. The flight was mercifully short and our Uber driver was right where we needed him to be.
I think he was in real danger of being hugged by his three passengers. Despite the signs of inevitable recovery, I had never been so happy to see a blow-up mattress before in my life. We collapsed into bed and slept for 12 hours. Barcelona had bested us. My iron stomach had been demoted back to a regular human organ. And I doubt I’ll ever eat tapas again.