Notes on the Taj Mahal & the Joys of Delhi Belly

There’s a moment inside the Taj Mahal, inside the inner chamber and the crush of the crowd is around you and the voices are rolling off the marble walls and you’re feeling your way with your bare feet, careful not trip over the threshold from room to room and you think, “There is a very small woman buried here and she could have never of know what her death would become.”

I felt moved at the smallness of her life in comparison to this great monument. None of her is here. Did she laugh easily? Did she rub the hem of her dress nervously when someone entered the room? Did she love fresh fruit or prefer thick rich curries instead? Did she adore her husband and children? Fight with the other wives? Feel tired on most days? Wish for something else? Even in this attempt to remember her, to honor her memory, she is still lost, forever, a ghost, a faceless woman who was loved by a man and then died.

If the Taj Mahal can not preserve a person’s memory then nothing can.

It was our second attempt at the monument, which makes it sound like an ascent up Everest, and in some ways it was grueling. It’s hot in Agra. The crowds are unrelenting. We lingered that first day, eating breakfast, checking email and arrived at the Taj’s south gate by noon. By one, our child was in tears. We hadn’t even made it inside.

From all over town you can see it, the symmetrical tomb, so much larger than you’d suspect from photos, and that evening we went to a rooftop bar and watched the sun go down into the pollution haze — a thick cloud of grey hanging on the horizon that day — and disappear without fanfare. “Wow, that was disappointing,” my husband said. I shrugged. The area around the Taj Mahal is gross — a dirty, dusty, polluted traveler’s slum. The rickshaw drivers abuse you as you walk past, hurling insults when you won’t take their fare. Young men follow you for blocks, trying to sell you a tour guide, a necklace, a map, or at least to bring you to their shop. The fact that the sunset over the Taj is little more than the sun dropping behind a wall of pollution is not disappointing, it’s just typical. It’s India: so beautiful, intriguing, mysterious, wonderful and at the same time a massive pain-in-the-ass and never quite living up to it’s own potential. You get used to it and embrace what makes it amazing. Or you leave, complain about India for the next decade and wonder what others are going on about.

The next day, after finally seeing the inside of the Taj and snapping the requisite tourist photos, (“Look I’m holding the Taj in my hand!”), we headed back to our hotel for our final night in Agra before heading back to New Delhi and a day later, flying out of India. I collapsed on the bed and felt a strange flutter in my stomach. I ignored it, chatting with my husband until the urge became unmistakable. I stood up and began walking over to the bathroom saying something like, “anyway, I think we should consider it because….”

Huuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrl.

“it’s a better option,” I finished, wiping my mouth and plopping down on the bed next to my husband.

“Did you just throw up?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“I’d don’t know actually, it just sort of happened. I feel fine though. I’m not sick.”

I’m somewhat superstitious about getting sick — a leftover from my New Agey childhood and upbringing — where positive thoughts could make you feel better and negative ones could draw illness towards you. I dropped the philosophy but this deep-seated desire to never admit pending illness still lingers. It drives my husband mad.

Huuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrlll.

“Seriously, that’s not normal, Christine. You’re sick. We should get some medicine.”

“NoooooOoOOOooOo…” I fell back onto the bed pulling the comforter over my head.

“Oh god, not again!” I ran back into the bathroom. After I was finished, I brought the shower bucket into the bed with me, where I dry heaved into it for the rest of the night.

This was my introduction to Delhi Belly. I’ve been sick before, but never so violently ill. The next morning I was tender, a bit weak and certainly dehydrated, but I felt, well, okay. We made the drive to New Delhi with no further vomiting, and I felt for sure I had passed the worst of it.

This is where I should be laughing at myself in hindsight.

The thing about Delhi Belly is that it’s not just your regular infection. You don’t just get “sick” in India, but you become a host. It lives with you, for days or weeks, flaring up and then dying back down, responding to antibiotics and then not, seemingly disappearing completely until one day you’re puking at the base of the Acropolis in Greece, two countries away from your time in India. It’s like India itself: resilient, strong and crafty. But I didn’t know that then. Then, I was in New Delhi on my way to Dubai. I hadn’t had the now infamous Athens-incident and in my mind, I was well on my way to making a full recovery.

As soon as we reached cruising altitude, I knew I was completely screwed. My stomach was cramping painfully every 30 seconds and I felt the familiar wave of nausea creeping up. I was trapped in a window seat. Lunch service began. I begged off on food but the smell of my husband’s chicken biryami made me gag in disgust. Like the night after a bad tequila bender, my body had associated the smell of what I had ingested (in this case Indian food) with being ill and now I couldn’t stand the smell of it. Of course, I was also surrounded by a few hundred people tucking into the Indian dish of their choice.

“Oh god… I have to get up…”

I might have blacked out a bit at this point. I remember sweating. Climbing over the seat. Covering my face from the smell of row after row of Indian food parcels being cracked open: pickled vegetables, curd, curries, seasoned rices. I pushed my way into the bathroom and stripped my pants off, shitting and vomiting at the same time.

Like I said, it was sort of a blur.  Sometime later, I found myself heavily panting in a bathroom no bigger than the smallest closet that looked like something very disgusting had exploded in it.

You see, the thing with vomiting into a sink is that as much as you think it’s going to wash down, it really, really isn’t. I used all of the paper towels to transfer my sick to the toilet. I washed my face. I used the complimentary Jet Airways Eau de Parfume as a safe guard against future smells. Then I waited.

Just as I was fairly convinced I was in the clear to head back to my seat, it came, the raucous vomiting I was learning to anticipate, this time into the toilet, a gamble considering my uneasy bowels but I was already out of paper towels.

At this point I thought, “Oh no, what if someone hears me?”

Because obviously, that’s the most important thing right now, as if I’m some 16 year old girl with an eating disorder, not that I’m going to have to spend the next four hours writhing in pain on this flight. So, in order to cover it up, I flush. Vomit, flush, vomit.

Naturally, at this point, my glasses fall off my sweat covered face, sliding down towards the black hole of the airline toilet, no doubt directly into the belly of the plane, where I’d never see them again.

“Noooo!”

It’s all slow-motion and I’m just watching my glasses go away, too weak to even reach for them, bracing myself against the cramped bathroom walls.

Pppppfffffump. The toilet hole seals itself and the air sucking drone of the flush is cut off. My glasses sit neatly inside the bowl.

“Woah.”

Back in my seat, my husband looks at me warily. “Are you okay?”

“No, not at all.”

And just like that, my time in India was over, capped with both the best and worst experiences of my trip, seeing the Taj Mahal and getting Delhi Belly after almost three months of avoiding it.  Seems entirely too fitting.

27 Comments

  1. i was once likewise struck while boarding a plane home. spent almost 6 hours holed up in an airplane toilet sweating, shivering, sh*tting, barfing.

    you have my sympathies. hope you’re all feeling better.

  2. This was an absolutely awesome post. It made me laugh; it made me feel ill; it made me sympathize. Really well told. 🙂

  3. Oh Christine, so sorry you had to go through that! At least in retrospect it makes for a great story 🙂 We missed you guys by about 4 days in Goa which was too bad. Even though we were only in India for 2 weeks we experienced similar highs and lows (yes we both got sick). Despite the lows, and some of them were very, very low, I can’t wait to go back. The Taj is definitely on our must do list.

  4. That is one of my nightmares, being violently sick on an airplane. I was surprised at how gross Agra was outside of the Taj Mahal. It was so hot when I was there for 3 days, we only ventured out for a few hours at a time. Luckily I never got Delhi belly at all in India. Hopefully you can get over your sickness without it flaring up again randomly.

  5. SwapHappy

    I think only people who wear glasses can understand the fear of losing them…thanks for making me laugh with this post!

  6. I have a love hate relationship with India and I can totally relate to many bouts of deli belly. I am a firm believer of positive thinking when your sick and sometimes it just doesn’t work and no matter what, your just going to throw everything up, even if it is only water. Good to here you recovered though. We loved viewing the Taj Mahal as well but the crowds are absolutely crazy there and it so damn hot!

  7. I love how you have managed to turn this tale into a humorous memory to share with the rest of the world! It is stories like this that kind of make me not want to go to India, even though it has intrigued me for years. I know I won’t let it put me off, but I still dread the inevitable Delhi Belly because I love Indian food and will end up gorging myself on all sorts! Haha.

  8. Sorry to hear that, I knew you were sick but didn’t know it was that bad…. I hope you’re feeling better though in Greece. 🙂

  9. Thanks for the extreme visuals! A good writer can always make you feel like you’re with them in the same room, even the aircraft lavatory. 🙂

  10. I’ve had a similar plane experience, big difference is that mine was self-induced with alcohol. Ohhh, but I felt your pain in this article. So sorry you had to go through that!

  11. I knew there was more to this story when I read, “The thing about Delhi Belly is that it’s not just your regular infection.”

    Not just a ‘regular’ infection. I send you hugs, I know you’re better now but the memories must still be a bit uncomfortable.

  12. This sounds so familiar, I hear every single moment of your sickness as I had exactly the same in India. Only difference, I was in Jaipur!
    The nausea (and vomiting) just doesn’t stop, no matter how many times you do it. Even when you think your stomach is empty and you threw up everything you ate in the past three months.
    This took me pretty aback, as I very rarely get sick and never to that point. Also, I’ve been living in East Asia for nine months, I thought I had gotten used to it. Seems like India is a case apart…

  13. holy hell! i feel like this post is such a fantastic illustration of how you describe india itself- “so beautiful, intriguing, mysterious, wonderful and at the same time a massive pain-in-the-ass.” the beauty in this case is the way you tell this story- such gorgeous writing! and the delhi belly, well…the massive pain in the ass (and even tough to READ about, let alone experience!) hope you’re feeling better christine. 🙂

  14. Oh my…I really feel for you. I love that you have a such a wry sense of humour about it though – you definitely need to look at the lighter side of these things otherwise they’ll get the better of you!

    Beautiful writing about the Taj, too 🙂

  15. I recently ate a bad oyster and had something similar for four days, or two weeks, depending on how you look at it. I see possible food posioning everywhere now….in outdoor food vendors, in my fridge, in mayo.. I really would like to go to India, but your story frightens me! Delhi Belly and all, was it worth it?

    • Yes, it’s definitely worth it and it’s a good point — food poisoning is absolutely everywhere — I could have gotten this sick eating bad shellfish back home. So I would never avoid India over it and the fact is, I traveled around India for 3 months, eating local indian food every day at restaurants and I had no other problems, so really it was just bad luck.

  16. Oh, Christine! I hope you’re feeling much better now and no longer a “host” to Delhi Belly. I think it’s a sign of your writing skills that you’ve turned a fairly horrible experience into a relate-able story without complaining.

  17. Dear Christine,
    I’ve been reading your wonderful blog for what feels like a very long time now, and this to me is your most powerful post ever! You had me clutching my stomach in sympathy. Remarkable writing.

  18. Yikes!!! That sounds absolutely awful, Christine. I’m sure there is nothing worse than getting sick on a plane in those cramped little so-called bathrooms. I have heard horror stories about Delhi Belly, and as someone who already has an incredible sensitive stomach, I am so fearful of going there! I would probably have to live off protein bars and bottled water. Anyway, I hope you’re feeling like yourself again! And I love the honesty 🙂

  19. I don’t usually like articles about vomiting but found this one unusually enticing. I couldn’t stop reading! I can’t imagine being that sick on an airplane even if I was in First class!

    Excellent writing.. . and hope you are better now.

  20. What a nightmare, getting violently ill on an airplane. At least you finally made it to the Taj Mahal :/
    I can totally sympathize with your husband b/c my fiancé has the same annoying habit of always acting like he is not sick. Even when he is bleeding and desperately needing an emergency room, he is telling me “I’m fine” argh!!!

  21. Oh man! I have been there. I was lucky and spared delhi belly when in india, but i caught a parasite on a recent trip to mexico. parasites are so tricky for exactly the reason you describe: you think you’re fine till you’re REALLY not.

    hope you’re feeling better! did you ever get medicine?

  22. LOL…..awesome! Sorry I shouldn’t be laughing but hey vomiting never sounded this funny. Anyways how you guy’s doing? Missing Cole! Cheers 🙂

  23. I’ve got Delhi Belly at the moment after being in India for 2 weeks…you describe it so well – The ‘feeling fine’ right up until you’re hovering over a toilet bowl, and somehow going from relishing Delhi street food to now gagging at the mere thought of a chapati!

    Great article, I hope you are feeling better now!

  24. Pingback: What Traveling in India Will Teach You About Traveling the World | AirTreks Travel Blog

  25. Anonymous

    it is true that at taj mahal their hand been horror

Navigate