Eating a Forbidden Fruit and Getting Sick in Vietnam
I spent at least 10 of my first 48 hours in Vietnam crouched over a toilet bowl. The feeling had crept up on me in my sleep – first a dull throbbing ache in the bottom of my stomach, then the full body agony and acidic esophageal surge that sent me careening towards the bathroom. Between retches and gags, I could hear the bugs and animals of the forest sighing sympathetically along with my friends as they huddled outside after my frenzied dash out of our room had woken them. In those moments of despair, I accepted defeat and allowed myself to lie on the cool dirt floor until the sensation bubbled up once more.
To this day, I’m not entirely sure what made me sick, but I have a hunch. As part of my college study abroad program, my peers and I were spending a week at the Can Tho University College of Agriculture & Applied Biology in the rural town of Hoa An. We were eating lunch at the school’s canteen earlier that day after dragging ourselves off of the air-conditioned bus into the muggy Southern Vietnam heat.
Without thinking if and where it had been washed, I succumbed to my desires Eve-style and began munching down on the juicy forbidden fruit.
As I stirred slow circles in my pho, unable to force hot liquids into my sweaty body, an adorable Vietnamese girl plopped herself into the chair next to me. She was the daughter of the cook and couldn’t speak any English, but she smiled and held out a beautiful green fruit for me to take – a star apple, as I later learned. Without thinking if and where it had been washed, I succumbed to my desires Eve-style and began munching down on the juicy forbidden fruit. Rookie mistake.
What followed was an endless cycle of vomiting, dry heaving, and hating my existence. The tiny dorm cot in the room of twelve became my den, a thick mosquito net concealing me from the cruel world beyond. Luckily, my roommates helped me find ibuprofen, rehydration salts, and bottled water in my bag – after all, I traveled prepared – and coddled me a little before class. “Feel better, Sam,” they intoned pityingly before leaving the room. I whined in acceptance of their condolences and daintily sipped my rehydration fluids, which tasted like sweat and watered-down orange Powerade.
A lingering, sour smell had bothered me that morning as I futilely attempted to nap and pity myself. I had chalked it up to the insecticide on the mosquito net and figured I’d get used to it. My classmates passed in and out of the room on their way to lunch on a farm for a lesson in agronomic engineering. As they waved goodbye a significant distance from my bed, it dawned on me that the pungent odor wasn’t coming from the mosquito net – it was emanating from my putrid, slovenly body.
When traveling, staying healthy is a test of savvy, but recovering is a test of will.
It was in that moment I realized that I had to look myself in that dingy bathroom mirror and command myself – “Feel better, Sam!” – before taking that concoction of liquid and pills like someone who actually wanted to recover and see all that Vietnam had to offer outside of my room.
When traveling, staying healthy is a test of savvy, but recovering is a test of will. No one ever intends to get sick abroad, but it inevitably happens, even to the most seasoned globetrotters. While I’d never discredit the importance of doctors and medicine, they can only do so much if you aren’t determined to make the most of your trip despite the gastric circumstances. I’m proud to say that I fully recovered after just under a day of bed rest, hydration, and sporadic vomiting. When I came to dinner, my friends were pleasantly surprised that I was up, about, and showered.
The little girl offered me fruit once again, but I politely declined in the broken Vietnamese I had picked up during my hours of bed rest, exchanging a look of understanding with the reflection in my water bottle.
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