Contamination is a state of mind


I was lost in thought while brushing my teeth last week, trying to puzzle something out, when I stopped short in horror. I was rinsing my mouth with tap water. In panic, I spit it out like it was Liquid Plumber, rooted around in my bag for my travel-sized mouthwash, confirmed alcohol was the main ingredient, swished it around in my mouth until my cheeks went numb, and then swallowed two probiotics that are useless since my antimalarial antibiotics wipe them out in seconds (along with any harmful water-borne bacteria – but don’t try telling that to someone whose brain can only process worst-case scenarios).

I realize there is very little risk in consuming very small quantities of the local water, but I am one who follows safety instructions to the letter (especially when those safety instructions can result in not puking). So it’s a big deal the first time in my life that I put tap water in my mouth in a country where “don’t drink the water” is protocol.

The next day I was talking to a fellow student at the language center about my fear of food and water-borne illness. He spent the last five years working in humanitarian aid in Uganda and South Sudan, always brushed his teeth with the local water, and never got sick from it. He said something about how liberating it is to just say, “Ahh, fuck it,” sometimes and throw all caution to the wind. Hahaha, he has no idea who he is talking to.

But I have too much pride to be that self-deprecating, so I will add that week by week, in my own very small way, I’ve been loosening up on the restrictions that are just not feasible for long-term travel. Much as I would like to be more of a badass, baby steps work much better for me than the “Ahh, fuck it” approach.

[Photo: JG Sobez]