How to Avoid Delhi Belly

The qualification for daring to write such a blog is that we recently spent three weeks travelling through Southern India on dirty, sardine packed buses, on trains that were so unclean that even the flies got off at each stop, to cafes without adequate sanitation such as running water from the one tap in the loo with no paper with the one toilet which might flush if your luck was in.

We ate and drank well, we didn’t wear plague suits and none of us got even slightly ill.

We could have just been very, very lucky as over 70% of all visitors to India succumb to the DB or it could be because we had a disciplined regime that we adhered to, what Buddhists might refer to as mindfulness – and that is the first thing you must have – especially in India.  If you’re the sort of person who loses their keys every five minutes then go to Disneyland or Center Parcs instead.

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I was given lots of advice about the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’ for months before the trip. None of it however was how to actually avoid it but what to do when you inevitably get it which included, ‘take lots of Immodium’ and  ‘if you’re not better within 48 hours go and see a doctor’ – the latter advice has to be noted. We met a frantic girl whose boyfriend had been losing weight at an accelerating weight she said for over three days and she needed to go to Goa. We said that he needed to go to a doctor and not the Dr Pepper sort she was buying to hydrate him.

The best bit of really bad advice I was given was, ‘you’re going to get it whatever you do, so you may as well, as soon as you get there, drink a few pints of water straight from the taps and get it over with’ – DO NOT DO THIS. The favourite tip I collected and one I did put in to my top pocket was, ‘don’t travel on buses with it, as they don’t have toilets and they don’t stop’ – a combination, I admit, that I wouldn’t like to put to the test.

So, here is a list I complied mentally in the quieter moments on the long train rides;

Don’t expect immunity by staying or more particularly eating in 4 and 5 star hotels or restaurants. Eating at a 5 star and expecting to stay DB free is like buying a Volvo for safety reasons and then constantly pulling out at junctions in front of oncoming traffic thinking the side impact bars are made of armoured iron. We all know those Volvo drivers.

The rules are not necessarily about where you eat but what you eat and how it is cooked and whether all the staff who handle your food and that you may never see have washed their hands.  It is far, far safer to eat from a street vendor wearing disposable gloves (a lot do) who has just cooked your food right in front of you than it is to put literal blind faith into an unseen chef in the sealed off kitchen.

Forget all about meat in India. You don’t need it and the risk from illness is high. The Hindu diet is vegetarian and rather than having to endure the token Vegetable Biryani at your local curry house which always tastes like a meat dish with the meat removed, the quantity of vegetarian dishes to be enjoyed in India are incalculable and all the ones I tried were astonishingly gorgeous, particularly Pea and Cashew Nut Curry and of course any non-meat Dosa. If you think you can’t live without meat, visit a local market and that should sort you out, possibly for good.

meat

Do not eat the skin of fruit such as apples, pears, plums, peaches etc as these may have been washed in DB causing water or had flies land and play footsie on them, and/or been handled by many hands. Rubbing fruit up and down your arm mimicking a Cricket bowler simply will not cut it.  Stick to bananas and oranges or peel everything carefully yourself.

Bananas, however, are everywhere!

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Otherwise eat only cooked food, ideally vegetables and always try to be able to view the cooking of it.  There are plenty of Pizza Huts and international corporate chains with their pre prepared fayre that we tried occasionally in the bigger towns and they have Air Con! Do not eat salads as they are nearly always washed in water.

Chai Tea. If you go to India and don’t have a Chai Tea from a street stall at least once a day, you should be sent home. It truly is the taste of India (and Glastonbury Festival as it happens) and it costs only 5 to 10p a cup (In India that is, more like £3 a cup at Glastonbury) and each vendor uses a slightly different recipe so every time it’s a slightly new experience. We must have had 10 cups a day each and each time they were served in small polystyrene or plastic – used only once, bad for the environment, but good for your intestine, cups. We were served in glasses only a couple of times and in those instances we tipped the scorching tea around the edges of the glass where our lips were to go as a form of crude albeit risky sterilisation.

Water. Don’t allow water from any tap or dispenser into any bodily orifice so avoid home-made colonics and keep you mouth shut whilst in the shower as it really doesn’t take much. Travellers are advised to always check the seal on bottled water as they can be tampered with and then filled with tap water for more profit. We checked every time but never discovered a broken seal. Before going back to your lodgings, buy an extra bottle of water to use to clean your teeth. Loads of people, it seems, come a cropper here by using the sink taps and thinking that not swallowing will save them. That is extremely high risk. Use the bottles.

Ice Cream and ice in drinks. Don’t touch. When ordering drinks that would normally come with ice such as shorts and soft drinks, always and firmly say ‘no ice’. It’s of no benefit to fish the ice out once in as the damage is already done.

Alcohol. And here lies a problem. The bonus is that drinking out in bars in India would probably turn you tee total as they are always darkened to the point that you’d think there was a power cut, women are not forbidden but I wouldn’t dream of taking a woman into one as the men seemed far more pissed than they do in any bar I’ve ever been in, they re all in a state of total squalor and the smell of urine is nostril ticklingly overwhelming – so if you find yourself in a typical back street, hidden away Indian bar – as they all seem to be, you can assure yourself that you are definitely an alcoholic. I did put my head into quite a few in different towns for reasons of research for this very blog but was careful not to touch anything. God knows what the toilets were like or even if anyone bothers to leave their seat to go one!

However, towns that attract a lot of westerners have more approachable bars, and hotels often have bars for non residents and here lies another risk and that risk is getting drunk, because once drunk you forget about the ice and may miss the not perfectly clean glass rim and may end up eating anything. Kebab houses only exist in the UK for this very reason.

There is a golden elixir that each person must carry a vial of at all times – and that is alcohol hand gel. I can’t emphasise enough how essential this is. Every time you’ve been to the loo and had to open the door or  touch any surface in there really, have a squeeze of hand gel.  Do not touch a surface and allow you hand to get to your face before first stopping at the hand gel.

I’m not advertising for Dettol – there are many brands to choose from – but the picture does say a 1000 words

dettol-instant-hand-sanitizer-bus-hands-small-88164

But the item that we thought was the ‘be all and end all’ was a homeopathy travel kit that we purchased for this very trip. In fact it may well have been the use of its contents that was the only reason we didn’t fall ill. There is really no way to know other than going again and not taking one of these kits – and we won’t be doing that!
The one we used and would certainly suggest checking out was from
http://suzyparkerhomeopath.com/

I’ll add-on to this list as I think of others but if it all goes wrong and you find yourself stuck in a bedroom and toilet for two days, be sure that you have the sort of room and loo that makes that time more comfortable and if you must travel whilst ill then either breakfast on Immodium or dress in Pampers.

see also ‘North India, Glastonbury to Delhi’ at
https://kevollier.com/2014/04/12/north-india-in-23-days-day-1-glastonbury-to-delhi/

and ‘North India. In Search of Gandhi (Part 2) at
https://kevollier.com/2014/04/23/north-india-in-search-of-gandhi-part-2/

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27 thoughts on “How to Avoid Delhi Belly

  1. yep…you’ve done it again. Perfectly said. And all true. In my longer sojourns of several months where I do my own cooking and can properly clean them, I DO eat the skins of fruits, but never ones I’ve bought on the street, ever! And the biggest secret here is the water. Many people think that “just brushing my teeth with tap water” is no big deal. It IS and I think most people get sick from this. They often say what can a small drop of water do? And I ask them how big they think an amoeba or parasite is? Keeping your mouth shut in the shower is also of course essential. As is the hand cleansing! Anyway, loved the post and will be reposting it to my own India Journal.
    Haven’t had the time these days but really look forward to reading more of your wonderful writing style in other posts.
    much love light and JOY
    Jane

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  2. Hi Kev! It was great to meet you in Cochin … in a brightly lit, pleasant and very upmarket bar, with no drunken men in it 🙂

    Generally I agree with your tips and your writing style is awesome, very fun and upbeat. I’m not quite as careful after seven years of coming and going … but agree that it’s the water you really have to watch out for. And yes, I got violently ill while staying in a five-star hotel …

    Cheers, thanks for writing this, I am reposting it and sharing it.

    Mariellen from Breathedreamgo.com

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  3. Thanks Mariellen! Shame we didn’t connect earlier and for longer! Like you I have the India bug and will be reading through your wonderful blog thoroughly and often to learn as much as I can from your experiences and viewpoint before going back home 🙂
    Thanks for reading and sharing and reposting! ~ Kev

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  4. Well said and excellent advice. We did a 6 month RTW last year and neither of us had any problems … well except I caught Dengue Fever, but that has nothing to do with DB. The only thing that I would add is that when eating street food, always go to the vendor with the biggest crowd. Locals know where the best food is, and the rapid turnover helps minimize sanitation issues.

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  5. Why this blog isn’t Freshly Pressed is beyond me! Absolutely hysterical and absolutely true. My career is related to food safety and quality control in food manufacturing, and you have hit every single key point with such candor and such brilliance. I loved this post. I have done my fair share of travel too and the risks you have identified and how to avoid them would make an excellent chapter in any travel guide for any country where availability of potable water and good food handling practices may be in question. Well done, Kev! Thanks for writing this post.

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  6. thanks for the follow! Hope you will continue to enjoy as I continue to enjoy yours (although there never seems to be enough time to do as much blogging as I would like to!! ) 🙂

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  8. Hi, I am going to India in 3 weeks and wonder about what water the rice is cooked in?? Also as a vegetarian we would be eating the skin off eggplant, zucchini etc. even dhal is washed several times in water. Or is it because they are cooked that it’s safe to eat? Thanks Yvette.

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    1. I would avoid all rice and definitely wouldn’t eat any skins. It’s just not worth the risk. Bananas are ok. ONLY use bottled water to cook or clean teeth etc. Anything cooked in non bottled water is risky 🙂

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      1. Hi Kev, I’m just wondering why rice is a no no. Is it not safe if it’s boiled and bubbled in water? Or is it because reheated rice isn’t good because of bacteria. If my only choice is Indian bread, then water is also used in the dough? Thanks, Yvette.

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      2. It’s a risk. And the slightest risk isn’t worth getting ill for in India. Street food that you see being cooked in front of you is safe. But only eat the ones that you see being cooked and be sure the vendor is wearing plastic gloves – most do. And always use busy vendors 🙂

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      3. Hi Kev, just waiting for a reply regarding my last email, if you got it that is. Not too familiar with blogs. I wondered if eating dhal and parathas etc is not adviseable as these are also washed in water and Indian bread made with water to make dough. Thanks, would love to hear back. Yvette.

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