Where to start .. the beginning almost doesn’t make sense because it’s so far away and so many personal layers have been uncovered and shed in a process of sickness and rebirth which sounds cliched and overly dramatic and was, or rather is, a reality I never expected.
I’ve experienced different levels of pain in my life. Numerous bicycle and equine related accidents, a hole in a sacral disc, accompanied pinched sciatic nerve … but nothing prepared me for the stress of a pervasive, claustrophobic, slow suffocation of sickness that enveloped me in Varanasi, India at the very start of my time there.
Varanasi was supposed to be a positive time. My parents had booked a 5 week tour of India including the Golden Triangle and between sections of their tour had arranged to come to Varanasi on the train to meet me. Having only recently left my brother, Ben, behind in Shimla after nearly 2 months of cycling together, India had become an unexpected pit stop for family and the country that had been on my mind for so many years had changed its focus to accommodate these visits
It was coming up to the 3 year anniversary of my departure from the UK and I had reached the famous city on the Ganga River which had been a dream for me since I had first learnt about the Hindu religion as a teenager and become fascinated by the drama, the colour and the apparent paradoxes of life and spirituality, blending in ways which say ‘of course’ rather than ‘no’.
Varanasi had become a focal point for friends and family as I had told them that this was ‘the’ point on the map, the destination … and the act of telling people this, whilst not my actual belief, had become a real point and the crux of many parts of this journey – saying something enough times it starts to take on that life, words consciously or unconsciously creating or moulding a mirror reality.
I had planned to stay in Varanasi for at least a month and soak up the atmosphere, learn some Hindi beyond my usual basics and perhaps take some music or dance classes … after all Varanasi is famous for its love of the Arts as well as being home to in excess of 3000 temples and shrines.
However the city, which positively oozes the spirituality, colour and drama I had fallen in love with (albeit the sanitised versions) between the pages of dusty text books, in the burgeoning Fair Trade and hippy shops of sleepy Exeter and harmonising with the notes of quasi-spiritual Hindu/Buddhist/New Age musical collaborations through the ‘90s, had other plans for me.
For all the talk of spirituality Varanasi, like the rest of India, is a very ‘real’ place. It is a place where these other worldly concerns, concepts and emotions are held in the same hands that hold birth and death, sickness and solitude. Life among the streets of this city winds, mandala like, in crazy patterns and daily I found myself happily falling over the dogs, rubbish, cows, food stalls, children, adults, temples and shrines and in love with the city itself time and again.
Its a place that is easy to get lost in, metaphorically and actually … time passes and Death sits, contentedly … knowing that inhabitants of the city and visitors alike will all reach their roads end at some point.
Spending time in a room I had found behind one of the larger ghats was peaceful and gave me a ‘home’ whilst I visited my parents in their guesthouse. We enjoyed time with walking the ghats in the morning only to be beaten back to the shade of a coffee shop out from under the glare of the beating sun. We all got involved in Holi, India’s famous festival of colour. They over on their side of the city and I down on the ghats with the gyrating, colour throwing masses and on the roof top of my neighbours house – the young children being more fierce in their intent to change my skin colour from white to Avatar blue than any of the teenagers on the streets.
Unfortunately following the festival, Jan (my mother), experienced ongoing chest infections which continued throughout her time in India and then into Nepal and Terry (my father) had problems after … India is a place that can be physically and therefore mentally very challenging!
Time flew by and our 8 days together was quickly over. They departed for the next part of their tour, which coincidently involved Varanasi again so we knew would meet again in a couple of weeks.
I moved to a more social, hostel space which a friend had suggested. A hostel where a space on the roof cost 50rs and a room 250rs. A place where the street dogs came for shelter and food and where the local monkeys hung out, visually pinpointed food through open shutters and darting in through unattended, open doors with laser like precision and a ferocity born from recognising and capitalising on the fear of Westerners unused to such antics.
It was also where I had my initial experience of the violent, debilitating double-ended body explosion I would not wish on anyone and the start to a physical drama which has yet to play out its final act.
The initial stages of sickness lasted for 12hrs and after a night of mostly sleeplessness on the balcony outside the washroom, a room magically became available and I was able to move my kit from the roof, regaining some of my lost sleep and throwing an inordinate amount of disinfectant around in what now seems like a vain attempt at ensuring no-one else would fall prey to this nasty parasite.
One of the other women in the hostel was just coming round after experiencing the same symptoms a few days earlier and I assumed that I was going to have the same prognosis, after all she bounced back pretty much unaffected and was happily eating, drinking and sleeping normally again. I had no idea that this was the start of a much larger and longer lasting problem for me.
As it was I was lucky to have my own space because as my health nose-dived into a turbulent sea of nausea, discomfort, diarrhoea and eroded mental and physical energy I split most of my time between lying horizontal on my bed wishing and waiting for a time where I could feel ‘normal’ again or in my private washroom fervently grateful for a small room I could call my own, have immediate and unrestricted access to and use at will and at all hours of the day and night.
The truth is … ‘normal’ never came. I am lucky … I have never experiences such levels of vulnerability and physical loss. 6 weeks of sickness with long stretches of not eating, 10kg of muscle weight burnt away by my body as a means to keep me together, limited activity in the city and sporadic forays out into the back streets with rapid retreats as my guts became the internal enemy were my experiences of Varanasi. In spite of that my impression of the city are still filled with my amazement at its beauty in the face of so much duality.
Lying on my bed I was regularly visited by a range of wild animals. Not so much in the vein of Snow White taming these creatures with her sweet nature and more a realisation that they had taken the measure of me and saw me with a distain derived from my weakness and inability to move fast or prose a threat to them. Watching geckos chase each other across the walls and ceilings became one of my few past times whilst wishing the washing machine behaviours of my stomach would subside. Dark ring tailed chipmunks and the ever watchful monkeys saw the same aspects of my vulnerability.
Keeping my door locked and myself cocooned inside became a daily occurrence. Without this my door could be flung open by teeth baring, opportunist monkeys intent on riffling through my shelves for the single lime or Bael fruit they had previously spotted. Bael fruit is the food most recommended in Varanasi for those individuals with gut issues and whilst initially I liked its honey stickiness after a time I grew to associate it with the sort of sickly, headachy mustiness that nausea can create over any food.
Time ran forwards, fast paced and equally stood still in that strange dynamic which long term sickness can provoke. I felt the most vulnerable I have ever been. My sense of ego, my strength, my physically, my ability to manage everything alone … destroyed by this constantly creeping fog of nausea and by my body’s attempt to keep me going by eating through all my reserves and beyond. Throughout the sickness the loss of 10kg, mainly of muscle, has had a long lasting impact on this cycle ride and has changed my internal and external structures, emotionally and physically.
I feel that a lot of my previous psychological structures, interwoven as they often are with my physical bearing, have been broken down in ways that were only possible through longer term, pervasive sickness which is less about putting up a fight and more about a fluid, dynamic level of acceptance. In more traditional western concepts these could be categorised into masculine and feminine aspects respectively and I throughout life have favoured the masculine aspects of myself for my assumption that they will keep me safe … but not here and not now.
The sensation of my body being at war with an internal enemy, a new and unknown experience, was profound. My body, a place I have both berated and been proud of in its capacity to endure, was at a loss with how to handle this unwelcome intruder.
It’s name was Giardia. A protozoa parasite infection carried in water and/or food. A microscopic organism with the capacity for eons of destruction. At best an undetected, asymptomatic visitor which passes ‘harmlessly’ through the system and onto the next unwitting host. At worst it fixates, attaches itself to the host and starts it’s rapid destruction of the gut wall .. replicating to ensure its dominance and then proclaiming mastery. Vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss, persistent nausea, erosion of energy and dehydration are its physical symptoms. Futility, malaise and depression are close kin to such nasty, home companions.
Hours spent in my own company watching the drip of a tap onto the washroom floor and no trust for the safety of the water around me. That lead into … days of initial energy and the brief possibility of respite followed by a quick return to an immobile Savasana that never feels positive. That lead into … weeks of personality eroding malaise, nausea and a forgetfulness of who I am at a core level and what I am doing.
3 visits to the local hospital, 3 courses of antibiotics and numerous weeks of bouncing along on the bottom of the ‘wellness’ axis, under the (ever diminishing) illusion of ‘I can cope’, I finally manage to book a train ticket to Dharamshala. It was an unexpected and desperate move – geographically backwards – to friends, where I had stayed with my brother in the previous November but I need stability and some feeling of nurture which familiarity and friendship can provide and which I finally admitted I was unable to sufficiently self-generate.
The journey to the train station was relatively uneventful. The final loading of Tilly into the baggage carriage, frustrating (‘keep the bags on, get them packaged, pay 100rs for them to be stitched onto the rack, no they cannot stay there, take them off’). However the final hauling of 6 items of luggage up and down 2 flights of stairs, across a platform and finding space to be wedged into a narrow gap between scores and scores of jostling, sleeping or picnicking families triggered an utterly horrific reaction and sent me into a near physical but definitely psychological mess.
Sitting, head bowed to my knees, upright but otherwise foetal I have to concentrate hard for long, long minutes for the all too familiar rush of salivation and dominant nausea to subside and for me to control the involuntary ‘desire’ to vomit everywhere. Sweat is pouring out of every pore. My clothes are saturated and the only reason I’m not in tears is the awareness of the eyes of every Indian ‘Auntie’s’ within a 100m radius on me and the fact that their well-meaning fuss, should I cry, will disintegrate the last vestige of my emotional strength – at which point I feel that I will be lost.
By this point the weight of being alone in a country without the level of healthcare and immediate support has taken me to breaking point and whilst still a stubborn bull am considering giving up and returning to the UK to bathe in the glories of familial attention and the NHS. However as I mentioned … I am stubborn, to several faults.
The tide of nausea finally subsides. Looking out across the hordes on the platform I lock eyes with a nearby octogenarian Auntie, who immediately rouses her family and prods bananas and water in my direction, neither of which are desired but I manage to placate her by slowly swallowing and keeping down a mouthful of fruit.
The train is thankfully only an hour delayed and when it arrives I slide into my bunk and sleep for most of the journey, grateful to be out of the city and physically and emotionally making changes to my situation.
A short bus ride at the other end, a brief reunion with my friends in Dharamshala and breakfast in the morning is followed by projectile vomiting, which gets me 2 more hospital visits and a further, final course of antibiotics.
This final course denotes the beginning of the end for Giardia, but it doesn’t go without the drama of a final fight. Jaundice, dehydration, an enlarged liver, toxic hepatitis and a week in hospital follow on from a bodged antibiotic prescription which finally kills the parasite in my guts – along with any of the good flora and fauna which was conceivable left after the injustices of the past months.
This final course is like Nepalm going off in my body and leaves me wide open to infection and attack. In a final act of injustice the last of an immune system which I have been merrily developing since (pre) birth and which has served me through countless years of life happily grubby and assured of my internal strength and immunity, is wiped out and I am bereft.
As usual, however, at the time I believe I will be back to ‘normal’ within a matter of weeks and so it is a surprise to me when a month on I am still not ‘well’.