Bad Street Food Nearly Killed Me Until Celine Dion Saved My Life

So this is how I die: assassination by brunch.

Murder by poop.

Wrung dry yet drenched in sweat. Alone. Cheek pressed against the cool tile floor.

Whoever finds me won’t know who I am. I carry no identification. At the moment, I’m not even wearing pants.

I miss my parents. I don’t want to die here. I want to hug my best friend. I want to see Nebraska again. I want to have sex again. (But maybe not in Nebraska.)

Hours pass. I try to stand but can’t. With my fingertip, I seek my pulse. Still alive.

I check my watch and calculate the hours until my bus leaves. The bus that will take me to a city, to an airport. Home. I am not going to make it, I tell myself. I’m not sure I’ll even make it out of this room.

This is how I die.

And then she comes to me. Hazy at first, a swirl of colors before my eyes. Soon enough, I can make out her angular face, the little details in her clothes. Jazz hands aloft, hair a cloud around her shoulders, she sings to me. I immediately recognize the chart-topping hit that has become (via street market boom boxes and backpacker cafes) the soundtrack of my trip.

She is Celine Dion. And she saved my life.

Flash back one month. As I prepared to embark on a solo tour of northern India, I recalled the downfall of my first trip to South Asia: street food. Feeling cavalier about germs and tempted by samosas at every turn, I had wandered through Agra and Simla with taste buds wide open. And then I paid for it. Jesus Christ, did I pay for it. Hours of my life passed miserably in hotel bathrooms from Rishikesh to Jaipur. India’s famed “Pink City” was, for me, “Puke City.”

As I mapped my return to the sub-continent, I knew I needed to be safer, and not just for the sake of my guts. Traveling in northern India was bound to be challenging for a single, blonde, 22-year-old. I would be conspicuous and, in the eyes of many, unprotected. (My suspicions were confirmed on my first night in New Delhi’s Paharganj district. When I ventured out for dinner, I was sexually propositioned 12 times in the span of two city blocks.)

Does it matter that I had almost certainly befouled the Dalai Lama’s private bathroom?

But this time, I had a plan: For the duration of my trip, I would eat nothing that might upset my internal flora. No curries. No peeled fresh fruit. Definitely no street snacks. A month of bread, oatmeal and bananas was a dispiriting prospect for a voracious eater like me, but it beat the alternative. Besides, my true goal was to encounter the sacred, and how better to do so than while practicing a lifestyle of simplicity? A lifelong atheist, I was not so much a spiritual seeker as a spiritual appreciator. I was moved by the beauty of ancient temples, by incense and rituals and by the palpable spiritual energy that so draws so many Westerners to India.

My journey culminated in Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan government in exile. Nestled in the side of a mountain and overrun with healers, teachers, tourists and monks, the town suited me perfectly. For two weeks, I absorbed the magical world around me. In the courtyard of the Dalai Lama’s temple, I pressed prayer beads between my fingertips and breathed deeply the air that seemed richer than any I’d ever encountered.

And then things went to hell.

On my final day in the mountains, I checked out of my hostel just before lunchtime and bought a ticket for a 6 p.m. bus. I decided to make a last pilgrimage to His Holiness’ temple. With a paperback copy of “Gone with the Wind” in my pocket, I skipped down the road like a schoolgirl. My heart was full of joy, peace and pride at my kickass solo traveler skills. I’d made it. I was heading home healthy and safe, filled with good stories and free of parasites.

I was oddly unprepared when the daily monsoon arrived. For once, I’d forgotten my umbrella. As I scanned my surroundings, a well-lit window caught my eye, and I recalled an Argentinian woman I’d met who mentioned running a cafe near the temple. I sprinted for the door and was greeted with a hug and a laminated menu that was, it seemed, written just for me.

Pizza with paneer and plum tomatoes.

Fruit cobbler.

French press coffee.

Come to mama. I settled on a giant bowl of fruit salad and spaghetti marinara. In breaking my fast, I hesitated, but only briefly. She’s a foreigner, I reasoned. She understands my delicate constitution. She’ll take care of me.

The meal was one of the best of my life. FYI, fresh apples taste fucking incredible after a month of flat bread. I slurped the pasta and guzzled espresso with gusto. Screw Scarlett O’Hara and her 17-inch waist. I intended to eat until I exploded.

Unfortunately, my intentions were about to be realized.

As the proprietor delivered my bill, I felt the telltale staggering cramps in my midsection. Clutching at my belly I inquired, “Can I stick around while you clean up? I’m feeling a bit ill.”

No dice. She had to catch a ride to meet her husband. Resigned, I handed over some rupees and attempted a breezy wave as I departed.

My feet grew wings. I circled the temple grounds seeking some place, any place, private. As the churning intensified, I realized with horror that if I didn’t find a toilet within 30 seconds (my terror had a very specific timeframe), I was going to shit my pants. I’ll never know if it was divine intervention, but in that moment I spied beyond a small fence a darkened doorway. Could it be? With the agility of a gazelle, I leapt over a locked gate and shuffled knees-together to my destiny.

And what a bathroom it was. Clean, bright, a mirror hung with fresh jasmine.

I defiled it entirely. I’ll offer no details. Take your worst imaginings of my experience and multiply them times a million. Then spring forward about five hours, to the cold floor, the ticking clock, and the very real possibility of death. To Celine. I swear to you, I saw her. An angel backed by a techno beat, urging me to persevere.  With great effort I rose to my knees, making up my own words to her song, relying on sheer absurdity for my motivation.

It’s all coming out, it’s all coming out of me now.

I sank back onto my heels, head spinning.

There were moments of cold

And there were flashes of light

There were things I’d never do again

But then they somehow seemed right

With shaking hands, I pushed myself into down-dog and took a steadying breath.

There were days of endless pressure

It was more than any girl can hold…

Baby Baby Baby…

On my feet. Weak, but steady enough to set about the task of cleaning up. Immediately, I was stymied by the squat toilet, which was flushed with a pour of water from the neighboring bucket. I tossed some in and… nothing. Once more, with feeling. Nope. The toilet was plugged and it was putrid, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Cracking the door, I peeked outside and prayed for invisibility. Miraculously, fate was on my side; the compound was empty. Blinking in the radiant sunlight and planning a discrete exit, I noticed for the first time the massive privacy fence that surrounded my little piece of real estate. A fence that was interrupted only by the small gate I had hurdled and a large sign that announced, in eight languages, “Private Quarters: Do Not Enter.”

Well, shit.

Does it matter that I had almost certainly befouled the Dalai Lama’s private bathroom? Karmically, without a doubt. For that act alone I’ll probably be reincarnated as a cockroach. As reality sank in, I erupted into hysterical laughing sobs. I laughed because there was no better way to experience the dazzling paradox of the sacred and the profane.

This is how we die, and also how we live. We are human. We are imbued with mystery and mired in the mundane. There is, indeed, agony alongside our ecstasy. As a nonbeliever, India gave me glimpses of believing while Celine Dion songs pulsed through the monuments of Khajuraho. Monks rang prayer bells mere mountaintops from a homeland they can no longer call home. Meanwhile, even the Dalai Lama has a bathroom—and I’m pretty sure he uses it, too.

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/

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One Response

  1. Elyse

    I have been laughing at poop for 40+ years, as I have Crohn’s. But I’m quite sure I’ve never laughed quite this hard at it.


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