I dreamed of India...well, sort of

By Bane Okholm | Feb 27, 2013

It’s that time of year again. Germs are abuzz like chickadees in springtime, and I’m starting to get that oh-so-familiar feeling of my tonsils inflating like they’re auditioning to be balloons in the Macy’s parade.

Every year I get sick, and every year I console myself by thinking, At least it won’t be like that one time in India.

Back in the halcyon days of fall 2005, I was bopping around the Subcontinent with a group of 27 students culled from across the U.S. After two months of home stays with local families while attending study-abroad school in Jaipur, we were all booted out of the city to follow intensive projects of our own choosing.

My path took me south to Pune, a charming little city several hours from Mumbai. I was friends with a few Indian students back at College of the Atlantic, so during my month-long intensive study I took refuge with an acquaintance’s elder sibling’s friends, who were all MBA students in the city.

The first couple of weeks went beautifully. We bonded over cultural miscommunications, swapped tales of our hometowns, and went on all sorts of adventures both in Pune and the surrounding areas. Given my strange, wan skin and funky alien mannerisms, I easily fell into the role of little sister/pet, whom everyone felt the need to help shepherd around and show off. Which totally rocked.

During a day trip to the hill station of Mahabaleshwar, I carried my personal water bottle, as always. I already knew how important it was to make sure I drank only bottled, purified water lest I risk a fever and worse: after an American friend accidentally consumed ice chips made from tap water back in Jaipur, she’d spent the majority of one night having a profound conversation with a wall.

So when that really nice guy — whose name I can’t now remember — handed me a bottle and said, “This is your water,” I believed him.

To be clear, it wasn’t his fault. Most of the MBA students spoke perfect English, but some of their friends who’d tagged along for the day weren’t as adept. I was so busy trying to improve my Hindi that I hadn’t noticed. So for the rest of the day, I happily, ignorantly chugged Indian tap water.

I’m not going to go into the gory details of what ensued, but let’s just say you know it’s going to be a memorable experience when you're handed a pill called “Vomistop.”

The only method of conveyance my Indian friends had at their disposal was a dinky motorbike, so three of us eventually crammed into an auto-rickshaw and headed to the hospital by Koregaon Park.

After a pothole-riddled ride that felt like it was orchestrated by Darren Aronofksy, I woozily found myself facing an intake nurse fiddling with her cell phone ringtones.

“Did you eat the food?” she asked, still not meeting my unsteady gaze.

I started to explain that I’d been eating nothing but local cuisine for the better part of three months and had never felt ill before.

“Then that’s it,” the woman brusquely cut in. She pressed a button on her phone, and one festive, tinny melody replaced another.

One of my companions started haranguing the nurse in Hindi, and I stumbled away, locking myself in a bathroom for a reprieve from the MIDIfied soundtrack. The world was pale and wobbly before my eyes. As a high school athlete, I’d heard people talking about a “dark curtain descending,” and with vague amusement, I noticed this was suddenly happening to me.

“Bachaao,” I managed weakly and banged on the wall. Help.

The door burst open and a squat nurse marched in. Through a half-lidded world, I watched with amusement as she grabbed my belt, hoisted me upright, and threw me onto a gurney with all the strength of Indian Ninja Smeagol.

My friends rushed to my side in time to see me grin and mutter loopily, “It’s like playing musical chairs...”

One girl's face lit with revelation and she dug in her pocket for her phone. “You want music!”

Even given my disconnected state, I remember seeing the others collectively face-palm.

The next few days were pretty rough. I couldn’t stand up on my own, which made for some awkward moments and having to reassure parents 3,000 miles away that you’re not at death’s door was a challenge I’d wish on no one.

And on top of it all, someone stole my shoes.

Less than a week later, I was off the I.V. and mostly back on my feet. I recuperated at the house of a friend I’d met during her study abroad at CHRHS, whose family’s house was quite Westernized. Not having to worry about a language barrier for a few days was a huge relief in itself.

I recounted the whole crazy experience to my pal and her mother one day as we were riding around the city. Admittedly, I hadn’t been through a World War, but I was still experiencing rickshaw-terror based on that crazed trip through the maw of night in Pune.

My friend’s mother waved her hand dismissively, smiling. “Think of what a great story you’re going to be able to tell.”

I nodded, but didn't quite believe her.

In the seven-plus years since, retelling that story has become my go-to when I start feeling achy or sniffly. It's a reminder that things could be worse — and even if they are, at least you'll get a funky story out of things. I can't regret that experience one bit.

But you know what?

I really miss those shoes.

Camden Herald reporter Bane Okholm can be reached at 236-8511 ext. 304 or by email at bokholm@courierpublicationsllc.com. Follow her on Twitter @mediaheathen.

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