India: Mosquitoes, malaria & talismans

December 7, 2013


It’s rare that I take a vacation that pushes me so clearly past the boundaries of my comfort level. That’s because vacations are supposed to be “fun” and for me, that means some lines are just not meant to be crossed.  Vacation is cosmetics and nice clothes. Strolling pretty boulevards. Seeing the sights in comfort.

India was not a vacation.  Not even close.

Our trip challenged me in so many ways my head is still spinning.

Sign in our hotel room

Sign in our hotel room

Let’s start with our boat trip on the Ganges River, the fifth most polluted river in the world. I read that some three billion litres of human sewage are discharged into it daily, but its water treatment plants, so proudly pointed out by our Varanasi guide, can handle only 1.1 billion litres of it.  I also read this:  The overall rate of water-borne/enteric disease incidence, including acute gastrointestinal disease, cholera, dysentery, hepatitis-A and typhoid was estimated to be about 66%.”

This crossed my mind as we walked down to the shore to climb aboard our old two-story open-air boat. As I approached the boat I caught a glimpse of the plank I’d have to walk to get on the boat. It was about a foot wide over the shallows and went up at a sharp angle.  It was the only way aboard. I was the first to reach the plank and in that split second before I had to commit I:

Calculated that we were too far from the bus for me to not go
Considered that my biggest fear wasn’t drowning, it was falling into that toxic brew and dying a terrible death by disease

And with that I stepped onto the narrow plank and up into the boat, assisted only by two men who held up a bamboo pole next to the plank as a makeshift railing.  If organizations could have coronaries, OSHA would have had one.

Yes. Past my comfort level.

I’d known this would be a different kind of trip. After all, we’d taken polio shots and oral typhoid vaccine.  But knowing is different than KNOWING.

You might remember a post I did about neuroses and talismans a couple weeks before leaving for India. You know, the one with the Guatemalan worry dolls? HERE.


You can actually buy this sign, HERE.

One of my big fears on this trip was getting bitten by a mosquito that carried malaria or dengue fever. I can’t deny it. Before we left I was obsessed with this possibility because I have the sweetest blood known to mosquitoes. I am a tasty treat and they love snacking on me. I figured Indian mosquitoes would also find me attractive, since Indian men used to. At least in my youth.

It would only make sense that we’d take the malaria preventative, right?

We didn’t.

A friend of ours took a three-week trip to Southeast Asia last year and after the first few days of the pills she ended up in the emergency room in Phnom Phenh, Cambodia.  Yikes! Ironically, I heard the story on one of our monthly lunches at our favorite local Indian restaurant and to me, the preventative sounded worse than the disease.  You have to take the stuff while you’re in-country, so it’s not like I’d be able to test it out in advance. I figured if anyone would have a bad reaction to a med in India, it would be me, and I did not want to see the inside of a hospital in India.  (And once I saw hospitals in the rural areas, I realized just how smart a decision that was.)

So, while everyone in our group was popping pills, we weren’t. How bad could malaria, be? I thought. Didn’t George Clooney have it?

Dengue fever is also on the rise, and our tour guide had gotten it not too long ago. I overheard him talking to another guide about it, half in English and half in Hindi. I caught stuff like “I don’t know what happened but I woke up in ICU on a ventilator…”  I couldn’t understand all of it.  Just enough to make me hyperventilate in the seat behind them.

It's a trade-off.

It’s a trade-off.

I didn’t much like the idea of putting toxic brew Deet in my system, either, so I was between a rock and a hard place.

Just in case, we’d bought out Any Mountain’s supply of Deet and Paramithan, brought it with us and then, I couldn’t do it.  Instead, I chose to cover almost every inch of my body with clothing—nothing exposed—to prevent bites. Armor, if you will.

Instead of blowing my hair straight, I let its natural curl do its own thing, forming a mosquito-proof halo around my face. Yay for curly hair! I wore long sleeves and a long sleeved button-up shirt over that, long pants, closed shoes, socks and a hat.  Sunglasses. Gloves. Because the air was so bad I often wore a face mask (good advice from my gym buddy, a frequent India traveler).  M. called it my Haz-Mat suit. And some of the others were in capris and sandals. I’m certain they thought I was insane.

But I didn’t care. I am who I am–why pretend different?  And wouldn’t you know it, this song just came up on Sirius :

(Sandals? In that filth? What were those people thinking?)  M had no neuroses or qualms–he goes with the flow (the song Fools Rush In comes to mind, but then, nothing bad ever happens to him)  and he Deeted up his exposed skin when we headed off to the Ganges and the jungle. But that was it.  I half-expected him to have seizures, but he didn’t.


I offer no photo of me in my haz mat suit, although I know at least one exists, taken by an intrusive member of our travel group. It’s not pretty. I’m sure they get a big laugh out of it.

But here I am, safely home. Not a single bite. I saw exactly two mosquitoes: one in Agra at the Taj Mahal and one on the Ganges the night we took the boat out.

Guess those talismans worked. Or my armor.

This trip was a neurotic’s nightmare. There was just so much to be concerned about and for a control freak like me, who doesn’t leave her comfort level willingly, that part of it was a real challenge.

Now, before you make light of my fears and preparation, let me tell you a little story.  One of my physicians has a doctor friend who went to a third-world country and brought along their eight-year old. The child contracted dysentery and because they were in a remote part of the country, they didn’t have access to fast emergency care. The child died.

This can happen, even when parents are doctors.  That’s why I believe in preparation and in caution. Maybe it’s overkill, but it works for me.

This new kind of trip was a little nerve-wracking. On the other hand, I grew from the experience. I thought I knew what to expect, what to pack, how to stay safe, but really, I didn’t.  I know much more now, and although I swore I wouldn’t do a trip like this again, I am already rethinking that vow.

Still, 2014 is going to be all about first-world trips.  Before we even left for India we booked a Christmas Market cruise on the Danube for next December and we’re in the process of booking a long weekend at a resort in Arizona.  We’re thinking about New England to see fall colors in October and if our friend’s dog makes Westminster, we’ll be booking a flight to NYC in Feb. so we can take advantage of our already-booked hotel rooms. (Yes, we think he’ll make it! How fun to be behind the scenes at the top dog show!) And we’ll visit our hometown to celebrate when our nephew finishes his M.S.

None of these trips will be the kind of rich experience we had in India, though.  So, I think we’ll be heading off to someplace exotic in 2015, face mask, gloves and all. There’s Africa. Antarctica. Galapagos. And so many more places to consider.

And you’re a reader, you’ll be privy to whatever fears and neuroses come up then.  Because I can’t help sharing. Stay tuned.

More from India trip tomorrow. I just can’t stop.



8 comments on “India: Mosquitoes, malaria & talismans
  1. Ryder Ziebarth says:

    I took the $300 malaria pills-thought I was tripping on acid- stopped immediately- got majorly depressed for 24 hours and wept through part of Gujarat, then felt fine. Those pills are deadly, and by the way, also the remedy. I used Deet a few times in the jungle. No harm done.

    • admin says:

      Holy crap! I’m glad I made the decision I did. But really, I think I was in more danger of getting scurvy than anything else.

  2. Evalyn Baron says:

    You’re a thoroughly engaging travel writer….I could read you all day..xx

  3. Karla says:

    when i went in 207, i took the malaria pills, i took whatever the travel clinic told me to take as i was scared witless.

    when they said not to pet any dogs roaming about, i thought, c’mon, really? on the 1st morning we were there, there was an article in the paper that a 2-year old had died from rabies from a dog bite. it was then that i realized my paranoia was justified.

    we took a rickity boat to a religious temple off of the southern tip. i was sure the boat would sink and we would all drown they loaded it so full with people. -side note, i had just died my hair screaming red and people could not stop staring at me. i remember this as part of the boat ride, as if it were yesterday – once we made the (uneventful) 10 minute trip to the island, the next thing was that we were asked to remove our shoes and go barefoot our of religious respect. like you, carol, this terrified me – i had seen what public restrooms looked like and the thought of walking in other people’s filth made my skin crawl. i sucked it up and endured, but would have passed on that adventure had i known going in what it would be. i didn’t want to offend our indian guides.

    • admin says:

      I so get it! We brought “temple socks” –airline giveaways, and used those when we had to remove our shoes. It was a fluke, really, as I wasn’t prepared or I’d brought some. Ah, travel! I hope you get a chance to see all my prior (and future) India posts and give your own experiences in the comments on some more, I love hearing them!

  4. Haralee says:

    I really enjoy a vicarious trip through your India posts! I am with you on precautions. When my nephew said his wedding would be in a town next to Lyme CT, I thought my dress would be a hazmat suit. I never walked off concrete, and that was CT for the love of God, not India. You are a brave woman!

    • admin says:

      I know several who have had Lyme Disease and it ain’t for sissies. Don’t blame you.
      I am 100% certain I was at times a topic of conversation among those who were not taking many precautions,and I’m sure the photo they took is a conversation piece– they certainly might have seemed braver (I say imprudent, but hey, that’s me) but on the other hand, I was not one of the two women who were down for two entire days (separately) for not taking precautions. I know what I’d do next time I take a trip like this, guaranteed!

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