The excitement of visiting developing countries has a major downside: the potential for food poisoning. Let’s face it, it’s much more fun to explore local markets or drink in mountain vistas than being doubled over the toilet! I am all too familiar with the latter scenario due to a very sensitive stomach. Luckily though, getting food poisoning when travelling is not inevitable. A few simple tips can help you minimise your risk, and speed up recovery if you do fall ill. With these approaches, I’ve been free from food poisoning for over three months!
Nepal has many delicious foods to tempt the palate. Among my favourites are chiura (beaten rice) fried up with egg and onions, baraa (lentil pancake), samosa tarkari (samosa + curry soup) and of course chia – spiced tea! My rule of thumb for choosing a place to eat is not the type of food it serves, the price tag, or who frequents it, but the turnover of the establishment. Places with a high turnover likely have fresher produce, as well as a good reputation.
Local foods are generally safer than foreign foods, as their preparation is a daily habit for locals. In Nepal, dishes such as dal bhat are cooked at a high heat, killing any germs. Try to eat freshly prepared meals that are hot. I also think that vegetarian food is generally safer, as it minimises the opportunity for nasty bacteria from undercooked meat (however, I’m vegetarian so I cannot vouch for the effectiveness of this strategy).
Probiotics such as yogurt (that you can buy at corner stores for around 55 NPR), gundruk (local fermented spinach), fermented achar (pickle), kimchi (can find in Korean restaurants and Bhatbhateni Supermarket), and kombucha (for sale at Le Sherpa farmers market in Kathmandu) help to build up beneficial gut flora – giving you a better chance of beating the bad bugs.
It is best to not eat any raw fresh produce that you haven’t prepared yourself. This includes the small cucumber/carrot salad served with dal bhat, burgers with salad, dairy products, and drinks containing fruit.
I also try my best to avoid ice and beverages that do not come in a bottle, or that have not recently been boiled. There are several reasons for this. First, ice may be contaminated with dirty water, as could drinking glasses that have been rinsed with unclean water and then not properly dried. Second, drinks like lassi that are made in a mixer may have bacteria from a mixer that may not be frequently cleaned. In my experience, it is best to stick to drinks like Sprite, Coke, freshly boiled tea, and your own water bottle.
If you do want to eat something raw, it is best to sterilise it first. Scrub it to remove visible dirt and then soak it in water with something to kill bacteria on the skin (for example iodine, or chlorine such as Piyush, which can be found in pharmacies and supermarkets). If you find fresh milk in rural areas, it should be boiled to pasteurise it to avoid bacteria and other illnesses like typhoid.
Carry hand sanitiser and use it on your hands before you eat – especially if eating with your hands, as is the Nepali custom. I have also been known to use a little on my cutlery if it looks wet or dirty, as one way for bad bacteria to find its way into your stomach is through unsterilised water used to wash dishes, which can be problematic if the dishes are not completely dried.
Tap water cannot be drunk without treatment in Nepal. Carry water purification tablets/liquid when you head out to rural areas. While locals may be fine drinking “jungle water”, I prefer not to take the risk, especially when on a once-in-a-lifetime trek! I prefer to use chlorine to ensure that the water is safe to drink, or boil it myself. Chlorine-sterilised water is not tasty, but it is better than hours in the toilet! Piyush drops can be found easily in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
If the unfortunate does occur, be sure to drink plenty of water and oral rehydration salts (ORS), which can be bought for 10 NPR at any pharmacy (tip: the orange packet brands are much more palatable than those in white packets!) I always take several ORS packets with me trekking, as they also help with hydration to avoid altitude sickness. Local pharmacies will also dish out antibiotics, anti-vomit, anti-cramp and anti-diarrhoea tablets. I personally only use these in extreme cases – but I do trek and travel to remote areas with these pills on hand. Just in case…
Article by Florence Reynolds.
Top image: Richard Ong/Flickr