Wheel of misfortune: David Whitley

Food poisoning has a knack of striking at the worst-possible time, turning your travel plans — from romantic dinners to flights home — into embarrassingly awkward ordeals

By David Whitley
Published 6 Feb 2013, 12:21 GMT

My wife took one look at me and knew she was on her own for the day. I was curled up on the bed in the foetal position, clutching the teddy bear we'd bought as a joke a couple of days ago. I had faint traces of vomit dribbling down my cheeks, and I suspect my skin was cadaverously pale.

Overenthusiastic consumption at the open-air buffet had left me a wreck. It could have been the curried chicken; it could have been the desserts, but the precise identity of the culprit was immaterial. I'd spent most of the night on my knees in the bathroom, hugging the toilet bowl in order to eject it.

All I felt capable of was pitifully begging the hotel for an extension of my check-out time and groaning in bed.

Food poisoning is no fun. It'll rarely knock you out for more than a day, but that day is likely to be hellish. You never quite know when you're going to be hit with it, but it's a safe bet that it will happen at a hugely inopportune time. The undercooked chicken never strikes when it's chucking down with rain and you haven't got anything planned. The fly-devastated flan will never be consumed the night before you've got 'mill around by the pool' inked into the itinerary.

Alas, savaged stomachs will always save their protests for when you've got to get up early, hike across town, and then sit in a cramped bus for four hours. Prodigious vomiting will always arrive just before you've got to go on a day-long kayaking trip or trek through mountains. Internal upheaval that requires a near-permanent presence in the bathroom will kick in just before easy access to said bathroom is removed.

The result is inevitably a battle between doing what needs to be done and retaining dignity. It may be something natural that happens to everyone at some point, but nobody wants to admit it's happening to them. Nothing brings out a stiff upper lip better than a loose tummy. And the lengths we go to in order to pretend everything's perfectly fine can be the most excruciating thing about it.

In Singapore, I had planned to go to the zoo. The elephants and orang-utans would have to do without me. But two rather more unavoidable bookings were looming. The second was the flight back to London, due to depart just before midnight. Without dosing myself up with all manner of drugs, that would be 14 hours of unmitigated misery.

Most terrifying, however, was the romantic, end-of-trip dinner before that. Given that everything that had entered my mouth in the past 24 hours had recently come straight back out again, this suddenly didn't seem so charming.

It would have been bad enough in a conventional restaurant, but I'd prepaid for us to dine somewhere more dramatic. The Singapore Flyer is Southeast Asia's take on the London Eye, albeit bigger and without the Houses of Parliament in the way. In a bid to make more cash from it, the operators have come up with a cunning wheeze. In the evenings, certain pods are reserved for diners, and the courses are wheeled in with impressive logistical efficiency at the start of two consecutive rotations of the wheel.

The pods may have waiters and superlative views of the Singapore skyline, but they don't have toilets. And if you do need one while on board, then tough — you're in mid-air. The security staff don't take too kindly to people smashing the pods open and making a break for it.

Throughout the meal, therefore, my face is a mask of ashen-faced concentration. The food is put in front of me, and I warily prod at it like it's radioactive. Conversation largely consists of my wife asking me if I'm OK, and me responding with deeply unconvincing grunts. The joyous Indian family at the other side of the pod look puzzled as to why I'm not getting out of my seat to take photos, while the waiter looks deeply hurt by my largely untouched plate.

"I'm just not particularly hungry," I explain, much to their bemusement.

The wheel turns agonisingly slowly, as if time itself is grinding to a halt. Minutes seem like hours, every stomach grumble a potential catastrophe. Eventually, the second revolution is over and the doors inch open. I don't have time for explanations or apologies — I just burst out and make a run for the loo. Dire need seems to have brought out hitherto undiscovered athletic abilities. And my wife is left to admit the sorry truth to the startled waiter.

Published in March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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