If you’ve never lain in a shower stall ejecting vile liquids from both ends of your digestive tract, you’ve not lived! Precede that with eight hours of vomiting out of a Nepalese night bus window and you’ve got a great anecdote for your friends back home/prospective partner/criminally underrated blog. I for one would never have given up those few days of discomfort for an unsoiled memory – every facet of travel contributes to the glorious palette from which one’s trip is coloured, even that of haemorrhaging diarrhoea, and try spelling that after two days of experiencing it. Imagine a journey constructed entirely of happy, well-organised scenes linked seamlessly together: great flight – helpful taxi driver – lovely room – awesome view – secret flamenco bar – rich paella – blah blah blah. What kind of tedious memories would that evoke? Give me struggle and hardship any day: delayed flight – egregious taxi driver – cramped room – brick wall view – seedy club – toxic street food. Sorry, I seem to have strayed from the point somewhat.
The natural way to purify any water is by boiling, which kills all the nasty germs and makes it drinkable, but who carries a stove with them everywhere? An easier solution is to buy pure, bottled water whenever thirst rears its ugly head, but this works out very expensive and contributes to landfill in countries where the definition of recycling is waiters scraping uneaten food back into the stew pot. There are a number of other possibilities: purification tablets (but this is not a healthy long-term option); pumping the water through a filter (but they don’t usually filter out viruses, the smallest type of pathogen); zapping it with a SteriPEN.
A SteriPEN is a little gadget that sterilises these pathogens using UV light, which disrupts their DNA rendering them unable to reproduce, and thus harmless. Simply insert the bulb into your full receptacle, activate the UV lamp and stir for a minute or so. The water is then safe to drink. It’s basically a magic wand of purification which I consider to be the best solution for long-term 3rd world travel. However, it is not without its drawbacks. The Classic model runs on AA batteries (although there are models that use the ludicrous CR123A – see review of Fenix PD32 for sarcastic takedown of those) and they recommend using only the lithium-ion type due to their capacity and power density. These are a) hard to find in Outer Mongolia, and b) expensive. A packet of 4 in Australia will set you back 4 days’ budget in Malawi. Fortunately, lowly nickel-cadmium cells work fine.
The other problem will only be of passing interest to non-warmdüschers, but after tramping around a sun-baked meso-American archaeological site in the tropical sun, developing ear strain from trying to surreptitiously eavesdrop someone else’s tour guide, one doesn’t look forward to a hearty swig of tepid tap water. One anticipates reaching into the fridge of a poky little store, withdrawing a litre of clear spring runoff, condensation beading on the badly-printed label, and throwing down that ice-cold quencher like the spillway releasing on a hydroelectric dam.
Sticking to bottled spring water doesn’t necessarily guarantee your safety anyway. The day I crossed over from Aqaba, Jordan into Eilat, Israel, I took a bus north into the Negev Desert. I was starting to feel shaky but summoned just enough energy to hike the 10km from the main road into a small camp in the middle of nowhere before collapsing in a heap, guts dissolving and ready to purge through all available orifices. In utter despair I crawled to the toilet block to hover over whatever rancid hole passed for a lavatory, but then, there in the Holy Land, I beheld a miracle. After two months travelling through the Arabic Middle East – a wasteland of squat toilets, bucket flushes and hosepipe wiping – I was confronted with a sit-down flush-toilet with choice of three toilet rolls. I think I actually wept with relief. Boy, had I chosen a good place to die. My girlfriend had already suffered salmonella poisoning in Syria, and the discomfort of balancing for hours, sick and tired, on withered and bloodless haunches over open sewers. I’d struck gold here, or at least 2-ply.
In my delirium I tried to self-diagnose: heat-stroke? Leptospirosis? Altitiude sickness? (Although only at 500m above sea level I’d dived the previous day). When I recovered sufficiently to bus to J’lam I was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery, which I hunted down to a corner shop in Rum village in the Wadi Rum desert. I’d questioned the owner as to why his water was so much cheaper than usual and he’d explained that it was because he personally transported it from Amman in his van. It turns out he was just filling up spare bottles from his kitchen tap and re-capping them. Nice. Oh, and that two-day shower in Nepal? I traced that back to a dodgy thali I’d consumed at the Indian border. Purify the water all you like, but it’ll still get ya!