Travelling With Autoimmune Disease/Miss Steps and Misadventures in Kolkata, India
- November 08, 2016
- Theresa Bertuzzi
One year ago I was on the adventure of a lifetime with my best friend and business partner in Kolkata, India. Travelling with autoimmune disease can be very scary because you never know when you are going to get sick. The disease is always lurking, waiting for you to get too tired to make its appearance and the thought of being very ill in another country on the other side of the world can be pretty frightening so when I was suddenly told I would be heading to India in two weeks I said “Hell Yeah! Whoot Whoot! When do we leave?” I love a good adventure and there is no way that anything is going to stop me but that does not mean that I am not worried or afraid about getting sick and I always have a good dose of Prednisone, antibiotics, Epipen, and a virtual pharmacy with me just in case.
I never dreamed I would get an opportunity to head to India but an educational company wanted to meet us to discuss the possibility of their master franchising our daycare franchise in Kolkata so we were off on the adventure of a life time. We had no idea where we were going or what they had planned for us and didn’t even receive our itinerary until we were changing planes in Toronto. We then found out that we would be travelling and flying all over India and would be heading into the Himalayan Mountains. We Googled the places we would be going and found out the mountains are pretty cold, so we made a quick run to the gift shop and purchased Canada Hoodies to wear since we only had our summer clothing. A few days later I would find myself sitting cross legged on the floor of a Tibetan Monastery, playing a drum with my best friend in our matching Canada Hoodies. It was so surreal to be sitting with a room full of monks listening to their rhythmic drums and the non-rhythmic drumming of my best buddy who was not only banging off beat but quietly accusing the monks of being the ones to get the rhythm wrong. We both paused for a moment to ask “How did we get here?” What a blessing and a special moment that I will never forget and it just confirmed my determination that these diseases will never hold me back from any opportunity that comes my way.
Arriving in Kolkata was a little bit intimidating. We really did not have a chance to research where we were going but we were warned by the company greeting us that we could expect a bit of a culture shock. We had just travelled for 30 hours and were exhausted and when we got off of the plane we were greeted by our driver who appeared to not speak a word of English and did not seem to be overly happy about having to pick us up at 3:00 in the morning. He would later become a dear friend as he stuck with us on our whole adventure. We were driven through the streets of Kolkata to our hotel. The city was polluted with trash and, like most cities, the people milling around at 3:00 in the morning were not incredibly welcoming looking. My best friend whispered “Holy crap, we just stepped into the movie Slum Dog Millionaire” and then proceeded to have a small panic attack as a large convoy of turbaned and shirtless men, all carrying large guns, whipped past us shouting and yelling. Our driver was also driving about 100 miles an hour on the sidewalk as the road was full of honking cars and traffic. We would learn that it is perfectly acceptable to drive off the road in India as long as you beeped your horn over and over while doing it. I actually tried to film the driving one night as my BFF was asleep, as I wanted to show her that we were no longer even on the sidewalk but in the tiny space between the stands and tents set up on the other side of the roadway, when the spot light on my phone flashed on blinding the driver and everyone in the car. I couldn’t figure out how to get it off so my BFF woke up to everyone in the car screaming while I waved a blinding spot light, the car careened out of control on the other side of the sidewalk in between tents and pedestrians who were all also yelling and running away from our lit up car. Technically it was partly her fault for falling asleep, which I think was her coping mechanism for dealing with the bad driving and also because she pretty much sat up every night of our trip on guard against possible threats; she was exhausted from keeping us safe and would immediately fall asleep in the car where she was actually in far more danger than in our room because I was awake in the car. Not only did I blind our driver but almost let in some killer monkeys who were banging on the window on her side of the car so I could get their picture. I stopped rolling down the window when our entourage screamed at me but I bet that would have made a great picture. I didn’t know that the monkeys would literally jump in the car and attack you. That night when we arrived, we were not yet used to the driving adventure that India would bring and arriving at the hotel the car was immediately surrounded by armed soldiers who checked the entire vehicle over with mirrors and equipment looking for car bombs. I was secretly thrilled that our adventure had such an exciting start but did not voice this as I was pretty sure that my best buddy was not quite so thrilled. We were both relieved to see that our hotel was simply gorgeous and very safe and we would soon learn that the company that brought us here would literally provide us with our own entourage who would keep us safe and cared for throughout our entire journey. This really was the only moment when we were both a little afraid. Ok, we were both crapping our pants and we went right to our room held each other and had a good cry.
Although our trip was simply amazing, it was exhausting as our hosts ushered us from school to school across India. We would be on the road at 7:00 in the morning and wouldn’t be back to our stop for the night for dinner until 11:00 but our days were absolutely magical. When we arrived at the first school the children and teachers treated us like royalty. We were showered with flower petals as we arrived to music and cheering staff and children. They would then ceremonially present us with scarves and gifts and the children would entertain us with dancing and singing. We were not expecting such a welcome and my BFF was literally sobbing with emotion while watching the children perform. We also participated in all of the schools’ Diwali events as we were lucky enough to be there during the holiday and we had the honour of lighting all of the candles at each school we visited. The children were so excited to see us and our blonde hair and super pale skin made us an attraction for the children wherever we visited causing a problem for our escorts as we were often swarmed by children at the markets who all wanted to have their pictures taken with the strange looking pale women and much to the irritation of our tour guides our hugging the children and posing with them only made matters much worse. What did they expect? We own daycares and love children and we ate up all of the attention we got from these beautiful, sweet babies.
I really did feel bad for the staff that was assigned to being our guides as we were quite the bumbling misfits on this trip but we heard later that they were enjoying us completely and would call their head office each evening to thrill them with stories of our misadventures for that day. They giggled over our diving into the bushes after almost being run over by a run-away horse on a mountain pass in the Himalayan mountains, my wiping out on the staircase at one of the schools not once but three times, our shocked reactions to the Jaguar training they gave us in case one was to cross our paths while we were hiking and our constant attempts to lose our entourage so we could sneak away and shop. Their favorite escapade of the trip involved our tipping the hotel staff. We had no idea how much to tip the staff at the hotels and restaurants and we mixed up the currency a little bit so it turned out that we spent the week handing out ten dollar tips, which we were later told was an entire weeks salary for the staff. Needless to say we were pretty popular wherever we went and one evening three porters carried our luggage to our room for us and we tipped them all. They left and we settled into our room only to hear a knock at the door. We let in a new staff member who brought in a towel and a bar of soap, placed them on the dresser and waited for his tip. We found this a little weird as there were already towels and soap in the washroom but we tipped him so we could get some sleep. Within a short time there was another knock on the door and in walks a new person with a bottle of water. At this point we are starting to laugh because our room was filled with water and we quickly came to realize that this person was just here for the tip. Going along with it, we dished out the tip and closed the door hopefully for the night. Nope! Another knock at the door and we were laughing hysterically at this point. We quickly discussed that no matter what they had for us we were not tipping or we were going to be up all night. We opened the door expecting a second bottle of water and in walked a smiling gentleman with the dustiest bottle of Febreeze fabric spray that I have ever seen. He announced that he was going to freshen our room for us and started spraying everything. It was very clear that he had heard about the tips and had scrounged through the supply closet looking for any excuse to come to our room and dug up this ancient bottle of spray. We weren’t being sucked in this time though and we did not offer a tip so he just kept spraying and spraying, saturating everything and using up the remains of the bottle. He finally left when he realized that we were not going to be passing out any more money that evening. I felt really bad about it afterwards because that guy really worked for his money and he was spritzing so hard that his fingers must still hurt today. After he left we broke into hysterical laughter, jumped off the bed to grab some snacks, and both went flying and skidding across the fully saturated tile landing in a heap of giggles near the bathroom. We literally had to crawl around our room the rest of the evening because it was soaked and so slippery that we went flying with every step we took.
With the exhaustion of the trip I was certain that my Lupus symptoms would flare and I was exhausted, swollen and in pain by the time I got home but it was the food that did us both in and I ate my way through an entire box of Imodium in 10 days. We were warned before travelling to be careful what we ate and we came prepared with a suitcase full of granola bars and other snacks so we literally did not have to eat for the entire trip and we would have been just fine dipping into our suitcase but everywhere we went part of the amazing welcome we got included huge feasts and lunches. The food at these banquets was not prepared in a restaurant and clearly items were washed and cooked in the local water because everything we ate made us horribly sick to our stomachs. Each day they would announce it was time to eat and I would literally feel my ass start sweating at the prospect. Then I would have to politely gulp down food that I knew was going to leave me running back and forth to the bathroom all night long. I could not even look at my BFF as she was dry heaving beside me and we would fight with each other as we tried to slide our food onto each other’s plates. You didn’t dare stop eating either or they would dish the food right into your mouth for you. One lunch they served us a milk ball dessert that is a delicacy but that neither of us enjoyed at all. I could see the head mistress of the school walking around and feeding the other teachers the milk ball so I quickly took a bite so she wouldn’t stuff it in my mouth. My BFF wasn’t so lucky and her mouth was empty so the head mistress picked up the ball and jammed the whole thing into her mouth and then squished her cheeks to make her chew it up. I felt really bad for her watching her eyes bulge and water while she gagged, smiled and chewed it all up but I was so grateful that it wasn’t me. By the end of the trip we had to come clean with our colleague who had joined our party and we explained that the food was making us ill and if he could save us from the constant feasting we would be forever grateful; to which he sheepish explained that we would be arriving to a feast after getting off of the plane that day. Aghhhhh! He was so sweet though and informed the school that we were a little ill and would have to rest in our dorm rooms at the university instead of attending the feast. We were so happy and he got us a pizza and some cookies. We were enjoying our break after a long week when he came back to the room laughing awkwardly and explained that the school had panicked about our being sick and had called the local doctor to come to see us and would we mind acting really sick when he got there. So embarrassing and completely hilarious but far better to be busted by a doctor than to have to eat one more feast and two bottles of Gatorade later we were all set up for the remaining few days where our awesome colleague manipulated our way out of the rest of our meals.
We managed to come away from our trip to India with so many happy memories and I could write a novel just about all we saw and did. We met people who will be forever friends, saw the beautiful country, had adventures we will never forget and came home after a 37 hour flight completely exhausted and so happy. I literally fell asleep when I came home and did not wake up for 27 hours straight. My husband kept checking me to make sure I hadn’t died in my sleep and I dealt with a horrible flare up of my Lupus for a few weeks afterwards but it was so worth the experience. You never know what surprises may come your way or what adventures you may have so please do not let your limitations or fears ever keep you back from enjoying this beautifully broken life!