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Watching Your Step in Other Countries
-- By Chris Ott
© 2000, RPK&A, Inc.

I went to Mexico for spring break determined not to get sick. Not drinking the water wasn't the half of it. I had Pepto Bismol. I had vitamin C. I had iodine. And thanks to the complimentary samples in the hotel, I even had antibacterial soap. I was going to leave Mexico cleaner than I found it.

For the first few days, everyone in our group was fine, and shared my sense of caution. But then, one by one, my traveling companions began to let down their guard. One had a cup of cubed melon and pineapple--a bad idea, since we could see that the street vendor rinsed off the fruit with regular tap water before he sliced it up. Within a day, our friend had diarrhea. One had a sweetened, watery coconut-milk drink from another vendor. She got sick. And I was primly appalled by one of my friends while we explored a sprawling outdoor market in Mexico City. Spotting a concrete block with a faucet sticking out of it, she bent down and reached to turn it on.

"What are you doing?" I asked, alarmed.

"I'm getting a drink."

"But you can't drink the water here--especially here. Are you crazy?"

"Don't be ridiculous. And besides, I'm so sick of that carbonated mineral water. I just want water." And with that, she drank from her cupped hands.

By the next morning, the pain had her doubled over, crying.

Pretty soon I was the only one left who hadn't been sick, although I had some scares. I tasted a sip of the infectious coconut milk, but not enough to get me. I bought fruit from street vendors too, but I washed and peeled it myself. I worried briefly when I remembered that the ice in my drink could be contaminated, but I figured the alcohol would kill the stowaways. Just to be sure though, I took some vitamin C.

Then we went swimming. And not just anywhere, but near a small coral reef, renting flippers, snorkels and goggles to have a look.

The water was shallow, but the waves were big. If I had to, I could stand, but the waves tossed me around like a cork. I ended up getting salt water in my mouth, nose, ears and... foot. While sloshing around, I cut my foot on a rock. Nothing major, just a shallow cut about an inch and a half long, but it marinated in the sea for about five minutes. I hopped ashore on the other foot, washed the wound with some antibacterial soap, and bandaged it up.

That was our last day. We headed home, and I had managed not to get sick. But then on the bus, I noticed that my foot was a little sore. Before long it was painful and stiff, and swollen almost to the ankle. I had picked up an infection after all, and I needed antibiotics.

Then the diarrhea hit.