Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Aquatic Dictator

China is ruled by an absolute dictator. This dictator has ruled from ancient times, sometimes more harshly, sometimes less. Nowadays, it claims its authority based on the peasants and the downtrodden, and they feed its power regularly.

The native Chinese learn to obey its absolute dictates, and so they seldom feel the lash of its whips, and foreigners are its main victims. Those who obey it have little to fear, but those who do not may be abused, even tortured. In certain extreme cases, they can be taken to institutions with others who have foolishly disobeyed its commands. There, they may suffer so horribly that they beg to be put to death. And in rare cases they are, though their deaths are not discussed.

I am talking, of course, about the kitchen tap.

The tap-water here looks perfectly clear, and it smells of nothing at all, but it is always to be regarded as contaminated. It may be boiled for use in tea or soup, but it may never be consumed directly. It's hard for a Westerner to imagine a city of millions, all living in fear of their own water, but here we have it.

I have received two pieces of sage advice from Westerners who have spent time in places such as this (one in Mexico, the other in China). The first person told me to consume at least a small sip of alcohol with every meal, to help kill the bugs. The second said I should always brush my teeth with tap water, but then to spit it out rather than swallowing it. The small amount of bacteria, she suggested, might help build my tolerances.

These are somewhat contradictory (should I attempt to cultivate nasty bacteria, or kill them all with liquor?), and they both sound like old wives' tales. However, given the choice between the two, I prefer to obey the former and ignore the latter.

I have developed a morning routine that seems to have kept me safe. I do brush my teeth with tap water, but the second I'm done I rinse with Bering, which is a horrid Listerine knock-off. It tastes like mildly mint-flavored antifreeze, but I figure if it does such nasty things to my mouth it must be doing even more lethal things to the bugs. After I've finished, I rinse again with bottled water.

The odd, shiny appliance over the sink turned out in fact to be a dish decontaminator, as I had initially surmised. Chinese friends, though, have puzzled over it and had to read all the characters on its front before they knew what it was supposed to do. I guess it's not a common Chinese appliance -- either because they are all used to bacteria, or because they drink alcohol with every meal. I'm not sure which, but I'm happy to have it. I find that it's handy for keeping many things stay fresh, such as my kitchen sponge or my Sonicare toothbrush head.

In combination, these various forms of self-protection seem to have kept me relatively safe. I've had a couple of very mild attacks of traveler's tummy, but generally I've been fine.

1 comment:

  1. I have to wonder if that device isn't catering to overly paranoid sensibilities. Doesn't allowing dishes to dry completely kill the bugs? Maybe some types might conceivably survive, but that's what I've heard.

    It's a bit like how U.S. stores always refrigerate eggs. I was astounded the first time I saw eggs placed out in the open and in a hot environment at that, but it shows what a fearful lot we Americans are.

    Supposedly it takes 6 to 7 years to build up your immunity to that of the locals, but like your friend, I suspect/hope the process can be accelerated with some measured recklessness.

    Here in Mexico, I've encountered travelers and expats who regard the tap water almost as toxic waste. I don't go that far either. I brush with it and don't bother to seal my mouth when showering. And I don't always give my produce the bleach bath as I should. Maybe I'm too reckless, but so far only two incidents in five months. I came for the food and I want that iron stomach!