August 09, 2006

Water, water everywhere, but is it safe to drink?

Ian Frazier has an entertaining article in the August issue of Outside. In "A kielbasa too far," Frazier recounts episodes of malady in foreign lands. Getting sick or not in a foreign country boils down pretty neatly to where you are and what you choose to eat and drink while you’re there. And we sometimes choose to eat skewered meat from street carts and drink neon-colored soft drink concoctions from women sitting under umbrellas, babies tucked into their bosoms.

Actually, when I say "we" I mean other people, because I don’t eat the skewered meat or the suspect drinks. I err, almost always, on the side of caution.

I carried pounds of tinned food to China so I could avoid eating the steamed wonton balls and roasted sweet potatoes from the hawkers – people that blow their noses into their hands and then touch the food – that line Beijing’s streets. (Folks I traveled with succumbed to the sweet potatoes and spent a Beijing night puking in their hotel toilets.) I packed a case of granola and Power bars when I went to India so I could walk past the skinny chickens and roasted nuts on offer along Delhi’s sidewalks. I look at fish, produce and meat markets in undeveloped countries as cultural stops and photo ops, not places to fuel my body. Click, click. Time for a Power Bar.

Young people on vagabond journeys with time to kill should try the local street stuff. Older folks with planes to catch and lives and incomes to get back to should graze conservatively.

I’m no gastronomic weenie. I’ve eaten snake, eel, monkey, yak, guinea pig, and eggs whose yolks had been jellied into a sinister mash of sick, gray-green softness. But trust your gut. If intuition says, "Don’t eat that," then don’t eat that. (I should have listened when it issued the snake warning. Talk about nasty...)

Water’s a tricky thing. You need it every day, in decent quantities. But is the water safe to drink? Sometimes, yes. Often, no. Again, trust your gut (the part of you that will take the hit if you get it wrong).

In developed countries, I take a few gargantuan sips of tap water on my first day. If I’m still standing on Day Two, I gulp some more. If Day Three greets me quietly with no gastrointestinal emergencies, then tap water it is. I proclaim the water safe for the family, and we stop buying the bottled stuff. I’ve learned how to order tap water in several European languages ("Leitungswasser, bitte," and "L’eau robinet, s’il vous plait..."), which shaves major bucks from restaurant tabs. When I was a literally starving student in Paris and ordered tap water with my cheap croque monsieur cheese sandwiches, the waiters sniffed down their noses at me and made me feel like a social pariah, a bumpkinish misfit. Now that I’m more well-heeled, the waiters’ looks border on admiration that I know what they know – the free tap water is just fine, and the pricey bottled stuff – a fountain of income for the restaurants – is unnecessary.

When we were in France a few weeks ago, we stayed in Thonon-les-Bains, a Lake Geneva spa town with its own signature water, Thonon. The town sits next to Evian-les-Bains, home of world-renowned Evian water, which is actually bottled in an ugly factory not in Evian, but in next door Amphion. We were in the epicenter of chic bottled water and drank nothing but tap water. I figured the stuff flowing from the faucets in these towns is probably superior to bottled stuff elsewhere.

In developing or undeveloped countries, I forego the tap water experiment entirely and stock up on factory-sealed bottled water.

If you’re traveling with kids, you need to make sure they stay hydrated. If you’re in a place with an undeveloped sanitary infrastructure, you train your kids not to drink from the tap as they’re used to doing at home. You lodge a bottle of store-bought water by the bathroom sink and tell them to rinse their toothbrushes and mouths with this, not the water from the faucet. When they get lazy or forget and come moaning to you in the night, you give them Pepto-Bismol or Immodium, pat them on the head, and tell them they’ll feel better in the morning, which they usually do. Every once in a while, you’ll pass a weird, perversely fulfilling night with a feverish kid wrapped around you, a kid who wakes up to the sun cool and healthy and spiritually quieted. If that breakthrough doesn’t come by morning, get thee to a clinic.

In Frazier’s article, he talks a bit about bottled water. He quotes a Toronto doctor who specializes in travelers’ ailments and who warns that even bottled water can be unsafe because it might actually be a literful of counterfeit faucet issue. Best to go for the carbonated stuff, he says, as carbonation is hard to fake. Frazier writes that when he used to travel in Russia, his Russian friends would laugh when foreigners ordered bottled water because it was nothing but a dupe, tap water packaged up with a label and a cap, just for tourists.

Is there fake bottled water out there? You bet your bubbles. Had I not seen a water forgery in action, I might not believe it. Now I know better: crack the seal yourself or drink at your own risk.

We were in Greece, at Tolo, a beach town on the Peloponnesean peninsula near Nafplion. While the family swam, I went for a run. In order to eke a decent number of miles from the town’s limited road network, I had to head uphill, away from the beach, shops and tavernas, toward a municipal dump and a series of dusty streets lined with hardscrabble little houses. I made repeated loops through these streets and kept passing a public well, a pump imbedded into a concrete platform roughly six feet square.

Two streets below the pump, closer to the beach and the main drag where the tourists hung out, was a taverna. It had inviting umbrella tables, arbor with shade-producing vines, rusty olive oil tins reincarnated as flower pots, and the day’s menu written on a chalkboard propped against a sun-glinty whitewashed wall.

As I ran by the taverna, I noticed an older man, presumably the owner, exit through the back door and make his way up toward the water pump. Normally, I’d have taken no notice, but the man carried something that piqued my curiosity – a big plastic tray filled with empty plastic bottles – bottles that bore the label of the water we’d been buying in stores and tavernas since we’d landed in Greece.

I hid behind a stone wall and watched this guy chug up to the pump and proceed to fill each of those tall "bottled water" bottles with the water from the public well, which sat about an eighth of a mile downhill from the municipal dump. Garbage trucks were busy up there on the hill, coming and going, discharging their loads then heading out to refill.

After he’d filled the bottles, the old man picked up the heavy plastic tray and carried it down to his restaurant, and I watched the tray of tap water disappear into the taverna’s rear kitchen door.

I didn’t stick around long enough to see it emerge on the taverna’s patio where it would be served to unsuspecting travelers, maybe to a family like mine. To watch would have made me sick.