You don’t get sick all at once in Mexico. It happens in stages, which means even though you went knowing how common it was to get sick — traveler’s digestive disorders, as one website delicately puts it — you can remain in denial that it could happen to you. First there’s the vaguest sense of unease, and the sudden lack of interest in the sandwich you just ordered. And then the slight queasiness. But that can be attributed to the crowds and the sun. It’s carnival in Mérida and the streets are bottlenecked with parade floats and dancers and blasting music. There are swarms of people and vendors and the police who are less like police and more like a SWAT team with armored trucks and automatic weapons. Clowns, balloons, assault rifles. Old ladies in embroidered smocks, children in strollers, teenagers with complicated haircuts and pointy-toed shoes.
You don’t think you’ll go down. You’ve been fine up till that point — jogging, getting enough rest, wearing sunscreen, eating healthy foods. If you do get sick it’s because of the green juice, which you bought to feel even healthier. So to be punished for that is unthinkable, especially when everywhere you look there are buckets of beer and meat bring shaved from a rotisserie. Margarita after margarita melty with crushed ice. People making terrible choices in what they imbibe, not to mention the angry sunburns of the tourists. But if you even think of the rotisseries with their cones of sizzling, slow-spinning pork, you feel dizzy with a deep-gut knowledge that something isn’t right.
Still, even if you do get sick it’s a matter of a trip the the bathroom and you packed Pepto in your first aid kit. You look for shade, sip from your already too-warm bottle or water, daydream of iced drinks. You get through the day, walking maybe 20 blocks to a restaurant you read about in the guidebook. It’s set in a crumbling mansion with a courtyard strung in fairy lights. It should be enchanting and maybe it will be later in memory. Maybe in the few photos taken of you, though already you’re grimacing, your forehead beaded and your hoodie zipped against a phantom chill. You order Enchiladas and a beer. The beer is cold but makes you break into a clammy sweat. Food smells are dismal: spoiled, overcooked, graying on plates. You shrink from your enchiladas when they arrive and walk to the bathroom instead.
At least you can still walk slowly. There’s no rush. A kind of creeping dread. Maybe one trip will be enough. Maybe you can return to your dinner.
But of course you can’t. The sickness progresses faster on the walk home. You stop at a store for saltines and Gatorade, you barely make it to the toilet at the bed and breakfast. There’s a complicated situation with the door lock, a dark garden to navigate, the small room that was so quaint and cheerful but is now only way too far from home. You lay, sweat-drenched and shaking, on one side and then the other. You try to find a sweet spot where you can drift off to sleep and dream of something other than seasick waves and slow-turning meat.
You do not die, but you almost wish you would. Only almost. In retrospect it’s terrible, but still. It’s not cancer or torture or incarceration or the myriad violences other people survive. It’s just bacteria and your body’s overly-dramatic reaction to that bacteria. You leave Mérida, hunched and pale, hair plastered to head, curled into a cab. You curl into a hard plastic chair at the bus station and then into a cushiony seat on the first class bus, blasting AC and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. You sleep in fits, waking to a sharp slash of headache. As much as you feel like you could throw up again, you don’t.
The sick comes on slowly and recedes with even less speed. Days pass before you dare to eat a meal and weeks pass before you can attempt anything with spice or character. Months before you can think of Mexico. Years before you can consider another trip. Before you can convince yourself that you’re smarter, better prepared, perhaps you’ve built up immunity, at least you’ll avoid the green smoothie.
Just beer and fried tortillas, a frat boy diet. It’s only for a week. Save your risk-taking for morning jogs through pretty towns with their cenotes and churches, their broken sidewalks and shy stray dogs.