There are unfortunate moments in any trip that can threaten the joy, and I've tried to cultivate an ability to look at un-fun situations as a neutral, future observer to make enduring them a little easier. And so on my first night in Beijing, when I found myself doubled over between a rickshaw and a Jetta on a crowded sheet and barfing up cucumber salad, I had three simultaneous thoughts:
1. They probably think the white girl is drunk.
2. Perhaps they think I'm just hocking up a massive loogie and spitting in the street, not uncommon here.
3. This will be very funny to me at some point, maybe as soon as tomorrow.
Allow me to back up, now: That morning I woke up in our sort-of dirty hostel in Tunxi and the sore throat that started the night before had blossomed into a head cold. By the time our bullet train arrived in Beijing that evening, my head was was full of snot and my eyes were tearing from the most painful sore throat I've ever had. A not-insignificant amount of space in my backpack is full of medicine that I lugged with me, so I wasn't too worried about being sick or getting treatment, I was mostly just feeling totally miserable and bummed.
We checked into a hostel, and I was deteriorating fast. Food, then sleep, then reassess. We walked through a pedestrian area that was crowded with sounds and people and smells - a sensory overload that made us understand why people say Shanghai may be the glossy future but Beijing is real China.
We choose a small, crowded noodle shop and wedged into wooden chairs at a wooden table, about 15 feet and several tables from the front door on the busy side street, not realizing yet that the distance and obstacles between me and the street would become important soon enough.
Have you ever had a sore throat that was so painful that it sent spasms of pain down your esophagus when you swallowed? The pain intensifies when you try to blow your nose, which you are now doing constantly, in a way that makes the productivity of your sinuses both impressive and horrifying. We ate a vinegary cucumber salad while waiting for noodles, and that triggered a cough/sneeze/esophogeal mutiny that turned my stomach over. I had just enough time to register, 'Oh shit, this is actually about to happen, isn't it?' I grabbed for the snot-soaked tissues in my pockets and tried to extricate myself from the blocky chairs and tables that penned me in, and rushed for the exit.
I paused momentarily, relieved I was at least outside now, but realized this street didn't offer a lot of options. I was trying to conceal myself anywhere as the salad came tumbling out in loud, heaving retches. I was loosely aware that an old man was watching from the next shop stoop, and that I needed to make sure I didn't get anything inside the rickshaw, and that the Jetta was really shiny and I should probably avoid splattering its fender, too.
I want to state clearly and proudly - this wasn't Delhi belly or Montezuma's revenge or the usual traveler's GI distress. I've eaten street food and fresh produce and brushed my teeth with tap water during this trip and have had zero issues. My head cold made me throw up. Ridiculous.
I got back to the table melted in misery. Andy looked at me with concern edged with interest. "Are you ok?"
"Um, I'm pretty sure, no."
I slept hard that night with the help of drugs, spent much time the next day deliberating if I should check myself into a nice hotel for three days of quarantined sleep and consider Beijing a lost cause. In the end, we switched hostels as planned, I slept for a day solid and put on my rally cap after that. It was definitely an uneven rally, punctuated with soggy Kleenex and growing a cough that wouldn't quit for the next week.
And you know what? None of this took the shine off of China for me. But Beijing will forever remind me of standing on a street with my hands on my knees and a puddle of cucumber on the cobblestones in front of me while thinking, "Huh, so this will be memorable."