I Flew 5,000 Miles to Conquer My Aversion to Germs

By Kat Hannaford on at

It took falling down to realise how far I'd come. My flip flop (I was obviously on holiday) got caught on a stone, and before I knew it, I'd scraped my shin and foot. A group of nearby Keralan boys apologised, as if my clumsiness was somehow their fault, but made no attempts to help me up.

My pride and leg bruised, I pulled myself up and walked on, trying to employ what a fellow backpacker had described to me the previous week as we lay panting on the beach following a strenuous yoga session, as "Cyprus logic." She had been laughing about her Cypriot father's well-meaning attempts at seeing the brighter side of adversity, grasping at the most tenuous and ridiculous outcome that a situation could have presented instead of the less unfortunate but still unpleasant reality. "At least I wasn't wearing the shorter dress I had on earlier that day, where it would've been quite an eyeful for the teenage boys walking alongside me in the New Year's Eve parade," I mentally uttered, forcing myself to laugh at my embarrassment.

Wincing on, I decided to cut the night short, given my newfound physical pain and 3am alarm the next morning to send me back on my way to London, following a two-week reprieve over Christmas to India. A cup of chai as I turned the pages of a Paul Theroux book (only the second book I had found the time to read in 2013, and one I was determined to finish before 2013 ticked over to 2014) was looking far more attractive than hobbling along in the throngs of the Keralan city of Cochin's huge NYE festival. After becoming paranoid that a small boy was following me, I stopped and started several times, changing direction (wincing ever more as I felt the blood trickling down my leg), before realising he was simply bored and looking for ways of entertaining himself. Following this sunburnt westerner, walking alone with her bleached hair sticking out like a sore thumb, was innocuous enough, yet I still tightened my grip on my bag having heard too many stories of crowds of people and snatched bags -- no matter the country.

Eyes darting over the crowd, they settled on a sign offering masala tea. I gingerly stepped off the raised road and down onto the beach foreshore, grimacing as more pain shot up my shin. The chai was 7 rupees, about 6p -- I had just 100 rupee notes on me after I'd very satisfyingly counted out the correct change in smaller notes on a dosa and lassi earlier. Nevermind, as the moustached chai-server (pictured) found the change after some initial tutting as I apologetically shrugged when handing the note over, equivalent to just a quid. Gesturing for me to sit on an overturned fridge, his friend moved over for me as I sipped the overly-sweet tea.

Peeling back my long skirt (my homestay owner had warned me to dress conservatively that night, his concerned face repeating "the rickshaw drivers will want to marry you"), I saw the scrapes were actually minimal, but my leg was already swelling in size and would no doubt bruise horrifically. My fridgemate peered at it, and trying to explain I needed to keep my leg raised in the best English he knew, emphatically thumped the fridge below us, accidentally brushing his bare foot against my thigh.

Just two weeks ago, before I fled Heathrow in tears of fright at the journey I had talked myself into, I had balked at using a particularly dirty-looking ATM in London, fearful of the germs that were no doubt jeering me from the numberpad. When my friend Nick jokingly offered to key in my PIN for me, I gratefully accepted, and like an overprotective mother, insisted he use one of my antibacterial Wet Wipes on his hands after withdrawing the money for me.

Surviving India, even if I did ease myself into the shallow end of the pool in the more tourist-friendly states of Goa and Kerala, seemed like just the kind of advice I would've received in the gruelling sessions with a cognitive behavioural therapist I had seen 10 years previously for my OCD. It was dirty. It required more energy expenditure to get there than anything I had ever done in my life. I was travelling by myself, at Christmas, suffering under the weight of what had been a very difficult 27th year of my life. Someone died on my flight, less than an hour after we had taken off -- the doom merely added up in my mind.

But as I wrote these very words in my diary that New Year's Eve, back in my rudimentary homestay bed with its threadbare Care Bear sheets tucked in and folded under by a kind Indian family charging me less than I'd spend on a weekday lunch back in London, midnight fireworks exploding noisily for far longer than any fireworks display I had seen before, I realised the (somewhat clichéd) distance I'd travelled. I was no longer that fearful, fatigued woman who stepped onto the India-bound plane.

Kat Hannaford is editor of Gizmodo UK, and has stolen this week's Spiels From Them Below from the readers. While her Indian sunburn wore off four months ago, she has mostly managed to resist the endless packs of Wet Wipes and bottles of hand-sanitiser still littering her desk and bag.

Spiels From “Them Below” is our new series of columns written by “them below”; the thousands of readers who comment tirelessly, or tirelessly read, Gizmodo UK. Have you got something to lament? Extol? Ponder? Get in touch at kat.hannaford[at]futurenet.com, after reading the details here. Disclaimer: Content in Spiels From “Them Below” doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of Gizmodo UK or its editors.