Most American travelers pass through the jet bridge with refrains of “Don’t drink the water!” ringing in our ears. It’s the advice we receive every time we cross our national borders—advice that’s given all the more emphatically the further east we travel, but still sometimes offered by elderly relatives even for a simple Canadian day-trip. And we take the advice seriously: we pledge our allegiance to bottled water, we distrust the efficacy of water filters to tame the toughest bacteria, and a single droplet of municipal water on a freshly-cleaned glass is enough to make us send it back for a fresh one.
Beached bottles accompanying the skeletal remnants of our Karim’s tandoori bakra.
Even in Singapore, I admit that Jenny and I did research before quenching our thirsts; and we always pointedly assure all our foreign visitors of the safety of our tap water before they (still suspiciously) drink their first glass.
The source of this paranoia is not some patriotic restriction to water that has been filtered through purifying membranes made of American flags and apple pies. It stems instead from the American traveler’s deepest fear: getting sick in a foreign country. And while you might think we want to avoid getting sick because of the amount of money we spend on our plane tickets, the paucity of vacation time awarded to the average American worker, or our intrinsic distrust of any medical system not our own, the underlying foundation of this fear is actually far more fundamental:
(1) Drinking foreign water could lead to
(2) Getting sick in a foreign country, which might then force us to
(3) Use a foreign bathroom.
This is the sum of all American tourists fears: the receptacle that awaits if the uncontrollable urge hits far from the hotel lobby. Not unsanitary conditions, mind you (bus station bathrooms are the same all across the world), but the very concept of squat toilets, and the mere thought of a bathroom lacking toilet paper.
Mystery solved: Americans avoid indigenous water because nothing scares us more than unfamiliar bathroom technology. No matter how hot the Delhi day, no matter how cold the Coke in the glistening glass before us, we’ll still push it away if we spot even a single ice cube floating in it. Because in our paranoid tourist minds, that single ice cube is a direct bacterial link to a back alley squat toilet—and, worse, that little plastic water bucket that we don’t know how to use and by god, we don’t want to.