why we’re scared of the water

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.


45 responses to “why we’re scared of the water

  1. I would never have guessed the underlying reason for avoiding the local water in India !

    Anyway, in case you really want to know this link has full instructions … :


  2. On the other hand, as a desi studying in Zurich since about an year and a half it is only recently that I came to terms with the idea of people drinking water from bathroom sink. Cultural hygiene norms dictate water from an inherently unclean place (however you may clean it or however pure the water is) such as a bathroom or toilet is not fit for consumption. Just the idea itself puts many to disgust, even in a city like Zurich were public drinking water faucets are aplenty.

    In India idea of ‘selling water’ is pretty recent probably a decade or two. Something the older generation finds quite amazing because I remember the days when you could trust the water coming from municipal facilities straight from your kitchen sink. Now in many places you can not trust it even after putting a fat ass filter, you have to buy bottled water for your normal consumption at home too!

  3. Pingback: Why we drink bottled water? « The AD Zone


  5. Being from NY, I can assume you’ve seen “Sex and the City” the movie? Regardless, don’t open your mouth while in the shower. I don’t learn all of life’s lessons from rom com’s, but this is definitely one of them.

  6. Interesting. Not just foreigners but even a few Indians dread using Indian Toilets. But thats not the only reason to drink bottled water. It has become a fashion statement among Indians.

    It is indeed true that a lot of water available is simply not pure and not palatable to the people from west, the same fact is true to whatever else you eat as well.

  7. I did not know that…Thank you for sharing 🙂

  8. That is new info for me…

  9. So true! I was in India earlier this month and horrified when I had no choice but to drink the filtered tap water offered to me in Delhi. Luckily, I didn’t get ill and even brushed my teeth with tap water with no apparent consequences…

  10. What makes you put your faith in bottled water?

  11. It’s one thing to be sick at home, it’s another to be sick in a foreign country. Unfortunately, I had the pleasure of getting sick in Paris which I hope has not ruined me for future endeavors. When we travel to Mexico we live and die by the bottled water, which we do so without any bit of reservation. I know it’s a bit cliche but, it’s better to be safe than sorry.


  12. Ah, the trouble of using foreign toilets!
    The first time I travelled abroad from India (to Zurich, incidentally!), even I was horrified of toilets which would have no water for cleansing of soiled body parts! 🙂

    I still get distressed at public toilets that actually have no running water at all! Seriously, how do people walk away after having finished their business and not having washed their hands at all!

  13. I think you may have stumbled upon something profoundly accurate.
    Well done.

  14. Having been sick in foreign countries, I can attest to the fact that it is miserable, especially when there is a language barrier and no sign of any pepto….

    Foreign toilets are incredibly alien. I remember being completely bewildered by the squat-toilets in most Japanese restrooms- though some flushed themselves.

  15. local water isn’t always clean, neither is bottled water but it gives us the satisfaction that it is safer than drinking out of a polluted river from the tap.

    Best way is to use one of those portable water filters that you can bring along with you on trips like these that cost a mere 50 bucks to curb your fears of dirty water.


  16. Not sure there is much regulation for bottled water in the U.S. as we don’t really know where it comes from most of the time. However since it is placed in a plastic bottle for some reason we trust this.

  17. After watching a program on National Geo featuring the water supply in India and seeing what floats in it I would definitely make sure I was equipped with bottled water !

    I even remember my first family holiday to Spain and my mum was really paranoid about the water supply, making sure we either drank bottled or she boiled the water.

  18. Oh my! Have been sick in foreign country, asked where restrooms are only to find a hole in the ground, and other nasty bits. Makes a good case and advertisement for Depends, no matter what your age.

  19. Thanks for the interesting article!

  20. You’re right! One time in Beijing I had a serious bowel emergency while stuck in a traffic jam. I managed to explain to the non-English speaking driver what the problem was and its urgency. He drove over sidewalks through back alleys and rushed me into a place whose smell alone could have constipated me for the rest of the trip. But it got worse–there was no toilet, just a urinal hanging what seemed like 10 feet off the floor. Somehow I managed.

  21. lol… how true… I have to say- I did the same thing, travelling to Egypt, I ate only cooked foods, drank only bottled water, and gues what? Got sick anyway! So moral of the story- yes, be careful but not overly so!! Enjoy your travels!

  22. Completely true! I’m still working on a way to explain this to my relatives in India.

  23. When I get sick, I want to be in my own bed in my own home — at a time when I’m vulnerable and not 100 percent there, I don’t want to add to the misery by 1) having to look like I feel better than I do and 2) having to figure out the mechanizations of a bathroom when I need to use it right THEN.

  24. Hmmm…As someone who has actually gotten a few illnesses from drinking the water in various Latin American countries, I would say that the reason I am skeptical now before I reach for a sip of whatever is in the glass is because the time I had dysentery was one of the single most painful experiences of my life! I thought I was dying and to make matters worse, that time, no clinic in Bogotá would accept me because I didn’t have health insurance and I was foreign. I have no problem using public bathrooms, because better out than in, but I never want to repeat that experience ever again!

  25. The sad thing is that bottled water is tap water….
    Don’t think that it comes from a mountain of infinite pure clean water… it comes from local water providers, just added minerals and all other stuff they add to it to make it taste clean.

    Don’t fool yourself thinking it comes from 100% clean water… its tap water with added ingredients.

    Where I live, all of our teachers tell us that our local waters are contaminated, it won’t kill us, but it has a permanent toll on our health, just weakens it. But its all good o.O… it only affects you after years of drinking it.

    Just make sure you know where the water comes, in latin places they get them from water holes usually. Same where I live down in Idaho.

  26. I don’t drink non-bottled water in India either, and I’ve been born in India and lived there for 3 decades before moving out.

    It is just what you’re used to. When I was in India, my system was used to tap water. Now when I return, I have to take into account the unaccustomed bacteria in my stomach 😀

    That said, I understand your aversion for squat toilets. It took me a while to adjust to western toilets, no flowing water, and toilet paper.

  27. I had health problems the last two days I was in Jamaica. I drank water or ate something that made me sick for several days. The trip was wonderful though!

  28. I think you are spot-on. I heard about the evils of drinking foreign water from my father (the soldier) from as early as I can remember.

  29. Sometimes foreign water is definitely NOT safe, but othr times it’s okay. Keeping boiled water in a cooler with a filtr is sually very helpful.

  30. Lol, you have to admit. The use of a foreign bathroom is pretty terrifying.

  31. I think that this problem could be solved if you stuck to alcoholic beverages during your travels like i do.

  32. The tap water from Singapore is very safe. Our technology is so advance that we even drink our on urine…Gotta!

  33. i completely disagree. i’d rather use a foreign bathroom than be stuck in a foreign hospital.

  34. Acara nguntal nguntal dimana nih bos?

  35. An interesting perspective! As a Singaporean living in the U.S., I don’t drink the tap water here at all! I can’t figure out if I don’t trust it or it just tastes weird.

  36. Hmmmn…could we have a primal fear of…squat toilets? How evolutionary!! I lived in Italy for a year, and our family drank bottled water, because what came out of the tap was the color of saffron, and tasted like a jumble of metal. But this is really funny – we did drink out of the public fountains, which use the same water supply. But that water tasted fine – it was running continuously, so it didn’t pick up much in the pipes.

    But my water fetish was reality-based!! In the first few weeks, to make tea, I boiled water from the tap. And I got headaches. Every day, I got headaches. Until I started using bottled water for tea – and I never got headaches again.

    Coinkydink? I don’t think so. And I’ve used those squat toilets – yikes, in Indonesia, with no water to wash afterwards. But even in Italy – squat toilets are a messy proposition, especially for women. So maybe you’re right, we instinctively fear “the bottom line.”

    I have a funny blog, about living in Italy. We had little water pressure, no hot water – it was like camping, with tile. It’s at 4initalia….thanks for a great blog!

  37. Pingback: Scared of Water………. « Boi wonder6's Blog

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  39. Going by my own experience and people I know, Indians never use public rest rooms either. The very thought of it gives us extreme control.

  40. Greetings.
    I am writing a story for a Bangalore-based newspaper about expats working in India. Would like to interview you about your life in India. If you wouldn’t mind that, please get in touch with me: ranjitha84ATgmailDOTcom. Please let me know. Thanks a ton!


    Dave and Jenny, you are the first I have seen to finally pin down the source of this abstract fear I and many others have but have never been able to wrap our heads around.

  42. believe it or not, ever since we moved to delhi(10 years ago), my family has been getting Bisleri water delivered every week. it’s those huge 5 gallon water that last you a week. we do have a water filter attached to our kitchen sink but something went wrong a long time back & we gave up on it. So every time i go sleepover at a friend’s house, i make sure to take a bottle of water from home to avoid having to drink from the kitchen sink at my friend’s place. i get made fun of for doing that but after 10 years of drinking bottled water, the idea of drinking straight from the tap makes me nervous. so i understand u guys!

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  44. Well, the only reason American tap water is safer (not in all states by the way! researched on water companies enough!) – is because in India the water companies are public (belong to the govt) and are inefficient and lack quality control technology and effort! We have the concept of purified or filtered water – which is tap water from the municipalities which is purified at home by a “filter” – thus filtered water – which most good/decent restaurants serve – so should not be a problem to foreign tummies. And I agree with someone else who said drinking water from a tap in someone’s kitchen/bathroom – makes me cringe – whether america/UK/Zurich – it come from long haul pipes!! who knows what growing around them!

  45. While some think it is just a mythical fear that other countries have water that will make our sensitive American stomachs ill, it isn’t mythical to people like me who HAVE become sick from drinking contaminated water in a Central American country.

    Better safe than have a microorganism making its home in your intestines. I will stick with bottled water in questionable conditions or countries, thanks.

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