Before leaving on a trip to India, friends, guidebooks, and common sense all agreed on one thing: drink bottled water. Great – check – no problem. I can manage that.
Also, agreed the experts, make sure the safety seal is, well, sealed. People trying to make a quick buck will sometimes refill bottles and sell them as new. Okay, check the seal – check.
Dutifully following these tips, I drank bottled water through the airport that I had snagged on the plane and, after arriving at our Kolkata hotel, opened the complimentary bottle of water in the room.
Himalayan Water, it proclaimed – "savour the taste it took the Himalayas 20 years to make." Sounds good. Bottle: check. Safety seal intact: check.
Except there was one small problem.
It may have taken 20 years for the Himalayas to make this water, but it too one pass through an Indian bottling plant to completely ruin it. Opening the water, an unmistakable waft of petroleum greeted my nose. Having worked in a store where we regularly unpacked shipments of products from India, I knew this particular smell quite well. It inhabited the wrapping papers and boxes, it emanated from the cheap cellophane box tape, and after a short time removing and unwrapping items, it coated your hands in a greasy petrochemical film.
Was it the outside of the bottle I was smelling? No, the smell seemed to come from the water itself. I nervously sipped the water. It tasted like water. With a diesel aftertaste.
I showed it to Maggie. "Am I crazy here?"
"Not at all. I honestly think you could ignite the vapors coming off of this thing."
I poked around for something else to drink, but my only other option was a can of Sprite in the minibar. Under normal circumstances I would never take anything out of a minibar except to make room for my own food, but I was really thirsty. Down went the Sprite, tasting, happily, like Sprite without the slightest hint of diesel.
In the hotel bar shortly thereafter, I asked the bartender if they had any other water options — anything but Himalayan Water. No dice. How about sparkling water?
He thought for a second. "We have this," he said, producing a bottle of Kinley Soda Water from behind the bar, "but we don't serve this. It is only used for mixing drinks."
"Could I have one?" I asked, curious to try it.
"Oh no, you don't want this. Would you like a Sprite?"
"Gin and tonic, please."
Settling down for dinner in the hotel restaurant next to the bar, I tried again with the first waiter that approached. I was, admittedly, pushing my luck, but couldn't have imagined the dinner theater that followed.
[Enter Waiter 1]
Me: [Hopeful] "Do you have sparkling water, fizzy water? Anything like that?"
Waiter 1: [Nods head, smiles.] "Oh no, I am sorry, we do not. Would you like a bottled water?"
Me: [Resigned to drink nothing but Sprite for the next week] "No thanks. I guess I'll just have a Sprite."
[Waiter 1 exits stage left in search of Sprite. After a few minutes, Waiter 2 enters]
Waiter 2: "I am sorry sir, we don't have Sprite."
Me: "Really? I had one in my room earlier, and they just offered me one in the bar next door."
Waiter 2: "I am sorry sir, would you like a mineral water instead?"
Me: "Do you have fizzy water?"
Waiter 2: "Oh yes, I will go get one for you now."
[Waiter 2 exits; Waiter 1 returns holding a bottle of Himalayan Water]
Me: "Actually, I don't want that. I think the other waiter was going to bring some fizzy water."
Waiter 1: [Looks confused] "I am sorry, we don't have fizzy water. Would you like a Sprite instead?"
Me: [Also confused] "Yes. Yes I would."
[Waiter 1 leaves Himalayan Water on the table, exits. Waiter 3 enters carrying an open bottle of Kinley Soda Water, which he proceeds to pour into a glass in front of me. It is preposterously carbonated, throwing little spits of water into the air in all directions. Waiter 3 exits.
I drink cautiously. Very fizzy, but tastes just fine. Maggie tries to drink, but is immediately blinded by the spatter on her glasses.]
Maggie: "I'm not drinking that. It scares me."
[Waiter 2 enters.]
Waiter 2: "I'm sorry sir, we don't have any Sprite. [Ignores bottle of Himalayan Water and Kinley soda on the table.] Would you like a bottle of water?"
Me: "All set there, thanks."
Maybe it was just the bottle upstairs, I thought, and cracked open the new bottle of Himalayan Water. It smelled like a gas station puddle. I sipped, I winced, fully aware that experienced India travelers would simply shrug and say "Welcome to India." After all, what's a week of drinking petroleum tainted water in the scheme of things?
Recently, while watching The Bourne Supremacy, I noticed Jason Bourne drinking from a bottle of Himalayan Water in the opening scenes in Goa. In the same scene, Bourne's girlfriend is tragically shot and killed, but instead of feeling sorry for Bourne, I just felt sorry for Matt Damon's mouth.
[Photos: Himalayan Water by Douglas LeMoines; Kinley Soda by Bron V]