While the feeling is fresh in my, uh, mind (throat, lungs, head, nose) I thought I would write about my body’s seemingly poor resistance to traveling, especially in developing countries. While my mind says, “Go, go, go”, my body has started saying, “No, no, no.” Suffice to say there are a handful of hotel staff and flight attendants around the world who probably remember me for the poor health they found me in when our lives crossed paths for a short period of time. Its not that I want to be that attention-seeking person, but as it turns out, my body thinks otherwise and that is something I am learning to live with. I mean, not very well, but I am still here and I keep going back for more.
And while I want to make light of the continued trend of finding myself sick in foreign countries, I do want to say I consider it a First World Problem because well, again, I’m still here, and also, I got to travel in these places and despite some less-than-ideal health conditions for myself I still had amazing experiences. I might have even had amazing experiences because of them. The attention it has drawn has forced me to get to know the people I rely on to take care of me, especially when I am traveling solo: the hotel staff, the restaurant staff, the tour guides, the flight attendants. Anyone who has helped me get thru some of the more delirious moments of a trip. We always remember the helpers.
So here it is, the slightly unglamorous side of foreign travel, and the slightly terrifying possibilities that come with going at it solo.
The first time this happened I was 22 and on my year long solo backpacking trip in Australia. I am pretty sure it was sun poisoning. I knew I had a very high fever (like, 104) and I attempted to walk to the pharmacy to ask for an over the counter remedy for it. It was there that I ran into a fellow backpacker from New Zealand, his name was Nicky, and he locked arms with me and made sure I got the few blocks home and sang “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” by Bryan Adams over and over on the walk back. (or at least that is how I remember it, its crazy I remember anything in the state I was in) By the time I returned to the hostel I lived in I was wiped out. I needed to get to the house of the family I was a nanny to and while the train station was only a couple blocks away I had to take a cab to get there because I couldn’t go any further on my own. The parents were going on an adults-only vacation and I was staying with the kids. The first night I was there they were still home, and I was awoken in the middle of the night as my body violently rejected the medicine the pharmacist had recommended.
By the second night I was alone with the kids, still pretty delirious, and by the third night the Grandmother came and picked up the kids and me and took us to the horse farm in the country for the next week. My poor backpacker self was extremely fortunate to even have this option. To this day I thank my good karma for that. If I didn’t have this family I would be stuck in a hostel sharing a room with 4-5 other strangers, on a top bunk, sweating out this thing that had infected me. Lucky for me I had my Australian Grandmother to take care of me and the fresh air of the country to recover in.
The next time I can remember was many years later. I had been in Peru for a dear friend’s wedding. I left the night following the wedding on an overnight flight. I sat next to a Peruvian man who lived in the US and told him how much fun the wedding was, how much dancing there was, how late it went. Luckily there was an empty seat between us as the flight quickly took a turn for the worse… for me. I had been trying to sleep when all the sudden something came over me; it was like my body had been poisoned. Sweat started pouring down my head, and I started peeling off my clothes to cool off. I have never felt anything come on so quickly like this before. I began to get delirious, like I knew I really could not stand up and walk if I needed to get to the bathroom and started preparing to get sick and placed a blanket in my lap as I couldn’t find the bag they give you in the seat pocket. My body felt like it was on fire. I flagged down a flight attendant and asked for water and ginger ale, or something to help with the nausea coming over me. Her first question was if I had eaten the breakfast on the plane, which I had not. This, presumably, was a huge relief to them that it was not caused by their food and they were not going to have a plane full of passengers with food poisoning. Nope, just me! Which would be plenty work for them throughout the night. I said I had been to a wedding the night before and I thought maybe I was just dehydrated. They kept the water and ginger ale coming. Throughout the night SIX flight attendants came and checked on me. I was terrified that they were going to land somewhere as we flew over Latin America and leave me by myself for medical care, so I kept talking myself out of getting sick. Eventually the burning fever turned to a chilling cold and I wrapped up in as many clothes and blankets as I could again. By the time we landed I was feeling a little better and my seat mate asked me how I was doing.
As it turned out, I was sick for two weeks. I was lethargic, couldn’t keep anything down, loss of appetite, lost weight and had excruciating abdominal cramps. I did go to the doctor where my nurse happened to be from Latin America and suggested I had gotten a parasite, and it happens, sometimes simply from washing vegetables…you just have to let it work itself out of your system, she said. So that is what I did. It was unpleasant and uncomfortable but I got thru it.
The next really memorable illness was on a trip to Guatemala. I had been struggling with allergies for the first time in my life before I went, and had just been in Europe a few weeks before for work so was already a little run down from traveling. I was struggling with a hoarse voice and what I was told were allergies. It was my first spring season living in California, I wasn’t real sure what was happening to me, but everything was in bloom so it was possible. So I arrived in Guatemala excited to tour around a little before some work events started. A little coughing and a sore throat I kept telling people I had allergies and would be fine. A couple days in I just wanted to go home, I was struggling just to sit up.
Then the conference I was attending started and I was losing my breath in one on one meetings when I spoke, not to mention I was up all night every night coughing and it was wearing me down more and more each day. People ran and got me tea every time I gasped for breath or coughed. I made friends who had cough drops. Hotel staff and tour guides asked people how I was doing days later after meeting me. I didn’t miss a single part of the trip, though! I was just wiped out from the coughing and luckily had an inhaler with me for the breathlessness. Everyone knew who I was, though. I ended up falling in love with Guatemala and its people, perhaps because of all the care and concern they gave me, it allowed me to get to know them in a different way. A few months after this trip I ran into some of the Guatemalans I had met there on another trip to Mexico City when they walked into a hotel bar I was sitting in. I was so excited to see them! When I stood up to hug them they saw I was in a boot with a broken foot (this is a whole other blog topic!), and I had to swear to them I was not always a broken person! Someday they would see me whole and healthy. They invited me to sit at their table at a breakfast they were hosting the next morning and did a presentation on their beautiful country. There was even a photo of me in the presentation from that trip a few months earlier. Forever a friend of Guatemala.
Flash forward to a week ago. I had just wrapped up over a week working in Malaysia and was on my way to a dream trip to Vietnam. In the final hours in Malaysia I felt this sudden exhaustion come over me. So much so that I had to set my alarm every time I sat down somewhere – I fell asleep at the pool, I fell asleep in my room – as I didn’t want to miss my car to the airport. I fell asleep on the plane. The next day I was cruising around on a boat in the picturesque Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam and I fell asleep. I fell asleep in the car ride back to the hotel. This was not like me at all. I never sleep on planes or cars. The following day I did a tour in the morning but as I waited to get picked up the hotel staff asked me how I was and I told them I wasn’t feeling so great, and without asking they just ordered me some ginger tea and insisted I needed it. They were right. It hit the spot. Upon my return from my morning outing I fell asleep again, and now could not get warm. I turned the air conditioning off in my room and curled up under blankets to sleep.
I eventually got up for a spa appointment where I continued to shiver, more ginger tea and then back for a hot shower and went to bed at 6 pm, for certain with a fever. All I could think about on this bucket list adventure to a country I had dreamed about for years was: I wanted to go home. Yet, I didn’t think I could endure the long plane ride in the state I was in. I knew there was a possibility I had been exposed to mosquitos carrying Dengue Fever in Malaysia and on this particular day I was a bit concerned about that and was quite terrified by the thought of what could come. By the next day I was able to get up and go out and about but not exert myself, I knew that Dengue was not what I had. (Phew.) The hotel staff and restaurant staff at the hotel continued to take care of me, offering ginger tea every time I saw them, and pho, or “chicken noodle soup”, they called it. They were so thoughtful to keep checking in. I was doing what I could and still did a lot despite not feeling well, but was also realizing it was a recurring theme with me.
So what would you do? Would you stay home and call it quits? Or would you keep on putting yourself out there? Is my body just prone to not adjusting to foreign places? Do I just attract parasites and bacteria and can’t process germs? I am hardly a germophobe. I always think the more I am exposed to the stronger I will be, yet I don’t feel strong. I always say bugs find me, so maybe this is the same. Maybe my body just attracts the stuff that it really isn’t going to process for me. I have decided its more important to me to just deal with consequences should they occur than to skip opportunities. Others might find it a hassle. Some might say its part of the adventure. Just know this, the First Aid kit I carry with me has gotten bigger over the years based on these experiences. I do try to go prepared with the comforts of home. I would never push my limits too far, but I do learn something every time something like this happens. But I also don’t want to give up eating Causa in Peru or drinking Egg Coffee in Vietnam or plantains for breakfast every morning in Guatemala.
Plus…. being sick for a couple of weeks in exchange for seeing the world?
First World Problems.
I am still here, aren’t I?