Inevitably you will get sick. Whether seasonal flu, polluted lungs from smoggy city streets, or the dreaded travelers diarrhea variety it’s only a matter of time until you’re hacking up a lung or sh*tting out your internal organs. These are not the pretty stories of independent travel but they are universally shared and amount to an element of a backpacker’s bonafides…
Unhappily, I’ve experienced these three illnesses plus a nifty handful of weird infections, discoloring funguses and inexplicable fatigue. We’re not in Kansas anymore and the viruses and bacterias are a whole new kind of evil.
Most recently I was plagued with an awful bout of what I will simply refer to as “both ends” sickness; no further explanation will be given (nor should one be necessary). It struck in the middle of the night, seemed to miraculously (& mercifully) disappear the next day only to attack again with the element of surprise 2 days later. Nothing seemed particularly out of the ordinary and all was manageable with the help of my trusty pink, lifelong travel buddy: Pepto Bismol. We visited the imposing sculpted heads of Angkor Wat together and held hands along the riverfront of Phnom Penh. We were going steady and it was good.
Then Pepto scorned me, promptly handing in its rose-hued pink slip–that’s when fit really hit the shan. Next thing I knew it was the middle of the night (for the second time now) and I was curled up the fetal position with a plastic trash can next to the bed. I spent the better part of the next 48 hours alternating between that same position or playing musical chairs on the porcelain throne… Rolling over was exhausting. My body ached. I was freezing, a sure sign of accompanying dehydration. Then the fever really kicked in and with it a few friendly rounds of cold-sweats. It was like a watching Wimbleton as re-enacted from the discomfort of my intestines. Thank god for the beneficence of my friend Ping who shared his fancy luxury hotel room with me in my neediest hour; this ensured air conditioning, a clean room, TV and a very understanding hotel staff who kept me well-stocked with water and ginger tea.
Then Ping left too. I don’t know maybe he and Pepto had something going on behind my back? (Actually Ping moseyed on to the gem of SE Asian travel: Laos. Good for him.) I was alone again and being kicked out at check-out, still ill. To make matters worse, I was in the capital of a country with a very recent and very violent Civil War which had just held elections of which the outcome was widely rejected. Opposition was rallying, the ruling party was amassing its military might and assembling heavy artillery in prime public areas. Protests were planned for August 13. Check-out was high noon, August 12. I had to get moving, figuratively, literally, digestively.
So there I was with fully loaded backpack, contemplating my fate. The common refrain: Now what? Where to next? What do I want to do?
Although a clash between the political parties was unlikely I decided (to borrow from my Scottish friend Scott): “Fuck it.” As in, “fuck the politics and fuck this rotten belly, I’m outta here.” And I hopped a bus to the beach.
Four days later I’m darn chuffed (that means happy, pleased in UK-speak) I did. My recovery is slow and I’m surprised by how fatigued I am. The funk took its toll not only on my physical body but also on my psyche: I’ve been lacking motivation to travel, utterly uninspired by onward journeying. My overall attitude could have been described as “meh.” It’s starting to get better though and I’m starting to feel more hopeful and grateful for the horizons that lie ahead, along with feeling more capable of the gazillions of tiny decisions I’ll navigate to engineer my fate.
I share this tale of woe for my fellow travelers so that a) you know to take those battle-royals with your digestive and immune systems seriously and b) so you can be aware of how entirely such illnesses can wreck you physically, mentally and emotionally. If you’re worrying that you’re losing the drive for travel, get yourself to someplace pleasant and wait it out. Chances are that if you keep rehabbing yourself (that is drinking lots of water, taking vitamins and eating well) you’ll soon be smiling and looking forward to more travel.
Until proven otherwise, that’s my plan anyway.