Getting Sick on a Round-the-World Trip

Categories Long-Term Travel, Mongolia, Siberia, Sickness and Travel, Trans-Sib Trains, Where Have I Been?

Most people do get sick on the road at one point in their travels. If you are lucky, your illness will require a quick trip to the doctor and some antibiotics or anti-parasite medication. If you are me, your illnesses will straddle several continents, a multitude of body parts and an exploration of Eastern and Western medicine – all in the span of one year.

Long-term readers of the blog know that I used to have a ‘days of sickness’ counter in the righthand column, but removed it because the sick days quickly outnumbered the healthy days and I stopped counting altogether. I started the trip with a cold and had I not been so stubborn about ignoring it, I would have been able to avoid a lot of doctor’s visits and insurance claims. But then I wouldn’t have all this information about free hospitals in Argentina (who knew?), terrifyingly long wait times in Port Elizabeth or an incredible Tibetan medicine doctor in Siberia.

What started in April 2008 as a classic cold in bone-chillingly damp Punta Arenas blossomed into bronchitis, and then (because I refused to admit how sick I really was) went downhill from there. I worked for years to save up for my trip, and did not want to let some cold get in the way of my travels. So, I kept climbing mountains in South America despite the fact that I could not breathe, and then the cold turned into bronchitis, then all the resultant coughing bruised my ribs, then the illness moved to my sinuses, then I lost all hearing in my left ear and then I ended up on a flight home from Johannesburg in July of 2008, shaking with 104 fever and delirious.

After recovering back home, I took off for Russia in the fall of 2008, determined to not get sick again. This desire turned out to be laughable. Somehow, I ended up with an uncontrollable, dry cough the second I arrived in Moscow. After several days of coughing through Siberia, I decided to approach my guide Andre about a doctor’s visit when we were in Verkhnyaya Ivolga, a tiny Buddhist village in the semi-autonomous Buriyat Republic. Tucked into the Eastern shores of Siberia’s cold, windy Lake Baikal, the village did not seem like an ideal place to find a one, but when I discussed the matter with Andre, he felt otherwise. Andre was one of the more knowledgeable guides I’ve ever had, with a wealth of information about the intricacies of Buriyat life (explaining that the houses in the Buriyat villages were scattered haphazardly about because the the local Lama was the one who divined where the house wanted to live, and thus actual town planning was nonexistent) and a healthy dose of sarcasm (when someone asked why Buddhists in Siberia eat meat, the response was “We’re in Siberia. What do you suggest we eat instead?”). When I talked to him about potentially needing some antibiotics, he suggested that we go to the Tibetan Clinic instead.


The tiny village of Verkhnyaya Ivolga, Siberia.

The clinic was a squat, chalky building right in the empty husk of town, and once the doctor ushered me into her office I had Andre run through the laundry list of my prior respiratory issues, ending with the dry cough that had plagued me for weeks. Other than my nationality and the coughing, she had no information about me or my medical history.

Her examination started with the basics (blood pressure, heartbeat, breathing) and then I held onto a solid brass tube connected to a pulse-measuring meter with my writing hand, while she took another 5-inch brass tube and touched the reflexology points in my other hand. After taking out several plastic cartons, each with 10 small holes the size of a pencil tip across and 5 holes down, she used a different tool – baton at one end, exposed wire at the other – to prod my non-writing hand with the baton and poke the exposed wire into an algorithm of the holes in the plastic sheets. The meter danced or remained immobile, depending on what holes the wire touched. She then put small sachets, one at a time, between the brass pole and my hand, and continued her examination.

Translated through Andre, she started asking me questions about prior ailments and they were dead on. Did I have parasites recently? Yes, thanks to the llama empañada. Did I have a prior problem with wheat or flour? Yes, they diagnosed me with a gluten intolerance years ago. And then she ran through my entire family’s history – on both sides. Remember: I hadn’t told her a thing about them or any of my medical history either, save for the coughing and bronchitis. The fact that she was able to tell me what illnesses my grandparents had suffered during their lifetimes truly blew me away.

The diagnosis was scratched out on a piece of paper and translated through Andre that night, with help from his Russian-English dictionary. I was allergic to wormwood and goosefoot (both plants), down and dust mites. I’ve never suffered from allergies before, and was dumbfounded, but since the woman had accurately and immediately provided me with my entire family medical history I believed her. She instructed me to take a spoonful of Tibetan powder for the next ten days, once at morning and once at night, from two small sachets that she prepared. She promised that I would have no cough on the tenth day. The morning involved a shot of powder followed by a shot of water, and then at night a different powder had to be boiled for five minutes and drunk like tea. The scent of the powders was strong, earthy, pungent and fairly indescribable. They tasted awful.

I got back on the trains, bound for Mongolia. Luckily, samovars abound on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian lines, so free hot water was plentiful and taking my medicine was easy enough. Five days on: still coughing. I moved onto the Gobi, with my friend Bryce (who travelled the trains with me). No free hot water anymore, but Bryce had packed a camping stove and he generously boiled me water each night to take my earth medicine.


Me and my Ger (yurt) in the middle of the Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Eight days in, still coughing. And then, on the tenth and last day, my cough completely stopped. In the heart of the Gobi desert, living in a ger with no running water and with a family of nomads, I felt healthier than I had in months. Lesson learned: I will be much more open to Eastern medicine in the future, and will never underestimate the power of disgusting-tasting medicine.


Border crossing at the Mongolia/China border; Approaching Erlian in China.

* * *

I am obviously not a medical professional, but below I’ve listed some of the Dos and Don’ts that I have cobbled together from my time on the road:

Do:

● Do try and bring a friend who speaks the local language. If that fails, bring a Point-It Dictionary and a lot of patience.

● Do keep sterile syringes on you. They take up very little room and are indispensable the one time the hospital or doctor has run out of clean needles. These are much cheaper to purchase on the road – I bought mine in Chile.

● Do invest in travel medical insurance. I took mine out as a Canadian national, meaning I am covered everywhere in the world except Canada. Check the riders for activities such as scuba diving, skydiving, jumping off random bridges or high altitude climbing if you’ve a bit of an adrenaline addiction, like I do. A good resource is BootsnAll’s travel insurance page.

● Do eat street food, often. The reality is, street food is a great way to explore local culture and cuisine, will earn you props with the locals and is usually a safer option than whatever fancy restaurant is in town. So long as you stick to street carts that have lineups or a good turnover, and make sure your food is cooked through, you are less likely to get food poisoning than a quiet touristy spot.

● Do read How to Shit Around the World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Traveling (Travelers’ Tales Guides) before taking off. If possible, try to read this book in public places, with the cover in plain view. You will make new friends.

● Do bring some acidophilus or probiotics tablets with you (the ones that do not need to be refrigerated, e.g. Pearls), to take after a cycle of antibiotics. These will help build up the good bacteria that your antibiotics cycle has destroyed. For the ladies, these will also help with some of the nastier antibiotics side effects.

● Do try and let traveller’s diarrhea take its course without resorting to Immodium. the Immodium will just trap the bad bacteria in your intestines and potentially make you sicker in the long run. Instead, try and stick to oral rehydration salts and lots of water – unless, of course, you are taking an 18-hour overnight bus ride through the Andes from Cusco to Ica. In that case, go nuts with the Immodium. And then hope that the bus doesn’t break down.

Don’t:

● Don’t fall asleep in the hospital waiting room. You will wake up to a small child trying to tie you to your chair. Despite having 104 fever and a serious desire to crawl under the chair and sleep, you will muster up enough rage to push said small child away.

● Don’t climb above 5000m (16,000 feet), for three weeks in a row when you have severe bronchitis. Similarly, do not climb a mountain requiring you to hoist yourself up steep ladders or ropes when you have several bruised ribs.

● Don’t get food poisoning when you are about to embark upon a 3-day jeep tour through the Bolivian Antiplano. It will not be pleasant.

● Don’t be as enthusiastic about antibiotics as your local doctor. Though they are important for certain types of ailments, the dosages and frequency will be higher than you are used to and it is equally important to be cautious about consuming so many – they take their toll on your body, believe me.

-Jodi

22 comments to Getting Sick on a Round-the-World Trip

  1. Great advices, I don't trust antibiotics very much, but, lucky me, my doctor doesn't either!

  2. Great advice. Like you I suffered the Andean bus ride with a full-blown stomach bug, and Immodium was not match for it. A day of hell…
    Also great to see the Mongolia-China border! We crossed here in the dead of night, so to see how picturesque it looks is wonderful.
    Hope you're feeling ok now :-)

  3. Jodi, great information as always! I once got very sick while backpacking in Europe, but I can only imagine what it must have been like when lacking the ability to effectively communicate while in the middle of nowhere.

    I've made sure to add that book you recommended to my Amazon wish list so all my distant relatives know what to get me for Christmas :)

  4. Damn, you've certainly had a rough go of it. I picked up gastro in Ireland, nothing serious, but I had to miss a week of English fieldtrips. Just a check-up was 40 pounds…thank god for insurance!

    I really need to read "How to Shit Around the World."

  5. whoa, never had that much happen. Worst I've had was diarrhea in Brazil and Egypt. After Egypt I learned my lesson and got a prescription for cipro.

    Is there anything you could have done to prevent it or was it just one of those that just happens?

    In other words do you think:
    More sleep, eating more, resting more often, exercise before/during the trip would have helped any???

  6. Love this post, really useful and wise. We were just talking about our new "rules" for making healthy eating decisions and the things we've learned about fighting illness on the road.
    In 8 months, across 20 countries, we've only had a serious stomach bug ONCE. I'm really proud! On the other hand, Eva's had cold and flu symptoms more times this last year than in the past 3 combined! Eh, win some, lost some.

  7. @Angela, Andy, Patrick, Team Reese: Glad you liked the post and that you didn't suffer through these exponential ailments. What I left out of this post? I also tore 2 tendons in my ankle and got food poisoning from a llama empanada. Good times. I think a lot of RTW travelers do get more colds than they would at home, however.

    @angryredhead Candice, I truly loved sitting on NYC subways with that book. Classic.

    @Brian: What I could have done to prevent it was quitting my job before I did. Working 90 hours a week just before you're making a huge life change runs your body down, and that is why I started my trip with a cold. However, the trip itself was replete with tons of rest, mountain climbing, amazing food and new friends, so nothing on the trip itself is to blame for my illnesses. Had I not started out with that cold (and then trekked through Patagonia where my lungs did not heal in the subzero temperatures and altitude), I would have been fine.

    Thanks for the comments, all! Jodi

  8. Gosh, I can't believe you managed for so long while being so sick. I know that many people would have just given up — but I am so glad that you found something that helped you.

    One thing that has really helped us health-wise is that we started off our trip in easy Western countries. We have actually become much healthier in the last two months than before we left. Patrick used to suffer from pretty bad fatigue and that has mostly gone away because we get so much sleep and exercise. Healthwise, I think we are now better prepared for India, Southeast Asia, China, and South America.

  9. wow, you´ve been through A LOT.
    I´ll make sure I keep this tips with me when I embark on the RWT trip! or just any long term journey. Despite all the sickness, it seems you´ve been in a great journey! healthy travels!

  10. @Akila: I think that would have been a wise idea on my end. As I head toward India and Sri Lanka, I'm happy to be in good health – hopefully that will carry me a long way.

    @Adriana: Thanks for reading. Yes, I've enjoyed (and keep returning to) my travels, despite all the aches and pains!

  11. great post, mate. I laughed AND learned. Nicely done.

  12. Hi, I just "found" your blog. I used to work at a Travel Medicine Clinic here in Toronto, Canada, and I find your advice right on! Thanks for sharing and preparing such a comprehensive list. As a travel blogger myself, I know how much time and info it takes to put together something like this. I really appreciate your efforts. Thanks!

  13. So true Jodi, I had similar experiences, including the tibetan visit with the brass tube (a few times and it works!). I have been curing myself with alternative/chinese medicine practically for all my life. Had i known the full story when i met you in indonesia on the Komodo trip we could have had exchanged loads of stories + having a great chat! (+ remembering a few episodes of the trip together it all makes more sense now)

    Danilo

  14. You make my few illnesses and run-ins with the doc on the road seem like childsplay compared to your adventures. Kudos to that… I think :)

  15. @Dustin: In retrospect, everything seems a bit easier than it was, and humour often helps. But there’s no question that those long nights of coughing and random food ailments (I’m looking at YOU, llama empanada!) were not fun to go through. Hope your trip remains illness-free going forward, and thanks as always for reading.

  16. Great blog – I am planning my first “real” solo trip to South America this winter so it is really good to read about other solo female travellers :)
    My best advice for staying healthy while travelling is to be very conservative about eating and washing/disinefecting your hands in the beginning of the trip. That way your body is not overcome by the amount of new bacteria (doesn’t work with parasites though ;) ). In 2008 I travelled in Africa (Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa) living under very basic conditions and none of us were sick for more than 1 day each.
    Hope you are more lucky during your travels in the future :)

  17. Only once did I get sick in my travels. First the soles of my feet went tingly and numb and then ached. Then my limbs started hurting, 2 hours later… I was really violently sick. I undersand it was food poisoning. Got off the train in Rome. I bought a huge bottle of water, and headed to the first hotel near the station. I asked the staff to check on me.

    I was sick 2 days, with fever and diah. Morning on day 3 when I had an hour between emergencies, I dragged this body out to the street and had my first experience with homeopathic drugs from a street shop. I had to mix little bottles of liquid and vials of something. The woman in the shop mixed the first dose and I took it there. Within 4 hours I was better. Absolutely no evidence of ever having been ill. One more dose was all I needed..Energy, looked healthy, felt great. If you believe in miracles……….. I believe in homeopathic. Don’t be afraid to try alternative medicine when on the road.

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