I receive emails almost every day asking me if I’ve gotten sick during my years of travel. The same question is whispered to me in person, too. I’ll be at a dinner or out for drinks and someone will introduce me as a long-term traveler and travel writer, to the confusion of the lawyers and careerists present. Inevitably, I get cornered later by at least one or two people furtively asking “so did you ever, you know, get sick?” Oh yes, many times.
I understand why people would ask. Sickness and travel were a big preoccupation before I left. What if I was completely isolated and no one knew and then I died a horrible death in the middle of nowhere? What if I couldn’t speak the language and then managed to find myself at a doctor, unable to to tell them what’s wrong and then (all together now…) died a horrible death in the middle of nowhere? For what it’s worth, reading How to Shit Around the World and bringing a Point It Dictionary went a long way into making sure the “dying a horrible death in the middle of nowhere” didn’t happen.
That said, I was most lonely when I was sick. Time slows down; foggy with fever and fatigue it feels like a lifetime before you get better again. And since this is a question I get so often, I thought I’d share the fairly ridiculous laundry list of ailments and sicknesses from my travels.
Three Years of Sickness and Travel By the Numbers
1. Bronchitis in Punta Arenas. The trip started out with a nasty cold, which quickly converted itself to bronchitis in the damp cold of Chilean Patagonia. My mistake was working long hours and then quitting my job to leave mere days later – I didn’t give my body a chance to rest before I started on my trip. Only days in, I made my first hospital trip to Punta Arenas’ Salud Magallenes complex. The fix? Antibiotics. Something I didn’t want to take, especially this early into my travels. The bronchitis was especially fun when I wound my way through Salkantay Pass to Macchu Picchu (and then climbed Putucusi) with a busted rib from all the coughing.
2. Food poisoning from a llama empanada in San Pedro de Atacama. Sadly, I had a llama empanada only hours before I departed on a 4×4 trip through the Salar de Uyuni, and was incapacitated for the first few days of what is generally a magical excursion. Highlights include throwing up twice behind a burnt out bus at the Bolivian border, while border officials tried to tell me it was just altitude sickness. Uh, no, it’s llama sickness. My brother chastised me for eating what is my 2nd favourite animal on earth (the first being the tarsier), and perhaps he is right – this was some karmic retribution from the llama gods. Regardless, at 5010m high in the Bolivian antiplano I finally felt human again and was able to enjoy the last day of the trip.
3. Giardia and Salmonella. I’m not entirely sure where this was from, though I suspect the aforementioned llama food poisoning could have a lot to do with it. Other contenders include street food in Bolivia after a power outage and a restaurant in Huacachina where, immediately upon seating ourselves at the table, the toothless waiter gave a crooked grin and asked if we wanted a line of cocaine “por la mesa“. Thanks, but no thanks. I ended up finding out about the parasites while in Peru and getting treated for them in Ecuador. Cross-country worms!
4. Bronchitis (again) in Buenos Aires. Back into colder weather meant a resurgence of my dormant bronchitis, which was depressing as I really thought the lungs were better now. But climbing at high altitude compounds lung problems, something I learned the hard way and won’t mess around with again. Back to the hospital I went, this time in Argentina, leading to a Hospital Throwdown post between Buenos Aires and Punta Arenas.
5. Sinus infection in Cape Town. The bronchitis managed to only worsen as I flew to Cape Town, turning into a whopper of a sinus infection and knocking me on my back for my time in town. Though I managed to get a skydive in, I felt terrible.
6. Torn tendons in my ankle, South Africa. As if the sinus issues weren’t enough, while carrying my pack I tripped and fell and microtore 2 tendons in my ankle. At this point, I was feeling pretty terrible. Fever, shaking, delirium. The works! I sent Jess (my “s” in Legal Nomads) on her way to continue through South Africa and thought I would stay put and get better in Port Elizabeth. Not so, I only got worse and soon I lost all the hearing in my left ear. So I booked a flight back to New York for the summer to get better. My friends picked me up at the airport and brought me straight to the doctor, who took one look at the meds I received elsewhere and dropped them in the garbage. It took me a full month of barely moving to be able to breathe again and/or walk down the street.
Lesson learned: don’t push yourself to the brink of exhaustion and collapse. Stay put and get better. But, as soon as I was able I set off again, to Russia (on the craziest flight imaginable).
7. Allergy to the entire country of Mongolia. I was better! But my troubles were not done. I got a strange, dry cough while on the Trans-Siberian trains, fine during the day but as soon as I lay down at night it would keep me up. Weeks of no sleep later, I ended up visiting a Tibetan medicine doctor in Siberia who diagnosed me with a bunch of allergies, including a plant that was endemic to the Gobi Desert….where I was headed next. Though I don’t usually have allergies, she said that the more-than-average antibiotics I was on (especially the very strong ones in New York to get rid of the last of my lung problems) weakened my immune system. Prescribing me earthy powders to take at night and at dawn, I followed her instructions and my cough went away in her allotted 10-day period. However she did note that I was allergic “to Mongolia and all its plants and animals”. Terrific.
Healthy for a few months (from September to November), I decided to up the ante by….
8. Falling off of a cliff on the road to Pai, along with my motorbike. Yes, you read that right. While motorbiking the length of the beautiful Mae Hong Son loop in Northern Thailand, a songthaew truck full of cabbages was driving in front of me in the particularly steep portion between Chiang Mai and Pai. Its chain broke, cabbages were flung in all directions and, in what can only be appreciated in retrospect, began to rain down on me. I braked, but because I’m so short and was banking left on a steep mountain road, I couldn’t hold the bike up and fell off of it. Down the side of the cliff, to the bottom of a ravine below, the bike landing on my right thigh. This could have been a lot worse – it landed muffler side up (so no tattoo of muffler searing skin, thankfully), I didn’t break anything and was only scratched up and blue from right hip to knee. However, it was scary as hell and I had no other option but to get right back on the bike and continue to Pai, more than slightly shaken.
9. Salmonella in Ko Samet. Not content with just one salmonella experience, I had to go for another, from eggs at a Ko Samet restaurant. It merits saying that I eat mostly street food and of my bad food experiences, restaurants (both abroad or at home) are more often culprits than street food. This was no exception.
10. Tonsillitis in the Philippines. My time in El Nido was a wondrous adventure, with air sirens to signify that nighttime curfew had arrived for the errant kids in town and a family of people who accepted me as their own. In the four months I spent there, I only got sick once and that was tonsillitis during a particularly rainy stretch as the seasons turned. I thought that it would go away on its own, but a week in (with no voice) it was worsening by the day and making me miserable. Going to the public doctor in my tiny Palawan town was itself an experience; by the time I left there were throngs of kids waiting for me outside, huge eyes and smiles.
11. Loss of 4 toenails and most of the skin on the backs of my heels in Lombok, Indonesia. I never owned a pair of flip flops until I moved to NYC in 2003, and even then I never wore them very much, mostly because I was at work all the time. So when I left on this trip and started wearing these flip flop things for a considerable amount of time (read: always), something happened – my feet expanded. My hiking boots, which fit me perfectly and I loved dearly, no longer fit. But seeing as how I was in Southeast Asia and not using them, I didn’t know this yet – until the day I started climbing the first of my birthday mountains. And by then it was too late. As a result, I lost several layers of skin at the backs of my feet, as well as several (ok, four) toenails. The tropical heat and humidity meant that my feet were starting to get septic, so I had to book a flight to Australia and visit friends in Adelaide during their wintertime. I’ll never forget being in a pharmacy in Mataram, Indonesia and having the woman behind the counter look at my toes and go “um….how?”. Nor the doctor in Adelaide, who took a look at the same feet and said “seriously lady, HOW DID YOU DO THIS?” An added bonus is that the trauma seems to have rejiggered my feet entirely, meaning new toenails now grow under my old ones and periodically push the old ones off. I have robot, regenerating toenails. A perpetual souvenir.
12. Food poisoning in Myitkyina, Burma. My friends, this was a doozy. Up in the far North of Burma to attend the Kachin State Fair, I had been eating street food with no issues all the way through Southeast Asia. Burma is known for having its share of street food nightmare stories, but thus far I was unscathed. Until I got a soup at the fair, at which point I was out of commission for a solid 48 hours of total ugliness. With only 1 place in town housing foreigners and a shared bathroom for the entire guesthouse’s bottom floor, I spent the night crouching and vomiting into a squat toilet, sick as a dog. To make matters worse, acoustics weren’t quite….private. So the next morning as I tottered out of my room, the Filipino guy whose room was unfortunately located next to the toilet turned and said “you vomited 6 times, eh? That sucks.” Classy.
13. Teargassed in Kok Wua intersection in Bangkok; lung inflammation from inhaling burnt tire smoke in Bangkok. Those of you following me on the Twitter last year around this time know that my stream was all Bangkok, all the time. And with good reason: photographing the protests and their devolution into a more violent set of events, experiencing the first shift when I got teargassed on April 10. That was also the first time I realized the social power of Twitter, since I tweeted the photo of the tear gas on the street and got widely retweeted by news organizations in Thailand. Living in the Din Daeng triangle, an area that became a flashpoint for the standoff between the government and the Red Shirts, I was also inhaling a good amount of burnt tire smoke. The end of my soi was barricaded with tires and bamboo, and my hospital visit in May was to try and figure out why my lungs were burning and I was coughing all the time. Prognosis: inhaling burnt tire smoke! Not something I thought I would add to this list.
14. Food poisoning from a yoghurt purchased at the 7-11 on Arak Soi 5 in Chiang Mai. Given that I eat street food for just about every meal, it has been funny to see the balance of probabilities land my food poisoning experiences squarely in the ‘restaurants or stores’ lap. I ate a yoghurt for breakfast from the 7-11 and by dinnertime I felt terrible. By midnight I felt worse. By 2pm when I was boarding a flight to Laos I was somewhat lucid again (after a night of toilet fun) but didn’t eat solid food until later that day. I shake my fist at this 7-11 when I walk by. Just so you know.
15. Falling off my motorbike down a ravine in Chiang Mai. Which brings me to what inspired this post, my latest predicament. The last night of Songkran, I was riding at the edge of the moat when a car moved toward my line. I accelerated, thinking I had room to pass him before he cut me off, but I was wrong. Off I went, down a ravine – for the 2nd time in Thailand, natch – and subsequently to the hospital. The Thai man tried to get me to pay for the damage to his car – of which there was absolutely none. And I couldn’t stand up, let alone walk. My roommate Shannon came to the rescue, taking me on her motorbike to the hospital for X-Rays. Nothing broken, and of course I was wearing a helmet, but my hip and back were a mess, a huge inky mess of black, red and blue reaching from rib to thigh. More than frustrating, as I was about to leave Thailand and head to Jordan and for the next several weeks I was completely immobile, relying on Shannon to pick up food for me when she went to eat. It took a visit to a completely insane Taiwanese chiropractor (highlights involved wrapping a scarf around my neck and yanking me clear off the table, while my back cracked from top to bottom) and time for my back to heal. Happily, just before I left for Jordan I could finally walk again and the trip there was a lot less painful than expected.
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My friend Bryce calls me a pitbull in a chihuahua’s body, and this litany of injuries certainly underscores my fallibility. Throughout it all, I’ve been fortunate enough to have great friends or fellow travelers to help me out, and have always been amazed at the kindness of strangers when things have gone awry.
Despite this list, I keep travelling. What remains at the end of the day isn’t a slew of mishaps (though I do joke about my toenails quite often), but rather all of the fun memories and stories and incredible food from my time on the road. I wake up feeling grateful that I’ve built a life for myself that enables me to keep doing what I love, sickness, food poisoning and all.
UPDATE AS OF YEAR 5.75: So, it’s almost 6 years of travel — April 1st will be that anniversary, and really when I wrote this piece I had no idea that I would be continuing on for so long. I still do wake up feeling grateful, and happily there have been less falling off a cliff accidents after it was written. The update healthwise was an unfortunate combination dengue and, they think, chikungunya — you can read about that disaster here. Here’s to a year 6 that’s both healthy and exciting. Thanks for reading!