Sickness and Travel: this Legal Nomad is Heading Home

While in the waiting room at Port Elizabeth’s Green Acres hospital, I picked up a South African version of a celebrity weekly (think US Weekly or OK! Mag) to pass the time. Like most trashy magazines, they had an advice column – “Ask Debbi!”. In it were the following questions:

1. I was held up at home by armed robbers and almost raped and I can’t recover from the trauma. What should I do?

2. My son was shot dead outside his school and now I am resentful of his friends, who are a wonderful group of boys that he grew up with. How do I move past this?

3. I was the victim of a car hijacking and the hijacker bit off my wedding ring from my hand, puncturing my skin. I am worried about HIV – is this normal?

To think of our equivalent magazines and their “how do I make him jealous?” or “what do I wear to turn him on?” questions is a jarring dichotomy. If you ever find yourself in South Africa and need an instant reality check, you now know how to get it.

Sickness and travel: when do you say ‘enough is enough’?

My reality check came parcelled with the 4 days of uncontrollable shaking, high fever and inability to get out of bed at a Port Elizabeth hostel. Everyone has a different breaking point, and I now know mine. It isn’t wheezing my way up Salkantay or throwing up behind a burnt out bus at the Bolivian border. I can honestly say I’ve never felt as awful as I did in Port Elizabeth and the situation hasn’t really improved since.

The problem is, they aren’t sure what’s wrong. My blood tests are “awry” (is that a professional medical term?), leading them to tell me that I have an infection of the blood, but they are unable to pinpoint what is infecting it. The hilarious dialogue of “you have an infection of the blood” to which I responded, of course, “ok what is infecting it?” and got “an infection” as the response is reminiscent of Lea Ann’s hospital visit in Cusco where we had the exact same Abbott and Costello-esque exchange. My fever and shakes still won’t give me a rest (though, thanks to the wonders of paracetemol, are kept at bay for a few hours at a time – yay paracetemol!), and my lungs are still clogged up. I’ve been on more meds in these last 3 months of travel than in my 5 years in NYC. My body hates me and for the time being it has won: I’m at a hotel in Johannesburg and will be flying into New York on July 2nd.

With so much of these last 10 years pointed toward (and saving for) the delicious eventuality of this trip, and a good part of that momentum dedicated to Kilimanjaro, this was a hard decision to make. Kili figured so largely in my plans that we even worked backwards from my climb date to plan the first portion of the trip. I wanted this year to include as much physical challenge as possible (I meant mountains and valleys, not fever and chills) and what better way to embody that desire than to watch the sun rise above the highest peak in Africa?

Going home to recover

I know that sickness and travel go together. I know that going home isn’t the end of the world, be it literally or figuratively, even if it feels like defeat right now. Kili, Zanzibar and the safaris of Ngorongoro and the Serengeti will be there for me later in life (though likely not the glaciers of Kili, which are already melting quickly into its dusty slopes). Having gotten a small taste of Africa, I will need to come back – there is so much richness and complexity and beauty to this continent that, even if we were able complete our itinerary, we would have barely scratched the surface. On a positive note (and once they figure out what’s wrong), I’ve now got an unexpected summer in NYC, with the free time to do all the fun summer things real life (read: long legal hours) prevented before I left.

When people asked me what I wanted out of this trip, I always said “an appreciation for the present”, to soak in each moment as it is happening instead of always tasting it in retrospect. This is my present. I hope to get healthy in NYC and then meet up with Jessica in a month or two (in Cairo or Israel or Moscow, depending on how I’m feeling). It’s hard to believe I’m Jessica-less after 3 months of 24/7 together and won’t hear her great, infectious laugh during the course of the day.

So – that’s where we are now. I’m hoping to get through customs at JFK on July 2nd despite looking like I haven’t slept in weeks and Jessica, now in Cinsta, will wind her way up the Wild Coast to her safari in Botswana, Namibia and Vic Falls.

To the extent I stumble on any fun round the world travel links or packing tips, I’ll add them to my ever growing resources page for world travel.

One last note: I am thankful for the kindness of strangers and want to mention 2 here – Tania at the Hippo Backpackers in Port Elizabeth who made me butternut squash soup and gave me hugs, and Olle, a Swede from the Baz Bus who happened to be on a similar flight from PE to J’burg and who propped me up and carried me over from the Johannesburg airport to my hotel.

I’ve spoiled myself rotten with 6 countries in under 3 months of travel and I’m all the better for it. Hopefully I’ll be healthy and back our insane jaunt around the world soon enough.


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