The pit I was staring into was beyond a doubt the most revolting sight I had ever seen. The fact that my face was inches away from a seriously clogged-up Indian style squat toilet located on the top floor of a roadside restaurant with very questionable sanitary standards, was only topped by the acrobatic feat of trying to keep the giant backpack on my back balanced while being violently ill into said clogged pit. It was the first solo night on my first backpacking trip and I had never felt more alone, or more miserable. Cue a 10-hour train ride, dodging touts and ending up in a cockroach-infested box room with blood on the sheets. It was enough to make anyone turn around and catch the next flight home.
But I didn’t. Fast forward 10 years and I still haven’t managed a single trip to Asia without ending up in a hospital sooner or later. I have contracted dengue fever, been stung by venomous critters, owned three sets of crutches (one of which was hand-crafted from bamboo on account of being in the middle of nowhere), had several motorized accidents, been food-poisoned and ended up with my head in the toilet more times than I can count. Looking back, that first solo night in India pales into insignificance in comparison with all my travel-related mishaps since. And yet I never bought that early ticket home. Here’s why you shouldn’t either.
Being ill has never been much fun but being ill abroad adds a whole new layer of unpleasantness to the experience. You’re already out of your comfort zone on the best of days but when you hit that lowest of low points, all you want is your own bed, not being faced with incomprehensible labels in the pharmacy, hospitals that look like they might do more harm than good and trying to explain with sign language why your broken foot will not be cured with vitamin C.
But there it is. If you are travelling abroad for any extended period of time, chances are overwhelmingly large that you will fall ill, whether from invisible little microbes on your water bottle or cracking your skin open following a fall from your newly rented motorbike. The key to managing this terrifying prospect is preparation. Pack that first aid kit, even though it takes up precious space in your bag and you think you’ll never use it. Stock up on your prescription medications, you most likely won’t find them where you are going. And while you should most definitely get recommended vaccinations, some diseases such as dengue fever can only be avoided by not getting bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitos so make sure to pack that insect repellent too.
Traveller’s diarrhoea is another classic that has brought many a seasoned globetrotter to their knees. While not dangerous in itself, it can leave you dangerously dehydrated. Pack a few rehydration sachets or tablets in your bag; you’ll thank me later. However they are only usable if you have drinkable water at hand. This is the reason my Steripen became my best friend that one time in Laos when I succumbed to violent food-poisoning for 2 days straight. Walking 10 minutes to the shop was simply not an option. With reliable water purification, having just a sink at hand will save the day.
I cannot stress this enough. However much you might resent the sizable chunk your travel insurance will take out of your savings: It. Is. Worth. It. Simply because you cannot control everything that might happen, no more than you could at home. Most of the time, you will never have call to use it, which for obvious reasons is a good thing. But that one time that you do, it will make ALL the difference. Can’t afford being airlifted because there are no proper hospitals until the next country? You don’t won’t to have to make that choice, simply because you didn’t want to spend those $200. Your life is worth a lot more than that.
Ask for help
Being ill while travelling sucks. Being ill while travelling solo sucks a whole lot more. Not only are you physically weaker, but your mood will be affected as well and that care-free attitude you so carefully cultivated can fly out the window in the face of those weird rashes that have suddenly appeared all over your body or having no-one to guard your stuff while you make the 19th visit to the bathroom in the space of two hours.
But just because you travel alone doesn’t mean that you are alone. Ask for help. Whatever your view is of the human race, most people are quite willing to help a stranger in need. Befriend that cute little family in the next cabin. Ask the hotel staff for advice on local amenities. And trust me, showing up on crutches anywhere in Asia will prompt an effusion of sympathy and offers of help, though healthily seasoned with unmitigated stares. You can’t win them all. Just accept and hop along.
As I sat in a dusty Cambodian hospital, waiting for someone to tend my cuts, bruises and broken bones, I felt quite sorry for myself. Possibly I was the most sorry person on the planet, with the worst luck ever. No one had ever been worse off than me. Then I remembered where I was and what I had seen. I remembered who these people were, whom I was cursing for keeping me waiting, alone and in pain. I remembered their recent history of unimaginable horror, cruelty and loss. That’s when I began to feel privileged. Safe. Safe in the knowledge that my injuries would heal, with no more than a faint scar as a reminder. Privileged that I was lucky enough to travel freely – through that wonderful country, and many more thereafter.
When all is said and done, ill health on the road is a fact of life, just as it is at home. With luck, it will merely make for an unpleasant day or two and another notch in your traveller’s belt of yarn-worthy experiences. Broken bones will mend, scars will heal, illnesses will pass. The most important lesson of all when it comes to facing the prospect of illness abroad is perspective. Would puking your guts out for a night make you quit your job? Didn’t think so. Then it shouldn’t stop you from continuing your journey, no matter how miserable you will feel for that one night. Well, maybe two nights.
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