*Warning* this post is explicit in the shameless details of being ill- if you’re easily disgusted, don’t keep reading! 😛
So it finally happened. I got sick. Real sick. Two days before I left Guatemala, I came down with mild food poisoning. I got through a bad night of basically trying to sleep while sitting on the toilet, the agonizing cramps making me nearly cry out for my mommy. There’s something about being violently ill that makes you want you mother desperately. I had flashbacks of warm baths, cold cloths on my forehead, four litre ice cream buckets that we dubbed “puke pails”, gingerale, tums, and gentle back rubs from moms comforting hands. Unfortunately all I had was a shared public bathroom with doors that were open on both the top and bottom, allowing all the gastric sounds to escape easily. Luckily it was 3am and I had the bathroom to myself. Either that or the terrifying sounds kept the other guests away. I had no one to comfort me but myself as I sat there in agony, clutching my guts because it felt like something was inside them tearing them apart every 30 seconds or so with viciously sharp claws. After a few hours things began to calm down, I found my bottle of Pepto, washed it down with some Advil and crawled back into bed, sweaty and sore from my endeavour. I didn’t get much sleep but the Pepto seemed to help keep things at bay.
The next day I was wretchedly weak and had absolutely no appetite. My dear friend Richard could tell something was seriously wrong because I wasn’t constantly talking about food and planning my lunch whilst still eating my breakfast. I spent most of the day in bed, trying to get some rest and staying close to the bathroom. I cramped up on and off all day, and was happy to have not found myself out in the streets of Antigua when the urgent need for a bathroom struck me. The next day I was feeling hungry, so I knew I must be getting better. I went out with Richard on a bagel hunt, devoured it, and felt a touch better. I had my flight to Medellin, Colombia the next day, so I was hoping things would only continue to get better.
Unfortunately on the early morning 2 hour bus ride (damn you, rush hour!) I was not feeling so hot. I am not prone to car sickness at all, and had taken a Pepto and some Advil as a precaution, but the waves of nausea came on strong. I took some ginger Gravol as well but I couldn’t stop those rolling waves. I placed my cool water bottle on my lower back, and cranked the lukewarm air that was blowing from the vents on my forehead to help cool me down as fever overtook me. I kept checking my ‘Maps Me’ app to see how far we were and kept cursing the rush hour traffic for stalling us to a mere crawl. I was so scared I would vomit in the bus, but I have a pretty strong will when it comes to holding illness at bay and I was able to keep it down. As soon as we stopped and I was able to get out of the bus I felt instantly better- I gulped down the fresh oxygen like I hadn’t had any for days and felt the intense need to vomit and faint take a backseat. I got inside the air conditioned airport and went through check in as quickly as possible. I needed to get some water and a little food in me to keep things settled. I took more Advil as the fever was still making me sweat like crazy and feel out of sorts.
I arrived in Medellin feeling better, the Advil having done it’s job and put the fever to rest. Anthony and I got reunited, fed ourselves and dropped our bags at home base to go do some exploring. He himself was quite sick and had been for a few days, also laid up in bed/spending much of his time on the toilet. I felt healed those first two days and put it all behind me. Anthony was also feeling a bit better, but then disaster struck. We were heading out for a big day of sight seeing. The second I left the house I knew something was wrong. I was terribly weak and everything required a vast amount of energy, leaving me utterly exhausted. The fever was coming back and the beginnings of nausea began to take form in my belly. My head hurt. My body was not responding as it normally did, everything was delayed and laborious. I struggled desperately through the first half of our adventure as I tried to pretend everything was fine. Anthony could clearly tell I was in bad shape and forced me to abandon the afternoon plans and head home. He made a very good decision. Every passing second I worsened and by the time we made it to the door I could hardly walk. I collapsed on the bed never having been so thankful to lay down. A short while later my bowels rudely awoke me and sent me scrambling for the bathroom where I spent much of the next 48 hours. This was worse, much worse than in Guatemala. My body was so weak, and it was all I could do just to walk the 10 steps to the bathroom every 10 minutes. Cold showers were the only thing that gave me any relief as they helped dull the raging fever that left me a confused and damp, sweaty mess.
Those 48 hours were a blur of wretchedness. My joints ached like I’ve never experienced before. My fever raged and left me covered in sweat, my head pounded, my body refused to work, weak and exhausted, feeling as if I had been in a car accident. I could not eat or drink, for the second I did, I was sent scrambling for the bathroom. I was getting severely dehydrated and there was nothing I could do about it. Anthony decided we needed to go see a doctor as he was still having annoying lingering symptoms as well, though he was able to leave the house and eat and drink.
We took transit and walked to a clinic, which was a mistake- I clearly did not have the energy to make such a trek and it sapped everything out of me. We didn’t even end up getting in to see a doctor so it was all in vain and we took a cab home and I hit the bed immediately again, feeling defeated and worn from fatigue. The next day was a little better; Anthony’s Aunt made me home made chicken soup and I was delighted to try and get some food in me. It didn’t stay in me long, but helped me feel better nonetheless. The fever had lessened, and I wasn’t as delirious or weak as the last two days. I decided I wasn’t letting this lingering awful illness stop me, so I booked flights up to Santa Marta as I desperately wanted to see the Caribbean coast of Colombia. My time up there was amazing, but difficult with the illness still plaguing me and making me nervous to ever be far from the bathrooms. I tried my best to enjoy my time but was always in distress. I did some hiking and pushed my body harder than I surely should have while it was trying desperately to fight this off, all the while depending on my dwindling supply of pepto. You can read about my adventures in Northern Colombia here!
I flew back down to Bogota to meet Anthony and we decided to try a doctor again. We got in immediately and he did a brief physical examination, told us it was an intestinal infection and prescribed antibiotics. We were relieved to have some answers and some drugs and left in better spirits, albeit slightly confused as to how the doctor could tell we had a bacterial infection by poking our stomachs and taking our vitals. The entire appointment was in our broken Spanish, and while we tried our best – and the doctor spoke exceptionally slow and clear- things were surely lost in translation.
We headed back to our hostel and got to work taking the drugs and drinking the repugnant dehydration beverages he gave us. We were feeling trapped and useless and just wanted to start actually traveling and being able to leave the hostel. We planned to get the hell out of Colombia and move on to Ecuador and hope the drugs worked. We booked a 24 hour bus to the border town of Ipiales, where we would overnight and then cross over and head to Quito to begin a hopefully healthy adventure in Ecuador and really start traveling.
We weren’t feeling better from the drugs yet, but we had our buses booked so we decided to hardly eat or drink anything and pop some plug up drugs to keep things at bay since we had some very long hours on buses coming up, and while most of these buses have toilets they are specifically only for peeing! The bus ride was bearable and the sickness held at bay though we were feeling dehydrated, hungry and terribly thirsty, but just couldn’t risk taking much into our bodies. I let the stunning scenery of my first peek at the alps distract me and tried to sleep now and then. We made it to Ipiales, starving, and went to the grocery store where we found they have no fruits and vegetables- none. We had no kitchen in our hotel so we couldn’t even cook up some soup. We were reduced to buying crackers and cookies and hoping that would not upset things in our stomaches too much. We were nearly finished our doses of antibiotics but were both still seeing no results.
The next day we visited the incredible Las Lajas Sanctuary- a magnificent and visual spectacle of a church that is perched over the canyon of Guaitara river. This adventure involved a little bit of walking and we were at quite a high altitude – 2900 meters. I was so weak from the previous weeks of illness that I really struggled to walk up the slight inclines and had to keep stopping and gasping for breath and shaking of weakness. Anthony was in a bit better shape than me, and helped by taking my bag. We couldn’t believe how weak we were and how we couldn’t even handle a small walk. We still enjoyed the beauty of the church and then made the long, awful, exhausting walk back up. We took a cab to the border, crossed over easily- and excitedly- we were sure that Ecuador would bring a new sense of health and adventure and end this bad streak we were on.
After crossing and exchanging some money, we hopped in another cab and went to the bus station at the border town of Tulcan to catch a bus to get us down to Quito. We paid a whopping $7 and were on our way when we looked to the back of the bus in shock to see that there was no bathroom as they had promised us. We ensured we drank and ate nothing on the bus ride just to be safe, which made for a pretty awful ride, our tummies and tongues aching for sustenance.
We finally arrived around 9pm and decided to be troopers and take local transit to get to our hotel since a taxi would cost us a whopping $25 USD. We’re backpackers: while our bowels may have been unstable, there is no way we were going to cough up that exorbitant fee for a ride when we could pay $1.50 for public transit. Plus we literally had NOTHING in our stomaches which is why they seemed to be behaving. The staff working in the amazing bus station in Quito were really helpful and set us up with a map and some instructions. Thank god for Anthony is all I have to say, that man is a genius with maps and I am absolutely hopeless! We figured (okay, he figured) out which bus we needed to hop on, and off we went! I regrettably forgot to load the Ecuador maps in my ‘maps me’ app which would have come in extremely handy, so we had to rely on the paper map and try to follow along the stops. We were on transit for about an hour before getting to what we thought was our stop. It turns out we missed it by two, but with our heavy packs, unstable bowels, tired and hungry bodies, and lack of knowledge of being in a potentially dangerous area at night- we couldn’t be bothered to walk, so we grabbed a cab knowing we were close. Unfortunately our cab drove around for 20 minutes with no idea where our hostel was. We finally found it – he had driven past it right at the start. We paid the agreed upon fee of $3 and finally got settled into the hostel, exceptionally grateful to be in the vicinity of a bathroom at last.
We were famished after the two days on buses of practically not eating, and we let our hunger make a very bad decision for us; we ate out and had slightly greasy food. Of course, it made us brutally sick. We spent 5 days in Quito, due mostly to the fact that we couldn’t stand the thought of getting on another bus with how sick we were and how often we needed to rush to the bathroom. The only thing of significance that we really did was go and visit the equator with a local friend Anthony met. I was feeling pretty awful that day but wanted to be a trooper and I lasted until we were just about to leave the park and head to a little hike with amazing views. I was overtaken by horrible gut pains and had to find a bathroom and lay on the floor for a while and finally puked. The puking didn’t alleviate the pains, but at least the nausea abaited and I could get in the vehicle for the hour long drive home without making a mess. I sat in the back in agony and prayed he could get there faster and wondered if my insides were breaking apart inside, it hurt so much. I was so happy to get to the hostel just incase I needed the urgent use of the bathroom. It ended up being a horrible bout of gas that bloated my stomach so much that it was stretched tight, round and hard like a rock, sending screaming pains through me for a couple of hours. I’d never experienced pain like that simply from gas, accompanied by vomiting as well. It was a turning point for me and I decided it was time at last to go to the medical clinic recommended by my insurance.
If you know me, I’m not one to go to the doctor often. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, but I never act on it; I avoid the doctors office like the plague, so this was a huge decision for me to end up going to an emergency clinic. Anthony wanted to come as well since he was still having symptoms and it was over a month now for both of us and we were just so fed up – so sick, so exhausted and so defeated. We walked to the clinic and sighed in relief when we saw they had a bathroom in the waiting room. We gave our information, asked for an English speaking doctor and to our surprise were taken back immediately and set up on hospital beds. Nurses came and in broken Spanglish took our vitals and asked a few questions. A short while later two doctors came – one for each of us- and in English asked us a list of questions, examined us and told us we needed to be hooked up to IV since we were severely dehydrated and that they wanted to run blood work and take stool samples. I was a little bit taken aback- I mean, yes we were definitely sick, but it almost felt like overkill to be in a hospital hooked up to needles and the whole works. But then I recalled the last month and how ill and weak and awful we felt. How we could never be far from a bathroom. How we couldn’t keep any food or water in our bodies. We were like zombies hardly able to function. We were really sick and we needed these tests to finally figure out what was wrong. So after a little anxiety and some close tears, we settled into our hospital beds for what was to be a long day.
But I cound’t shake that strong feeling of creeping anxiety. The last time I had been in a hospital like this was over 7 years ago when I overdosed on pain killers and nearly destroyed my liver and my life. I was having flashbacks to that time and it was racking me with waves of anxiety. I felt a heavy weight on my chest and was having trouble breathing. My heart and chest were aching with a strange, tense pain and pressure that I couldn’t shake. My heart was racing wildly, my whole body was in a cold sweat. I was too scared to say anything to Anthony so I feigned exhaustion and turned my head away and closed my eyes and focused on trying to get the desperate breaths I needed into my lungs that just wouldn’t come. Part of me wanted to alert a nurse and explain that I was having chest pains and trouble breathing. But being a closet hypochondriac, I of course wouldn’t admit anything and so suffered in silence.
Suddenly, I realized, ‘Oh my God… I’m having a panic attack’. I have had many panic attacks before in my life, but they were always accompanied by bouts of crying and emotional distress. This was so much more powerful than any I had before. I wasn’t dying, or having a heart attack, but that’s what it felt like- a full blown panic attack, surely brought on by the intense memories the hospital was flashing me back to. I’ve had years of practice with panic attacks and have never admitted myself to a doctor for them, so I buckled down, gripped my sheet stiffly in my fists, gulped down the air in gasps, closed my eyes and prayed for it to pass quickly.
I knew I was in no safer place – I was in a hospital after all! So if I really did start dying, I was in pretty good hands. This assurance seemed to help and after a time the weight and pressure on my chest began to lessen and lift, and slowly but surely I was able to get enough air into my lungs. I was so grateful when it passed that I fell into a brief sleep, the stress having worn me out. We ended up being in the hospital for about 7 hours, getting rehydrated and having tests done. They analyzed everything and told us we had a bad case of chronic gastroenteritis. They gave us two prescriptions and we were on our way once again to hopefully be cured at last. We picked up our drugs, started the regime and settled in for another day or two in Quito. We decided there was nothing more to be done- we had all the tests done, we went to an actual hospital, we got proper medication- what more could we do? So we booked our asses out of Quito to head to Guayaquil to get ready for our adventure to the Galapagos islands for a few days, and then to make our way to the coast and spend some time in Montanita on the beach. I think the doctor should have added that to our prescription because the beach heals all things!
After finishing our medication, a couple of awesome days in the Galapagos and a few days in Montanita, things started to get better at long last. It felt amazing to get energy back, to be able to eat normal food, and to not constantly need to stay near a toilet.
Getting sick on the road sucks. A LOT. But it’s quite nearly inevitable for long term travellers. After my extensive experience of being so ill for so long on the road I’ve definitely learned a few things about how to handle illness while travelling.
First off- it sure makes things a lot easier when you have an awesome friend by your side who also happens to be sick as a dog. They can relate to you, quite literally and so they treat you with empathy. It helps to have your bestie suffering beside you – you can both be miserable together. The saying is exceptionally true- misery loves company! If Anthony had been healthy and I had been sick or vice versa, we surely would have wanted to kill each other and would have ended up going our separate ways so one wasn’t holding the other back. It was nice to have a friend to go to the doctor with, a friend to help pick out medicine together, but most of all, a friend to laugh at how utterly pathetic our situation was at times. It got to a point where Anthony and I just made endless fun of our situation in order to cope with it.
However, if you find yourself sick and alone, without the awesome company of a fellow sickly friend, then try these tips to get you through:
1. Find a good, comfortable hostel and sit tight. Dish up the extra cash and get a private room with an ensuite bathroom. You will feel so much more at ease knowing you can run to your own bathroom at any time and not worry about how much you might be scaring off the other patrons with your gastric explosions- but more importantly you will never have the awful experience of running to the bathroom to evacuate your guts from one end or the other (or both!) and find the bathroom full!
2. Find the nearest pharmacy and bring a translated list of your symptoms in the local language- ask the help of your hostel for this. Get to the pharmacy and pick up some drugs that will hopefully help.
3. If the pharmacy drugs aren’t working, contact your travel insurance company and ask for a recommended clinic nearby where they have staff that speak English. Head to the clinic as soon as possible and request that they do tests. Don’t settle for some tummy prodding and taking your pulse. You need tests to be ran to ensure you’re getting the correct diagnosis and medicine.
4. Get some food in you! You need to get as healthy and comfortable as possible- so get to a grocery store and stock up on fruits and vegetables (easy to digest ones), crackers, soup, bread and massive amounts of water.
5. Suck it up and stay put until you get to a clinic that gives you proper medicine. Don’t let it linger on for a month like we did, hoping it would just get better on its own. Give it a week tops and then head to a clinic to get proper care. Don’t try to travel and move around until you are better, it will only stress your body more. Yes you may be on a time schedule and you may be sick of the place you’re in, but just give your body the time it needs to heal in one place without the added stress of traveling.
6. WATER!!! I tried to drink water when I was really ill but every time I took even a sip it practically sent me running for the bathroom within minutes. I associated water with the cramping pains and discomfort of always needing a toilet, so I just stopped drinking water. Obviously this is not going to help things. Another reason I hardly drank water was because I ignored rule five and kept trying to move – from Medeillin to Santa Marta to Tayrona to Minca to Bogota to Ipiales to Quito- I was always on the move- on buses, not wanting to drink- always starving my body of the water it needed to heal. If you stay put in one place, with your own private bathroom, you can drink water by the litre and really kick start your healing. Once I finally started to drink large amounts of water regardless of it making me need to run to the bathroom with explosions, I realized it was helping me heal much quicker. Dehydration is the worst part of travellers illness, and if you can curb the dehydration, you’ll kickstart the rest of the healing process. This is my number one tip- just drink drink drink!!!! Rehydration salts are absolutely disgusting, but if you have them I suggest trying to down a bunch of them in your water as well. Maybe chase it with some gatorade or something to make it bearable!
7. SLEEP- I was often so sick I couldn’t sleep which just made things worse. Ensure you are as comfortable as possible in your room so you can actually get sleep (hence not sleeping in a ten bed dorm with assholes keeping you up when they come in drunk at 4am). If it’s crazy hot, ensure you request a fan, or get a hostel that has air conditioning. Get some sleep aids from the pharmacy to take at night so you can actually sleep through the night. Sleep is the most healing medicine of all when sick, so spend as much time as possible sleeping it off. Don’t go to Northern Colombia and try sleeping out of doors in hammocks… sleep in real beds!
8. Keep positive. Try not to get too defeated. After over a month of this, several doctors, a bunch of medicine and no results- I was feeling incredibly defeated to the point where I contemplated going home. I yearned for the ease and proficiency of Canadian health care, medicine and clinics where I knew I could walk in to a clinic, get an examination and some tests and be on my way with the correct prescription and healed within a couple of days, all free of charge. And in English! I just wanted to feel better so badly, and I wasn’t enjoying travel anymore because I was so ill. Don’t let the illness linger for a month before you get it taken care of – nip it in the bud and see a doctor right away. Keep comfortable and know that it will pass and soon you’ll be healthy again and can get back to the amazing life that is exploring the world.
It’s really hard not to feel defeated and frustrated and incredibly home sick when your ill, but I’m so happy that I never ended up going home and stuck it out. I’ve been having an amazing time since I got better. I spent 3 incredible weeks on a beach in Montanita surfing and practicing yoga daily and letting my body build back its lost strength and health and felt better than ever when I left to begin my journeys into the more challenging countries of Peru and Bolivia. And guess what? I ended up getting sick again! On my 5 day Salkantay Trek I got mild altitude sickness, extreme exhaustion, heat stroke, another bout of a gasto bug and a nasty head cold that moved down into my chest and made me worried I had contracted pneumonia because I was so ill! I was an absolute mess and felt like surely I was dying while trying to hike a challenging trail at altitudes as high as 4600m. But I pushed through and it was one of the most rewarding and incredible experiences of my entire life. I’m in Argentina now and feeling much better. While weak and still recovering, I feel like I handled my second illness much better and I’m ready to tackle my next adventures and work at healing my body with more yoga, good food and lots of water.
The bottom line is that you will very likely get struck down with a nasty travellers illness – it could be gastro-enteritis, a parasite, a cold that lasts a month, a relentless bacterial bug or god only knows what else! Do your best to keep yourself healthy while traveling- you’re eating strange foods that your body isn’t used to, and you’re in conditions you aren’t used to (like crazy high altitudes, humid or extra dry weather etc.) So always drink lots of water, get as much exercise as possible, take it easy on the drinking, get loads of sleep, and try to eat as healthy as possible, which I know can be hard on the road, so try cooking at the hostel more than eating out. Don’t push your body past its limits, especially when you’re sick. And most of all, keep your hopes up! being sick and alone in a strange foreign country is awful, but it will pass and you can back to that awful wanderlusting life of yours!