Let me let you something that you might find a tad disappointing: I have gotten sick every single time I’ve traveled. Sometimes I think the first things on my packing list should be a travel humidifier, jar of honey, and eucalyptus oil.
On my trips through Europe, I always seem to have some sort of cough or cold. On top of that, at the beginning of my 2011 Italy trip, I came down with a stomach bug that rendered me unable to eat anything for 36 hours. In Costa Rica, despite sticking to bottled water, my digestive system turned against me one awful night at a retreat center (the nearest toilet was a five minute’s walk from my cabin).
I don’t say these things to complain. Similar to travel snafus like missing trains or messing up bus fares, I consider getting sick on the road to be par for the course: these bouts are unpleasant in varying degrees while they’re happening, but ultimately they make for another story to tell in the future.
Just this past weekend up in Portland, a flu-like bug hit me when I should have been enjoying my friend’s baby shower: nausea, light-headedness, weakness, malaise, chills, no appetite. Her family treated me like one of their own as usual, and for that I am always grateful, but man! Talk about bad timing!
The worst was in Hawaii in December of 2006. My sole plan was to work on farms in exchange for room and board: WWOOFing. I remember how excited I was on the flight over from San Francisco: I studied the list of Hawaiian words and phrases inside the airline magazine and prepared myself for a lot of Mahalos (thank you) and Mele Kalikimakas (Merry Christmas).
Unfortunately, I hadn’t been on Oahu for a full twenty-four hours when I found myself confined to my hostel bunk, completely zonked out. This was not your garden variety jet lag. I dutifully traveled on to the Big Island, where I planned to work on a ginger and turmeric farm for the next few weeks in the tiny village of Kapoho.
In between adjusting to rustic jungle life and getting to know my fellow WWOOFers, I realized I wasn’t getting any better. The all-encompassing headaches paved the way for swollen glands, sore throat, and exhaustion, no matter how much I rested.
You know how sometimes it’s hard to admit you need to go to the doctor, so you don’t go until your symptoms are really bad? Well, imagine that on top of being thousands of miles away from your family, seven miles away from the nearest store or internet connection, living in the jungle with a downright unsympathetic, alcoholic boss (she drank wine out of a coffee mug while driving!), and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how I was feeling in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Fortunately, before I got really sick I did have some memorable adventures on the Big Island, like snorkeling for the first time (took a minute to get the hang of it, but then I was hooked), swimming naked in warm ponds by moonlight, and climbing the unforgettable banyan trees. The ginger farm had a rusty old truck that my fellow WWOOFers and I piled into for outings. If that wasn’t available, we hitch-hiked in groups of threes.
When I knew I had to go to the doctor, I visited a walk-in clinic and had my blood drawn. My suspicions were confirmed when they told me I probably had mononucleosis. That is some of the worst luck I’ve ever had. Don’t you always hear about people getting mono when they’re in high school, needing to miss weeks of school and coming back so much thinner? My story couldn’t have been more atypical. There I was, twenty-four and sick with mono in Hawaii, my plans of flying on to New Zealand with a working holiday visa slowly slipping away.
My boss at the farm didn’t want me around anymore, since I wasn’t much use and of course, mono is contagious. I made plans with my new friends Michael and Kelly to meet up for Christmas, and boarded a bus for Hilo, the Hawaiian archipelago’s oldest city. My week and a half at Hilo Bay Hostel was full of lots of computer time emailing my family, sleeping, and reading. I had a bottom bunk right next to a window, and soon learned to sleep right through the street noise and sounds of packing roommates. The bookcase in the common area was a godsend: dozens of old paperbacks, perfect as temporary distractions while I rested. I remember lots of John Grisham.
What else? I remember the Australian girl who had never been away from home before, who worked at the hostel in exchange for lodging. I remember the handyman who gave me a wood-carved sea turtle, took me to a botanic garden, and helped me track down my packages from home. I remember the sweet older woman who organized our Christmas Eve dinner. I was grateful to have a table to sit at with hot food to eat for the holiday.
On Christmas morning, I was surprised and touched to see Michael and Kelly at the hostel door, despite the fact that we’d talked about visiting Volcanoes National Park over the holiday. Being sick and alone in a hostel over the holidays has this way of producing a ‘woe is me’ attitude, I’ll admit it. We said we’d be here, Kelly reminded me, both of their packs full of camping gear. I decided that there was no way I was going to miss the volcanoes, mono or no mono.
Of course, the Park was beyond memorable. We hiked through the caldera and passed steam vents, visited the lava tube, and enjoyed a Christmas dinner of canned chili at our campground just outside the park. I will say that not only is it tough trying to hike when you have mono, it’s tough when you’re lagging behind and you feel like you’re slowing down your two healthy companions. But oh well. Maybe I felt twice as wiped out when I got back to the hostel, but at least I can say I walked across a volcano.
After returning to the hostel, and heeding the urges of my mother, I went to the local emergency room for a confirmed diagnosis. Oh man. The doctor told me I probably had leptospirosis, a bacterial infection associated with contaminated water. What? I brought up the probability of mono. I was confused and couldn’t remember everything he said, but he gave me some antibiotics and sent me on my way.
At this point, I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t meant to stay in Hawaii, or continue my long-term travel plan. I couldn’t really even think long-term; I thought about how nice it was to be horizontal, and I knew that I needed a break from worrying about the practicalities of being on the road. My parents generously bought me a plane ticket back to New York, and a sense of relief set in. Okay. Something was decided. I looked forward to the comforts of home and said goodbye to everyone at the hostel.
I remember that flight, New Years Eve 2006, with a stopover in Seattle, as one of the longest of my life. Planes make us sicker than we already are. Oh, how happy I was to spread out across two seats on one of the planes. I remember filling up and emptying my water bottle over and over, never able to drink enough in between my attempts at sleeping, always too cold or else sweaty all over.
Eventually, I went to a doctor on Long Island who re-confirmed that I had mononucleosis. It wasn’t until sometime in February that I felt like I could go out in the world without feeling exhausted, without needing to sit down and rest every few minutes. I would love to travel to Hawaii again and experience it without any illness (and with a better camera!). I have not made it to New Zealand at all, but I know I’ll get there eventually.
I love that I’ve had these experiences. I love that as soon as I got better, I started thinking about what my next trip would be like. Travel is not all beautiful moments, but it is possible to find the beautiful moments in the misery. I’m grateful to the friends I had in Hawaii, for their kindness and warmth. I’m grateful to my family for all sending me care packages with yummy food. I’m grateful for my parents: I don’t know what I would have done had they not been able to fly me home and provide a place for me to get better.
And I can’t even begin to tell you how magical it was to swim right next to some sea turtles and manta rays while snorkeling.
Joy is sometimes a blessing, but it is often a conquest. Our magic moment helps us to change and sends us off in search of our dreams. Yes, we are going to suffer, we will have difficult times, and we will experience many disappointments — but all of this is transitory; it leaves no permanent mark. And one day we will look back with pride and faith at the journey we have taken. –Paul Coelho