Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Take Your Medicine

I am becoming one of those people. The safe people. The ones who pack food in their suitcases when traveling overseas so they will have something safe and familiar to eat. The ones who bring a lot of medicines - just in case.

I just dropped $250, yes you heard me correctly, $250 on drugstore type items for my upcoming work trip. Thank you USG per diem - I really do need you if I have to buy things like this for my trip! But this is only because of where I am going. Liberia.

I've always played it pretty safe on my world travels. Its been more than 20 years (college) since I was doing crazy travel in Kenya and Uganda where I ate everything, drank the water, traveled by bus alone all over the country and put myself in a lot of precarious places and situations that luckily I survived. Over the past 13 years of work travel I've definitely had some lapses in judgment and dumb moments, but for the most part I think I've been a smart and cautious traveler. Well, except when it comes to illnesses.

Those who know me and have traveled with me for work know that I am typically not a light packer. If I have to go on a business trip for 2, 3, 4 weeks then I want clothes and shoes and music and books and enough toiletries to last me. But I never really worried much about medicines (other than aspirin, pepto bismol) and getting sick and I certainly never brought food (although sometimes I did bring chocolate and gum).

But now I am 43 and at this moment, not in my best physical condition and recovering from a chest cold that won't seem to go away completely. And I am going to Liberia. Not a place like Delhi or Sao Paulo or Manila. Liberia. Africa is tough. Tougher than Asia and tougher than Latin America, in my opinion. It is the land of tropical diseases. Sure other places have their share. But not like Africa. She is the queen of tropical diseases. And water and sanitation problems. And a place like Liberia is one of the tougher places in Africa. Sure its no Sudan or Congo, I will grant you that. But it is also not South Africa or Kenya.

The two scariest and most ill times of my life were in Uganda (thanks Uganda for those great memories! I still love you). The first happened when I was on a summer trip during grad school, back in the mid 90s. I had such a high fever I was hallucinating. A British guy who I had just befriended on the road (friends only) took care of me. Oh I owe him big time. And the sad thing is we lost touch. I've tried to find him over the years, but no luck. There he was holding me in blankets, rubbing me down because I was so cold with the fever, freaking out at how sick I was. I was so feverish and hallucinating that at one point he saved me from falling down a huge flight of stone stairs which would have really injured me. I can still remember lying on the bathroom floor in a moment of consciousness convinced I was going to die right there in a stranger's house. It was a scary moment. And you know, we never took me to a doctor. I was never diagnosed. I just got better after a few days. In hindsight, WTF? I don't understand why I did not go to the doctor.  That was a VERY stupid moment. (I also just remembered that this was also the trip where I was almost carjacked in Kampala late at times Kampala, fun times...)

The second scariest illness was just a few years ago when I was in Kenya for meetings and traveled to Uganda, only for 2-3 days, for meetings. I had not been in Uganda since the 90s so was excited to return. Well, a few hours after arriving I started feeling ill. It got worse and worse. I had food poisoning. Real live hard core. Not the kind we sometimes get here at home - some discomfort and problems. This was full on projectile - both ends, same time. I was alone and in a hotel (was it the Speke? I can't recall now). I laid there for two days, making my own rehydration medicine (salt and sugar and water) until I felt I was strong enough to get up and go to a clinic for some antibiotics. I, of course, never got to have any of my meetings, so it was a wasted trip. I never left the hotel. I was fortunately just well enough to get on the plane and go home.

Those are really unpleasant memories. Those of you who travel have similar ones I am sure.

I've been to Liberia before so its not new territory. I am staying in a familiar hotel that has good food. But Liberia has malaria and dengue and the rains have started early. And a friend of mine who lives there just had typhoid. And my biggest concerns is that I know my immune system is kind of weak right now. So...I just bought A LOT of medicines to try to keep me healthy and also to address symptoms if I start to go down. And I am buying insect repellent for my skin and clothes. I know they say you should always do this but to tell the truth I pretty much never do this because I hate repellent (especially DEET which is the only thing that really works). And I am taking packets of chicken soup. And herbal tea. And I am not going to let people there tempt me into drinking too much alcohol, and smoking cigarettes and staying up late at night - as many people do there - its just the lifestyle for expats in this kind of work in places like Monrovia. And I bought a little first aid kit that I am planning to take (I still can't believe I did that.) Because those little things won't be easily found. I am up on my vaccinations and I have my malaria medication (which I do not like to take, but I will take it) and some antibiotics to take if I go down too badly with stomach problems.

I hope that I can say I am wiser now. I am preparing myself this time. It may be overkill, but I don't care. And you better believe that if I do get sick, this time I won't just ride it out like those earlier times. I will find a doctor and get diagnosed immediately rather than just hoping and waiting to get better. I will take my medicine. And I will like it.

Anyone have any funny, crazy international travel illness stories to share?

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