So, this is the way the whirlwind ends.
Not with a bang, but a blurhagahak-ugh (*an onomatopoeia I have just invented for the sound my horrible, endless vomiting and dry-heaving made.)
Yes, that’s right, we went to the Philippines, and I got horribly, horribly ill!
We were feeling pretty invincible right up until it happened, I must admit. We were intrepid travelers, flying high after a day of bombing around our little paradise on a rented motorbike, carving mermaids into soft sand, doing battle with vicious surf, and hiding from tropical rains beneath the generous fronds of coconut trees.
We had just returned to our hostel for the afternoon. We were sitting in the lounge area (the only place with wifi on the entire island, or at least that’s how it seemed) to discuss potential Instagram photos when I felt it – a flush creeping up my neck, an ominous twist in my stomach. It became more and more difficult to speak. “I think I’ll just go lie down,” I managed, before marching stiffly back to our room and collapsing in the dark, still in my sodden, sand-crusted bathing suit and beach clothes, and without the energy to care.
It took two hours of lying in wait before I finally threw up, but once it started it just wouldn’t stop. Late into the night I would heave into a bucket every ten or so minutes until there was nothing left in my stomach – but even then, it continued. Panting, I would swallow down water, still sitting up, hoping that by remaining upright, even though the effort was torture, I would be able to keep it down. The effort was apparently for nothing. Up the water came. And if I didn’t drink water, still my body would writhe and contort over the edge of the bed, my dried-out insides scraping against each other, heaving, coughing, finding nothing.
I knew it was common to get sick like this when you visit a developing nation, and still I was afraid.
I was afraid because it couldn’t be food poisoning. Supreme health goddess that I am, I had happened to eat only packaged foods that day from a snack shack on the beach, and a mango for breakfast. No meat. Nothing cooked in restaurant kitchens that I couldn’t see.
I was afraid because it couldn’t be sunstroke. We had spent time on the beach, yes, but not much. On other occasions my body had endured hours more exposure than it was subjected to on that day. I had gotten color, yes, but no burns.
I was afraid because it was nighttime and I was far from home and I had never been sick like this before, and when you’re in the thick of it, feeling like death, it doesn’t matter if “everyone gets sick like that.” I was getting more and more dehydrated by the minute, and there was nothing I could do to fix it. A small sip would trigger a volcanic eruption.
This is how people die, I kept thinking. This is how dumb, dumb, stupid young girls who think they’re hot shit die in the middle of nowhere, and their parents have to live with that, and this is what I have done.
And then I felt steel in my stomach. I was not going to underestimate this issue – I was going to carry on. There was simply too much at stake. Later in the morning, still crying and shaking and feverish but vomit-free for three hours, Sam helped me into a tricycle and we traveled the (excruciatingly) bumpy road to El Nido’s medical clinic.
We walked into a dingy and crowded room with an oscillating fan. Two rows of eyes swiveled onto us.
Everything was a haze, but I do remember that each employee I spoke to seemed vaguely alarmed by me – this American girl who could barely keep her eyes open, stumblingly weak, with ratty, salty hair, sallow skin, and did I mention I was crying? Half dramatic misery, half because my body does that when it is sick. My eyes will water so much it turns into a steady stream and will just look like I’m sobbing. It’s grand.
The first nurse determined I did, indeed, have a staggering fever. She ordered blood and urine samples, and I was directed into the lab, and then I was afraid in a visceral, primal way.
This was a facility whose bathroom was a toilet without a seat or flusher, whose sink had no running water, with signs everywhere reminding the doctor, nurses, and lab technicians to clean up their workspaces because it was “part of your job!” They didn’t have the funding for staff whose sole job was sanitation. They wore jeans and t-shirts and there were no gloves in sight.
Would it, on second thought, be safer to just ride out this mysterious illness in my moldy hotel room? By seeking care, am I putting myself at greater risk?
The lab technician propped my arm on a mangy pillow and withdrew a vial of blood, and then they directed me back to the waiting room to wait for the results.
The next thing I remember is being shepherded into another observation room. I had passed out against the wall – against Sam’s shoulder. A doctor poked and prodded me, and tutted with concern with each of my replies. She told me it could be Dengue fever – my platelet levels were low – but that they would have to test me again the next day.
We had hardly encountered any kind of language barrier in the Philippines, but cross-cultural medical jargon is a special challenge, especially when it’s a Filipino doctor trying to communicate with a nearly-catatonic American girl.
“Are you allergic to Peracetemol?”
“Are you allergic to Peracetemol?”
“I,” – pause – “don’t know what that is….”
Sam stepped in. “Is that a medication?”
“It’s for fevers,” the doctor replied.
Pause. “I don’t think so.”
They hooked me up to an IV for rehydration, drew some more blood, and pricked me a few more times to test for allergies. It was about 11:00 AM. I drifted in and out of consciousness until 6:00 the next morning, as Sam came and went, dashing all over town for saltines, for the medications they had prescribed, for Pesos to pay for everything (El Nido Town’s only ATM happened to be out of cash that day, because of course), for wifi to let everyone know I was alive. I vomited once more, but mostly I slept. When I was awake, I worried about my parents to the joyous soundtrack of the night duty nurses preparing for the next day’s Christmas party.
I felt stronger the next day, fortified by the glucose and fluids and vitamin B complex they had pumped through my veins. Another blood test showed I did not have Dengue fever. They sent me off with antibiotics and God’s well-wishes.
It has been a few days, and my appetite has still not returned, but I have managed to travel from El Nido to Puerto Princessa, to Manila, to Bangkok, to Beijing in about 56 hours. I’m sitting in the Beijing airport, with just one final layover between me and Boston. Home.
It was an interesting way to end this four-month Asian odyssey, to say the least.
We’ve experienced varying levels of socio-economic development firsthand now. From gleaming Japan, to rough-and-tumble Thailand, to the in-betweens of our beloved city of contradictions, Hong Kong. It can be exhilarating for travelers to experience the eccentricities that stem from lower levels of development – tuk tuk rides over mud roads spilling over with eight passengers, oscillating fans without cages, street meats and haggling – and yet there are problems. Poverty and poor sanitation. Cramped quarters and accidents.
I plan on getting a checkup at my family doctor tomorrow. Another blood test, to scan for any damage the previous few blood tests may have done, and a chat with my doctor about symptoms. That is my privilege. I came to snorkel their beaches, to sit around in their restaurants and strike up silly conversations, to read in the shade and ogle whale sharks. When the going gets tough, when I’ve had enough, I fly back to my home in the States and our plethora of sterile urgent care centers. We pay through the nose for insurance but at least the care is always there.
To travel at all, of course, denotes a great deal of privilege in this world. I am so lucky to have had these eye-opening experiences. In a way, I am grateful for this sickness. I am grateful that I will go home and people will ask me about my travels, and one of the dominant takeaways will be all of the good work that still needs to be done to improve the lives of so many.
Never before these few months of exploring have my convictions been so clear. We live in a beautiful world, full of kind people with a shared impulse to help each other; we live in a complicated world, whose people disagree on how best to help. Our problems have hardly ever loomed larger, and so many of us are lying awake at night, pulsing with fear.
But there is steel in my stomach. The stakes are so high. And we will carry on.