As the motorbike careened down the dirt paths of backcountry Malawi, my head pounded. It was as if I could feel my swollen brain literally shaking and shifting within the confines of my skull. Every time the bike went over a bump or mound, it felt like my head was going to split down the middle.
I held on and tried to keep conscious while the driver raced towards the clinic. A clinic that we would later realize was completely void of any medications, malaria tests or even pain killers.
Getting sick on the road is never fun, but unfortunately I have had more than my fair share of travel illnesses. Dariece’s immune system seems to have always been better equipped to deal with the bacteria, viruses and bug-born illnesses that we’ve been introduced to while travelling.
The only good thing that ever comes of being extremely ill on the road, is the story that you have after surviving it. So in this article, I’m going to share 5 of my worst travel plagues which I managed to come out of – skinnier – but alive.
Malfunctions in Malawi
I’m starting with this one because it’s probably my worst sickness ever. It all started when we ate some poorly kept sausages, but it quickly escalated to more than just food poisoning.
We were staying in Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi and the evening after eating the suspect sausages, I awoke in a panic and rushed to the bathroom. There were two problems with being sick at this particularly secluded guest house.
- The bathrooms were in outhouses located some 300 meters away from our room.
- To get to the outhouses, I had to pass a large pond which was home to an angry, grunting resident hippopotamus.
It almost seems too far-fetched to be true, but there I was, squatting in pitch black over a less-than sanitary outside toilet, trying to do my business in extreme pain, while listening to Africa’s greatest man killer grunting, growling and splashing only a couple hundred feet away.
I had to return to this beast-guarded bathroom numerous times over the course of the night.
Unfortunately, the illness didn’t subside the next day and the following evening I felt even worse. On the third day I was starting to think that there was something seriously wrong and by the fourth day I was running a high fever and could barely make it all the way to the bathroom.
We knew I had to go to a hospital, but we happened to be in Malawi when BP Oil pulled out of the country due to a disagreement between Malawi’s president and the UK prime minister. This meant that there wasn’t enough gas for the citizens to fill up their cars, or even for transport trucks to bring in important provisions like food, water and medical supplies.
Finally we found someone who had enough gas in their motorbike to give me a ride to a nearby clinic. This is the motorcycle journey that I described at the start of this article and it was the most painful journey I’ve ever taken.
Dariece had to hitch a ride on the back of a bicycle to meet me there. It was so difficult to find any gas powered transportation.
When I arrived at the clinic, I hadn’t eaten in 5 days, my stomach felt like it was tearing itself apart, I was sweating from the fever but felt unusually cold and the hospital smelled of musk, mould and humidity.
I looked around at the people waiting and felt even more awful. I knew that I was going to be able to pay for my treatment and had the safety net of travel insurance and means to exit the country if needed. So many of the suffering Malawians in that waiting room had no access to such privilege.
When the doctor finally saw me, he looked at me hopelessly. He told me that because of the fuel shortage, there were no malaria tests left to give me, no painkillers and no antibiotics. He said I would have to go to the hospital all the way in Cape Maclear.
I left, got back on the motorbike and endured the head throbbing journey back to our guest house in Monkey Bay. My hired motorbike didn’t have enough gas to make it to Cape Maclear on that day.
The next day, we found a truck that was willing to drive us to Cape Maclear (for a very high, sick Muzungu price), and I again felt like my head was exploding as the vehicle bounced and crashed over the pothole ridden roads.
In Cape Maclear, I hopped on the back of another motorcycle, this time captained by a friendly Slovenian tourist (I’ve loved Slovenians ever since), and he drove me to the hospital. To my surprise, when I walked into the clinic I was greeted by a group of Irish nurses. The melodic inflections of their calm Irish voices instantly soothing me.
I’m sure in reality I walked myself into the hospital, but the way I remember it is more like a dream. It was as if I was being gently carried on a soft white blanket by 5 Irish women with beautiful sing-song accents.
Again the hospital had no malaria medicine or blood testing equipment, so I was doomed to never know what I had contracted. I was given two fists full of pills and sent to lie down on a nearby bench. At this point I hadn’t eaten or kept anything down for a week and I literally couldn’t move.
Dariece begged the nurses to drive me back to our hotel in Cape Maclear and finally they agreed to take me on the way to another assignment. I waited an hour and finally hopped in the ambulance. Unbelievably, the ambulance ran out of gas and I had to walk about 1 km to get to our hotel. I remember that kilometer feeling longer than the entire 10 day Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal.
Luckily from that point on, I (slowly) got better. Overall the sickness lasted 2 weeks of extreme intestinal and abdominal pain and limited eating. I never did find out what it was, but I was told with certainty that my excessive vomiting and diarrhea had caused tears in my stomach and intestinal lining which turned into serious infections.
I had lost around 20 pounds which took me nearly 6 months to gain back completely.
It was bad. It was really bad.
Black Market Eggs in Pushkar
My second worst sickness story isn’t nearly as bad and didn’t last nearly as long, but it was still extremely painful. It seems whenever I get sick, I’m always stranded in the worst possible locations.
I fell deathly ill in Pushkar, India after eating some dodgy vegetarian meal in a relatively nice local restaurant. When you get sick from vegetables, it’s likely a fecal contamination, so I knew that this one in India was going to be more than a 24 hour stint of food poisoning. It’s quite likely that this one was typhoid.
We were staying at a guest house run by a hash smoking hippie guru who called himself “doctor”. It turned out, the only prescriptions he was able to fill were hits from his hash pipe which – strangely enough – didn’t make me feel any better.
I was sick for a total of 10 days in Pushkar and it wasn’t pretty. My stomach was in a knot the whole time and I couldn’t keep anything down. The worst part was that Pushkar is a holy city and is 100% vegetarian. Meat, fish, dairy and even eggs are illegal.
I really felt like my body needed food with substance, like pasta or some chicken, but no restaurants or hotels would serve banned foods. One day, when I could barely walk, Dariece and I took to the streets because we heard of a man selling eggs on the black market.
The tales were true and we found this man down a dusty alleyway. He was like the egg gangster of Pushkar. He literally had a big gold chain, a thick mustache and pitch black sunglasses.
He took me into a dark back room where he opened a 12 pack of eggs like it was a suitcase full of hard drugs. We bought them, snuck them into our guest house kitchen, and under the watchful eye of the “Doctor”, we cooked up a delicious scramble.
From that point on, my body finally started to recover. I ate eggs twice a day for another 6 days before feeling good enough to continue travelling.
Sick & Stranded in Sumbawa
Indonesia isn’t the best place to get sick, but we weren’t just in Indonesia, we were in some secluded, off the beaten track island called Sumbawa somewhere between Komodo Island (where the dragons live) and Bali.
I fell horribly ill here and we were staying in this tiny, dark, fan-cooled hotel room with a squat toilet. Every 4 hours the electricity would go out and in those moments my fever felt like it soared to dangerous temperatures.
We knew that the guest house had nicer rooms available, but they were twice the price and even though I was dying in our tiny little hot box, we didn’t want to blow our budget and go to the more expensive room.
After 6 days of horrible vomiting and diarrhea, my fever got so high that I couldn’t handle it anymore. I needed a room with A/C and by this point my thighs were literally throbbing from having to squat over the toilet so often.
We checked out of our super budget $10 / night room, and checked into the $20 / night palace.
The minute we walked into the room, we both regretted waiting so long to make the change. There was A/C, a bath, a comfy sit down toilet, a TV with English channels, a queen size bed and the best part… this room had a generator hooked up so there were no power outages.
I finally felt human and after another 3 days I felt healthy enough to move on. We learned from that experience that if either of us were sick, no matter how strict our budget may be, we would upgrade our room and be comfortable.
Poo Show in Puddicherry
Yes, India does appear twice on this list of my worst travel illnesses, but we have actually travelled in India for over 6 months in total, so 2 times is really not that bad. Especially considering the state of most kitchens that you see throughout the country.
This story is particularly graphic and it’s a bit strange writing about it publicly on our blog. Maybe I’m twisted, but I always love when we meet people travelling and our relationship progresses to the point where we can begin telling “travel poo stories”.
I feel like we share a lot on this blog, so I’m confident that I can go ahead and tell this story to you, our friends and readers 😀. I figure hey, if my friend Jarryd can write about shitting himself in a Buddhist monastery on his blog, I can write about this here.
We decided to stay in a beautiful Ashram in Puddicherry. We had a lovely room with a stunning view out to the Indian Ocean. The day we checked in I fell horribly ill. This sickness only lasted about 5 days total, but it was really bad.
I was using the washroom about 3 times per hour, every hour throughout the entire day and night. At one point, I must have become so tired that I became lazy. I came stumbling out of the bathroom and lied on top of the bed. Within moments, Dariece said: “What’s that smell?!”.
We both looked down and it became incredibly clear that I hadn’t done a very good job with the toilet paper in the bathroom. Dariece held back a mix of gagging and laughter as I waddled back to the bathroom to finish the clean-up job.
I was so embarrassed, but Dariece didn’t make it any easier on me. I could hear her outside the bathroom laughing hysterically. We had only been together for a little over a year at that point, so I’d say it’s a miracle that she’s still with me today.
A Major Mistake in Mexico
My final sickness story is another marathon illness that caused me to lose a ton of weight. Maybe that’s why I’m starting to feel a little fat these days? I haven’t been deathly ill in a couple of years and that was probably my travel weight-loss program for the first 6 years we spent on the road!
Anyways, we were supposed to take a bus from San Cristobal in the south of Mexico, all the way to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala where we planned to live for a month or two. The night before our scheduled bus and our last night in Mexico, we decided that instead of eating delicious international food (we had eaten a LOT of local food at this point), we should bid farewell to Mexico by eating some tasty Mexican meals. Big mistake.
I had a burrito (I know, Tex-Mex technically) and it turned out to be a butt-burning tortilla wrap of doom. I spent the entire night either crouching over or sitting on the toilet. My vomiting was so violent that my entire esophagus felt like it was swollen for days afterwards. I’ve never vomited so hard that I had to grunt and groan in excruciating misery while doing it.
We cancelled our bus because we’ve learned that no matter how pricey the travel day is, it’s not worth doing it while we’re dying from food poisoning.
I spent the day in bed and on the toilet instead, but luckily the next morning I felt “OK”, so we hopped on the bus bound for Guatemala. After about two hours on the bus, it stopped just in time for a restaurant and potty break. I really needed to use the men’s room by this point.
I ran past all of the men, women and children who were waiting in line to barge my way into the nearest stall. I sat down and heard the guy in the stall next to me having a rather loud experience. “That’s embarrassing” I thought.
Then my experience started.
I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that the entire restaurant, including Dariece, could hear what was going on in my stall. The tile walls echoed my bowel movement for all to hear.
I’ve never been so mortified in my life, but it was also so comically loud that I couldn’t help but to laugh at the situation myself.
I sat on the toilet and held back my laughter by closing my hand over my nose and mouth so that people wouldn’t hear horrible gas and hysterical giggles coming from a stall with a 30-year-old man inside.
The walk of shame from that bathroom back to the bus was possibly the most awkward 15 seconds of my life.
When we got to Guatemala, I felt ok. We even went for a walk that night and because all of the restaurants were closed, we decided to eat street food. Big mistake. Back-to-back food poisoning isn’t good at all, let me tell you.
The second virus hit me even harder and laid me up in our hotel room for 5 more days and nights. It wasn’t pretty, and again I lost about 15 pounds.
We were actually working with the hotel at the time and we were supposed to take photos to make social shares and articles in exchange for our stay.
If I had to review the place, all I could have really said was that the bed was pretty comfy and the bathroom was nice. I saw little more of that hotel.
I knew that bathroom like the one in my mom’s house growing up because I spent about 8 hours per day in there trying to rid myself of the horrible stomach bug inside of me.
Luckily, Dariece was able to write the reviews and take the photos.
Many people believe that when you’re travelling, you’ll get sick from salad that was washed in tap water, or from a dingy street food stand, but in my experience, I get sick just as often from nice restaurants as I do from street food.
I’ve been sick in fancy hotels and I’ve been sick from mystery meat. You simply don’t know when the next bug will hit you. I kept this list to regular travel-related illnesses like typhoid and food poisoning, but Dariece also survived dengue fever in Vietnam and we both endured Chikungunya in Grenada.
Getting sick is all part of the adventure and luckily, the more you travel the more your body boosts its immune system. I hope that I never get sick like this again, but if I do, at least I’ll have a hilarious horror story to tell afterwards.