“It is safe to say that the lasting travel accounts are quite subjective, that — within limits — the more subjective they are, the more readable, the more “valuable” they are. Travelers, like novelists, learned long ago the truth of Todorov’s statement of a universal law: “The best description…is the one which is not description all the way.” That is, the best description is combined with, cannot really be separated from, narration, reflection, interpretation.”
–Percy G. Adams, Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel (1983)
Ray, a bearded New Yorker who had recently dropped out of college to travel the world, was convinced that southern Laos was turning into a horrific cesspool of death and disease.
“I’m telling you,” he said to me as we stood outside the small ice-cream stand near the Phonsavanh Hotel in Pakse. “Cholera is completely out of control down here. A French guy I talked to in Savannakhet said the Pakse hospital was full of dead bodies.”
“Did the French guy see the dead bodies?” I asked.
“No, but he talked to a guy who saw the dead bodies.”
“And you’re sure he didn’t just talk to a guy who talked to another guy who saw the dead bodies?”
Ray looked at me with irritation. “Look, I have a sense for this kind of thing. I could tell he was serious.”
I decided to drop the big question. “So if you’re sure he was telling the truth about dead bodies in the Pakse hospital, what are you doing in Pakse right now?”
“Fuck it, man,” Ray said enthusiastically. “This is where the action is.”
By this point, I had been in Pakse for 24 hours and I was at my wits’ end. I’d been hearing the cholera rumors since coming overland from Vietnam, but I couldn’t get any hard facts. Nearly every traveler I’d met had heard there was a cholera epidemic on the Mekong flood plain south of Pakse, but not a single person had gotten this information from an official source. Many travelers were aborting their Laos travel plans and moving on, but others — like Ray — were embracing the cholera rumors with vicarious zeal. For these people, the very notion of the epidemic was enough to turn an otherwise normal trip into an adventure.
On the other hand, all the Laotian government offices and agencies in Pakse were categorically denying the existence of cholera. I visited two different government travel agencies in Pakse, and both insisted there was no problem with traveling south along the Mekong. The woman at the local health office laughed at the idea. “There are some people who have diarrhea,” she said, “but there is no cholera.” Even the officials I phoned at the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane knew nothing of the cholera rumor.
Since there was no hard evidence of an epidemic — and knowing how travelers tend to exaggerate — I continued with my plans to head downriver. As I hiked down to the river pier on the morning of my second day in Pakse, I met a Lao man named Kumsing who was working on a rural electrification project in the area. He was uncommonly friendly, and he spoke great English.
“Where are you headed?” he asked me.
“South,” I said. “I’m going to visit the 4000 Islands on the Mekong.”
Kumsing clicked his tongue. “That’s a nice area, but you have to be careful these days. I was there last week, and many of my workers got sick.”
“Was it cholera?”
“Yes, cholera. You won’t catch it if you’re careful. Not all of my workers got sick, just the careless ones.”
“How many workers were careless?”
Kumsing did some quick math. “Sixteen. But none of them died.”
“But everyone else stayed healthy — no cholera?”
“Yes, the other two are fine.”
“Yes. Plus I didn’t get sick, either!”
On paper, my trip to the 4000 Islands of Laos should have been the easiest journey I’d taken all year. Not only was I returning to familiar territory (I’d traveled the Laotian Mekong in my own boat a few months previously), but I’d also come to write a story on the area for a well-paying glossy print magazine. Instead of randomly vagabonding my way down the Mekong, I would be visiting pre-selected places and interviewing people I already knew. Since southern Laos is a peaceful, enchanting region, my magazine assignment promised no hardships beyond the simple process of collecting story information.
With the objectives so clear-cut, my return to the 4000 Islands was supposed to be — as the pilots in “Catch-22″ said when referring to easy missions — a “milk run.”
In reality, it had been quite the opposite of a milk run. Before I’d ever heard rumors of cholera, the mere process of traveling overland to Laos from Vietnam had been a headache in itself. On a map it looked easy to cross into the south of Laos from the Vietnamese Central Highlands — but there were no legal customs stations along this border. So to get to Laos from the Central Highlands, I first had to take a day-long trip out of the highlands and up the coast to Danang, then wait for the next available bus to Laos via Lao Bao.
Since this road to Laos follows a treacherous route over the Annamite Mountains, I opted to take the smaller, safer, air-conditioned bus offered by a travel office in Danang. Unfortunately, the air-con bus existed only in the travel office photograph; after purchasing my ticket, I was unceremoniously dumped off at the local transit station and ushered into a huge, decrepit old DeSoto bus.
I spent 22 hours on the DeSoto, including a three-hour delay in rural Laos when the drivers stopped to unload a cache of smuggled items into two separate Nissan pickups. I arrived in Savannakhet just in time to eat, sleep and board a morning bus to Pakse, which (including a four-hour stop when the drivers dropped the transmission onto the road and had to reassemble it) took 11 hours.
I arrived in Pakse exhausted, and spent the next couple days trying to confirm the cholera rumors. When I heard Kumsing’s tale, I postponed my boat trip and went back to check with the health department.
“I just met a man from the electric company who says that 16 people got cholera last week,” I said to the woman in the office.
“That wasn’t cholera,” she told me. “Those men just had diarrhea.”
“All 16 men just happened to get diarrhea at the same time?”
“Yes,” she said. “Maybe it was food poisoning. There is no cholera in Laos.”
This sounded a tad suspicious to me, but I felt I had come too far to abandon my journey to the 4000 Islands. Grimly resolved, I returned to the pier and boarded a mid-morning freight boat bound for the island of Don Khong. Granted, I was no longer on my idealized milk-run vacation, but — whatever the facts were about cholera — I figured I’d be safe if I kept myself religiously clean and avoided the local food.
Furthermore, I was personally convinced — after six months on the road in Southeast Asia — that cholera couldn’t touch me. As with Yossarian in “Catch-22,” avoiding doom seemed a mere matter of will power, milk run or not.
Cholera couldn’t touch me, I reasoned, because I had a pure body and was as strong as an ox. Cholera couldn’t touch me because I was Tarzan, Mandrake, Flash Gordon. I was Bill Shakespeare. I was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; I was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of Sorrows, Sweeny in the nightingales among trees.
I, like Yossarian in “Catch-22,” was miracle ingredient Z-247.
My journey to the 4000 Islands of Laos started splendidly. After spending the first night on Don Khong, I continued downriver to Khone island on the Cambodian border — where freshwater dolphins haunt deep pools and the Mekong suddenly crashes down into the largest complex of waterfalls in Asia. As I hiked around collecting information for my article, I sustained myself on bottled water, peeled fruit and an enormous bag of roasted peanuts. After a couple of peaceful, slow-paced days in the 4000 Islands, the notion of cholera had ceased to be a concern for me.
I probably would have forgotten about cholera entirely had I not suddenly vomited onto my shoes the morning after returning to Don Khong. I had come back to the island to tie up a few loose ends of my story, and at first it didn’t occur to me what was happening. When I vomited again a few minutes later, the gravity of the situation began to dawn on me. After I threw up for the third time, I took out my phrase book and started asking directions to the hospital.
I remember the next part only in bits and pieces. I know I kept asking people where the hospital was, and people kept pointing me up the road — but the hospital never materialized. It had rained the day before, and the humidity made the air quiver in the sunlight. As I walked, my brain rattled inside my skull like a sodden lump of clay; psychedelic fireworks burst behind my eyelids every time I doubled over with stomach cramps.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Don Khong hospital was nearly two kilometers outside of Khong Village. By the time a Lao motorcyclist found me squatting beneath a tree on the side of the road, I was still 200 meters away from my goal. The motorcyclist helped me to the concrete-floored hospital reception room, and I sat on a wooden bench while the staff debated what to do with me.
The hospital was constructed entirely of cinderblocks and had no window panes. Since there was no electricity on Don Khong during daylight hours, I sat in the half-light and waited. A nurse gave me a plastic bag so I wouldn’t have to run outside to vomit. Each time I retched, a few more patients wandered in from adjoining rooms to watch me. Before long, about 20 people had gathered to watch me expectorate a clear, stringy gelatin from the bottom of my stomach. As I sat there clutching my plastic bag, I half-expected one of them to ask me for my autograph.
Finally, a young Swedish doctor named Michael arrived. Michael was not really named Michael, and he wasn’t actually Swedish. But, since he was technically not supposed to be treating cholera cases in southern Laos, Michael will be Michael for the sake of this narrative.
“I see you’ve been vomiting,” Michael said, gesturing to my plastic bag. “Do you also have diarrhea?”
“Yeah, it’s killing me,” I said. “Does the hospital have anything that can stop it?”
“This hospital doesn’t have much by Western standards. Nor does this country, for that matter. Your ideal health option would be to get out of Laos as soon as possible.”
“Can the cholera kill me?”
“Technically, we can’t prove it’s cholera without doing a culture test, first. Whatever it is, it won’t kill you.”
“But we know it’s cholera,” I said. “There’s an epidemic going around, right?”
“I think the best thing for you to do right now is get out of this hospital. First we’ll find you a comfortable guest house, and there you can take oral rehydration salts until you get your strength back.”
“Has anyone died from the cholera this year? There’s lots of stories going around Pakse.”
Michael gave me a nervous look. “Like I said, we can’t call it cholera without a culture test. I know of 16 deaths so far. But those are mostly the very young and the very old. This is not something you should worry about.”
Michael got me some oral rehydration salts from the hospital storeroom and had an orderly motor me back to my room at the guest house. I stayed there and drank salt water for two days while the cholera bugs had their way with my intestines.
Though I could describe in colorful detail what cholera does to the inner workings of the human body, such exposition would be neither necessary nor tasteful. In a euphemistic nutshell, cholera renders everything that enters your body — water, bread, strawberry Pop-Tarts, etc. — into pond water. Furthermore, this pond water creation/expulsion process happens at such a terrifyingly rapid speed that I suspect Einstein himself must have suffered from cholera around the time he came up with his relativity theory. I went for hours at a time without leaving the bathroom.
When I wasn’t in the bathroom performing glorious acts of gastrointestinal alchemy, I spent my time stretched out on my bed, staring at the ceiling, which was mint green. The mint-green ceiling featured a brown metal ceiling fan — which didn’t move in the heat of the day, since the electricity didn’t come on until sunset. My bedspread was orange.
I pondered these things continuously for 48 hours.
Michael came to check on me each morning and evening. After two days, he concluded that I was strong enough to leave, and he arranged a ride to take me back to Pakse. I can’t recall ever having been so happy to see a Toyota Landcruiser.
Since my late-afternoon arrival in Pakse didn’t leave me enough time to make it to the Thai border station, I checked in to a hotel and set off to inform the local health department of my demise.
“I just caught cholera in the 4000 Islands,” I told the lady in the office. “Maybe you should warn people about going there.”
“It’s probably not cholera,” she said. “If you’re sick, maybe you should go to the hospital.”
“I’ve been to the hospital. I’ve been vomiting and I’ve had diarrhea for two days now. Trust me: I have cholera.”
“I don’t think you have cholera. Did the doctor do a culture test?”
“Look,” I cried, exasperated, “if what I have isn’t cholera, then what the hell is it?”
“Well,” she said diplomatically, “it’s probably just diarrhea, with some vomiting.”
Retreating from the health office in defeat, I walked to the Sedone restaurant and drowned my frustrations in a glass of lemonade. Keeping in mind my condition, I got a seat near the toilet. After a while, I got up and introduced myself to a guy named Doug, whom I’d overheard warning a table full of travelers about the epidemic. Doug, a Canadian on vacation from his job as an aid worker in Thailand, seemed almost pleased when I told him that I had cholera.
“I knew it would happen!” he said. “You’re the first tourist to catch it, but there’ll be more.”
“Why aren’t there official warnings?” I asked. “I tried to get some solid information before I left for the 4000 Islands, but all the government agencies were denying that cholera existed. They’re still denying it, for that matter.”
Doug smirked. “Of course they’re denying it. I have friends doing volunteer work in this part of Laos — cholera passed the culture tests a month ago. The government is keeping it quiet because this is Visit Laos Year. They don’t want to rain on the tourist parade.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a communist government lying to promote independent tourism.”
“In a way, it’s hard to blame the government for doing it. The West has encouraged Laos to go capitalist — and one of the principles of capitalism is supply and demand. In a poor country like Laos, tourism may very well be the number-one source of hard currency. Back when the epidemic started, some paper-pusher in Vientiane took one look at tourist revenues and decided right then and there that cholera did not and would not exist. Now people like you are getting exposed to cholera because the Laotian government is afraid to discourage you from coming to Laos.”
“Catch-22,” I said.
“Right. The same thing happened with AIDS in Thailand in the late 1980s. And just like in Thailand, the people who live here will bear the brunt of the problem. It’s the people living in the 4000 Islands — not you — who are going to suffer the most when doctors aren’t allowed to go down and treat them properly.”
“Sure,” I said. “I don’t need to worry about the quality of local health care when I can just go home.”
Doug grinned. “Well, technically, you can’t go home. Under international law, you aren’t allowed to cross the Thai border if you have cholera.”
“But technically,” I said, “cholera doesn’t exist in Laos.”
“Catch-22″ had finally done me a favor.
I crossed into Thailand at Chong Mek the following day. Continuing to Ubon Ratachani, I caught a night train to Bangkok. There, I checked into the modern confines of a medical clinic and began my slow recovery.
Originally published August 24, 1999 on Salon.com
Hometown: St. John’s, Newfoundland, CANADA
Quote: “Cover the earth before it covers you.”
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri USA
Quote: “[Her] goal in life was to be an echo
Riding alone, town after town, toll after toll….Remember to remember me
Standing still, in your past
Floating fast like a hummingbird.” – Wilco “Hummingbird”
(I even got a tattoo to honor it – http://indecisivetraveler.com/remember-to-remember-me)
Hometown: Antibes, France and Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Quote: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand” Picasso
“I’ve found that, for expatriates, America-bashing can become a kind of recreational activity (“re-creating,” in a the process, a sense of home), a way of both justifying your choices and reminding yourself, in a playful and not-too-disturbing way, of the country and culture that — despite anything and all you may do to have it otherwise — are yours. Part of the pride and pleasure of being an American, after all, is that there’s so much to make fun of.”
–Michael Blumenthal, “Western Union,” from In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal (1999)
Veterans’ Day in the US and the UK is replete with ceremonies (concerts and parades in the US, red poppies in the UK) to commemorate those who served their country in uniform. Aside from a great opportunity to thank those that fought in foreign lands, it’s a great opportunity to remember some of the historic sites that can give testament to the events they witnessed.
While some sites are now little more than quiet fields that have been reclaimed by nature, many places can still pack an educational punch that leaves the visitor still give the visitor a sense of the enormity and ruthlessness of war.
Here are a couple of my recent favorites:
Duxford Airbase and Imperial War Museum, Duxford, England
Revered as a major Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the legendary “Battle of Britain”, RAF Duxford also boasts an Imperial War Museum. With more than 200 historic aircraft ranging from rickety World War I biplanes to the B-17 Flying Fortress to the SR-71 Blackbird, the collection is arguably the finest in Europe. Also on display is part of the Imperial War Museum’s vast trove of historic photographs, uniforms and documents.
RAF Duxford, situated in bucolic countryside outside Cambridge, was founded during World War I but earned its place in history during the darkest days of World War II. In preparation for his planned invasion of Britain, Hitler launched the full might of the Luftwaffe at England’s factories and cities in 1940.
The bombs killed indiscriminately. His aim was as psychological as it was practical; he sought to terrorize the population and break Britain’s will to fight. It fell to the undermanned RAF to defend the homeland.
As the sector station for Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group, Duxford Air Base was in the thick of the battle. Casualties were immense. The pilots who fought in the Battle were enshrined in lore as “The Few”.
In June 1944 the planes launched from the same runways would protect the Allied fleet as it steamed toward Normandy. It would also gain fame as one of the homes of the fighter escorts for the Allied bombers that pulverized Nazi Germany’s industrial might.
RAF Duxford continued as a fighter station after the war and was decommissioned in the 1970’s. With over thirty authentic buildings recognized by the British government for their historical significance, the base was granted to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1976 and has been a world-class center of exhibits and education ever since.
Mulberry Harbors and Museum, Arromanches, France
The tiny French coastal town of Arromanches, perched on the sands of Normandy, holds another of my favorite war sites. Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the beach village had its fate permanently altered when it was chosen to be the main port of the Allies.
One of the most vexing logistical challenges for D-Day planners was the issue of transferring the move millions of pounds of Allied soldiers, vehicles, weapons, and supplies from ship to shore once the troops had established a beachhead. At Churchill’s order, engineers were set to the monumental task of constructing giant ports nicknamed “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to accomplish the feat.
Before the blood had washed away from the Normandy sand, the ports were unloaded from ships and attached by brave engineers under enemy fire. While bullets still flew the ports were operational and offloading tons of materiel per hour for the final push against Hitler’s Riech.
Today, a very well done museum perches above the coast and describes the incredible engineering task undertaken to build the ports. It gives even a layman like me a good idea of how this was pulled off, and of the massive challenges (storms, waves, German gunfire) that the Mulberry builders had to contend with.
But this isn’t the most moving part of the area; the really evocative sights are sitting just off the coast and demand no entrance fee. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports themselves. The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a silent reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.
Wham! After being in transit for so long, that fresh outside air smacks you in the face when you finally step outside of the airport and take that first deep breath of non-circulated stale airplane air. It took forever to get here. After hours and hours you got to the airport, flew on the plane (or for many of us-planes plural), went to more airports, made it through customs, got jostled at baggage claim and finally arrived at your destination. That combination of being completely spent, confused over time changes and excitement for that journey to get underway usually ends in a flop on a bed or a cup of something to pop open those dreary eyelids and jump start the adventure. How do you manage to enjoy your surroundings and embrace the new cultures in front of you without an enormous freak out of culture shock? How do you ease in and lessen the shock to your new surroundings?
Many of us don’t have the time that we’d like to be able to slow travel and take the time we’d want to get fully used to a place and ease in at our own pace. Still, there are things to do to make it easier regardless of time. What if your tour starts the day after you arrive in a country where you do not speak the language? What if you’ve decided to jump in with both feet and take months to immerse yourself in a new land and culture without much research or planning? What if you are not accustomed to huge changes all at once and are starting to feel a bit overwhelmed? Do we find you folded in a ball on the bed or are you ready to attack the day no matter the risk? For those of us who want to greet the day head on and struggle regularly to resist the urge of the fetal position on that bed that is no longer the reclining seat in front of the bathroom in economy class, here are a few tips to make the culture shock as easy as possible.
We’ve all been in the situation at one point or another in our traveler lives. Whether we’ve been the local on the street to help the visitor with a map and directions or the lost soul relying on the kindness of those very strangers we’ve been for others, it’s safe to say that all of us have come out on the other side. Remember, not all places are the same to the ones in which you’ve grown up. I mean, really, if they were, why would you go? Embrace the diversity and keep in mind that we are all more alike than we are different. You will learn as much if not more from the people and place you’re in than they will learn from you. Share what makes us similar and learn about the differences. Take in what the culture has to offer…you’re bound to see the world with new and open eyes IF and when you decide it’s time to leave.
For more of Stacey’s musings, check out her website.
“Out in the great wide world, foreign reporting can be depressingly narrow, especially in the post-9/11 climate. Sometimes it seems as if there are only two possible subjects for stories: people we should fear and people we should pity. But those aren’t the individuals I met while living abroad.”
–Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (2013)
The other day a reader told me she had saved up for a gap-year of travel. She said that she hadn’t yet decided whether or not to do some remote contract work while traveling or not.
In my opinion, she was right to think decisively about the matter, because there are two very different types of travel she can experience. Traveling with a goal to work as you go is very different than taking a year off to collect incredible travel experiences.
Don’t get me wrong; one is not better and one is not worse…just different. Let’s look at how.
5 ways working-as-you-go travel is different than a gap year:
1.) You can move more quickly during a gap-year.
When you’re trying to work as you go, it’s very much like anyone else’s work life in that you’ll have work-days and off-days. Luckily, you can schedule the work days and off days according to your travel whims, but it often means doubling or even tripling the amount of time you would have ordinarily spent in a place, or just adopting a slow travel pattern in general. You don’t have to see less with the work-as-you-go travel pattern, but you will have to fit the sites into off-days, evenings, lunch-breaks, etc.
With a gap-year, you can let other travel preferences dictate how long you stay in any given destination. You can stay as long as it will take you to see all the sites you had your heart set to see, then move along!
2.) You need to pack more intentionally when working as you go.
When working as you go, you may need more technical supplies than a gap-year person might. If you’re working digitally, you’ll need a reliable laptop, possibly hard-drives. Perhaps you need a better or safer file-storage system. Not to mention if you appear for conference calls or Skype sessions, you may need work-appropriate attire.
For a gap-year, you might still want some sort of internet device, but it could be as simple as an iPod touch or an iPad. Not to mention your wardrobe will be more dictated by the weather than it is by professional expectations.
3.) Traveling with others is harder when you’re working as you go.
When working as you go, the need to spend time working can be hard for other travelers to understand. I can’t count how many times we’ve heard others say to us, “How often are you in [fill in the blank destination]? Just take the day off today and site-see with me!” It’s hard for other travelers to understand that working while you travel mostly requires as many, and sometimes more working hours as a stationary job would. Or it is hard for them to understand that your travel is sustained by the hours spent not site-seeing. So by saying no to the activities of the day, you are actually making it possible to say yes to the activities of another day.
Also the pace of a vacationer is different than the pace of a work-as-you-go-traveler, as mentioned in the first point. So when we have traveled with friends on their vacation time, we’ve gone at a faster pace than we’re used to and thus, we have needed to skip things. On our own time, we may spend 7 days in an area so that we can work for 5 of them and site-see for two. But with vacationing friends who only have so many vacation days, we may spend 3 days in a place, requiring us to fit site-seeing into evenings or lunch-breaks.
During a gap year, it is much easier to be flexible with your pace or site-seeing preferences. Therefore, it’s easier to travel with others and accommodate whatever pace they’re after. That is one of my favorite parts of gap-year styled travel. You can say yes to any excursion that suits your fancy or your budget without any kind of thought towards whether or not you should be working instead.
4.) How you choose a hotel changes.
When working as you go, your hotel decisions might need to include stricter preferences than gap-year travel. For instance we’ve talked about digital work a lot. Indeed, you may need to assure you’ve got a strong internet connection, free or affordable internet, and a space in which you can spend 8 hours working. Unfortunately this sometimes eliminates hostels as an option.
During a gap-year, you may be much more flexible when it comes to accommodation. In our gap-year travel we spent many more nights in hostels and homes-stays than we do now. We tried to find ways to access internet maybe once a week or so, but it was not something we felt we needed every day. Now, we fall behind in our work-load if we go more than a day without internet.
5.) During a gap-year that has a defined end, you may feel less pressure to stay connected with friends and family from home.
Working as you go often means that there is not necessarily an end in sight. For instance my husband and I are full-time travelers so there is no set-time for when we’ll “go back home.” Because of this, I feel a greater need to connect with home on a regular basis. I try to stay in touch with my family members ever week or two.
During our gap-year on the other hand, I had an idea of when we would be returning to our friends and family. This made me feel a little less discouraged by long gaps without communication. At that time Skype was our only option for calling home for free, but we rarely had strong enough internet connection for a good Skype call. But I was reassured by the thought that I could tell my family and friends all about my travel when we returned home at the end of the year.
Now we’ve discussed 5 ways in which gap-year travel and work-as-you-go travel are very different. But in the end, either style of travel is going to require money. Either money you’ve saved, or money you make as you go. How much money depends on how you want to travel and is going to be a little bit different for everyone. But if you want a ball-park figure of what your travel budget can be using miles and points to help buffer that cost, I recommend jumping over to my stats page to see exactly how much it costs for us to live nomadically.