November 22, 2014

Retch-22 Laos in the time of cholera

Don Khong Island

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.”

“Other two?”

“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.

Mekong, Laos

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

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Category: Asia, Destinations, Travel Health

September 23, 2014

5 Ways to eat healthy while traveling

Hannah eating-Chiang Rai

Eating healthy is important to us.

I’m a relentless “do it myself” sort of girl. I was raised freezing and canning a lot of our own food. I make most things from scratch. It’s really important to me to feed my family healthy things so that the children grow properly and so that healthy eating patterns are established for life.

Lots of people ask us what we do about that while we’re traveling, since traveling is a lifestyle, not a two week event. There’s not one answer to that and there’s no easy answer. We’re in continual renegotiation of nutritional terms in this family. The most basic answer is that we do the best we can with what we have on any given day, on any given continent. The following are five of our strategies:

Eat Fresh

Most nutritionists will agree that fresh food and raw food are the most healthful choice. We eat as much fresh food as we can. Of course in many of the places we choose to live this also means adhering to the bleach-boil-peel rule. We’ve replaced “bleach” with Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) as a more natural fruit and veggie wash and we carry a knife in our backpack for a quick fruit peel while walking in a market.

With GSE we’re even able to make salads (often cited as a no-no in third world places because of the water used to wash the lettuce) daily.

For us, the best way to stay healthy is to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and enjoy the fabulous diversity of the planet. One of the best parts of travel is the food!

Eat Local

Eating Local means eating things grown or produced within the region we are living in. We don’t often buy pineapple when we’re living in Canada. We don’t often get apples when we’re living near the equator.

Eating local foods means that you’re also getting slow doses of the local bacteria, which will help build immunity as well as tolerance for the differences in diet and “gut bugs” as we travel. Moving slowly helps too, dropping in by plane is always an intestinal shock!

Lots of the guidebooks will tell you not to eat street food. We actually take exactly the opposite position. I would much rather eat a meal that I see cooked right in front of me than one cooked in a kitchen facility that I can’t see from the table where I’m seated. That way we know the food is hot and fresh and reasonable sanitation standards have been adhered to. There is nothing quite so local as food off of a street cart! Yum!

Make Our Own Probiotics

This is where you decide I’m crazy. In my backpack I carry cheese and yogurt cultures as well as water kefir grains. Yep. We make soft cheeses and yogurt out of dried milk and the first thing I do when we set up a new base is get my kefir grains going.

Travel naturally exposes us to a wider range of intestinal risks than living in New Hampshire did, and one of the ways we stack the deck in our favour is by making sure our guts are populated with the right kinds of bacteria!

Portable Nutrient Dense Greens

Believe it or not, it can sometimes be hard to come by fresh vegetables. We hit this wall immediately when we landed in Bangkok. There was a ton of street food available, but most of it was meat, wheat or rice based. We could get fruit, no problem, but we were quickly feeling the lack of veggies.

It sounds completely nuts, but I carry sprouting seeds in my backpack. It only takes a couple of days to get a batch ready and we love them. They can be added to salad, or made into the salad themselves. We love having almost instant access to high quality veggie sprouts and they make a big difference in our diet on the road!

Take Supplements

We take vitamins. Not religiously, but when we feel like our diet is not up to par, we add them in. We also carry essential oil and herbal concoctions to combat basic illness (oregano oil & rosemary oil) add vigor (spirulina), and sort out basic gut bugs (GSE).

What are your secrets for staying healthy and improving your nurtrition on the road, or at home?

 

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Category: Food and Drink, On The Road, Travel Health, Vagabonding Life

June 7, 2014

Slumming the Golden Arches

Golden Arches, Barstow Station

Image credit

This month marks the beginning of student-travel season in Europe, which means that — at any given moment — continental McDonald’s restaurants will be filled with scores of American undergraduates. Quiz these young travelers, and they’ll give you a wide range of reasons for seeking out McDonald’s — the clean restrooms, the air conditioning, the fact that it’s the only place open during festivals or siesta. A few oddballs will even claim they are there for the food.

European onlookers will tell you (with a slight sneer) that these itinerant Yanks are simply seeking the dull, familiar comforts American culture. And this explanation might be devastatingly conclusive were it not for the fact that European McDonalds also happen to be crammed this time of year with travelers from Japan, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Argentina, Korea, Canada, India, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and — yes — neighboring European countries.

Indeed, despite its vaunted reputation as a juggernaut of American culture, McDonald’s has come to function as an ecumenical refuge for travelers of all stripes. This is not because McDonalds creates an American sense of place and culture, but because it creates a smoothly standardized absence of place and culture — a neutral environment that allows travelers to take a time-out from the din of their real surroundings. This phenomenon is roundly international: I’ve witnessed Japanese taking this psychic breather in the McDonalds of Santiago de Chile; Chileans seeking refuge in the McDonalds of Venice; and Italians lolling blissfully in the McDonalds of Tokyo.

Before I traveled overseas, I never knew McDonald’s could serve as a postmodern sanctum, and — save the occasional Taco Bell burrito — I rarely ate fast food. This all changed when I moved to Pusan, South Korea ten years ago to teach English. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of new sights, sounds and smells my first week in-country, I retreated to a McDonald’s near my school, where I was able to stretch a Big Mac Meal into three hours of Zen-like oblivion. The appeal of this environment came not from the telltale icons of franchise culture (which I’d always found annoying), but in the simple opportunity to put the over-stimulation of urban Korea on pause. Once I ended my Pusan stint and started traveling across Asia, I retained this habit of occasionally seeking out McDonalds during times of mental exhaustion.

I’ll readily admit here that, within certain hipster circles of indie travel, announcing that you patronize McDonalds is kind of like confessing that you wet your bed or eat your boogers. For many politically minded travelers, McDonald’s is less an eating establishment than it is a broader symbol of cultural degradation and corporate soulnessness. In fact, fast-food franchises have been the target of so much protectionist, environmentalist, and anarchist ire that firebombing a McDonald’s has become a globally standardized symbol of protest — a McDonaldization of dissent, if you will.

(Interestingly, Marlboros are sold worldwide — and American cigarette brands are just as unhealthy and aggressively marketed as American fast food — but for some reason there is not a similar activist reaction. Perhaps this is because there are no Marlboro outlet stores to firebomb — but I suspect it also has to do with subliminal, adolescent-style favoritism. The Marlboro Man is, after all, a handsome tough-guy, whereas Ronald McDonald is a makeup-and-jumpsuit-wearing dork.)

Political gestures aside, I’d wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald’s has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel. To be sure, the aesthetic enjoyment of the Taj Mahal or the Jardin des Tuileries can often feel compromised when the Golden Arches are just a few blocks away.

Look closely, however, and you’ll discover that (despite their placeless ambience) the McDonalds in far-flung places are culturally discernible from the McDonalds you’ll find in Modesto or Milwaukee. In India, for example, a McDonald’s serves chicken “Maharaja Macs” instead of Big Macs (due to Hindu and Muslim taboos against beef and pork), and a door-greeter is often available to assist the middle-class clientele. Moreover, as any Pulp Fiction fan will note, Paris McDonalds offer the option of ordering a frothy beer with le Big Mac.

At times, an international McDonald’s franchise can serve as a kind of measuring stick for cultural nuance. In China, where familial identity is a core virtue (and where a sexually ambiguous bachelor-clown mascot might seem a little weird), Ronald McDonald is known as Uncle McDonald, and he has a wife, Aunt McDonald. In parts of Bangkok, where the laid-back Thai concept of sanuk (lightheartedness) threatens fast-food efficiency, McDonald’s staff members use James Bond-style digital countdown clocks to ensure the food arrives in a timely manner. In Cairo, I witnessed young, middle-class Muslim couples going on chaperoned first-dates in a McDonald’s; in Tel Aviv, the teenage staff got so flustered when I ordered non-kosher cheese on my Big Mac that they forgot to add the beef patties.

Just as fascinating as these local variations of American fast food are the local food chains that copy the McDonald’s model. In Jeddah, for instance, you can join Saudis for a round of halal chicken-burgers at Al Baik; in Tokyo, you can compare the teriyaki burgers at McDonald’s to those served at the Japanese Lotteria chain; at Jollibee in the Philippines (which has exported its franchises to the United States), you can sample chicken, burgers, or a startlingly sweet variation of spaghetti.

Ideally, of course, fast food should play a decidedly minor role in any international sojourn. Still, it can be interesting to learn how the simplest experiences overseas can affect the way you see things when you come home. I recall how, after returning from my first year in Korea, the understated calm of a Great Plains Christmas left me with a severe case of reverse culture shock.

My solution? I headed over to the west 13th Street McDonald’s in Wichita, where my sense of place melted away the moment I walked through the front door. Indeed, as I ate that Kansas Big Mac Meal, I may have as well have been back in Asia.

Tip sheet: A few pointers regarding travel and fast-food
1) Street food is the true fast food.

Remember that fast food didn’t originate with Ray Kroc: Street vendors, who cook local delicacies right in front of you, mastered the art centuries ago. Any city or region you visit will have plenty of street-food specialties: samosas in Mumbai, roasted sweet-potatoes in Quito, crepes in Paris, kosher-dogs in New York, sheep’s-brain-and-falafel sandwiches in Damascus, mandu dumplings in Seoul. And fresh squeezed juice from a guy pushing a cart always trumps a Super-Sized Coke.

2) Save franchise food as a last resort.

Visiting a McDonald’s to temporarily escape the urban hubbub of Kiev or Curitiba or Kuala Lumpur is perfectly normal — but eating there every day is silly and escapist. Granted, travel can be taxing and disorienting, but overcoming these challenges make a journey invigorating. One visit to a Burger King or KFC per week on the road is plenty; any more is a cross-cultural copout.

3) McDonald’s (and other fast food) is easy to avoid.

Irritated by the fact that you can spot the Golden Arches from the Acropolis, Tiananmen Square, or Copacabana Beach? Not to worry: McDonald’s doesn’t make Greece any less Greek, China any less Chinese, or Brazil any less Brazilian. Just hike a block in any direction, and it will be easy to find authentic local food (and the farther you get from the tourist attractions, the cheaper that food will get).

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on June 5, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, Food and Drink, Travel Health, Vagabonding Advice

May 8, 2014

Does travel ever scare you? 5 thoughts on finding security as a nomad.

About a week and a half ago my train pulled up to the platform in Tundla, India where a sea of Indian military men were waiting for it. There was a rush of commotion as we all pushed towards the doors- a commotion which only grew when we discovered all the doors were locked. The train sat there with its locked doors for 5 minutes while the military men grew angrier and angrier, beginning to bang on the doors with their fists, sticks, muskets, anything. I kept thinking that surely someone would open the door. We’d paid for tickets after all. We’d reserved cots for the overnight train.

Then, the train started to pull away without us. Hardly thinking, we rushed through the crowds to the one door that someone had managed to open a few yards away and with our heavy bags in hand, we jumped onto the moving train. The rush of frantic soldiers crowding behind us carried us like the current of the river onto the train.

I laid in my cot and felt what would have been homesickness if I had a home.

So my question is this: what do you do when this whole “travel thing” scares you, exhausts you, bewilders you in a way that leaves you in need of something secure? What gives a nomad security?

In attempt to wrestle with this question, I’ve come up with a list of 5 things that help me cope with the moments that scare me.

1.) Writing.

Writing is not only a great way to process your thoughts, it’s also a way to record the feelings that may likely evolve over time. At one point in time I did this by keeping a travel journal, but my laptop has since replaced it. I have documents upon documents that I may never read again, but the act of formulating my thoughts was all I needed at the time. Not to mention, it helps me to see the experience as the story it will be tomorrow, when I’ll feel it less dramatically and see it more logically.

2.) These are the times I’ll make sure I can find a more secluded hotel with an environment I can really find relaxing.

tranqilhotel

Getting a hotel right in the center of activity can be wonderful when you’ve got the energy for it. But the exhausting moments leave me wanting space and quiet. As much of a clean slate as I can get. This has been especially true in a place like India. For this reason it’s a great idea to have some kind of rainy-day fund of either money or hotel points.

3.) Something from home, even if it’s McDonalds or Pizza Hut!

Never again will I judge a traveler for eating at McDonalds. (Is it sad that the McChicken is my home away from home sometimes?)

4.) Good Internet.

These days internet is the most basic necessity for contacting loved ones back home. The days of calling cards and pay phones are on the way out. This involves point number 2- finding a hotel you can relax in means, in my case, finding a hotel with good internet. Preferably this is in-room internet I can use while curled up in bed in my own space.

5.) A few days of nothing.

Sometimes the main attraction in any given destination is just not worth pushing your nerves past what they can handle. In our case, we found a quiet place in Katra where there happened to be a popular mountain temple. It was a very popular spot for Indian tourism… but we let it go. And I don’t regret that. I needed some time to clean the slate and regroup.

 

Conclusion

These are some things that helped me get back on my feet and face the vibrant and intense world that is India again, despite the fear I felt at the thought of all the things that could have gone wrong in our impromptu train-hopping experience.

But I’m curious, what are the things that help you feel secure?

Nomads and vagabonds, and all long-term travelers are in a unique position of transient-ness with an almost ephemeral concept of home rather than a permanent one. This is at least the case for myself as well as a few other travelers I know. So we’re faced with an interesting challenge when we need the kind of comfort a different person may find in their stationary routines and their permanent homes. So I’d like to learn from the creative ways other travelers have found comfort in moments of fear.

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Category: Adventure Travel, Travel Health, Travel Safety

April 13, 2014

An Introduction to the Budapest Bath Experience at Széchenyi

Finding yourself tired and achy after a long day’s sightseeing in Budapest? That can be easily fixed by indulging in one of the city’s great experiences—a long soak in the healing waters that residents and visitors have been availing themselves of since Ottoman times. Blessed by its location—it sits above numerous natural springs spouting warm water fortified with minerals—the Hungarian capital offers visitors some of the world’s great public bath experiences.

Szechenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest

Szechenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest

With over fifty baths, spas and public pools, Budapest wisely takes full advantage of the waters burbling up from its sediment. The experience of the spa/bath has become a way of life in this city, and integral part of its social fabric. Some baths date to the sixteenth century when the Ottomans first indulged in the bath craze, and others date from the early twentieth century. It is not unusual for a Hungarian physician to prescribe a visit to the baths, such is the strength of Hungarians’ belief in the restorative powers of the experience.

szechenyi_baths 3

There are dozens of great thermal baths to choose from, but for the first-time visitor the popular Széchenyi offers a fine look into a top-notch Budapest bath experience. Housed in a grand old yellow building situated in the City Park, the enormous complex with the Baroque copper dome looks like every bit the grand nineteenth-century retreat it is; a recent renovation has given the historic building a fresh coat of gleam.

The brainchild of a Budapest mining engineer, Széchenyi was the first thermal bath on the Pest side of the city, with records showing that an artisanal bath existed on the spot by 1881. By 2014 a full panoply of options existed, including an outpatient physiotherapy department.

Upon entering, you’ll choose the options you want (children under 2 are free and there is a special student discount), rent your towel, and hit the locker room to change. If you get lost in the complex or just plain overwhelmed by the choices, attendants in white will try their best to assist, though many do not speak English. This being Europe, there are some swimsuit-optional areas, but the American visitor will be happy to know that most patrons are covered—minimally, by severely strained Speedos—but still covered.

szechenyi_baths 4

Settling into the hundred-degree water, stress tends to melt away like an ice cube under a blazing summer sun. There is nothing to do but watch the other visitors, a great European pastime. An observant guest will find a feast of people-watching opportunities such as blissed-out regulars playing chess in their Speedos and local big shots discussing weighty political matters while struggling to stay awake in the relaxing water, their eyelids heavy as steam swirls around them. Don’t worry; you almost certainly be the only tourist there.

There are older, more historic spas and thermal baths in town (some of the Ottoman-era spas) and swankier spas (the Gellert Baths are justifiably popular) but for a locally-loved and affordable introduction to Budapest’s water wonders, spending a lazy afternoon relaxing under Széchenyi’s glimmering domes is a great way to start.

For a trove of information on spas and bath experiences around the world, visit http://findmesauna.com/ run by spa connoisseur and world traveler Sandra Hunacker.

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Category: Destinations, Europe, Images from the road, On The Road, Travel Health

June 10, 2013

What to do when you get sick on the road

Getting stuck in a hospital in Argentina with pneumonia wasn't  where I wanted to be, but I wouldn't have wanted to be a hospital in the USA either.

Getting sick while traveling is probably one of the most common fears travelers have – and for good reason.  Not only does getting sick disrupt your daily itinerary, but finding a doctor can be a major challenge in certain parts of the world.  Does this mean you shouldn’t travel?  Absolutely not – it simply means that you should approach sickness with the same spirit of adventure as you approach the rest of your journey.

My family and I have traveled a fair bit over the past 30 years or so, and have been around the block a time or two.  We’ve suffered from food poisoning, limped on sprained ankles, traveled with casts (and waited out part of a journey due to a cast), and been evacuated by air ambulance due to a heart condition.  I guess you could say we’ve tested the medical care in many countries around the globe – and we’re still traveling.

So what do we do when we get sick?  That’s a hard question to answer. There have been many times on our journeys when we faced sickness or injury, and there is no doubt we will face it many more times in adventures to come. What we do depends on many factors – where we are, the availability of medical care or medications, the seriousness of the injury, and our itinerary.

Wait it out?  Or get thee to the doc?

Many times we had to make a decision – was it bad enough to go to the doctor?  Or should we just wait it out.  Stomach problems generally fit into this category.  Our typical approach is to wait it out for three or four days and, if it’s not better by then, we start looking for a clinic.  That amount of time generally gives our body time to fight whatever is causing the problem.  If we’re still sick after that, it’s time to consider drugs.  Muscle strains usually fit into this category as well.  We wait a few days to see if it is getting better – if not, we get to the doc to get it checked out.

These are the easy problems to deal with in that you have time to think, time to ask around, time to consider your options, and time to get into a city with good facilities.  Ask your hotel staff where a doctor is, and jump in a taxi – chances are there is some sort of clinic in your area that can deal with minor disturbances.

Quick!  Where’s the doc?

On the other hand, there are times when you know you need medical care – an acute ear infection, a rapidly swelling wrist, a foot that can bear no weight whatsoever…  These are the challenging situations we all fear.  Can I trust the doctor to set a broken bone?  Will he give me the right medication?

We have found that, in these situations, the local people know best.  They deal with medical situations in their communities all the time, and know exactly where to go.  We’ve also found that doctors tend to know their limits and will send you on to someone else if they are not capable of dealing with your problem.

When I severely screwed up my foot falling down some old stone steps in northern Vietnam, everyone told me I needed to get to Hanoi twelve hours away for x-rays.  We hired a taxi, I sat in the back with my foot propped up on pillows, and we made our way to the hospital in Hanoi.

When my son woke up one morning in Mexico with an excruciating earache, we were able to find a clinic a few blocks from our hotel.  Another day, my other son fell and sprained his wrist, which led to a journey to a hospital 75 miles away.  Each situation is different, and each one will require a different course of action.  Just remember – it’s all a part of the adventure.

Now what?  This is serious!

What about those times when your life is in danger?  When something goes terribly, horribly wrong and you hover on the edge of death?  Although we don’t want to think about it, we all know it could happen.  That’s why it is imperative that you have evacuation insurance.

If you find yourself in countries with limited health care, you may very well need to be evacuated.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I’m young and healthy – nothing will happen to me.”  And yet, you just never know.  One minute all is well, the next you’re in trouble.

We were living in Ethiopia when my husband’s heart suddenly went into arrhythmia.  We had gone for an 80-mile bike ride and forgot our water bottles.  I stopped at every little café to buy water; he took off to get in a good training ride.  Apparently, the exertion, altitude, and dehydration all worked against him to send his heart into an irregular beating pattern.

The good news is that the doctors in Ethiopia recognized the problem right away, and they also recognized that they were not in a position to deal with it.  That’s when our evacuation insurance came in very handy.

Within minutes of my phone call to the agency, they were on top of the situation and making arrangements.  As soon as possible, a plane left Israel to pick my husband up in Ethiopia and take him to an Israeli hospital.  The bad news, however, is that the air ambulance came with a price tag of $90,000.  That’s why you want to pay those few bucks whenever you travel!

So what’s the bottom line?

There is no one answer to the question, “What do I do if I get sick or injured while traveling.”  Just take it all one day at a time and make the best decision you can at the time.  It’s all just a part of the adventure!

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Category: Travel Health

May 7, 2013

Scared of medical care abroad? Don’t be.

on crutchesAre rumors of horrible medical care abroad holding you back from heading out to see the world? Take heart – most of those rumors are unfounded. A while ago I read 5 Myths About Health Care Around the World by T. R. Reid and started thinking about our experiences with health care in the four corners of the globe – including the United States of America.

In Ethiopia, my husband’s heart went into arrhythmia and he was admitted into ICU at the local hospital. Within minutes of arriving at the hospital, he had a team of doctors on his case and received the best care possible in the country. As it turned out, the Ethiopian doctors knew exactly what needed to be done, but they were not prepared to equip my husband with a pacemaker should it be required – so they arranged to have him evacuated to Israel.

In Israel, top-notch doctors treated him with the most current, innovative methods and did a massive barrage of tests to ascertain exactly what was going on. In the end, they managed to get his heart converted and he went home to Ethiopia a healthy man once again.

In Taiwan, my hip suddenly began to hurt. The very next day I had an appointment with a hip specialist who sent me for an MRI – in two hours! After dealing with the US system of waiting weeks to get an MRI approved and scheduled, I was pleasantly surprised.

In Mexico, doctors took care of my son’s badly sprained wrist and I got to see a knee specialist about my bum knee.

In Panama and Colombia, my son had ingrown toenails surgically removed.

Yes, I’ve dealt with the medical system in the USA and it is slow and cumbersome compared to the health care you will get at a much lower cost in most other countries. Doctors around the globe are highly trained and professional, good facilities can be found in nearly every country, and health care is generally much more affordable than in the USA.

If you are thinking of globetrotting around the world, medical issues should certainly not stop you!

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Category: Travel Health

February 26, 2013

What’s in your health kit?

 

The question has been asked lots of times: What do you have in your health kit?

First, let me say that we have a three pronged approach to healthcare, at home and abroad: staying well, and treating illness & emergency care. I’ll share what we carry with us for all three.

Staying Well

This includes eating healthy foods, getting plenty of sleep and decent hygiene.

To that end we carry with us:

 

The following supplements from BeeYoutiful:

 

Treating Illness

Anyone who’s traveled much will tell you that virtually everything you need can be had anywhere you go, and sometimes much less expensively than at home. This is true. What is also true is that when you most need it is often the time it’s least convenient to go on a hunt for it. To that end, we carry a pretty extensive medical kit for treating basic illness, including (but not limited to)

 

Emergencies

We carry health and emergency evacuation insurance as we travel. We know lots of people who go without it, but we also know a few who are alive because they had it. We’re not willing to gamble when it matters most. We also carry the following in our health kit for emergencies.

 

We’ve had some criticism on those last two items. It seems that some people think that we’re a bit over the top for carrying a stick kit and suturing supplies and one person even intimated that it was irresponsible for us to suggest that other should carry something they aren’t trained to use.

Let me explain:

We are carrying them because we found ourselves in a situation where we needed a kid stitched up in Guatemala and the healthcare center didn’t have a suture kit. They didn’t have butterfly bandages either. They ended up field taping the ten year old’s hand up and giving him a round of antibiotics (which I’m not a big fan of) to ward off infection.

I’m carrying the needles, etc. so that I can take them with me for the doctors to use, not because I’m going to stitch my own kid up in the forest instead of seek proper care. Although, if it came down to it, I’d do my best in an extreme situation.

I realized, the day that we didn’t have what we needed to put Elisha back together, that we were very lucky that it wasn’t more serious. I realized that, in an extreme situation, if I had the choice between a dirty needle or the potential death of a kid, I’d gamble on the dirty needle. The reality is, if I’m better prepared, I’ll never have to make that choice. The needle kit was immediately added to our bag.

Could we be carrying more: of course.

Could we do with less: certainly.

For us, this is the balance we’ve struck between being prepared for the worst and trying to ensure the best possible health situation for our family.

What’s in your family’s travel medical kit?

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Category: Family Travel, Travel Health, Vagabonding Life, Vagabonding Styles

December 27, 2012

Suffer from food allergies, there’s an app for that

Engineers at UCLA are working on converting an iPhone into a small laboratory. Weighting less than 2 ounces, the iTube attaches to your phone and analyzes a food sample in about 20 minutes using a colorimetric assay test. The user grinds up a small sample of food with hot water and places it in the tube along with an extraction solvent. After several other testing liquids are added; the phone then captures an image of the sample using its built-in camera and a program app optically analyzes the image for allergen particles down to parts per million. It doesn’t just confirm the presence or absence of peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, eggs or gluten; it also tells the amount within the sample.

image courtesy of: UCLA Newsroom

As someone who suffers from severe food allergies; the possibility of such a gadget intrigues me. However I am still skeptical. When in doubt about the specific ingredients of a food, I simply opt not to eat it. True, this practice limits my culinary variety but I figure I can find thrills other ways.

 

How about you? If you suffer from food allergies would you consider the iTube a useful gadget for home or travel use?

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Category: Food and Drink, General, On The Road, Travel Gear, Travel Health, Travel Tech

November 29, 2012

Open relationships and long term travel

“But you’re just going to leave!”

Although I hated to admit it, who said that was right. At the time I’d been seasonally migrating as a guide for four years. And had no intention to confine my adventurous spirit in domestic American life, then—if ever. The catch though was he was not American; Swedish born to immigrated Polish parents. And unless we got married, physically being together was a matter of juggling countless visas. I was willing to explore the challenges of the relationship. He proposed, and I accepted. However, the seemingly prince-charming-fairy-tale was soured after five months, in one evening by his jealousy. (I’d been out socializing–drinking and playing cards with colleagues after a conference—and being that my fiancé and I were nine time zones apart, I missed talking to him on the phone for a whole day.) When I told him why, he got irate. The plot got thicker; but, long-story-short things didn’t work out with us.

My traveling continued, and continues still…But for several years after that break-up I abstained from dating or intimate relationships.

How do us late “Generation X” travelers bridge tradition and progressive thought?

I grew up with a passion for horses, not wanting to get married, or have children. My passion for horses keeps getting stronger. I was intrigued with the idea of marriage a few years back, and now have warmed up to fostering or adopting a child down the road. So where does that adult understanding leave me?

My current boyfriend and I are in an open relationship. We are committed to one another, but are non-monogamous and can have relationships with other partners. This doesn’t mean I can be traveling half-a-world-away, get drunk, and wake up naked next to some stranger; then afterwards confess to my boyfriend that it “didn’t mean anything” the morning after. Rather, as a couple, we consent to our partners other relations—be it flirting, dating, sexual contact, or intercourse. Everything, all our feelings are in full disclosure. We talk about everything!

There’s a Polish proverb that says, “Love enters a man through his eyes, women though her ears.” So shouldn’t it be every womens’ dream to have a guy that will actually talk to her?

So I began this post with a very traditional phenomena of girl-meets-foreign-boy-and-falls-in-love fantasy. And while I don’t doubt that could happen, it didn’t eventually work out for me. In the end, my original prince charming and I lacked one true thing…an open line and space of communication. But the guy who was always there happened to be my best friend.

At the root of most relationships, communication is lacking. Distance shouldn’t matter. In the end, every human is seeking a connection. It could be simply a friendly conversation; an exchange of directions; or one’s life story that just needed to be expressed.

My point is that communication should, and can be, the heart of travel when it comes to any form of relationship. Within in a few moments, or several hours of stories, you can make a friend.

What are you willing to give?

Personally, I’ve known my current boyfriend for more than a decade. He knows everything; all my travel stories, personal/health issues and fears. Perhaps that makes an open relationship plausible. We agree. We work. We love each other unconditionally.
And yes, I realize, both within my country (of the USA) and copious amounts of others it presents a multitude of controversy…
But because we as a whole, at vagablogging, share this progressive space…how do you feel about open relationships? Or in general…the way communication happens between fellow humans that you meet along your travels…

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Category: Female Travelers, General, Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Sex and Travel, Simplicity, Travel Health, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Life
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