A life on the road isn’t all beach bars and hammocks. We’ve had some really trying times in our (almost) 5 years of travel and if you’ve been on a long trip before, you know that getting sick is all part of the fun. We absolutely hate being sick, but when you’re travelling in developing countries, it’s not a question of if, it’s when! This is the story of my worst travel illness, and it all starts around Monkey Bay in Malawi, Africa.
I’ve been sick many times on the road. Sometimes it’s just a day of food poisoning, while other times the illness has lasted upwards of 10 days. Looking back at all of my ailments, I must say that the random stomach virus and potential malaria in Malawi was the worst.
It all started when Dariece and I were offered some left-over Boerewors (sausage), by a family of travellers from South Africa. They explained that the sausages had been in a cooler for a couple of days so they should be eaten as soon as possible.
We’re not sure if it was the Boerewors that caused me to get sick, but it’s a possibility. Either way, Dariece only had a day of diarrhea, so we’re sure that my sickness was far more than just food poisoning from those sausages… but they may have been a catalyst.
The morning after eating the delicious and dangerous boerries, I went for a swim in Lake Malawi but I could barely keep myself above water. I simply didn’t have any energy. I slowly sauntered back to the room and laid down for a rest.
Later that evening, the sickness really started to take hold. I had a terrible bout of diarrhea which is normally not too hard to deal with, but we were in a small room with shared toilets. That doesn’t sound so bad does it? Well, the toilets were actually about 300 feet from our room, and to get to them, I literally had to pass a pond with an angry hippo inside of it!
In case you’re not aware of the dangers of Hippos, they kill more people than any other animal in Africa.
So there I am, hobbling along with a high fever, trying to keep myself from dropping in my pants, with the sound of an angry hippo grunting at me as I passed by.
The pain from the cramps was excruciating, but what made it worse was the intense fever and cold sweats that I endured all night in the heat of our tiny, fan-cooled room.
The next morning I was even worse. The hourly visits to the toilet were doubled, but now half of them were to vomit. The fever would rise and break continuously throughout the day. I had a headache that felt like someone was chiseling away at my skull, and all of my joints ached as well. I couldn’t get comfortable in bed no matter how I was lying and I couldn’t muster enough energy to leave bed for more than a trip to the bathroom.
Our room was only fan cooled and in the middle of the day, the tiny 4 walled prison became absolutely sweltering. The small fan that buzzed in the corner was simply moving around hot air, and if that wasn’t bad enough, frequent power outages meant that for much of the time, there was no fan at all.
After 5 DAYS of intense fevers, vomiting, aches and pains, I decided I would have to brave a ride to the hospital. The only reason I waited so long is because I just didn’t think I could make it out of bed long enough to go to the clinic.
I chose a bad time to get sick in Malawi. We were there during a fuel shortage. Apparently the UK Prime Minister said something that the President of Malawi didn’t like. In retaliation, the President kicked out everyone from the UK Embassy in Malawi. In retaliation to this, BP Oil decided to cut Malawi off from all petroleum, leaving the country in complete mayhem.
Transportation in and out of the country was at a near stand-still. Goods weren’t being shipped in or out which meant that it was hard for Dariece to even find water for me on some days. On top of this, people were running out of fuel, so it was almost impossible to find a taxi.
We finally found a ride on a motorbike to a nearby clinic where I could get tested for malaria and other viruses. The bike ride itself was like torture. Every bump over the dusty, pothole filled roads made my head split in two. When we arrived, I could barely get off of the motorbike but I managed to get inside the clinic, sit and wait for a doctor.
When the doctor finally came out, he explained to me that because of the recent shortages, he didn’t have any malaria tests. In fact, he barely had any medical supplies at all, not even painkillers!
He urged me to take a ride all the way to Cape Maclear, about an hour away, where I could visit the Irish doctors at the hospital there.
I decided that there was no way I could make it there on that day, so I reluctantly got back on the motorbike and rode back to our little hotel room. There I lay back in my sweltering room and Dariece and I tried to figure out what to do next. I had taken all of the pills we had in our medical kit, so Dariece went out on a mission to find some painkillers, malaria test and something to ease my stomach.
She searched high and low and came back with a few painkillers, but nothing for my stomach. Luckily the painkillers helped me to survive yet another night under the grip of this horrible sickness. The night came with fewer toilet breaks, but the pain of them had become worse. Also, the hippo seemed more aggravated with me and a couple of times I could hear him splashing about in his pond, threatening to tear my now feeble body in half!
The next day, we decided to try to make it to the Irish run hospital. We talked to the hotel owners, who looked at me with extreme concern when they saw my condition. They called around to many taxi drivers (I refused to get on a motorbike again). Finally they found a private taxi that would take us directly there. We asked and made sure that the taxi was just for us and that we wouldn’t be stopping to pick up others. They confirmed that the ride was private, so we sat down and waited for our taxi to arrive.
Of course when it came, there were about 20 other people loaded into the small pick-up. Furious, we told the driver what we had said and he insisted that this was a private taxi. Private for 20 people?!
Despite the fact that I could barely stand up, Dariece and I weren’t about to get ripped off. It’s the principal you know! So we bargained and argued with the driver and finally he agreed to take us for the group rate… the same rate that the 20 locals were paying. Nice try!
When we got to Cape Maclear, the driver refused to take us to the hospital. He had to drop off 20 people after all. I was too exhausted to argue, so he dropped us off at a nice hotel with A/C. We checked in and I spent the afternoon battling more fevers, diarrhea and vomiting. The sickness had been going on for about a week at this point and I still hadn’t seen a doctor.
Finally, the next morning, Dariece spoke to other travellers at the hotel. One of them, an older gentleman from Slovenia, offered to take me to the hospital on his motorbike. At this point I had no choice. I had already lost 20 lbs, I was horribly dehydrated and I couldn’t go on without seeing a doctor. When the man dropped me off I thanked him profusely, knowing that his petrol was a hot commodity at this time in Malawi.
The hospital was like heaven. I was treated by Irish nurses who were kind, gentle and attentive. I felt so frail that I didn’t know how much longer I would last! Unfortunately, they too were out of many of the tests, including a Malaria test. They did have a bunch of pain killers, some antibiotics and some stomach pills.
They explained that it could be Malaria, or a bunch of other diseases that are common around the area, but that I would have to take the pills and come back if anything got worse. After the check-up, I couldn’t move. I had used all of my energy riding the motorbike to the hospital over all of the bumpy roads.
I just lied on Dariece’s lap on the bench outside the hospital. Dariece knew we weren’t going to get a taxi so she asked the nurses if there was anything that they could do. We were lucky! They were planning to take the ambulance to a nearby village and they could drop us off on the way.
After waiting for about 30 minutes, the nurses loaded us up in the Ambulance and started driving. Unfortunately, the ambulance was running out of gas! They had to drop us at a junction, where we were to walk about a kilometer to our hotel. The walk almost did me in. I vomited several times and almost passed out.
In the next couple of days, the pills started working their magic and I was slowly getting better. I spoke to a couple of other foreign doctors, but things were looking up. For several days during my recovery, going to the washroom felt like I was pushing out razor blades. The illness had badly damaged my intestinal tract and I had to take another set of pills to help them to heal.
All in all I was bedridden for about 10 days, and I was not 100% for about another 2 weeks and it took me over 6 months to gain back the 20+ pounds that I had lost. This was by far the worst sickness I’ve ever had while travelling, but I’m sure (unfortunately) it won’t be my last.