Nobody likes being sick. Besides all the uncomfortable – sometimes painful – symptoms that plague your body while your immune system wages war against the invading germs, being sick takes you out of the game. It forces you to move at a slower pace while your body recuperates. Being sick makes you feel like you’re missing out on life.
I’ve been fortunate to never really be sick while traveling. I had a cold once, while I was in Prague, but a visit to the local doctor and some antibiotics cleared that up and I was back to my old self in no time. I’ve been dehydrated to the point that I got a headache, but that’s nothing a few cold glasses of water and a handful of ibuprofen couldn’t cure. You could say I’ve been lucky not to have a vacation ruined or a business trip cancelled due to illness. I guess I was due.
Prior to leaving for Africa, the travel doctor pumped me full of eight different vaccinations. It seemed like she had a shot for every possible malady, whether transmitted via mosquito, personal contact, air, or sick animal. But, the shots were just a start. Prescriptions for an oral typhoid vaccine, daily malaria prophylaxis, and two different antibiotics followed. Strict warnings were given against drinking water from the tap, using ice, eating anything that didn’t come piping hot, drinking milk, and even eating vegetables. Instructions were handed down on how to treat traveler’s diarrhea, which I was projected to have at least once over the course of a five week stay, and how to spot signs of more serious diseases. The doctor even offered directions on the type of mosquito repellent and sun block I should use. Perhaps I felt she had gone a little overboard with the warnings and precautions, but nevertheless, I felt more than prepared to handle whatever might assail me in Rwanda.
Three and a half weeks into the project and it had been pretty much smooth sailing. We’d eaten almost everything that had been prepared for us (our hosts are gracious enough to provide three home-cooked meals a day), visited restaurants in Kigali, Kibuye, and Musanze, taken bucket showers, hiked through the jungle and dipped our toes in a freshwater lake. I was starting to feel that I just might win this round against the travel gods – skate through the five weeks unscathed. However, the thing about getting sick is that you can try your best to prevent it, but you can never predict when it might strike.
I’ve been sick for three days. I’ll spare you the graphic details, but if you’ve experienced traveler’s diarrhea you may know some of what I’ve been going through: a slight fever, chills, cramping, vomiting, and of course, the diarrhea. I haven’t eaten since Tuesday (it’s now Friday). I’ve tried, but my body rejects any form of food. Three days without sustenance, save one half piece of bread and some apple juice, and you might think I wouldn’t be hungry anymore. Not true. It’s weird feeling both nauseous and hungry at the same time. Your stomach grumbles for nourishment, while your head is disgusted at the thought of food or the slightest smell. I don’t envy anyone who chooses cleansing routines, hunger strikes, or is afflicted with anorexia – completely denying the body of food is an incredibly difficult path to take to detox, make a point, or lose weight.
I’m taking the antibiotic I packed in the event of such an illness, and so I’m starting to feel a bit better. However, I’m physically exhausted, mentally drained, and forced to take a seat on the bench as my teammates run with the ball towards the goal-line of our project. That’s the hardest part of being sick for me – feeling forced to take a personal time out. I hate feeling like I’ve let down my team or like I’m the weak link. Maybe it’s because I’m the only girl and I feel I have something to prove, but I see myself as a trooper, someone who can push through the pain and succeed. Sometimes though, we have no choice. Life makes us take pause.
It’s humbling to realize that no matter the precautions you may take, warnings you may heed, or great shape you’re in, we are all susceptible to getting sick – none of us is invincible. Africa humbles you in many ways; knocking you down with a bout of traveler’s diarrhea is just one of the ways in which it reminds us of our own fragility. This experience has helped me to realize that getting sick isn’t about missing out on life, but rather it’s a staunch reminder that I’m really living it.