A fellow traveler once told us a story of wetting herself on an Indian train for fear of losing her seat and all her belongings. Another traveler recounted a tale of two horrendous days on a bus, stopping the driver every hour to relieve himself. He was later diagnosed with cholera.
This is that type of story, the type that takes time to be able to tell; to see the humor in what was both extremely dangerous and embarrassing all at the same time. This is the kind of thing that happens to all of us on the road, the memories we loathe and relish at the same time, but can almost never ever talk about. It has taken me a few months, but this is my travel illness story.
Disclaimer: This story should is long and should not be read by anyone with an affinity for plant life, or over any meal.
During a brief excursion to the eastern Ethiopian city of Harar, Jill and I hired a local guide who we invited to eat with us after our tour. We asked him to chose a very authentic restaurant. To order, Jill walked to the front of the shop and actually select the cut of meat right off the actual slab of meat. As she ordered, I held the table and ordered 5 cent beers. The men sitting next to me offered me some of their meal, uncooked beef, I politely declined and opted instead to share a drink.
Several hours later I felt a rumble in my tummy. This is nothing uncommon in Africa, especially not in Ethiopia, and I went running (but with clenched cheeks) all the way back to the hotel. Jill, in close pursuit, saw the humor in the situation and laughed as I paused periodically to ensure no ‘leakage.’ To be fair, this sort of moment isn’t exactly infrequent on the road. We made it back to the room safely and as I flushed the toilet I became aware of two realities: both the water and the electricity were out of service. TIA, I thought, this is Africa.
Over the next few hours things got much worse and I went far beyond the usual roto router pipe cleaning. At first I only went to the bathroom once or twice, nothing major, but then I crawled into bed and simply could not get out from under the covers. I was shivering and thrashing about so violently that my body was actually getting ‘air’ off the mattress, enough to make both Michael Jordan and Ron Jeremy jealous. As luck would have it, we had left most of our belongings, including antibiotics and our assortment of fever reducers and stomach drugs, in Addis Ababa with friends, figuring we wouldn’t need much more than a change of clothes for the two day trip to Harar. All I had to do was make it through the night- we were already booked for a bus back to Addis Ababa the next morning at 5 a.m. We both decided that unless the fever didn’t break, which it did soon thereafter, we would avoid the local hospital and seek help back in Addis.
Intermittent utilities are not all that uncommon in Africa, especially away from the capital cities and we had been warned about the possibility by the front desk upon check-in. By all accounts it hadn’t been lunch with the guide that made me sick (Jill was perfectly fine), rather some undercooked chicken from the night before that I hadn’t been able to see. That’s right, the electricity was out.
Somehow I managed to drink some Sprite and water and rather quickly the high fever subsided and I was left with only some awful diarrhea. Eventually I was able to get out of bed and spend two minutes out of every 20 on the can. A good thing for sure as ‘getting it out’ is generally viewed as progress in these sorts of things and ‘getting it out’ somewhere other than your own bed is generally viewed as success. By these simple measures I was suddenly a very successful man; but success, like all things, wanes with time. I was feeling much better though, and it was clear the worst of it was over. The fever had largely broken, I wasn’t shaking violently, and I managed to send Jill against her protests to feed a few hyenas.
By the time Jill returned to the hotel an hour later, power had returned and we were in the daily 2 hour window of running water which allowed her run a few laps up and down the hall with a 20 gallon bucket of water to “force flush” the toilet. Ahhh, good times. Eventually she went to sleep but I did not. I was awake and in and out of the bathroom about every 5-10 minutes and even with a ‘full bucket,’ water was still in limited supply and I actually had to ration my flushes, eventually settling on a ratio of 2-3 bathroom trips to one flush. Thanks to the returned electricity I was able to occupy myself while in the bathroom by playing ‘wack-a-mole’ with cockroaches when they came within striking distance. We had actually chosen one of the nicer places in town, it had a front desk and even a restaurant. This was one of the most expensive places in town….and government run as well.
It was a restless night but eventually it was time to get to the bus. I changed into the only fresh set of clothes I had with me before spending another 20 minutes making sure the pipes were clear. Feeling confident, we headed out down the ‘main’ street to the departure point. Luckily we had purchased tickets for the nice bus, we did that even before I got sick, and it had a bathroom. I just had to make it the 20 minutes to the bus and I was in the clear.
As we were walking, my previous success began to wane. At first I thought it was nothing but then the familiar rumble in my stomach got strong and the fart that I thought I was having quickly grew legs. As I dropped my pants the stream of water continued to flow unabated, as if Lake Meade was suddenly freed of the Hoover Dam. It was a powerful force of nature destroying all plant life in its path…..in this case some nice grasses planted as the road’s median. Luckily there was enough darkness to hide me, practically naked, from the runner enjoying his morning jog a mere 30 meters away. My success was gone, my internal housing bubble had burst, and I had foreclosed on any amount of pride I had managed to collect for myself.
We made it to the bus a few, very short and red-faced minutes later. I climbed on and went straight for the bathroom. Locked. Ethiopia strikes again. It was as though I was 14 and I was turned down by a girl for the 8th grade dance. Part of me knew I would survive but it felt like the end of the world as I knew it. Instead of praising love’s sweet sorrows however, my body was so physically exhausted and drained that, miraculously, I fell asleep.
I was doing much better though, able to last several hours between each rest stop. At lunch I found that I was thankful for having already had so much practice with squat toilets, having an easier time ‘aiming’ at the squatter despite the fact that I was aiming in sheer darkness. At one of several ‘side of the road’ bathroom breaks however, I took a little too long and it was Jill, clearly the hero of this story, (she handled the hand-laundry with us back in Addis with me sound asleep) who managed to stop the bus and have it wait for me to finish. I was already walking back to the bus but was moving a bit slower than might have been expected.
The reason for that slow movement was actually our first bathroom break from the bus. Another ‘side of the road’ with a cliff-side replacing the the usual privacy of trees and rocks, I walked from the bus as far as I could, knowing that I’d be having the same Number 1 as everyone else….just out the wrong end. As the flood gates opened, I inched myself forward, away from the carnage behind me until I could not ‘inch’ anymore as a thorn bush had completely engulfed my pants and underwear from all sides.
For the remaining 6 hours of the ride, I sat with burs piercing my butt….because I clearly hadn’t had a bad enough day as it was. I’m not sure exactly how that ending of this story becomes a moral, but I’m pretty sure the moral is in there somewhere.