Health: The Most Important Factor While Traveling
What happens if you get sick or injured?
I vividly recall the scene in the San Francisco restaurant. I was seated with my fellow riders in the midst of a bicycle trip down the West Coast. The conversation turned to what was next in life for each of us. When Scott’s turned arrived, he mentioned that he wanted to bicycle around the world. A tingling sensation that originated at the base of my neck washed through the entire length of my body. I knew this was what I wanted to do next, also, and, by the time our trip ended in Tijuana, we both were committed to exploring the world by bicycle.
Upon returning home, I found the wave of the initial euphoria waning, lost in the gap between the initial conception of an idea and making my trip a reality. It is a void I have gotten lost in many times in life: Where do I begin?….
I met Bluey and Trish in California. An Australian couple I camped with many nights as I bicycled down the West Coast. They shared their stories and advice on international bicycle touring. Bluey’s recommendation was, “Health, climate and money, in that order.” Though listed separately, I understand these issues are all closely interconnected; for instance, if I cannot afford a hot meal or shelter on a cold rainy night, I risk my health.
Have you heard those horrible tales of the flesh-eating virus or the two-foot-long tapeworm? I have! And, as you can probably conclude, my health is my biggest concern. Without my health I have nothing. My fears vary from a nasty case of dysentery to a bullet entering any part of my body. The numerous reports of horrendous things that happen to Americans traveling internationally are part of my daily life. I understand that our media has blown these reports out of proportion. I also have to accept it could be me. So how do I prevent my picture from appearing on the ten o’clock news?
I overcame my fears by realizing the issue of health is really about prevention. There are some precautions I can take before I leave home, the rest will be part of a daily challenge as I transverse both the Industrial and Third World. What has been an invaluable source of information is The Center for Disease Control’s website. Their listings run the gamut from food handling information to current regional health warnings, and even escaping bullets. The US State Department’s and Lonely Planet’s site list travel warnings, though I was somewhat disappointed with the State Department’s inability to keep their information current. However, I accept risk as part of my trip, yet, I do not want to cross the line between healthy exploration and blatant thrill seeking.
One of the first preventative measures will start at the doctors office. I should be on a fairly formal basis with the nurse by the time I receive my estimated 20th shot. I will be receiving immunizations for 10 different diseases. Some of these vaccines are administered in a series of three shots over a period of six months. These vaccines, though expensive, are invaluable. There is also the aspect that certain countries require proof of immunization as part of the entry requirements. While I am playing the part of a pin cushion I will also pick up my malaria medication. I will need to take this medication before, during and after entering regions where malaria is prevalent. These vaccines and medications do not give me the luxury of being careless. They are simply tools in the ongoing challenge of staying healthy.
Next, a trip to camping supply store. The proper equipment can be an immense aid in the daily struggle of locating safe food and drinking water. A water filter with a one-micron filter or less and iodine tablets can be used when bottled water is not available or the communal water supply is in question. And a stove allows me to boil germs out of my food and water. I will need to remember the rule: boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it.
Another formidable hazard is the mosquito. Most of my trip will find me in either a tropical or subtropical climate teeming with these little devils. They carry malaria and other diseases for which there are no vaccines. Wearing long-sleeve shirts in the evening, using insect repellent with DEET and high-quality mosquito netting will limit my exposure. (Look for a complete equipment list at a later date.)
Finally, I have to consider my lifestyle. I will carry a laptop. With Internet access, I can stay apprised of political changes and health emergencies. There are also many basic preventative measures I can take to stay healthy: washing daily, treating cuts and scrapes immediately, and avoiding the handling of animals. And, unprotected sex and drug use are definitely not worth the risk. I must remember to remain flexible. Just because I want to go to a particular destination doesn’t mean I should. Our world is a volatile place.
I accept the reality that even unlimited precautions will not entirely eliminate my exposure to danger, but I believe adamantly that with the proper planning I can avoid most maladies. Will I end up with malaria? Who knows? I pose this question to you: Am I in more danger bicycling through rural Mexico or speeding down the Interstate in bumper-to-bumper traffic? Personally, I do not see a difference in risk – I simply see the difference between truly living and just surviving.
Stay tuned for my next story on climate. Happy travels!