Living in another country is like a roller-coaster of emotions. Sometimes you feel great: you love your job, enjoy all the food, and you’re fitting in with the local community. Sometimes you feel lousy: the traffic is loud, you hate your new roommates, and you’re having a hard time making friends. However, the hardest thing for me while living abroad is getting sick.
I’m sitting on the ground of my room, crying in the dark. I call my mom on Skype. “What’s wrong?” she asks. “Everything!” I pout. “I ‘m sick, so I made soup. It was my last package, but I made it on the gas stove in the dark because the power is out. My roommate moved out and I don’t have any friends. When I finished the soup, I tried to grab something and the soup spilled all over me, burning my arm, so I dropped it. Now there’s soup all over the floor, mixed with pieces of broken glass! It’s so hard to clean up because it’s dark and I don’t have enough water… But if I don’t clean it up then the hundreds of ants will come back. I’m tired, and I’m sick, and I’m hungry – so here I am, crying on the floor.”
Being sick makes everything worse! Each little thing individually is fine – I’m flexible, I can handle it. I know how to wash food off the floor. I can read for hours by candle-light if necessary. I’m not that sad about breaking a cheap bowl, I can live without it. But when you’re sick, everything just comes together to make a super-storm of negativity. Everything physical seems harder because you’re in pain. Anything emotional seems super intense because you’re exhausted. You don’t want to be social because showering and smiling seems like a lot of work, but then you feel lonely. EVERYTHING SUCKS! But you’re sick – so what do you do?
Having a cold or an injury is never much fun. You usually just want to curl up in a dark room and sleep it all away. However, what makes it worse is the lack of support system when you’re abroad. At least when you live with your parents they’ll make you soup (or grilled cheese in my case), bring you tea and juice, and let you whine about being sick while they take care of everything else around the house. But when you just arrived in a new place, you don’t always have someone to help you out. It’s even worse when you live on your own, because you probably still need to cook your own food and go get groceries down the street. Even if you’ve been in a country for awhile, and you have friends, you might not feel super close to them. When you’ve only known someone for a few weeks, it can be really awkward to ask them for a favour, especially to take care of you when you’re feeling vulnerable.
Thankfully, I haven’t had any major illnesses on my travels. I have gotten food poisoning a number of times – but not from eating meat off the street or anything. One time was in Nepal with a pizza that had too much raw garlic, and another time was in Ghana after eating chicken and veggies from my own fridge (because I didn’t realize how long the power had been out). I couldn’t eat carrots and chicken again for like 6 months without feeling queasy! I’ve also had minor stomach issues (not lasting more than a day or two). I once had a malaria scare where I asked my roommate to cut my finger with a knife, because we couldn’t get blood out with a pin, and I was sure I had malaria, and wanted to do a self-test in the middle of the night. Fortunately, he didn’t use the knife, and I didn’t have malaria – I was just being dramatic.
Unfortunately, a lot of my travelling companions haven’t been as lucky as me, and have gotten seriously ill/injured in other countries (here re a few examples). A friend in Ghana had to get stitches in his head during his first week in the country. My co-worker in Bolivia was hospitalized after possible heart problems. My roommate in Bangladesh got typhoid. My friends in Nepal had so many stomach problems they couldn’t go to work for days. My roommate in Ghana got a mystery illness, was hospitalized for days, and eventually needed to be returned to Canada.
Here are some tips I have for when you’re travelling abroad, since you never know when you’re going to get sick!
Get the required vaccines before you leave your home-country. You may think you’re tough and “never get sick”, but you probably have never been exposed to some of the bacteria and viruses that can be common in other countries, especially those in tropical zones with things like water-borne parasites and mosquito-borne viruses. It’s definitely worth the time and money to book an appointment with a travel doctor before you leave. Even if you don’t need any new vaccines, they can tell you what warning signs to look out for and which activities/places to avoid for certain illnesses. They can also give you some antibiotics to take with you – just in case.
Bring a few comfort foods from home that are easy to make or require no preparation. When I feel sick, it really helps to have some Campbell’s soup or Kraft Dinner that I can just throw in a pot when I’m exhausted and not feeling well.
Research the medical options in the city (or at least the area around your house/school/office) when you first arrive. There may be tons of hospitals/clinics in your new city on every corner. But do you know which ones accept your insurance, or which ones have a doctor speaking English? During your first two weeks in your new home, try to find the closest/best pharmacy, 24-hour emergency room, and clinic. It can also help to find out which places are best for different types of issues (for example, one may be great if you think you have malaria, another may specialize in gastrointestinal issues). If you already have all the information in place, it’s a lot easier to know what to do when you get sick.
Bring some cold meds from home. Yes, you can buy medication in almost any country. However, once you’re already sick is not a good time to buy it. It can be difficult to communicate with a pharmacist, and all the brand names will likely be different. If they speak another language, you may not even be able to read the package. So bring a bit of cough syrup, Hall’s, Nyquil, Tylenol Cold – whatever you use at home, in case you get sick in the first few weeks/months. This may also include basic meds for headaches, stomach problems, etc. like Advil, Imodium, Pepto Bismol, etc. I know that a hot cup of NeoCitron always makes me feel at least 50% better!
Make sure that you have medical insurance. If you’re Canadian, you probably take for granted how much it costs for an extended hospital stay. It’s often cheap in other countries, but if you end up with a major illness you want to be covered for transport back to your home country (if needed), or the ability to be transported to another country with more medical capacity for your specific condition. You may think it’s an unnecessary cost, but losing your life is not a risk I’d be willing to take!
Strengthen your support network at home. Often when I travel I think “I don’t want to bother the people back at home with this.”. But after talking to my best friend or mom, they’re always super happy to hear from me – even if I just need to vent or complain. They care about me, and I’m sure you have people who care about you too. Try to talk to them about your schedule and how often you will communicate, so they can reach out if they think something might be wrong. Also, find out if they’re okay with you calling them in the middle of the night if necessary (like this pixelated Skype call to my boyfriend by candle-light). You probably won’t need to do it, but I know there’s a lot of people in my life who I would be okay with doing that. If someone I know really needed someone to talk to at 3 in the morning and they had nobody else, I would totally wreck my sleep to make sure they were feeling alright.
Find a support network in your new city. Roommates are the easiest because they live with you, so they sort of have to help you if you’re sick – unless they’re jerks (don’t live with jerks!). Otherwise, it can be hard to make friends in a new place, in a new language, when you don’t know the city – but you need to put yourself out there. If you need some tips, check out my last blog with 5 different ways to make friends in a new place. Once you’ve met 2 or 3 people, you’ll be surprised how quickly you make friends. Knowing a few people means you get invited to events and parties where you meet more and more people – like a wonderful snowball! Once you’re actual friends, ask them if you can call them if you get sick or need anything. I know it seems kind of weird, but I don’t know many nice people who would say no to that. Make sure you have a few numbers in your phone of people you can call in a pinch. It may even help make you closer friends!
Good luck my fellow travelers! I hope you don’t get sick on your next adventure, but if you do, at least you’ll be prepared! 🙂