When people hear that we traveled for so long, one of the first questions almost everybody asks is, “What kind of first aid kit did you have?” Having completed the trip, this question almost seems a little absurd. “Really? We went to ten countries in fifteen months, and the first aid kit is what pops to mind?” But before I get all judge-y about it, I think back to the organization of the trip, and remember that the first aid kit loomed large in our mind as the trip neared. What would we need?
If you read the Lonely Planet books, and check out their first-aid kit suggestions, you can become easily overwhelmed and confused. Times that by ten countries and you could easily fill one large backpack with supplies for the just-in-case. What if we caught malaria? What if we needed to have a blood transfusion? What if we needed stitches in a remote and dirty clinic somewhere in China or India? What if we broke a bone? Would we be dirty and sick the whole time? So many ifs and maybes.
Our doctor didn’t help. She gave us prescriptions for everything she could think of: malaria, altitude sickness, a half a dozen different kinds of antibiotics in different spectrums (with instruction about which one to use in which instance), medications for parasites, yeast infections, asthma, the runs, constipation, and a powerful painkiller to help us should we have a toothache. Then came the fake blood, the suture kit (and suture remover, a fairly substantial piece of hardware), the wound cleaning solution and “wound glue.” We had every kind of bandage you can imagine, including an ankle brace.
You get the picture.
We carried this 20 lb weight, halved and stored in both our backpacks to prevent loosing the entire shebang if one of our packs got stolen. This was a considerable weight to carry, considering that we are also carrying a bunch of guide books (to plan our trip) winter and summer clothing, mosquito nets, sleeping bags, any presents or memorabilia we purchased in route, and sundry grooming supplies. In some countries, just carrying the money was another issue all in and of itself (you try cashing in $1000.00 in India before heading off into some remote area of the country, and see what they hand back to you at the bank!)
Of course, we didn’t need the first aid kit. Or much of it anyway.
What did we use?
- The malaria medication (but if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t take that stuff. It is god-awful, gives you nightmares, and is dangerous for your unborn children.)
- The suture kit – but not on the trip. We used it on an archaeological dig before we left for India, when someone used a crowbar to remove a stone, but unexpectedly removed his fingertip as well. I sewed it back on after we both took a couple of shots of raki (the local white lightening.)
- A dose of Ciprofloxin each, when we came down with amoebic dysentery about 2 weeks into the start of our trip. In this case, it was completely necessary. I literally thought I was going to die, and so did my husband.
- A couple of bandages for minor cuts
We did give some of these things away to other travelers we met who were in need.
We never used the fake blood.
We did have medical emergencies while traveling, however. In fact, a couple of them were pretty dramatic. For instance, I got hit in the leg by a flying rock after a dynamite explosion sent it rocketing into me at roughly the speed of sound. (Long story…I will tell it in another blog post.) It left a bruise the size of Texas on my leg that spread from my left knee into my groin and abdomen and took months to dissipate. I still have a dent in my leg where the tissue has never healed properly. Chris got sick numerous times with a cough that lingered, and didn’t really seem to respond to the antibiotics we were given. Assuming it was viral, we just hunkered down in one place for a few weeks and let sleep, walking, good food, and more sleep work its magic. My eardrum burst in southern China while Chris was walking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge for a few days. I felt too crappy to join him, and sure enough blood on my pillow one morning after a miserable night of ear pain told me I had a ruptured eardrum. None of these really were addressed by the first aid kit, consigned to the bottom of the backpack, and rarely removed. Dead weight.
We had, relatively, very few medical needs while traveling. In fact, we needed less medical care than we had needed living in New York City. Chris’ allergies had given him a terrible case of asthma, and my IBS was a constant source of discomfort. Over the ten years we lived in New York, our health problems had become worse and worse, in fact, despite having really wonderful medical care. The surprise was that traveling cured us of disease, or at least made it noticeably better. Our fear of catching some mysterious Asian illness was an illusion, and in fact traveling helped us with the diseases of modern life. Chris stopped needing an inhaler to breathe; a diet of rice, veggies, and meat seemed to agree with my constitution. I didn’t know yet that I had Celiac. We both got stronger and fitter.
In retrospect, the first-aid kit is a symbol. It is the traveler’s need for control in advance, to be able to mitigate what is probably the most scary thing about travel; the fear of helplessness. “What will I do if I get sick and am helpless in a place where no one knows me?” “What if I get malaria?” (Malaria is the bogey-man of all travelers in Africa and Asia.) “I will be vulnerable. I must seek to control and limit this vulnerability. I must be self-sufficient and prepared.” This is the self-talk of the not-very-experienced traveler.
But once home and back to the more familiar turf of life in my hometown, I can recognize that my fears of being vulnerable were met during the trip with the help of strangers and fellow travelers, not by the medicine sitting in the bottom of my bag. If I needed help, I usually got it, sometimes in a form I did not understand at the time. I was given large doses of herbs at a clinic in northern India, moxibustion in Tibet, rice and yogurt delivered to my bed to help with the runs, and a bevvy of homeopathic medications and teas in a hospital in Chengdu, China to help heal my burst eardrum and drain the fluid that lingered in it for weeks. The latter issue was the only time we visited a formal medical establishment in the entire trip; the rest were lay professionals, hotel owners, and concerned travelers we met on buses, trains, and in the places we stayed. When the need arose, help came – not from the bottom of my bag but from others. The lesson of inter-dependence was beginning to make its presence felt in my life.
I have had other reminders of how futile the need for “preparation” is in a life that is impossible to predict. Childbirth, both times, offered me powerful lessons in this regard, especially the lesson of letting go of plans and allowing what I had been most afraid of to happen to me and to then walk through that fear. The fear of illness was my biggest worry about traveling. What if I was badly injured? What if I got really sick? What if I was in pain, cold and afraid, wanting to come home, and not being able to. Well, all of those things happened, and since coming home was not really an option, I had to get through it. I had my husband to depend on, but I also had others – strangers – who reached out and helped as well. This kind of surrender, giving in to what is most scary to us, to move with it, has been one of my most powerful lessons in this life so far.
So, what would I take if I had it to do over again? I wouldn’t take malaria medication, for starters. I would use a mosquito net and wear long-sleeves and pants (even in warm areas) at night. I would take a broad-range antibiotic like Cipro, but truthfully, it is available over the counter in many areas of the world. I would take some band-aids and an antibiotic cream for cuts/scrapes. I would take tweezers and a magnifying glass (preferably tweezers with a magnifying glass) for splinters. All of those things are for convenience, however, not because you can’t get them in other countries. Most importantly, I would pack trust. I would trust the medical traditions of the countries you are visiting: herbs are powerful healers, and many of the locals know what works for ailments like headaches or a flu. I would seek always to travel with friends, either those from home or from fellow travelers. And, I would pack my sense of humor and my smile, sharing it with everyone around me. Building community is what truly makes you less vulnerable. Being someone that people like to help, who has been generous in the past, is what guarantees you help when you need it.
It may seem paradoxical, the idea of building community while you are traveling in another country. But community exists among travelers, and can be initiated with a smile and polite acceptance in a place where there isn’t a common language between you. People are naturally generous and seeking community, and this is something you don’t plan for on a trip. The knowledge of this, however, is probably your most important tool, and it can’t even be packed. It isn’t found in any guide book either. There is no instruction manual. And it certainly doesn’t fit into a first aid kit.