Day Tripper: Surviving Montezuma’s revenge

February 6, 2014

Flu season is upon us at Georgetown. As your classmates and friends start coughing and missing class, you’re either smugly smiling about your responsible decision to get a flu shot or hoarding EmergenC packets while donning a face mask.

Besides being a frustrating experience in its own right, an unexpected illness can throw a dagger in a trip’s itinerary. Instead of strolling aimlessly through the Louvre or haggling for souvenirs at the bazaar, you have to spend your time struggling through body-related vocabulary at the pharmacy or—worse yet—lying on a crummy hostel mattress waiting to feel better.

Feeling sick abroad might not be ideal, but it places you in a context that you otherwise would never experience. Conceptions of human health and medical systems vary dramatically from country to country and across generations. You can read theoretical works about medical anthropology, but it’s also incredibly valuable to experience for yourself how another culture understands health and wellbeing.

Beliefs about the causes of poor health differ depending on where you’re traveling.

I was in Russia—exhausted like never before. Without a bench in sight, I decided to take a seat on the bare ground. Immediately, everyone around told me to stand back up. According to the locals, my ovaries were going to freeze.

I’ve laughed with friends about this. But even with my American upbringing, some beliefs have made their way into my own conception of health and illness.

While abroad in Turkey, I was initially confused when our program adviser scolded the students for walking around the house without socks. When one student fell ill with a serious stomach problem, the program director’s response was the same: “No wonder you’re sick, your feet are bare!”

For us American students, the lack of socks never occurred to be a realistic cause of stomach viruses. Eventually, we learned to go with the cultural flow, and wearing knitted socks became a standard sartorial choice in the apartment building. Even after having been back at Georgetown for over a year, I still feel weird walking in my house without socks.

Self-medication is an acceptable way of handling illness in the U.S. If you’re sick, you pop a Tylenol.

If you find yourself feeling sick abroad, though, you have an opportunity to learn alternate methods for alleviating illness.

My friend Greg spent a year after high school in Russia’s far east. When I asked him to share any remedies he came across, I expected a short list: vodka.

To my surprise, he showed me photographs of garlic. At the first onset of flu-like symptoms, his host parents applied garlic directly to his face… generously. For an extra measure of security, they placed several cloves of garlic on a plate next to his bed at night. Whether the garlic helped Greg in the long run is unclear, but the smell of garlic lingered for several weeks after he had returned to good health.

Sometimes home remedies just won’t suffice, though, and a visit with a doctor is in order.

Insurance logistics aside, the most difficult barrier for solid hospital care is linguistic. If you are traveling alone and need a doctor’s attention, find a native speaker immediately.

Unfortuantely, it’s not always an option to rely on a bilingual friend to help you out. While spending the weekend with a lovely family in northern Azerbaijan, I came down with an illness that required a doctor to come visit. I don’t speak a word of Azerbaijani so I couldn’t tell the doctor my symptoms directly. My friend did not understand my English, and I absentmindedly agreed to whatever I symptoms were described to me in Azerbaijani.

Somehow, my doctor delivered a diagnosis: drink a spoonful of salt water for an hour. The idea of a prescription probably helped ease my stomach ache more than the medicine itself, but weeks later, I reflected on the experience as a victory.

No one enjoys being sick. Even at Georgetown, a case of the flu or strep throat is rarely a fun experience. You post up in your bed for three days and eat nothing but soup. If you find yourself feeling queasy while traveling, remember that there’s something to be learned from the experience. Whether it’s the phrase for “low blood pressure” or a useful remedy you can bring back home, it just goes to show that a perfectly healthy trip is not the only way to have a fulfilling experience.

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