When preparing to travel to a developing country, especially India, there are a number of precautions one must to take to prevent contracting disease. Vaccines usually begin with the basics: Hepatitis A, typhoid and cholera to protect against food and water-borne illnesses, a tetanus booster in case of cuts and a steady stream of anti-Malaria pills to keep the potentially fatal, mosquito-spread disease at bay.
But the longer you plan to stay in these countries, the longer the list of recommended vaccines becomes, and the nastier some of these diseases start to sound. Fun-filled infections like Japanese encephalitis or meningitis cause rapid brain degeneration, polio (didn’t we eradicate this decades ago?) can lead to paralysis, and who doesn’t know and love the foaming-at-the-mouth, race-against-the-clock associated with rabies?
So imagine my surprise when, after two months in India, I come down with…tonsillitis.
I’m sorry, WHO GOES TO INDIA AND GETS TONSILLITIS?! I don’t remember reading about a vaccine for that…
It all started in Mumbai. After my nasty bout with food poisoning and a restless week-and-a-half recovery, I was thankful that I was finally well enough to continue my journey throughout India, even with this new-found sore throat…
Now, traveling in the second most populated country in the world, constantly taking public transportation and eating out frequently, the common cold would seem inevitable at some point. I figured my sore throat would progress to a cold, and since my destination was the relaxed, sun-filled beaches of Goa, I figured I could handle it.
So I traveled to Arambol, a small, hippie-esque town in northern Goa, where I rented a small, but charming beach hut near the sea at Olive Garden guest house for about $7 a night. Though simple with a basic bed, desk and cold shower, the idea was to spend most of the time outside the hut, enjoying the sea and the sun. It should have been paradise.
But when, days later, the cold never came, I began to worry. Not only had the cold not progressed, but my sore throat intensified, and I began feel a painful protrusion on the right side of my neck. I soon found myself in a round-the-clock paracetamol cycle, taking the maximum safe dose allowed and waiting impatiently for the time to pass before I could pop another pain reliever. When I finally woke up crying in the middle of the night calling my parents in a panic, I knew it was time to see the doctor.
The next day, I took a motorbike taxi ride to the nearest local doctor, where he confirmed my growing tonsillitis suspicions. I had never had tonsillitis before. To me, tonsillitis was something that occurred more frequently in my parents’ generation and usually involved surgery to remove the tonsils. Surgery, I thought, an operation that involves cutting open my throat. This was not good.
But when the doctor simply prescribed me a course of antibiotics and said I should feel better in three days, I felt relieved. Oh, he said, and no swimming in the dirty sea water, which might increase the infection even further.
Three days. Not great, but not terrible. I could last.
But when the pain refused to subside, I started to wonder if that was true. Barred from the sea with no TV or cinema to distract me from the pain (and no good bookshops in town), my little paradise hut turned into a little prison, mocking me with all the fun things I could be doing but couldn’t. And, I’m sorry, lying on the beach under the blazing sun trying to “relax” while your throat tries to explode is not my idea of a good time either.
Even attempts at making friends proved futile. As a solo traveler, you learn quickly how to make friends when traveling to a new place. But when you’re in pain, miserable and hating the world, “friendly” is not how I would have described my personality. Every time I did try to talk to people I just turned into an old lady, constantly complaining about my ailments. I don’t think I would have wanted to have spent much time with me either.
Lonely and miserable, I passed the days on the Internet and constantly watching the white formations in the back of my throat grow bigger, wondering if that was normal in the recovery process…
When my throat swelled up on day three and I began to have trouble breathing, I really began to panic. Any notion I had that the antibiotics were, indeed, working went out the window. Thoughts of all the fun things I would do after I recovered transformed into horrific images of throat operations, wondering if I would need surgery, if it was painful, if it was safe, would it bankrupt me and would I be all alone while strangers in a foreign country open up one of the most fragile parts of my body. And as my wheezing increased, I began to fear that I would not be able to breathe at all, and thoughts of my impending doom really began to freak me out.
At this point, my frequent calls to my parents repeating a more teary-eyed version of the above melodrama had put everyone on edge, ready at a moment’s notice to fly out to India in case things got really bad.
But when I went back to visit the doctor (a different one this time), I was surprised when he prescribed me another two courses of antibiotics. The one I had been on before, he explained, doesn’t work with everybody and the next two were stronger. I think he sensed my skepticism and fear, though, when I started to cry and quickly reassured me that my throat was not at serious danger-level yet. He said to give the antibiotics some time to work, and if I did not see any improvement by tomorrow, then I should go to the hospital.
Now, one of the great things about traveling, especially alone, is you really get to know yourself well, especially your breaking points. Like my experience at Mehandipur exorcism temple, I realized in Goa where exactly my bravery ends: at throat surgery. As much as I love traveling, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fantasize about coming home when I was sick. While lying in my hut, alone, scared and in pain, all I wanted more than anything was to be back at home in Coldwater (or Ann Arbor, or Detroit), watching copious amounts of crappy American television, eating delicious, fattening Western food and sleeping in my own bed, all with the comfort of knowing exactly where I am and that someone would always be around to make sure I don’t die.
When I left the doctor’s office, I tried to look at the situation as a win-win: either my throat gets better and I continue traveling, or I get throat surgery and make it home for Christmas.
In any case, it was out of my hands, all I could do was wait.
And as I am still overseas, you can guess what happened. I was very relieved when I awoke the next morning to find, not only had the swelling gone down in my throat, but the massive white formation had begun to break up and subside. The worst was over.
I’m happy to report that once the tonsillitis/surgery/death scare had finished, I was finally able to enjoy a little bit of Goa, swimming in the sea, taking advantage of the natural mud baths and admiring some of the old Portuguese churches.
I’d like to think that this little episode has made me a stronger person, but catching something as seemingly innocuous as tonsillitis alone in a foreign country scared the wits out of me. I just hope to God that I don’t have to go through anything like that, or worse, again.