Feb. 10, 2008: Polka-dotted in Thailand

Am I destined to see the inside of the hospital in every country I visit? What’s up with that?

The sore throat started in San Francisco the day I left. I guess it was to be expected. Those last few weeks were just too much. Moving out of my house, dealing with a mountain of stressful legal papers and an unexpected trip north due to the Spear-Alliance collective collapsing, trying unsuccessfully to finish book edits, DASW, a hundred errands and all the usual pre-travel arrangements, and then, after five days of stress and sleep-deprivation, just when I thought I was done, my passport disappears.

I remember handing it to them at the bank, I don’t remember them handing it back, and when I looked for it at the grocery store, it was gone. I was sure when I called the bank Saturday that they’d tell me they had it, but instead they insisted they didn’t. So bright and early Monday morning, I was standing in line at the passport office with desperation in my eyes. My flight was Tuesday at noon.

“No problem, they said. “It’ll be ready at three.” I sighed with relief.

But it was not ready at three. As the fates would have it, mine was the one they did not process, on the bizarre technicality that because it was obvious that the photo I gave them was taken at the same time as the one on my previous passport, it must be more than 6 months old, and therefore invalid. The best they could do, they said after a prolonged exchange, was to make me one by 10 or 10:30 a.m. Tuesday if I appeared with a new photo at 9 a.m. sharp.

"But I’m supposed to be at the airport by 10 or 10:30," I replied, despair rising quickly inside me.

"That’s the best we can do," they said, with only a hint of sympathy.

So instead of having all day Monday to tie up loose ends and then go to spend the night in San Carlos, where Bridget was going to pick me up in the morning, I spent most of Monday in the passport office, making back-up travel arrangements, and taking terrible photos at Walgreen’s. And despite having given myself what I thought was days of extra time to make a leisurely exit, I was up ’til the wee hours finishing up with packing, cleaning and details, and still didn’t quite get everything done.

At 9 a.m. sharp I’m at the passport office at with brand new photos that look considerably less like me than the old ones did, due to the complete exhaustion in my face. I cut to the front of the line, show them my boarding passes, and they hop to it with all the urgency and compassion they had lacked the day before. My new passport is finished by 9:45. I call my parents as I run to the car, parked at the meter downstairs, and since SF and San Carlos are about equidistant from the airport, we all start driving at the same time. Mom, Dad, and brother John pull up seconds behind me in front of the Northwest terminal, where I hand over the car to them and we exchange hugs and goodbyes. Bridget emerges from the terminal, there are no lines in check-in or security, and we reach the gate with time to spare. Only a twenty-one hour journey ahead of us ’til we’ll arrive at the Bangkok airport via Tokyo.

Not unexpectedly, the sore throat was worse when we arrived at midnight in Bangkok, and a headache had jumped onboard to accompany it. I think I hate Bangkok. Maybe hate is a strong word, since there really were some things I liked about it. The ease with which I could find almost anything. Fresh durian fruit from street vendors. Pretty temples and inexpensive nice clothes. Hot water in our hotel. Maybe if the smog hadn’t been aggravating my newly developed cough and worsening sore throat, I would have appreciated it more. But as it was, I was thrilled to leave all the traffic, noise, crowds, hustlers, robot hotel clerks with no useful information who charge you extra for anything they can (don’t ever stay at the Rambuttri Hotel), and rickshaw drivers who, instead of taking you where you want to go, all pull out a map and insist that you need a tour.

I was in a pretty sour mood as we got in the taxi out of town, but our taxi driver succeeded in finding one of the few things that would cheer me up: really weird local food. Bridget was drinking a beer (no open container laws here) and our driver stopped and bought a small bag from a street vendor. He handed it to the back seat and said matter-of-factly, “Goes good with beer.”

It was a bag of assorted insects. By far the most disgusting-looking thing I’ve ever considered eating. Beats the Colombian salted ants and Guatemalan white worms by a mile. I’m pretty sure they were raw, marinated in green onions, mint, and chilies. Most of them were big, green winged creatures (queen ants, I think the driver said), but there were also some small round black ones and medium-sized black winged things, too. It looked like they’d crawled into someone’s dinner leftovers and died.

“You’re not going to eat those?” Bridget said, disgusted, as she took pictures.

“How could I not?” I answered. I’d only planned on having a bite to say I’d done it, but the funny thing was, they were delicious. I bet they really would have gone great with beer. The driver and I shared the bag.

So that, along with the smell of flowers in the air once we got out of the city, cheered me up. We spent the night in the quiet town of Trat and then took a ferry over to the beautiful island of Ko Chang (Elephant Island) in the morning, a tropical paradise of beaches and National forest. By the time we arrived a runny nose had joined in with all my other symptoms, and we spent the afternoon resting through a rainstorm at our rustic but beautiful jungle lodge.

Despite being no less ill the next day, I joined Bridget for an elephant trek through the jungle. How could I miss that? I ingested so much Exederin and caffeine that I actually forgot I was sick, and had an absolutely fabulous day. Sinjuan was our elephant’s name, and she was a thirty-year old female (they have the same life span as humans) who lives at the sanctuary. Before long our Mahout (elephant guide) had hopped off and let me guide her down the jungle path. She was so cool! Toenails like tennis balls, big spindly hairs that grew longer on her head than the rest of her body, and a complete unwillingness to do anything I asked of her. I loved her. At the end we got to take them in the water and give them baths, (well, actually only Bridget and I hopped in the water with them) brushing them with a hairbrush while the rest of the trekkers looked on.

The next day we moved down to a little bungalow on the beach, and my body declared defeat. A fever set in, and I slept all afternoon. Soon little red splotches appeared all over my body, which itched like a mild case of poison oak. I was miserable. I tossed, turned and sweated all night. Bridget insisted I go to the hospital, and I knew it was a good idea, but it was on the other side of the island and I wasn’t up for it, despite the fever having broken by morning. Instead I crawled across the street to the pharmacist, who doled out pills like candy.

“Multiple infections,” was his ten-second diagnosis, and I walked out of the tiny shop with two types of antibiotics, antihistamines, a cream, and a couch suppressant. He had no idea what I had. He hadn’t seen anything like the spots before, and assumed they were an allergy, which I know they weren’t. But I took the antihistamine and used the cream for a couple days anyway. I skipped the cough suppressant, because whatever that was in my lungs, I wanted it out.

In the end, I’m sure it was the amoxicillan and doxycycline that worked. The sore throat was gone in the morning and the cough was a hundred times better. But those crazy spots weren’t any better, and I was as polka-dotted as if I had chicken pox. They were spreading from the center of my body outward, and from left to right, and had just reached my chin. Everybody got worried looks on their faces when they saw me, and asked if it was mosquitoes. I made plans to go to the hospital, but then Bridget booked a snorkeling trip on a boat, and that sounded like more fun. Yes, I was procrastinating. I hate hospitals. I figured I could go in the evening, and I actually did try. We got in a taxi and said “hospital,” but the driver thought we said “ferry,” so he took us to the ferry, got mad at us for not wanting to leave the island, and took us back, still expecting to be paid his inflated fee. I was so frustrated by the whole experience I decided to rent a motorbike and go in the morning; it was much cheaper than the taxis.

Lo and behold, in the morning the spots were fading! Seems they were just a bit slower than the other symptoms. My left side was almost normal, although the right was still polka-dotted. I had most of my energy back now, so I rented the motorbike, figuring I’d go explore the other side of the island and stop at the hospital on the way back.

And I did stop at the hospital. I got as far as the front desk, where a nurse in that traditional nurse costume, like the kind you see on Halloween, greeted me with a friendly smile.

“It’s not mosquito bites?” she said.

“No, and I used to have a fever and sore throat, but it’s better now. You’ve never seen anything like this?” I had half expected that whatever I had, it was not unknown here, and I could make sure my antibiotic regimen was the right thing to be doing.

“No, never seen like that.”

“It is fading…”

“Maybe doxycylcline and amoxycillan both is too much. Maybe you stop doxyclycline. It not bothering you, take both?”

“No, I feel better than I have all week.”

“You look healthy,” she observed.

“Yes,” I agreed. “Maybe I’m fine.”

“You want see doctor?” she asked.

“Well, no… actually, maybe I’ll just wait a couple days,” I decided. If I left now I could get back to the other side of the island before sunset and go for a swim.

And that’s as far as my Thai hospital experience went. I kept the motorbike and spent three days exploring the backroads of the island, hiking to waterfalls, and swimming twice a day in the warm turquoise ocean. The spots faded away over the next couple days. Finally, I feel like I’m really here. All the stress has been sweated and slept out of my body. Bridget left to begin her return journey, and I’m sharing a bungalow on the beach and hanging out with a sweet student from Germany named Anikka. Our bungalow has the best (and cheapest) restaurant on the beach, where we sit on cushions and look out over the water. And I love Thai food.

My nocturnal sleeping patterns from San Francisco have been serving me well here. Since night there is day here, I’m up every day at 6 a.m., fully rested, and start the day with yoga on the beach and a swim. I get sleepy by 9 p.m., which is fine, since I find the island nightlife boring.

Tomorrow morning at 8 am I’ll get on a minibus to the Cambodian border, and hopefully arrive in Siem Reap by nighttime. From beach and jungle, to ancient temples. I have another day and a half of antibiotics, so wish me luck once I’m off them. And let me know if any of you have any clue what I had.

I’ll write again from somewhere in Cambodia or Vietnam…