Hello, dear ones! It’s been a while since my last post. Too long. I feel like I start off every post with that disclaimer-“it’s been too long.” This time I have a good excuse though! On September 11th, I got sick and have been down for the count since then.
As I lay here writing, I have just a few short hours left in Chiang Mai before I board a plane back to the U.S. For those of you that have been following me on social media, the cat is already out of the bag as to the what, where, when, and why of that decision but if you are interested in the juicy details-well, here you go.
So I arrived in Chiang Mai from Bangkok on September 5th. I had a great time in the Bangkok and really enjoyed the big city. It felt kind of like NYC. But after 5 days, I was definitely ready to move on despite not having had time to see everything Bangkok had to offer. If you remember, I was experiencing a mild cold while in Bangkok and that was clearing up nicely. The day before I planned to leave Bangkok, I developed some enlarged, tender lymphnodes in my armpits which I figured was just part of the cold like illness or something. They were fairly quick to resolve and I didn’t think too much of it.
I arrived in Chiang Mai on the 5th and was off the the races exploring. My plan was to be in Chiang Mai for a week before heading to Pai and then to the south for the beach cities. I walked around the city-probably about 8 miles each day; popping in and out of coffee shops, restaurants, temples, and Thai massage places. I was staying at my first ever hostel and loving the experience of a little travel community. I had my own room with a bathroom and shower and a queen size bed-it was nice to have a private space to retreat at the end of the day. But there was a nice communal space where everyone gathered for breakfast and an area to relax with bean bag chairs too. The hostel sleeps 58 people but since it is low season, on average there are between 5-10 guests, so it was very quiet. Despite that, I met a few cool people and had some…interesting experiences.
Night one, Pap, the hostel owner, asked if myself and one of the other young guys would like to get dinner at 10 PM. That seemed REALLY late for dinner but I agreed since I wanted to have the experience. So Tom, my new German friend, Pap and I headed out in his truck for some “dinner.” We pulled up at a street market area and sat down at the child size play table and chairs and she served us each up a bowl of soup. The liquid was red and there was what looked like finely ground beef on top. Now, Pap knows that I do not eat meat from prior discussions. When I inquired, “What is this?,” he shrugged and answered “Fish stuffs.” I was pretty sure this was not “fish stuff” but I didn’t want to be rude and so I begrudgingly ate the damn thing. It tasted fine but I am still thinking about it even 2 weeks later and wondering WTF it really was. It cost 20 baht (less than 1 dollar). You get what you pay for…right?
Then there was a dessert stop-the dessert was even stranger, if that’s possible. There was a menu with pictures to choose from but no description of what each item was. It looked kind of like ice cream but I was assured that it was not. When I inquired about what it was, “a runny egg floating on some liquid stuff (the Thai guy wasn’t even sure what the liquid stuff was) with bits of corn and taro”. Barf. No thanks. I passed on dessert. But….not so fast-Pap grabbed an extra spoon and bowl and insisted I try some. I had one bite and it was as disgusting as it sounded. So I went home hungry. And that was the last time that I went out to dinner with those guys.
Sunday night, I went to the weekly Sunday Street Market for some shopping and food. I had stumbled up on it accidentally and didn’t have enough money with me to really buy anything so I headed back to my hostel to grab my ATM card and go get some cash. I headed to the ATM at 7-11 and headed back to the market. I bought a few bags full of stuff and headed back to my hostel at 11 PM. When I arrived, I reached into my fanny pack only to find that my ATM card, credit card and hostel key to my room were gone. It was 11 PM and the hostel was locked for the night. Luckily, Tom, my German friend was awake and in the common area. He opened the door for me and I called Pap to let him know what had happened. He hopped out of bed and came to let me into my room. He was so calm. When I returned from putting my stuff in my room, he handed me a post it note with Thai writing on it and said, “Let’s go find you cards. When we get to the places, give them this paper.” We hopped on the motorbike and off we went, me on the back. First stop, 7-11. I started to blabber in English to the woman at the counter, “Have you seen any credit cards?” She looked at me puzzled and I remembered the paper-I gave it to her and she turned around, grabbed a pile of cards on the counter behind her and handed them to me. My ATM, credit card and hostel key card, all right there. I apparently took them out of my fanny pack when I was digging for change and placed them on the counter…and never picked them back up. I was SO relieved. Fewf. I couldn’t believe it. I wonder what Pap had written on that paper-“Hi, I’m a dumb American… and I lost my credit cards…all of them…help me.”
Monday came and I was ready for some action. I did some googling and found a cool hike up to one of the most famous temples in Chiang Mai called Doi Suthep. It was a bit out of the way and it required some under cover directions I found online, but I made it. The hike started and was fairly easy. The first part led up to a beautiful temple in the woods called Wat Phra Lat. The look out from there over Chiang Mai was beautiful and the grounds were stunning. Then up another mile or so, straight up, to the next temple and final destination. That was a bit more tricky. It was HOT, I was sweaty, and there were a lot of mosquitos. I lathered on the DEET bug spray but between the sweat and the rain, that was a losing battle. I hike for about an hour, wondering if I’d ever make it to the top. Finally, I crested up a hill and was at the junction of the trail and a road. I was sure I was at the top but when I pulled out Google maps, I had another 0.5 miles to go! I followed Google maps up a path and ended up at someone’s house-oops. That was clearly not the way to go. Tired, hungry and thirsty, I headed back down and hiked up the main road. I got to a little town and was excited to grab a soda water and a bag of Nori flavored Lays to rehydrate and salinate my body. Then I hiked up the rest of the way. The temple was at the top of another 300 or so steps. I arrived around 5:30 PM in the last hour of day light. The rain had just let up and a beautiful rainbow was coming into view over a lookout point. I stayed at the temple until dark-viewing the temple in the light of day and the dark of night was a treat. Bearing witness to the day, leading into night, the sunsetting and the beauty of the sky losing light was epic (and great for photos). Around night fall, the monks come into the temple and chant and pray. It’s a magical time to be present and witness this act of spirituality and reverence for Buddha.
The following day, I went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. I was picked up at 8 AM and loaded into the back of a pick up truck. The pickup trucks here have open cabs installed on them with bench seats and grab bars so that you can use them to transport herds of people. I was the last one in, 8 others filled the seats already when I climbed in. There was just enough space for my booty at the end. I didn’t mind being at the end-it made the experience a bit less claustrophobic. We rode in this vehicle for 1.5 hours on windy back roads until we arrived at the sanctuary. In our car were some cool cats-a 70 ish year old Catholic priest from Australia who was there doing mission work (with a bloody toenail, I didn’t ask…), a 40ish mom and her 2 kids (a boy, age 10 and girl, age 12) from the U.S. but living in Seoul for 8 years (Seoul pronounced *Sou*l NOT *SEE-ole*-don’t embarrass yourself, like I did), a young 25ish year old German girl and a few others that didn’t talk much. We had a great time chatting it up on the ride there. When we arrived we were able to feed the elephants mini bananas and sugar cane. They didn’t care much about us humans, just that we had food and they wanted it and fast. If you didn’t feed them fast enough, they’d put their trunk into your pocket and just take it themselves-how rude, right?!
We had the chance to take lots of pictures and to witness and watch their majestic ways. Afterwards, we were able to interact with the 2 other elephant families. They keep them separated due to risk of fighting between families, especially the male elephants. There is only one male in each family, for this reason. We had a brief lunch and then spent some time relaxing, watching the gentle giants. One of the elephants was grazing over the fence and just decided he wanted to go further, so he stepped right over the fence, knocking the fence post over and continuing on his way, closer to us. Photo op-yes! The guys that worked at the sanctuary went over and shooed him back into the penned in area and fixed the fence. It’s so funny to know that these animals really are the ones in control-they could take you over in a second. But, because they have been rescued and somewhat trained by the workers at the sanctuary, they are pretty amenable to the cues.
We then got to play with the elephants and give them a mud bath. That was kind of gross. The mud pit was pretty shallow and as we were walking down to the pit, you could see one large elephant taking a giant dump into the mud pit. Then we were in their with bare feet and bathing suits. I tried hard not to think of all the infectious diseases I was putting myself at risk for. So maybe I’m lucky that Dengue is all I ended up with…so far, anyway. After covering the elephants with mud, we went over to the river and washed them off. It was fun but I could have done without the mud and washing. Feeding, photographing and admiring them in their natural habitat was enough for me.
On our way back, one of the girls mentioned wanting to go to Sticky Falls the next day. I hadn’t really heard of it but it sounded fun so I was in. She had organized a group of 10 people from her hostel to go and they picked me up on the way. We drove about 2 hours to get there. The waterfalls were beautiful. There were ropes put up along the way to make descending and ascending easier. But for the most part, you could walk up and down easily without slipping due to the calcium buildup from the limestone over the rocks that the water ran over. I met some great young travelers, it was a wonderful afternoon. We headed back into town in the late afternoon and I went to grab lunch at my favorite vegan place in town. When I arrived, some of the people I had gone to the falls with were there finishing up their food (I had recommended the place to them during our day trip). I said goodbye and began eating. But not long after I started eating, I felt strange. Really strange. I was nauseated and suddenly felt extremely weak and out of it. I paid my bill and got up to walk home but wasn’t able to make it back. My legs and arms felt so heavy. I was scared and wasn’t sure what was happening. The crazy thoughts that were going through my head-was I drugged, did I have acute onset MS, was I having a neurological event? I tried to keep myself calm and grabbed a tuk tuk and headed back to my hostel. I laid down and slept for a few hours. When I woke up, I realized I had a high fever. I had a pounding headache with pain behind my eyes. I went to bed that night hoping I’d wake up feeling better the next day.
No such luck. I woke up the next day and headed to the pharmacy for some Tylenol and a thermometer. The rest of the days after that until yesterday (September 18th) are mostly a blur. During the first couple of days of fevers and worry, I talked to my medical friends from home, sharing my worry about the possibility of Dengue fever, malaria, etc. They were helpful in getting me a list of the medical facilities recommended by the U.S. consulate (Thank you, Salma) and Moini for urging me to go get checked out. I finally decided to go get checked out at a local clinic on Friday, September 13th.
Friday, the 13th…I didn’t think of that until just now….hmmmm….
I arrived at the CM Mediclinic and was called in to the back office area. A young woman sitting at a desk asked me, “So what’s going on?”-no introduction, no nothing. I paused and asked, “are you the doctor?” She said yes. She didn’t have any qualities about her that made me assume she was the doctor. She was barefoot, in stretch pants and a white top. No coat. No stethoscope. I asked for a card-nada. I didn’t have much of a choice or options so I told her what had been going on. She brought me into the back and she took my vitals and drew my labs HERSELF. I waited 30 mins for them to return-they showed I was leukopenic (low white blood cell count) which is common in Dengue. So then she ran the NS1 antigen test which came back positive. I sat in her clinic office, crying, telling her I was all alone in Chiang Mai. She didn’t really even bat and eye. There was not a drop of empathy exuding from her. She mentioned that I would probably be fine and that I just needed to “rest and relax.” But to make sure I watch out for bleeding, shock, coma and death. Perfect. Also, she never touched me, not once. No exam what-so-ever. She did at least ask if I had a rash though, so that’s something, right?
I left the clinic feeling like shit, in every way possible. Emotionally and physically. I was terrified. Everything I had read about Dengue talked about all the possible terrible things that can happen including hemorrhagic fever and death. I wondered if those painful, lymphnodes in my armpits in Bangkok were the result of the inoculation that lead to this awful virus or was it the hike with the sweat and rain….I’d never know.
I spent the next several days in my hostel room sleeping ALL DAY. I only left my room to go to 7-11 for water and electrolyte solution and out for food once per day. Those outings were physically painful and very blurry but I knew I had to stay hydrated and somewhat nourished if I was going to do okay. It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have a choice. Since it was Friday and the clinic was closed on the weekend, I was instructed to go to the hospital every other day for labs so that they could check my blood counts, liver function tests and vitals. I went to the hospital Saturday, Monday, Wednesday and each time, my labs got a little bit better.
The outings to the hospital were about 3 hours in total and consisted of taking a taxi to the hospital, arrive at the hospital, check in, vitals, get labs, wait 1 hour for labs and then see the doctor when labs come back, then pay and head back to the hostel. The hospital was freezing cold, AC bumping but each time, one of the women working there would feel sorry for me, shivering and curled up on the lobby couches and come with a blanket and wrap me up-they always made sure I was comfortable during my wait. Each time I went to the hospital, it was about $50 and I would pay in cash before leaving. Overall, the experience was pretty seamless and good. However, those 3 hours took a lot out of me and by the time I would head home, I was in for a long nap upon returning. My head felt fuzzy and my body felt heavy and the only position that seemed to feel comfortable was laying down.
Everything I read about Dengue talked about prolonged fatigue in adults-lasting 2-10 weeks and I was feeling more and more alone and deseperate. I reached out to my family and my friends and mentioned that I was thinking of coming home. I felt like I was fighting against myself trying to stay on my trip when I wasn’t feeling good and wasn’t able to take very good care of myself here. I knew I had the means to fly home if I wanted to, so what was I waiting for. After my labs came back and were stable on Wednesday, Sept 18th, I booked my flight home.
Although it was a difficult decision and there have been moments of self judgment about my decision, I know this is right thing for me right now. I asked myself, am I giving up, chickening out? Am I lacking courage or bravery? But, this is what I feel like I need to do right now to be well-mentally, physically and spiritually. Traveling is amazing but it takes a lot of energy and that is something I do not have right now. I am looking forward to going home and being with my family and friends and being nourished by good home cooked food so that I will be able to be recuperated and rested when I join back up on my trip, the first week of November (when I head to Australia and New Zealand).
So, as a write this, I am packed up and headed home tonight. It will be a 22 hour journey back to the U.S. through Seoul.
Stay tuned for more journeys ahead. I am not sure what the next few weeks have in store yet but I may do some state side travel once I am a bit more recuperated in the states.
Thanks for all your love and support, along the way.
glad you made it back! and I still think that bathing in the river with the elephants was worth the Dengue! 🙂
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