The Best Way to Learn a New Culture: Get Sick in Another Country

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Since 4/19, I’ve been deathly ill. Here in Borneo, some people (like my boyfriend who just wrote me to come home and quit this nonsense) assume that this means I should stop traveling. Hardly.

A flu bug is just that, and I’ve had far worse. I’ve been down for days, unable to eat or drink, and sleeping in a small hotel in Palangkaraya. I couldn’t ask for better care from the hotel owners or the doctor here in town who twice lent me his phone call my credit card company (Barclaycard, which for some insane reason put a hold on my card despite being informed of where I would be). People go out of their way to help soothe, buy you food and drinks and offer up every kind of assistance.

My BF, who has never done a trip like this, is understandably concerned. However I could get the flu at home. I broke my back in Kazakhstan last year and could just as easily have done that riding horses in America. I do epic shit. It’s who I am. I’m going to go out and live. What I’ve learned about getting sick overseas is a hundred hundred lessons about the kindness and concern of those who don’t speak your language, who only want the best for you, and are supremely happy when you get well.

It’s Not Just Your Tourist Money

Cynics might argue that there is a strong motivation to take care of tourists so that they come back. I disagree. People have offered kindness without expecting pay of any kind. They are simply kind. This lesson alone is one of the great gems of international travel. I’ve rarely done an adventure trip that didn’t involve a twisted ankle, a bum knee, even extreme injuries. Or the classic two-step that is at times the inevitable price I pay to try eating a maggot or two or four, chomp a deep fried cricket, or try something that looked good but my guts virulently disagreed. People in all parts of the world have learned how to eat what’s available. While fish eyes and brains may not be palatable to you, in some places that’s all people have. Try being a nomadic people in the Outback and learn to eat like Aboriginal native. “Tucker” is a whole different ball game in the Red Center. You make do. I’m willing to give it a shot as long as no chilis are involved.

There is a fundamental need to be needed that we all share as humans. When someone visits our house or our village or our city and they’re injured or sick, most of us instinctively want to help them immediately. This is my experience in the farthest reaches of the world. As I lay here in my hotel room, I left the door unlocked so that the manager’s daughter could quietly sneak in and deliver fresh water, yogurt and juice without waking me up. They want to know that they are helping me. That they had a part in my getting well. They most certainly are, and I will let them know that.

Learning to be Grateful

One of my favorite lessons in Buddhism is to be grateful for those days that we aren’t sick. All too often I take my health- which is considerable- for granted. It’s easy to forget to say thank you for those days we have the full use of all our limbs, our bodies move with ease and power, and there is no pain. I don’t remember this anywhere near enough. But as the packets of meds provided me by the young doctor yesterday begin to work I’m given that very opportunity to be intensely grateful for “no headache” and “no nausea” and all other other slowly retreating aches and pains that have slammed me for the last four days. Bit by bit the energy is returning and I can’t wait to get back into my trip.

As I have learned in Turkey, Iceland, Kazakstan, Dubai and many other places where I’ve experienced something hairy as a result of my mad desire to experience the world, there is no place I can be where there aren’t people willing to help. There is always someone who wants to help because it is in our nature.

While in every way I’d prefer not to get banged up, suck in someone else’s flu bug or go butt over teakettle halfway down a mountain, the stories I bring home of courtesy, graciousness and care always delight me. I will never forget the nurses in the Cappadocia Hospital who insisted that I show them how I keep my belly flat. Even with busted ribs, I did. We were in hysterics. That’s priceless.

We Learn the Most When We’re In Extremis

Life is hard. It’s meant to be. If we had it easy all the time we’d learn nothing whatsoever. The worse our situations, the more we can potentially learn. My BF is going to have learn that having me in his life means that I am periodically going to write home a new story that raises the hackles on his neck. Or, I won’t tell him til I come back. Either way, I am not hanging up my backpack. The tougher the situations, the stronger I get. At this age, 65, I know precisely what I’m getting into. The trip is just the trip. You embrace all that it potentially offers and if the gods are with you, you get to bring home wonderful stories and even better, a stronger you. If nothing happens on the trip, you have no epic stories.

As some very wise wag said once, and I wholeheartedly agree, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

Yes I do. What that has done for me is to underscore my faith in my fellow man, their instincts to be of service, and their willingness to care for strangers. I can’t think of a time we need these lessons more than right now.

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