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Published: April 14th 2012
“You will definitely get sick,” asserted Jason (aspiringnomad
) during our meeting at a sidewalk eatery in Bangkok prior to my Myanmar sojourn. My unspoken thoughts were “I almost never get stomach issues”, but in hindsight it was not episodes of frantic lunges towards toilets in Myanmar that should have concerned me, for what transpired was far more dangerous.
It commenced innocuously enough with spots appearing on the inside of my wrists twelve hours after arriving in Myanmar. My initial suspicion was a midge attack, with Elephant’s World or Hellfire Pass in Kanchanaburi, Thailand being the suspects. The angry and sometimes itchy red spots, subsequently appeared on my feet the following morning, but ominously appeared as irregular blotches of concentrated spots across my abdomen on the third day, and I unsuccessfully attempted to imagine shapes now tattooed onto my torso, much like finding animal images in the clouds.
Within a further 48 hours, the rash had completely spread across my body, except for my face and buttocks. My hands looked particularly frightful, so I considered wearing gloves, but doing so would have only attracted more attention and more questions, thus I dispensed with this idea.
Despite this inconvenience, my
sightseeing through Golden Rock and Bagan proceeded without hindrance. However, this situation changed on the early morning train journey from Bagan to Mandalay, with the 200 kilometre distance along flat terrain being completed in a sluggish eight hours due to it playfully rocking on the narrow gauge. My condition distinctly worsened as the day progressed with the onset of a fever, a portentous sign of malaria. Upon awakening the following morning, I knew the situation to be serious, so after receiving the name of a recommended hospital in Mandalay via a call to the Australian Embassy in Yangon, I proceeded to seek answers.
The diagnostic experience was certainly different, for I was surrounded by seven junior medical staff all observing a consultation conducted in English by the Burmese born and UK trained doctor. I had experienced a similar number of onlookers in Yangon when exchanging US Dollars at a bank when 11 staff members surrounded me to gaze at this simple transaction. Unfortunately, a most frustrating aspect of this illness was now realised, for none of the five doctors and specialists I subsequently visited in Myanmar and Australia could provide a definitive diagnosis, but the initial prognosis being clearly
the most likely – scrub typhus contracted whilst in Thailand. This potentially fatal ailment, caused by the bite of an infected mite, is so rare in travellers that few travel books give it much coverage – but most symptoms were present including fever, extensive rash, cough, sore throat, and muscle tiredness. Future diagnoses included a measles related virus, an allergy, and the highly implausible severe cold. Though diagnoses differed, all would concur with the first doctor I visited in Australia who quipped that my ailment was something “weird and wonderful”.
I have often reflected on what was certainly a fortuitous decision of mine in Myanmar. When the rash started spreading, I commenced a precautionary course of antibiotics from my medical kit. Though the importance of this action will never be known, it may have averted the worst consequences of scrub typhus, which has a significantly higher fatality rate when untreated with antibiotics. I wonder how close I came to never writing this blog.
In Mandalay, I was given a plethora of medication to alleviate my discomfort: antihistamines, throat gargle, a foul-tasting cough syrup and an anti-itch balm with a surprisingly pleasant odour. My condition severely impacted on sightseeing
– with the intended two sightseeing days in Mandalay reduced to 60 minutes. Thankfully, I still visited the Kyauktawgyi Paya, whose glorious 20 metre Buddha statue is carved from a single piece of marble. Even more impressive was U Bein’s bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge at Amarapura. Measuring almost 1.2 kilometres, one could relax and observe a continuous passage of people walking or cycling along the uneven planks of its length. Unfortunately, the fever and fatigue caused my aptitude for photography to dramatically diminish as I would continually choose the wrong ISO, shutter or aperture settings on my camera.
I was joined on this journey by Maureen from Kenya. With her shiny dark skin and tightly plaited hair, she became a tourist attraction in her own right. For the vast majority of Burmese, she provided their first encounter with an African, with one young woman stating, “I’ve seen people like you on TV!” which was presumably a compliment. When trying to explain her country and continent of origin, Maureen almost always received puzzled looks, but that changed when utilising Shakira’s official anthem for the FIFA 2010 World Cup, This time for Africa
. Upon singing the refrain, Waka waka,
eh eh, everyone’s face would alight with comprehension and they too would sing and dance to this globally recognised song. It even prompted one lady to exclaim to Maureen, “You are Shakira’s sister!” which was definitely a compliment.
My situation deteriorated rapidly back in Yangon. Had it not been Christmas, I would have departed to convalesce in a luxurious hotel in Thailand, but heavily booked flights and hotels prevented this option. At least the final Myanmar destination was conducive to recovery – Ngwe Saung (Silver Beach). The bus option was discounted for prolonged sitting was proving disastrous, so an expensive taxi was procured. The majority of the five hour journey was passed reclining on the back seat listening to the vehicle’s wheels skid worryingly across the road; and being too ill to instruct the driver to proceed at a safer speed, I relied on fate to deliver me safely to Ngwe Saung.
With destiny on my side, we reached the Emerald Sea Resort and my salubrious cottage, located a mere 15 second walk from the beach, was perfect for my needs. Sleep over the past two weeks was disturbed, as my usually vivid oneiric world was transformed into
uncomfortable phantasms and altered reality, and the nightly hacking coughs compounded the problem. Thankfully, restful days listening to the breaking waves and breathing invigorating salt air partly restored my strength, with the fever, cough, itching and distorted dreams all subsiding.
I occupied a small portion of my time watching the government’s English television news, where lines of dutiful citizens celebrating seemingly inconsequential achievements were watched by stern officials. These possessed a style and narrative almost identical to the government television I witnessed in North Korea, and I suspect that one had heavily borrowed from the other.
After four days, I had recuperated enough to amble along the shore and squat in the surf, but when a powerful wave dragged me across the sand, it embarrassingly ripped open the rear of my board shorts. Thankfully the beach was almost always deserted, so I was able to scurry to my cottage without anyone witnessing the unsavoury sight of my bare buttocks.
Unfortunately, these health improvements vanished during my return to Australia; eight hours of torment on an exceptionally decrepit bus, and three flights totalling more than 11 hours proving most deleterious. During those first six weeks of 2012, my
medical appointments in Australia outnumbered meetings with friends, and with all pathological tests reporting as normal, it alleviated any worries of permanent damage. I was proscribed doxycycline; though better known as a preventative malarial medication, it also eradicates scrub typhus. I was gravely informed by doctors and specialists that recovery would be slow, and though my recurring fevers finally subsided after four weeks, fatigue proved a significant and continuing problem. I effectively became a hermit since I live on my own and could only venture outside with difficulty. Cricket and NFL on television, coupled with my extensive book, music and DVD collections, ensured that boredom was never a concern.
Despite catching the illness in the first week of December, I only returned to part-time work on 29 February, with full duties expected to resume in June. However, I must carefully manage my activity for if I cross that undefined boundary of exertion, my energy dissipates, causing a debilitating fatigue lasting for days. The scars from the rash on my stomach are still visible; they should eventually fade, but if not, they shall remain a memento of my rite of passage to those who have suffered a potentially life-threatening illness
whilst on the road. I was extremely unlucky to catch scrub typhus (comforting news for others), but also lucky that it was not a fatal dose – fortune does works both ways.
Thankfully I’ve nurtured a patient and positive outlook in life, for these are needed in abundance at present. Though it may still be months away, I can foresee a day when after grabbing my camera, packing my mascots, hauling my backpack and donning my hat, I will stride with a renewed vigour to further explore exotic and exciting lands.
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