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Falling coconuts, prickly heat, and a run for the border

I’m an imposter at a fancy hotel on the island of Borneo.

Now there’s a sentence I never dreamed I’d ever write, at least not in a non-fiction account. But the sofa in the lobby here is comfortable, the air conditioning is straight outta Goldilocks—not too cold, not too hot—and the staff is well-mannered and discreet. Fortunately, no one is asking about my room number or the ugly purple-red patches of skin peeking out the ends of my pant legs.

I had planned to read, but accidentally left my Kindle in my backpack, which is in storage for the day, so I am passing the time gazing out at the water taxis on the Sarawak River and the geometric golden roof of the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly building beyond it.

I don't know where else to go. We already checked out of our own simple hotel, which doesn't even have a lobby at all, and I don't know a soul on this remote island. Although they have A/C, one can only sit in a bustling shopping mall for so long. Since I have two gimpy legs, I sent Andy off adventuring without me for the day. With no pressing place to be except off my feet and out of the heat, I’m hiding indoors at a series of ritzy hotels, trying (unsuccessfully, I’m sure) to blend in with the guests.

Falling coconuts

On the way into this particular hotel, the second swanky lobby I’ve rested in today, I noticed a sign posted:

Naturally, my eyes immediately shot upward. Sure enough, every tree in the graceful line of coconut palms was laden with heavy fruit. Swinging my gaze back down to the lawn, I spied several coconuts in the grass, in various stages of smooth green to coarse brown. Some of the coconuts had indeed migrated.

My mind flashed to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland—remember the warnings the ominous narrator gives just before the ride plunges down the first little waterfall? I remembered also the macabre sign I saw posted in the catacombs below Paris. Translated from Dante’s Inferno:

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.


Don't say you haven't been warned. If you are foolish enough to walk below heavily-laden coconut palms, after passing several signs, you can’t blame the hotel if you take one to the noggin. They told you what could happen and you chose to do it anyway.

(NOTE: no swallows, laden or unladen, migrating at any velocity, were harmed in the making of the previous paragraphs.)

I guess the same is happening with us right now as we officially begin our nomadic midlife.

I booked us back-to-back overnight flights, followed by a night at a capsule hotel, followed immediately by an overnight bus ride with our final destination 17 hours behind the time zone we’d left behind. A little voice in the back of my head warned me that we would deal with a bit of extreme exhaustion for a couple of days. And, as expected, we did. We had to work very hard to remind ourselves (and each other) that the bits of grouchiness, fogginess, and weepiness here and there were the expected result of a level of fatigue we rarely experience. We had been warned.

The Angry Red Rash

When I escorted a school tour group to Japan a few years back, the combination of extreme heat, humidity, and walking miles upon miles each day quickly led to my feet swelling and a terrible heat rash on both legs. Why should I be surprised, then, when the exact same thing has happened here? The past had warned me.

I finally went to a pharmacy yesterday (often the most efficient way to get basic health care when traveling internationally) and showed her my bright red rash, pervasive, angry, and spreading. She asked a few questions, including what I’ve tried so far. Benadryl at bedtime and basic anti-itch cream. She prescribed a stronger non-drowsy antihistamine, one I could take in the daytime, as well as a heavy-duty corticosteroid cream. After only 24 hours, I am starting to see and feel a difference. The hot, red inflamed look (and feel) has matured into a muted deep purple and is no longer fiery and prickly. I have high hopes.

But what of the next couple of months in this climate? My body has warned me before that it doesn't care for heat, humidity, and hiking—the big three H-factors for travel in Asia. Will it adjust? Will I need to continue taking countermeasures? I suppose time will tell.

For now, I’m taking it easy for the next couple of days—staying off my feet as much as I can, elevating them whenever possible, and staying out of the heat. I have been warned.

The tension builds

We were warned about other things, too. Couples who have traveled extensively like we are now doing warned us that you can't be together 24/7 for months at a time and expect to always like each other.

It’s true. Yesterday we got on each other’s nerves a bit. I was feeling grouchy and insecure—not from fatigue, but from uncertainty. What if my heat rash is a persistent problem? What if I am the weak link in our very little chain? What if . . . ? Rather than addressing my feelings and concerns in a healthy, proactive way, I got nitpicky and irritable, indecisive and mopey—yes, all of those in one afternoon and evening. It wasn't pretty. Andy and I ended up in an argument—a very quiet, controlled argument with a view of a spectacular light show on the steps of the waterfront. It was the most scenic, exotic marital spat of our thirty-one years together, I think. Eventually, we got to the bottom of what was going on and walked back to our hotel room in peace once again.

The spat may have ended amicably, but with me needing to be off my feet and out of the heat anyway, we decided today would be a good day to part ways and each enjoy some alone time. We’d been warned we would need it, so in anticipation, we plan to make it a regular habit.

Run for the border

It’s now two days after I began this post. I am grateful for our bright and comfortable hostel—a POSHtel, actually—here in Kota Kinabalu (so much better than the dreary place we stayed in Kuching), because I have been spending quite a bit of time here. We even have an interesting city view out the window.

The prickly heat rash on my legs is much improved. Combined with rest and elevation, the one-two punch of Rican and Betrosone has done the trick. The purple has faded to a couple of lovely shades of pink. Perhaps blush and bashful?

But just as my legs are calming down, my GI tract decided to clamor for attention. At the risk of being indelicate, it seems that everything I have eaten for the past day or two has decided to make a run for the border.

The southern border.

I can't say I wasn't warned. At every turn, international travelers are warned of this occurrence. It’s not that America has some corner on clean food standards (quite the opposite, actually). It’s just that what is normal and acceptable for one regional immune system is abnormal for everyone else. There are even travel-themed names for it: Delhi-Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, the Aztec Two-Step. We take precautions. Our water bottles have filters built into them. We are (usually) careful to eat where the locals eat. But something managed to break through my defenses. We had been warned; we anticipated it would happen occasionally, so we brought some things with us to help with the symptoms.

At this point, it doesn't appear to be serious. Generally, these things run their course in 3-5 “rounds.” If it goes beyond five or six, I will take further action.

We won't let it get to the dangerous point like we foolishly did in the Philippines, some thirty years ago. We both hovered on the brink then, unaware of just how very sick we were. Our home water source, which we had been assured was properly filtered, wasn't. Unfortunately, the purification system had malfunctioned. The more dehydrated we became, the more contaminated water we drank. When a doctor was finally called, he scolded us for waiting so long and immediately hooked us up to IVs and prescribed medicine. He said we wouldn't have made it much longer than a few more days. It was an experience we won't forget, and we now give these situations the respect they deserve.

So, for now, more resting. I suppose if this were only a only a week or two vacation—the maximum most Americans take—this amount of unplanned laying around could mean our trip was a disaster. But we are now operating on a much longer timeline. We are here in Southeast Asia for three months. A few days of relaxing down time occasionally is not a bad thing at all.

This just in

Just now, as I am sitting on the bed writing this, my dear husband returned from his breakfast safari with a lovely and fragrant side order of plain sticky rice, a cluster of mini-bananas, and a big bottle of 100 Plus. He wins the Husband of the Day award!

This is exactly what I needed. We have learned from other travel stints in tropical places that bananas are what you want if . . . uh . . .the action needs to be slowed down a bit. When the opposite problem occurs and you need to get the show on the road, opt for mangoes. Plain white rice is filling without adding any further complications; plus it is absorbent, always good for a gurgly tummy. And 100 Plus to help with the electrolyte balance. It’s the perfect balanced meal for me today.

One final warning

We were warned by those who have done this long-term travel lifestyle that it changes you and your mindset forever. That the friends and family back at “home”—the ones pursuing a normal life of security and stability—won't understand. That it is a debilitating addiction from which you will likely never entirely recover.

Only a few weeks in and I believe them.

I can't say we weren't warned.

I also can't say we’re complaining.

1 Comment

Jul 10

Though I'm sorry you're ill, I love that you're taking us on the ride with you. Those bananas look amazing!

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