How to Get Your Zen Back After Being Sick While Travelling

Few things can harsh a traveller’s Zen more violently than getting sick on the road. It can be difficult just to get around and meet your needs in a strange place, but doing so when you’re sick is even more challenging.

To that end, my resolve was pushed to its limits when I came down with a mystery illness during a trip to Uganda. Having pushed myself physically with hikes in the Rwenzoris and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and whitewater kayaking on the Nile, I felt strong and in good shape for our 4 day climb up Mount Elgon, but an illness nearly flattened me.

Mount Elgon, as seen from Mbale. 

In order to start on our hike from our starting point at Bugugali Falls, we took a bota bota to Jinja and waited a few hours for a matatau to fill up so we could make it to Mbale and set up our trek. Once we finally made it to Mbale, we spoke with some people at the UWA office who informed us about the different route options and worked out logistics. As it happens, we were supposed to begin the trek from a small village called Budadiri, about an hour away from Mbale, so we would have to make it there the next day and leave for the hike the day after.

The guide books said that Mbale was the place to get outfitted for the trek, so we were a little confused that we had to add an extra stop. We loaded up on groceries at the market in Mbale, enjoyed some tasty Indian food at the New Mount Elgon View Hotel which makes a better restaurant than hotel, and got a good night’s sleep despite the hotel being sweltering hot and on a busy, noisy street.

The next morning we took a matatau to Budadiri where we stayed at Rose’s Last Chance guest house and made our arrangements with the UWA guide and porter. In hindsight, we could have just transferred straight to Budadari after arriving in Mbale and picked up provisions there since we mostly bought staple goods (ie: beans, potatoes, cassava). Mbale had better selection to be sure, especially for canned and processed goods, but stopping there delayed us starting our hike by a day and the fresh fare the cook ended up preparing for us was better than anything processed we bought.

Once everything was sorted in Budadiri it wasn’t even noon, so we decided to go for a walk around the village and had lunch at a busy local cafe. Afterwards, we checked out the village market and picked up some jack fruit and cassava chips to sample. As the vendor was cutting it, he pointed to the fruit and said to only eat a certain part of it. I thought I understood him, but perhaps I didn’t. Regardless, I didn’t fancy neither the jack fruit nor the cassava chips, so I only had one bite of each.

What could possibly go wrong with this?

Later that evening, Rose prepared a delicious feast of rice, beans and cabbage for us for dinner and we went to bed with our bellies full ready to start our hike in the morning.

As soon as I woke I could sense something was off, but still I put my hiking clothes on and tried to get ready despite my queasy stomach. It was all in vain because I soon became very sick and threw up a few times before lying back down, thinking maybe I could brush it off. Every time I lifted my head or stood up, I would have to be sick again and I couldn’t even keep water down. To make matters worse, I developed a fever so all I could do was lay in bed and sweat because if I moved I would be sick again. Rose eventually called a doctor who gave me a shot of aspirin to make my fever go down and said he would return in the evening. Once the fever medication kicked in, I felt a little better but still couldn’t eat or drink anything. I spent almost the entire day laying in bed trying to figure out what exactly made me sick. Philip had eaten all the same things as me and was fit as a fiddle but I was barely living. I blamed the jack fruit.

Pictured: POISON!!

Eventually the doctor came back after I had gone the whole day without eating or drinking and gave me another shot for the nausea and some unidentifiable pills to take over the next couple days. After all that, he charged me roughly $12 CAD for the medicine and 2 visits, which I handed over solemnly understanding that many Ugandans unfortunately wouldn’t be able to receive the same medical care I had just received in their own country.

After the nausea medicine kicked in, Rose brought me mango juice and made me a simple tomato soup which I was able to keep down. Feeling weary and tired, I went back to sleep and tried to muster the strength to start the trek the next morning. As much as I wanted to get on the trail and out of boring Budadiri, I couldn’t muster the strength that day either and took another day to rest. By then a lot of our food had gone rotten so we had to buy more which once again showed us that you can probably get all the food you need for the 4 day trek from Budadiri (ie: rice, beans, vegetables, fruit pasta) and our cook, Xavier even offered to do the shopping for us.

I did my best to walk around and keep my spirits up, but the mystery sickness had really drained me and I spent most of the day sleeping. I’m not sure what I would do different next time, other than not sample strange fruit from street vendors and bring more books since we burned through all of ours during our unexpected extended stay in a sleepy village at the base of a massive mountain.

In the end, the experience highlighted an important travel truth: that sometimes the only way to get your Zen back is to keep on keeping on.  Travel throws the unanticipated at even the most prepared travellers and all we can do is control how we react. In my case, that meant getting up on that third day and putting one foot in front of the other, slowly but surely, until I made it up that mountain. More on that journey in the next post!

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