Monday, July 27, 2009

So that time I got swine flu (part two)

the interior of a room at the Pathumwan Princess Hotel in Bangkok, and the happy ending to my story

So where did we leave off last time? Ah yes, I had just contracted what my doctor believed was a pork related influenza of the A strain variety. Now what any sane or intelligent person would do in this situation would be to go home and get in bed for a week. But well, this is me. I decided the best path to take would be to challenge my body to a game of chicken. I was going on my tropical island vacation damnit! And my body just needed to get in line. I had given it meds, a little bit of rest, plenty of water and all that. So it was time my body did something for me in return, namely recover from the flu in record time and allow me to go romping on sun dappled beaches and swimming through emerald waters in approximately 24 hours. Reasonable right?

So along with two friends I boarded an early morning train out of Bangkok to Surrathani (the jump off point for the island, Ko Samui). It was supposed to be an eight and a half hour train ride, so I reasoned that really this was just another full day of rest. I’d just be lounging around, alternately dozing and reading American gossip magazines (which cost, ahem, about ten US dollars here, EACH, and yes I am deeply, deeply ashamed of myself for buying these on more than one occasion). I was feeling okay, I mean. Sure my head still felt like it was in one of those squeeze garbage cans, and my chest wasn’t all that great either. But my body just had lingering reservations about this beach business. As soon as it saw the water and got a little bit of sun, it would be a completely different story. My body would be thanking me for this vacation.
I sat back, ready for a relaxing train ride (because there are many of those right?), and well it wasn’t exactly relaxing. It was an AC train but you could have fooled me because of how stifling it was. The train itself was tiny, a little midget train, only two cars long, and it was also full. There were fans in the ceiling but they weren’t rotating and they weren’t pointing in my direction. So within minutes of leaving the station it was boiling. But hey, it would just give me a chance to sweat out some toxins. By the time we got there that evening, I’d be the vigorous picture of health. Except as our journey went on I started to feel worse. I still had absolutely no appetite, and even the sight of the prepackaged train “breakfast” (which was rice and some kind of neon orange chicken) made my stomach turn. But no matter. My body was just trying to test me, get me to fold, but like I said, it was a game of chicken. And I wasn’t about to be the first to turn and run. Thai island paradise here I come! WOOOOO!!

And then oh yeah, our train crashed. Now this wasn’t a big, derailment, carnage and explosions kind of crash. I’ll make that much clear up front. But it was still a very definite crash. And that’s not all that normal for me. I don’t expect the train I’m on to have any kind of collision with any kind of object, machine or man. That’s not too much to ask right? I mean I already have the friggin’ flu and now my train crashes!? Seriously universe? SERIOUSLY?

Like the cliché always goes, it happened very quickly. It wasn’t until it ended that I could even figure out what my senses had just experienced, because at the moment it was all one big jumble of sound and image and movement. It was the weirdest thing, because I honestly took in everything completely backwards. One second the train was humming its merry way through beautiful Thai country side (oh yeah, did I mention that every time you take a train or bus anywhere in Thailand you are sure to drive through the lushest, greenest, most tropical, jungly, mountainous, straight out of any movie, most heart stoppingly, soul achingly, drop dead gorgeous scenery on this planet). And then the next second we were stopped. And then in reverse I understood what had just happened. Right before the train ground to a halt there had been a large spray of water out of the window. Milliseconds before that there had been what looked to be a very large pick up truck flying through the air. Before that the train had lurched forward with a sickening screech. And then before that had been the collision, the sudden sound of metal and steel and glass all churned up together. Now it all sped up and formed a complete picture and only then did I understand what in the hell just happened. There was silence for a few beats and then the two train cars filled with the sound of people wondering what had just happened, if everyone was okay (everyone was okay, except for a few scratches and bruises, and one train attendant lady who apparently fainted and had to be carried off). Everyone then looked out the windows (on my side of the train). We were a couple dozen yards away from a small train stop (just a platform really) and in the midst of some kind of rural market place where at least a hundred or so people had been gathered minutes before, eating and talking and shopping. But as we looked out the window these same people, in masse, ran in the direction we had just come, most of them toward what I could only imagined was one absolutely obliterated pick-up truck. A few groups stayed put, walking instead toward our stopped train, anxious looks on their faces. I realized that some of these people had been standing there, waiting for a loved one to arrive on our very train, and that these poor people had watched us hit the truck and lurch dangerously on the tracks, and that as confusing and scary as it had been inside the train, they had probably had it ten times worse.

And then well, a lot of aimless standing around and talking occurred. People got off the train. People got back on. People stood around outside the train talking. People stood around inside the train talking. There were no official announcements, no official anything. At one point everyone, en masse, got off the train with their baggage, so we followed suit. As I stood in the aisle, I glanced at the car ahead of ours (remember this was only a two car train) and couldn’t believe what I saw. The floor was caked in red dirt and shards of glass (the front windows of the train had been smashed with the collision). Surely we would have to take a different train to our destination. I mean this one seemed down for the count. We stood on the grass with our backpacks while random Thai people said things to us in reassuring tones. People drifted back from the site of the wrecked pick- up truck. I didn’t want to look too closely but when I glanced in that direction I saw that it lay on its side in some kind of ditch/creek (hence the water spray) a little ways away. No one seemed to be screaming or crying so that seemed like a good sign (a little while later another backpacker reported that everyone was okay, which seemed impossible, but hey, someone’s really, really, really luck day right?) There was much meandering. A large crowd of people stood around the front of the train which I can only assume took its fair share of damage. And then after a little while longer, the engine started up, the train lurched forward, and you got it, we boarded this beaten up, mangled, dirt and glass strewn train and went along our merry way.

And it did run, but I couldn’t help expect the whole thing to just give up any second. Excuse the kind of cheesy parallel, but here I was, a broken down Liz, trying to keep my Thai island dreams alive, riding on a broken down train, doing the very same thing. Oh life. Somehow, our rag tag train made it to Surrathani (along the way people on the ground who we passed usually did very comical double takes when our little battered engine that could moved past). We departed, late but at least in one piece. And then the fun really started. You see the train station in Surrathani is in a tiny little town about twenty minutes from the actual “city” of Surrathani. And from there you have to take a ferry to get to Ko Samui. Now there aren’t really any “official” ways of doing this, no “official” city buses to take you to the pier, no “official” city ferries to take you to the island. No instead there are tour companies, all touting their own package deals. And you don’t come to them. No they come to you. The second you, a very clear farang (foreigner for those of you keeping up on your Thai) step out from that train station, you are the prey. But they don’t walk up to you with the clear intention of trying to sell you a package trip to the island. No they are merely concerned citizens who want to help. In fact, you can be halfway through one of these business transactions before you even realize that you are in fact, taking part in a business transaction. There’s no information desk. Every time you try and stand off to look in your Lonely Planet, you are swarmed by many men who are thrilled by the prospect of taking you to your destination. Except it’s not so simple. Because some of these men are saying that the ferry to Ko Samui already stopped for the day so you must stay in a hotel in town (a hotel that coincidentally is either owned by the same tour company or sharing a deal with them). But another guy is saying they can get you a boat to the island (provided you’re willing to pay of course). It is a complicated labyrinth of smooth talk and genuine help with no way to differentiate between the two (to be fair none of these guys are evil, they’re just doing their job, albeit in a very smooth talky, potentially deceitful way). We spent a good forty five minute talking to about five different guys with various “advice”. We even tried to join forces with a beautiful, multi-national family (you know the ones, where the mother is from like Eastern Europe and the dad is from Australia and somehow they have created a baby with all of the genetic blessings of both countries, and none of the genetic shortcomings) to get a chartered boat to the island. But after much prodding and many assurances that if we went to the pier that evening the only way to get to Ko Samui would be to swim, we went to a hotel nearby for the night.

And that’s when my body, so cooperative throughout all the train and train station shenanigans, decided to remind me who is boss. It was almost as if it had decided to wait politely in the background while I dealt with all of that stuff, and then once I was securely and safely in a hotel it felt it was time to head butt me into submission. In a sudden rush I felt like complete and total poo. I felt like my fever was back. My chest hurt. My cough was getting worse. I felt sick, really, really sick. I climbed into bed, and without any kind of deliberation I knew. I was not going to Ko Samui to frolick on sun drenched shores. There would be no pina coladas in the sand, no snorkeling in clear waters. There would be no fun holiday times, no celebration even for the 4th of July (which was the next day) with my other American friends. I was going back to Bangkok to a hotel with room service where I would not have to get out of bed for as long as possible.
And to make absolutely sure of this my body decided to throw in some vomit (sorry for the graphic details, but it’s for posterity) the next morning, so as to really hammer the final nail into the coffin that was my trip to Ko Samui. If my body could have talked it would have said this: “Hey Liz, we usually get along, sure you put some fast food junk into me every now and again, too much beer or wine on occasion, all that coffee and Diet Coke, seriously I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. But the point is we’ve always been pretty much in synch. But this, this is just sheer lunacy. You drag my flu ridden self out of bed, put me on a hot, crowded train (and one that crashes to boot!) for nine uncomfortable hours, and then you expect me to get on a ferry and go on vacation! We could have done this the easy way but no. So go ahead, throw up that watermelon you had for breakfast (the one tiny glimmer of American 4th of July I had that day, to make this story even more pathetic) then get on a train and go back to Bangkok immediately!”

And well that is what I did. Of course the first available train didn’t leave until 6pm, meaning that I had about four hours to kill at the train station. But those four hours ended up being strangely wonderful. For one I’ve always loved train stations (except for the hell on earth, abysmal, make you want to throw yourself on the tracks Indian ones we visited-go to Agra, you’ll see). There’s something just so romantic about train stations to me, something old fashioned and adventurous. And when I think back on past vacations or trips, somehow it’s always the train stations that stand out to me, little post it notes stuck in the pages of old travel memories. And as I sat there on a hard plastic seat with a giant bottle of water, I couldn’t help but be reminded of four years ago, me traveling solo for the first time in my life. I was with a friend in Rome (during my semester abroad in Paris), but she flew to London to meet her parents, and I still had a week left of break, so I took the train to Florence for two nights. I remember Florence very clearly, seeing the statue of David, eating gelato for dinner (okay and lunch), wandering the streets and getting chased by an Italian man. But just as memorably I remember waiting for the night train that would take me back to Paris, sitting on a similar bench at a similar station. And I remember how I felt that day, the same way I felt sitting at the Surrathani station, waiting for the night train that would take me back to Bangkok. There are things in this world people can take away from us. There are things that can be tarnished and ruined. But traveling alone in a foreign country, even if just for a few days, nothing and no one can ever take away what that feels like. Just to know you can do it, to know you’re okay, that even in a foreign country, alone, you’re okay. I carried that feeling away from Florence and hold onto it still, and I know I’ll do the same with my time in Thailand.

I sat at that station and kept waiting to have to throw up again, but I didn’t. I didn’t feel great by any means, but I felt level and strangely calm. It was as if my body, having seen that I followed its instructions, was giving me a little break. And I read. I started and finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” I had almost read that book so many times in life. I had picked it up and carried it around at Barnes and Nobles before changing my mind and putting it back. I have no idea why. But the morning I left Bangkok, as I was browsing the shelves of the hostel’s book exchange, I saw a battered, crumpled copy. My favorite version of books is when they are battered and crumpled. As with any proper stuffed animal, this shows they have been loved, adored, read again and again and again. I like the creases in pages from where they’ve been folded down. Love the food stains and smudges. I like these kind of books because it shows that they are really living things. Books aren’t static, or at least they shouldn’t be. I re-read books because they do grow and change every time you read them. But I digress. I saw this battered, crumpled, torn copy of “Eat, Pray, Love” and exchanged my book for it.

And I started it at that train station. Nearly five hours later I was almost finished. And it was the perfect book for that moment in my life. When I was depressed and feeling sorry for myself (being alone and sick on the 4th of July thing was rough. I love the 4th of July, love the hot dogs and cole slaw and watermelon, love the tennis on television, love the flags and the fireworks and that one perfect, unironic day of patriotism and pride) this book filled me with happiness and calm and warmth. I won’t go into the details other than to say that Elizabeth Gilbert puts into funny, clever words exactly how I feel about so many things, spirituality (minus all the meditating, I respect it but am not at a point in my life where I could “quiet my mind”, my mind never shuts up), God, food, pasta, wine, did I mention food?, but most importantly at that moment, travel.

Because, here’s the thing. A lot of this blog has touched on some not so great things, misadventures if you will. But I really hope it hasn’t seemed overly negative. Because as much as some of these things have sucked, they are all part of this big, messy moment in my life. And I wanted this. I signed up for this knowing it would be hard and messy and that I might get sick or have my purse stolen while night swimming off a Thai island (okay well maybe I didn’t anticipate that part exactly). I knew teaching would be hard. I knew I would miss home sometimes. I knew that this would be rocky. But I wanted rocky. My life before I left, throughout the year after graduation, was veering dangerously close to the opposite of rocky, which is not to say perfect. Perfect is not the opposite of rocky, bland is. A life that was always easy and always safe is not at all what I really wanted. It’s great for life to be easy and safe sometimes, a good deal of the time even, but if it’s always that way, then it’s not really life, not life, capital L. It’s just life, lowercase l, and that’s not enough for me. And being here in Thailand, well it hasn’t been easy and safe. And that’s why, despite the stolen purse and the swine flu and the passport stuff and various other mishaps I’ve loved every minute of this. And you might say how in the world can I love every minute of a trip that’s had such issues. But I love this trip because of its issues, because of its rockiness. I feel like finally my life is starting to be lived in color. I don’t want a beige life. I never have. Beige might be easy on the eyes and it might mean you never clash with anything, but frankly never clashing with anything is overrated. Let me clash. Let me pair pink and orange together and just go with it.

But I bring all of this up because of a passage in Ms. Gilbert’s book which spoke so directly to my heart and to that moment in my soul that it was almost a little spooky. And here it is. I know this blog is already a novella but I just have to transcribe it all.

“Truthfully, I’m not the best traveler in the world.

I know this because I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve met people who are great at it. Real naturals. I’ve met travelers who are so physically sturdy they could drink a shoebox of water from a Calcutta gutter and never get sick. People who can pick up new languages where others of us might only pick up infectious diseases. People who know how to stand down a threatening border guard or cajole an uncooperative bureaucrat at the visa office. People who are the right height and complexion that they kind of look halfway normal wherever they go-in Turkey they just might be Turks, in Mexico they are suddenly Mexican, in Spain they could be mistaken for a Basque, in Northern Africa they can sometimes pass for an Arab…

I don’t have these qualities. First off I don’t blend. Tall and blond and pink complexioned, I am less a chameleon than a flamingo. Everywhere I go but Dusseldorf, I stand out garishly. When I was in China, women used to come up to me on the street and point me out to their children as though I were some escaped zoo animal. And their children-who had never seen anything quite like this pink-faced yellow-headed phantom person-would often burst into tears at the sight of me. I really hated that about China.

I’m bad (or, rather, lazy) at researching a place before I travel, tending just to show up and see what happens. When you travel this way, what typically “happens” is that you end up spending a lot of time standing in the middle of the train station feeling confused, or dropping way too much money on hotels because you don’t know better…

Aside from my cockeyed internal compass, I also have a shortage of personal coolness, which can be a liability in travel. I have never learned how to arrange my face into that blank expression of competent invisibility that is so useful when traveling in dangerous, foreign places. You know-that super relaxed, totally-in-charge expression which makes you look like you belong there, anywhere, everywhere, even in the middle of a riot in Jakarta. Oh, no. When I don’t know what I’m doing, I look like I don’t know what I’m doing. When I’m excited or nervous, I look excited or nervous. And when I am lost, which is frequently, I look lost. My face is a transparent transmitter of every thought…

And oh the woes that traveling has inflicted upon my digestive tract!...But I have other bodily weaknesses too. My back gave out on my first day of traveling in Africa, I was the only member of my part to emerge from the jungles of Venezuela with infected spider bites, and I ask you-I beg of you!-who gets sunburned in Stockholm?

Still despite all this, traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt, ever since I was sixteen years old and first went to Russia with my saved-up babysitting money, that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love for travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby-I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. I can barf all over me if it wants to-I just don’t care.”

And that last paragraph, as I sat reading that in the train station off the Gulf Coast of Thailand, that spoke to me in a way few other books have ever spoke to me. I needed to read this book at this moment. I needed to have this book show up on a bookshelf in the Wendy House hostel in Bangkok. I don’t necessarily put too much stock in fate and destiny and all that, but maybe I should, because this book found me in a really low moment and reminded my sick, self pitying self why I was doing this. I have been barfed all over repeatedly here, but like Elizabeth Gilbert, I could care less. That barf is a part of this wonderful, incredible, life changing journey. I’d rather not be barfed on, but at the end of the day, it’s all part of it, all part of this. This trip has figuratively thrown me down stairs and sucker punched me and roundhouse kicked me Chuck Norris style, but in spite of that, hell, because of all that, I’m doing what I love right now. As strange as it seems I have always wanted a life that would throw in an occasional round house kick.

My mom sent me this letter recently, strangely a letter from myself, aged 18, written at a high school retreat and saved by my high school all these years, only to be mailed out now, five years after graduation. This letter addressed me, its future self, and in no uncertain terms, told me what it expected of me. I haven't met quite all of these strict expectations, but halfway through the letter, past self told me that if I wasn’t traveling, then I should go and do it right then and there. And maybe it’s cheesy, but I’m really proud of the fact that in that way I’ve lived up to the eighteen year old me’s expectations. Because eighteen year old me, like a lot of eighteen year olds, naïve yes, a little foolish maybe, but beautifully, singularly brave when it comes to looking at the future and demanding that it lives up to its potential, the way only an eighteen year old can demand.

So I journeyed back to Bangkok with newfound clarity, and I spent the next two nights in one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed at, for about a sixth of the cost it would be in any American big city. Something else I took away from “Eat, Pray, Love”, the whole Italy section about letting yourself be a little decadent, treating yourself every once in a while, especially when your body is weary and broken. And boy did I (or at least my kind and understanding parents did, thanks again Mom and Dad!) I knew from the moment I checked in (and was brought this iced banana tea in a champagne glass) that this was the place to recuperate. Every single person who worked at that hotel who I encountered asked me if I was taking medicine, if I needed to see a doctor, to let them know if I needed anything, anything at all. At the point when I arrived I think I looked and sounded a little, let’s say, rough. A lack of sleep and food and general health will do that to a person. And these kind hotel workers welcomed me like I was their sick child home early from school.

I slept in the softest, cleanest bed, with the most wonderful cloud of a comforter. I took like three hot showers a day in the world’s most awesome bathroom (it had a big clear window looking into the bedroom but if you pressed a button this awesome curtain came down!...and the shower, it had this big square nozzle in the ceiling that was like a waterfall!, oh!, oh! and there was an elephant on the counter made out of towels! that killed me. I couldn’t bear to remove a single towel from it). There were soft, wonderful, fancy hotel robes too, and if you know me you know it has always been a dream to stay in a hotel with fancy robes. I wore my robe around for hours along with the provided pair of shiny blue slippers. I recuperated. I took care of myself. I ordered room service (a big juicy hamburger with salty fries and real ketchup! Pizza with real parmesan cheese! Definitely enough to entice my appetite back to life) and made tea and watched actual English language television. Wonder of wonders I made it back to Bangkok the day of the Wimbledon final, the only live match I got to watch for the entire tournament (and for me this was almost unbearable, Wimbledon is the two week long Super Bowl of tennis, it’s as much a part of my summer memories as the pool and camp) and wow it was a good one, as much as my heart broke for Andy Roddick (although as a fan I was so proud of how he played and how he conducted himself after the match).

I watched oodles of the Discovery Channel and BBC News. Both mornings I actually put on some clothes, (as tempted as I was there was a little sign saying that slippers and robes were not allowed to be worn outside of the rooms) left my room and partook in the complimentary breakfast in one of the hotel’s many restaurants. Now I have seen some massive breakfast spreads in Asian hotels but this one, well it put them all to shame. So much delicious food. Crepe stations and omelet stations! Mountains of gorgeous fresh fruit. French toast and pancakes. An entire table of bread and pastries. Bacon! Corn fritters! Fresh sushi and miso soup! Four kinds of freshly squeezed juice! The second day when I felt better and more rested I sat by the enormous salt water pool with all of Bangkok spread out around me.

I breathed. I knew that I was doing exactly what I needed, that in the future there were sure to be more mishaps, more disasters, more metaphorical train crashes (hopefully not any more literal ones). I was going to get barfed on again by travel (just had to put that word in one more time!). And I was going to love it regardless. Because it’s just that unconditional kind of love.

But for two nights at least, I took a vacation from travel, sent the colicky baby out to a sitter, and finally, finally got some rest.

Monday, July 13, 2009

so that time i got swine flu

Hello all. I think it's been about a month since my last post, and for that I apologize. But if you continue to read on then I can at least offer you some very legitimate excuses for my internet absence, at least in the last two weeks. And as far as weeks go, those two were a doozy.

It all started after a weekend trip to Bangkok. Everything was lovely as it usually is when I go to Bangkok. Against all odds I have formed an attachment to this big, chaotic city. Pretty much whenever I don't travel off to islands or other far flung Thai locales I pack up a few things, hop on the red, non AC number 82 bus that leaves from the center of my town, hop off about ten minutes later and get onto the air-con orange number 140 and head direcly into the heart of the city (I mentioned this earlier but in case you forgot I pretty much live in a suburb of Bangkok). There's this little street (barely more than an alley) tucked away in the shadow of one of Bangkok's behometh malls, and this street has become intensely familar to me. It's lined with hotels and hostels and guesthouses. It's barley wide enough for a car to pass on (although they do of course, and of course as in all places in Thailand they pass by at high speed). There are various food and fruit vendors. And toward the end of this little street, with the big skyscrapers looming in the distance overhead, are a few little hostels that well, feel like home. I've stayed in these rooms legitimately a couple of times. I have also crammed illegitimately into single rooms shared by five or six of us teachers when really they only comfortably fit one (hey when you're on a budget...). And maybe I should venture out more for comprarison but I really can't imagine ever staying anywhere else in Bangkok (except for the super modern, ultra luxurious Pathumwan Princess Hotel but more on that later).

My favorite of these hostels is Wendy House. I'm not even sure if it is techincally a hotel or hostel or guest house, but I do know that it has a wonderful blend of hotel ammenities mixed with the laid back, warm vibe of the most backpackery hostel or guest house. The lobby is small and filled with tables. At any time of day or night there are at least a few travelers sitting at these tables, either eating the home cooked Thai food provided by a small kitchen or thumbing through Lonely Planet in various languages. Some have their ginormous backpacks on the floor beside them, either waiting for a plane or train or bus to some next destination or newly arrived in Bangkok, jetlagged and exhausted but full of restless energy at the adventure to come. Toward the front windows there are two rows of computers with webcams and speakers conveniently attached. Whenever I walk through the lobby there is almost always one guest on the computer talking on skype to a friend or family member back in some far away home. Toward the back of the lobby is a large bookcase crammed full of paperbacks and hardbacks in various stages of disintegration. And here you can browse or borrow a book for your room or if you happen to have some extra books you don't want anymore you can simply exchange your book for a new one, no money necessary.

So in many ways Wendy House sounds like your typical hostel, but one large difference is that you get to your room, and it's clean and nice and there's an ensuite bathroom with hot water and fresh towels. The beds are large and made up with soft, clean sheets. There's television with cable (channels in English!). There are even a pair of slippers to wear around when you're in the room. So it's really the best of both worlds. Which is exactly what I crave. I love staying in a nice room with AC and hot water and tv and all of that, but I also love the commaraderie and friendliness of a hostel or guest house, the sort of "all in it together" vibe that fills the place, the knowledge that everyone else there is a tourist or traveler and can in some way relate to your own situation, with all of the excitements and frustrations it entails.

But I of course digress. So two weekends ago I stayed at Wendy House, spent time at Siam Paragon (oh such decadent, shiny luxury, so much so that the only two floors I ever really frequent there are the food hall and the cinema), bought myself some real, honest to God cheese at the Gourmet Market at Paragon, saw Transformers 2 (very, very silly) and then on Saturday evening went back to my humble little abode in Pra Pradaeng. I ate myself some cheese (mmmm) despite not having too much of an appetite (warning sign! dun, dun, dun) and went to bed early. And then I woke up, early (another warning sign, although I've started at least waking up on my own early in the mornings I can almost always get back to sleep if it's a weekend, unless of course I'm sick, dun, dun, DUN!) And fairly quickly I realized all was not well. There were the usual culprits, chills, general ickiness, lack of appetite (and right after I bought the block of real CHEESE, freaking germs), but there was also a very weird sensation deep in my chest. I didn't really have a strong urge to cough, but when I did cough I found myself unable to stop. And it was that full, heavy kind of cough, ugly sounding and rattly, but emanating from a deeper place than I'd ever coughed from before.

So I was sick, but not surprised. As I've mentioned before my immune system must have decided to jump ship somewhere around my plane's stop over in Hong Kong. It must be happy, off alone on some Asian beach, not having to do any heavy lifting anymore. But unfortunatley it's left me in the predicament of constantly being sick. Until this point I'd had a couple of minor infections and bugs, sore throat, cough (but a different, much less scary one), nasal stuff, you know, the usual. But very soon on this Sunday I could tell this was worse. I took my temperature early on in the day and it was just under 100, so a mild fever but nothing I couldn't handle. I made myself some tea and put on a sweatshirt and retreated to my bed to watch DVDs.

But an hour later I was freezing even with my sweatshirt and blankets and the AC setting turned up to a high temperature. I felt significantly worse so I took my temp again and it had jumped up to above 101. Hmm. Well I snuggled back in bed and tried to nap, but unfortunately I have this weird thing where I have a really hard time sleeping when I'm sick, especially when I have a fever. It's all my body wants and needs and yet it's somehow forgotten how to do it. I kept watching my DVDs (Chuck Season 2, yeah that's right, go out to your local Barnes and Noble and see if they have it there, oh wait they don't, it's not out yet and won't be for quite some time, same with my Gossip Girl Season 2, and 30 Rock Season 3, and The Office Season 5, oh how I love MBK and its wide selection of completely non legit DVDs). But suddenly I couldnt even watch tv properly (which is definitely not normal for me). I was feeling even worse. Only an hour had passed but I took my temp and it had jumped up again, past 102 now. Same deal an hour later. And then an hour after that it had reached 104.

That's when a small part of my brain started to worry. I felt too sick and hazily feverish to really panic or be alarmed, but I had never in my life had a fever that high, and with how fast and sudden it came on, I knew something might be wrong. This coupled with the fact that I'm in Thailand right now and you know, they have tropical diseases right? Isn't that what my doctor told me before I left. I started to wonder if I could be malarial. I'd been bitten by mosquitos plenty of times. Or what if it was Typhoid (I got a vaccine for that of course but in my fevered state such logic didn't matter). All sorts of terrible, dramatic, illnesses raced through my mind-Dengue Fever? parasites? Whooping Cough? I groaned a lot and pulled my blankets even tighter around me except now I was both chilled and extremely hot. My face felt like a furnace. I kept picturing how in old movies they put those ice things on people's heads who have fevers. I really wanted one of those ice things, or a cold wash cloth, they have those in movies too. The closest I had was a chilled bottle of water and that actually felt really, really good. I was thirsty and no amount of water I drank really helped. It was just a lot of badness really, and through my fevered state I resolved to call someone if my fever went up much more. That's the thing about living alone in a foreign country. When something like getting massively sick happens you really are on your own. And at that time you want nothing less than to be on your own. At my sickest that Sunday I could barely make myself get out of bed to pee (luckily I did mind you). When the end of the DVD came and I had to put on a new one it took about fifteen minutes of convincing myself before I could move the five feet to the DVD player. Although I didn't want to watch dvds, I couldn't really concentrate, I couldn't sleep. My head was starting to ache. My eyeballs were painful (ugh, one of the WORST and little talked about parts of the flu, is the painful eyeballs). My lower back and knees were hurting so much I couldn't get comfortable. So I just lay there, a bottle of water perched precariously on my head, took three Advils and waited for their promise of relief.

And whether it was the Advil or just the fever reachings its peak, an hour later I was covered in sweat. I took my temp and it was back to under 103. Which made me even more confused because while I welcomed the fever reduction and subsequent improvement in my convalescent state, I had no idea what illness I had that would have included such a rapid rise and fall in fever.

So after another full day in bed (oh how I miss my soft, full size bed with even softer down comforter at times like these) my temp was close to normal and I decided I could go into school. I had already missed several passport related days and I felt bad missing more, especially with a three day holiday coming up the next week. So I taught, although I was so exhausted and still icky feeling that I could barely stand up, much less try to corall 40 boisterous children. I came home exhausted, went to bed early, woke up in the middle of the night, and surprise, surprise, the fever was back. But now in addition to the fever and chest stuff there was a whole new array of symptoms, mainly just an ungodly sinus blockage that felt like there was something very heavy sitting on top of my skull.

At this point I really had no idea what in the world was going on with my body. I was seriously leaning towards me being malarial, that or the whole Whooping Cough thing. So deciding that I shouldn't just assume all would be well on its own, I called my coordinator in the morning, said in no uncertain terms there was no way I could teach (I know my limits, I would have passed out or started babbling incoherently, or if the sickness really got the better of me and the students were extra troublesome there could have been physical violence involved, it would have been bad). I said I needed to go to the doctor. And so I somehow forced myself out of bed, put some clothes on (that's about as much as I could handle, the whole brushing hair, putting in contacts thing, not so much), stumbled out my front door into the heat (by this point I had started to get used to the crushing Thailand heat, but being sick, oh it's not fun), stumbled even more to the school and met my coordinator.

A little while later I was being poked and prodded in the front of a Thai hospital. Since it wasnt my first trip to the rodeo (ie all of my previous sicknesses) I was familar with this distinct Thai medical practice. You get checked in like an American hospital but there's sort of an assembly line type thing right there in the waiting room. At one table they take your temp (it was in Celsius, but the nurse exchanged a meaningful glance and some Thai words with my coordinator, which was reassuring), your blood pressure and pulse, then you're taken (this time I was physically led) to another little station where you're weighed (thank you Thailand! with exactly no attempt at dieting I have lost 12 pounds, I think about 4 pounds of that were sickness related, but seriously I've heard from everyone hear how foreigners come here and lose weight. I officially give up. I know nothing about dieting. Forget carb free. All I eat here are carbs, literally every meal noodles and rice. And I've been going through a box of sugary cereal every two days! Yet I'm losing weight without effort, while at home I deprive myself of all things delicious and force down cottage cheese and celery and I maybe lose 2 pounds in a month. It's like it was in France. All of these things Americans avoid or else turn sugar free or fat free or calorie free or carb free, well they eat them freely everywhere else in the world and yet people are not what we so often are back home, super, super fat. Maybe it's the spiciness of the food or the fact that I walk a lot or you know, the whole no wine thing (which pains me to admit because it means that my love affair with wine and my refusal to abstain from it even when dieting could in fact be the thing keeping me from ever being able to lose weight at home), but I'm just convinced that it's something about America itself, the place, that takes all this wonderful carby food and makes it pudge inducing, oh it's just so unfair)

But again I digress. After my little spin at the assembly line, there came more waiting (although minimal waiting time compared to what it would be in an American hospital), and then I was led into a room with a doctor behind a desk. I sat opposite him. He talked in rapid Thai to my coordinator. I stared at the wall behind him while they conversed in what seemed to be a very interesting conversation about me. Then he came across the desk, looked into my mouth, said some more stuff in Thai, listened to my breathing (for far too long for me not to be a little freaked out) then went back to the desk. At this point I coughed (something I had needed to do for a while but was trying to hold in because in this H1N1 climate you cough in a public place and people look at you like you just sprouted three extra heads). And the doctor's reaction to my cough pretty much told me all I needed to know. He literally lept back in his seat, almost cartoonishly so because of how speedy it was. Then he hastily pulled his face mask up from his neck onto his mouth. Then he grabbed some tissues, thrust them at me, and said I was to cough only into these tissues. Meanwhile I was trying to narrow down what horrible contagious disease I must have that he would clearly be so afraid of catching, again leaning toward Whooping Cough.

There followed more rapid fire Thai between him and my coordinator. Then he looked at me, said "well, yes I think it might be H1N1 or something like it", then began speaking Thai again to my coordinator. And so there it was, I was officially (or I guess unofficially, since there were no blood tests, just this doctor's opinion and obvious fear of me and my cooties), swine flued. I suddenly felt like the diagnosis was scrawled across my forehead. I was infected. I was contagious. I was like those people in the signs everywhere! The disembodied nose sneezing into a tissue or the similarly disembodied mouth coughing. I was the disembodied mouth! Would they put me on a poster? Were they going to quarantine me and make me live in a bubble? But I was getting ahead of myself. The doctor looked back at me, said that it didn't seem to have "progressed" in my lungs (which, um, what exactly would happen if it did PROGRESS in my LUNGS?), but that it was important to monitor my symptoms over the next few days. Then he very quickly prescribed me four different meds (one I later learned was the famous Tamiflu I had so often read about in the news), said to come back if things got worse or if after four days I wasn't better, and then hustled me right on out to the waiting room to wait for my prescriptions (in Thailand you get your prescriptions at the hospital about ten minutes after you see your doctor, and with no insurance at all they're still so cheap they might as well be free).

My coordinator led me to a chair and then proceeded to walk to the other side of the room to stand (which at the time, not gonna lie, made me feel a little like I had leprosy). And then the icing on the cake. The same nurse who had taken all my vitals earlier walked up to me, in the middle of this crowded waiting room, and handed me a face mask, clearly indicating I was to put it on immediately. Now there were plenty of people in this hospital with face masks (as there are all over my town and Bangkok), but it was clear to me and to all near me that this mask was not for my sake. It was for the sake of everyone else around me, because again, I was officially diseased, a danger to society, like that monkey in Outbreak. I could almost sense everyone in the room shift slightly in their seats away from me. I was still feverishly hazy at this point and exhausted from the minimal effort it had taken to get to the hospital, but underneath it all, I felt a lot of things, weirdly amusement in some ways because OF COURSE I would catch swine flu while in Thailand, after everything else that had already happened. It was really just my luck (or complete lack thereof). I was curious about what exactly swine flu was and how different it was from any other flu. I was more than a little freaked out after the whole lung progression discussion (what would happen if it did progress doctor man, you didn't mention that!). I didn't think I was going to die, but at the same time, when you're diagnosed with an illness that has made headlines for killing a fair number of people (I know, I know, people with underlying illnesses, just like the regular flu, but still, the headlines don't say "3 more die from h1n1, but don't worry because they were already really old or sick so you'll be totally fine", they just emphasize the word die). I was more than a little annoyed with the mandatory face mask. Had never worn one before but wow do they suck! Especially when you are sick and have a fever and thus have hot breath, which gets trapped inside the mask and makes it really hot and fogs up your glasses in a really embarassing way. But most of all I just really wanted to be home, not for good, I knew even in my sick stage that my trip here in Thailand was not at all finished, but if I could only be home for like a week, to be in my bed, with cable television and meals prepared by my mom, and all of the comforts of home. I wanted to be comforted and fawned over and made the center of attention. I'm not ashamed to admit these things because well that's what all of us really want when we're sick. I didn't want to go back to my little dorm room apartment and lie in my hard bed (oh the beds in Thailand, I will not miss these) with only a couple of packets of Ramen Noodles for nourishment (the super spicy Thai variety so not exactly chicken soup) and a dwindling supply of bottled water. Plus the whole no hot water thing, I've pretty much gotten used to it, but I will tell you that taking a cold shower when you have the flu, pretty much the worst thing ever.

But I won't bore you with my little pity spiral. It didn't last too long. I got home. I got into my hard bed (which even in its hardness was a welcome relief from being upright at that point). I watched more DVDs (now I was on to Arrested Development). I drank some tea. And then I knew what was necessary. I would go to Bangkok, go to a hotel with hot water and beds and complete my recovery. At this point I was giving myself um, about a day and a half to recover, because like I mentioned there was a big three day holiday ahead and I was not going to miss it. I had already bought a train ticket to an island down south called Ko Samui. A lot of my friends were going. We had a bungalow. I was not going to spend the only major break in the entire semester sick and in bed darnit! I would get better. I was on four different medications! Never mind the fact that as my fever lowered my sinuses were getting even worse, now there was an elephant sitting on my skull, and as much as I adore elephants, I'd prefer if they kept their large hefts off my cranium. Never mind that there was no way I would be up for an eight hour train ride in a day and a half, considering that even making tea left me utterly spent in the energy department. I would will myself to get better in no time. I was young. I was (pre-Thailand at least) healthy. No stupid swine flu or A flu strain of some kind was going to stop me! Pandemic schmandemic. I laugh in the face of any pork related illness! I fart in its general direction (sorry for the crudeness, but the only way to sum up my disdain for this virus is with some help from Monty Python).

So yeah, that was the plan at least, but like most of my plans, it did not go, well, for lack of a better phrase, according to plan. But I will have to finish this tale another time. For one this post is long enough already and I'm almost out of time at the internet cafe. So I'll just have to leave everyone hanging. Suffice it to say I am alive and I can assure you I am not in a bubble, so at least in that regard you won't be in suspense.
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