How I got through other outbreaks, epidemics & this pandemic

An empty street in Thamel
An empty street in Thamel, Kathmandu

Being safe during outbreaks is often about where you are & what you have

I was planning to write up about a secret short hike I discovered before the COVID-19 outbreak. Then I wondered if that’s really what I wanted to do right now. Sure, it would be nice to read something that wasn’t COVID-19 related. But at the same time, I’m not sure it’s what I’d want to read about myself. Right now, I enjoy a little escapism but mainly I think about how good I have it this time around.

Good?! How could a virus that’s stopped the world in its tracks be good? It’s not. What is good is that I have electricity and a toilet that flushes. Previously I didn’t. You would not believe how happy that makes me. Or at least, how relived it makes me feel. It also makes me think about those who do not have this luxury and how they are coping.

Though some of this has already been noted on The Longest Way Home in the past, I thought today could be about looking at previous epidemics and outbreaks I’ve been through in places where everything was and is not so good. It’s where there are people living today. It’s where I lived before. It’s a recap of how we will all get through what’s going on today.

Malaria in West Africa

This is a two-fold story. I had Malaria twice. The first was the worst and it wasn’t even diagnosed. There was an outbreak of Malaria at the time but I didn’t have any bites from mosquitoes nor did there seem to be any around. Perhaps I never noticed the little red mark or there was one that didn’t itch. But one night I had a very bad and unusual headache.

A hospital ward in West Africa
Chances are the hospital nearest to you is better than this one …

Naturally, the headache was worse in the morning and off to a clinic I went. All clear they said to me as I could barely open my eyes to the glare of the outside light. All clear? How could it be? Sure enough, I was sent home with a packet of paracetamol. Apparently, I had some type of virus but it “probably” wasn’t malaria and it should pass.

My apartment had no running water. I drank chalk filtered water. My stomach reacted. I struggled to flush a toilet with no water. The fever meant I kept trying. There was no toilet paper available to buy let alone use. I could not bathe. Things got bad. My old t-shirt was the only thing available. I was admitted with a 104 fever two days later in a hospital. I was lucky to be in a city with a functioning hospital.

Fake doctors visited me in my room. A hospital in some parts of the world doesn’t mean you are safe. Scans were done. And I was placed on an IV. It was not very pleasant. The worst? The fake doctors wanting copious amounts of money given to them. I remember repeating to myself what one doctor said about always checking the hospital ID cards whenever someone came in.

I recovered. It took about 5 months before I was truly up and running again. Two months after that and I was in a remoter place with the military having locked everything down and I had another dose of malaria.

Malaria again

Unlike the first Malaria bout, this one had an immediate high fever and headache and shivers. The village I was in had a small clinic. I didn’t hold out hope for a diagnosis. Unlike the big fancy hospital, the village clinic finger prick test showed a positive for malaria. I didn’t know whether to believe or not. Being a “foreigner” the first privilege I had was being told I should go to the main hospital in the capital. Being a “foreigner” I was also told the rules of the military blockade also applied to me and I couldn’t leave the village.

Woman gathering water in Africa
Do you have to fetch your water from a hole in the ground?

Back in my room, I fell to my bed with a heavy fever and a feeling of not wanting to move. There was no electricity that day. It was 45 degrees inside. The small window into my room had bars on it and a not a draft would enter from outside. Water came twice a week. Today was the day and it was a painful experience to run the hoses and turn the tap on while waiting for the trickle of water. I remember thinking I was in a desert. Then the electricity kicked in for thirty minutes and the fans warm breeze was like falling asleep in cotton wool.

I remember waking up to nightmares constantly. My drinking water needed to be boiled, then filtered before I could drink it. I normally had a few bottles around. I lay on my foam mattress and dosed myself up with paracetamol and an antimalarial which had the side effect of hallucinations. And that was it for 3 days. I simply lay there sweltering away. The foam mattress soaked my sweat and an imprint of my prone body encircled me. Above, the white mosquito net was my comforting cocoon that blocked the mosquitoes. The voices outside were sometimes real neighbors calling out to me and sometimes in my mind.

I had another toilet that didn’t flush. It was a bucket only. Fill it up and dunking it from up high usually helped get things out. This was second nature by now. I was so feverish I rarely went anyway. I didn’t eat either. It was bottled water, oral hydration sachets and a stockpile of oatmeal with water and honey.

UN have you heard us sign?
A sign asking if the UN has heard us? The answer is yes, but chances are they won’t reply… I’d say some of these institutions need a reboot.

There was no internet that would reach here. Only random text messages. People sent messages about the military blockade, an epidemic, to be careful about mosquitoes, work, well wishes and then one came about the next water date. I missed the latter one. I remember getting up and not being surprised there was no water only to realize the message had been sent two days previously. The electricity came back occasionally and the over-head-fan rocked into action and provided a warm breeze that had me shivering in pain.

Neighbors knocked furiously on my door out of concern. I was fine I shouted back. I did this even when they didn’t knock. The fever broke. I felt brittle. My neighbors were bemused that at my first sighting I was wondering when the water would come back on.

Typhoid outbreak

There was a typhoid outbreak in West Africa shortly after I recovered from Malaria. I did not get Typhoid. My friends did. I remember disinfecting everything that month. I remember the filtered water and buying expensive bottled water. I wasn’t going to take a chance.

I remember giving a friend money to buy a thermometer and medicine for his daughter. He couldn’t afford both. I remember he couldn’t afford a full course of medicine for his daughter. She kept relapsing. There were so many stories of children dying that month because people simply couldn’t afford a full course of treatment and eat at the same time.

Small boy in a field in Africa
When you eat day to day the world’s problems mean very little

I remember thinking about how I knew disinfectant was important and what it did. Yet my friend did not understand it. I remember I had the ability to buy clean water while my friend did not understand the importance of it. He used his money to buy medicine but not to clean the local well. It was a vicious circle of sacrifice. Medicine to live today or clean water to live for tomorrow. Only the strong survived.

Dengue in the Philippines

I read horror stories about dengue. There were three types. Two were bone breakingly painful and one killed you in twenty-four hours. Charming. I had a small apartment and was working on this website when I went outside to get a soft drink. The girl at the shop looked at me in horror and questioned why I was so red. I shrugged it off and went back inside. Only to see in the mirror that I was indeed covered in a red rash.

Dengue is also called bone break fever for good reason. The red rash on my upper body was first diagnosed as “measles”. Let’s just say the Filipino medical system was not firing on all cylinders back then. Within 24 hours my fever was spiking and my knees felt like glass when I walked. My main concern was cerebral malaria. Thankfully 48 hours later my diagnosis was just “Dengue”. I was to be admitted into the hospital only to see the room and plead to be treated at home. Paracetamol was the only thing and of course plenty of fluids.

El Nido in the Philippines
One man’s paradise is another mans cruel fate of rocks and thirst

The fever was rough for two days and after that, I settled into some movies and for the first time in years realized what it was like to relax in bed. I had a fan and at night air-conditioning but there were again power cuts or brown-outs as they are known in The Philippines. But compared to Malaria this was a walk in the park. I had bought bottled water, potato chips, cakes, soup and plenty of meat. In the end, I could eat very little but drank plenty.

The strange thing with Dengue is that despite the fever breaking it took months before I got my energy back again.

COVID-19

Today I sit alone in a room with electricity, for today. Next to that room is a bathroom with a toilet that flushes, for today. I am happy to have these things. I also have the internet, for now. I’ve already learned to avoid Facebook posts and the constant stream of social media “news”. I use the internet to read CDC reports, WHO reports, medical journals and broadsheets. Business news is filled with more accuracy these days than the general press who seem determined to announce an apocalyptic clickbait headline at every scroll of a page.  I figured something was coming a few months back. I stockpiled my cans and water then.

Two weeks ago I had a headache, shivers and my chest felt off. There are no testing kits. The hospitals are full. My travel insurance has abandoned any treatment of COVID-19. I am fine. I’ve been in worse places.

Trekking towards a mountain
In the middle of nowhere, alone, we struggle … but we always move forward knowing that something better awaits

Today I have a working toilet and electricity. In my life, I’ve come up against, malaria, dengue, H1N1, Swine flu, colon disease, earthquakes, super-typhoons, tsunamis, hurricanes, riots, border closures, terrorism, kidnapping attempts, shootings, bombs, car crashes, bus crashes, a plane’s engine breaking down mid-flight, emergency rule, military rule, and indeed viral outbreaks! That’s off the top of my head …. it’s a long list. And, I’m still here. Come to think of it, that’s also a pretty good win-loss record!

Bored during lockdown? That’s been the least of my worries …

What I fear the most …

We have nothing to fear, but fear itself. I worry more about governments making rash discussions. I worry about lockdowns in countries where the authorities are heavy-handed. I worry about the couple openly coughing as they walk down the road without a care in the world. I worry about the neighbor with an open window spitting out on to the street, repeatedly. I worry about why and how people I know believe some of the fake news online.

I genuinely dislike the other neighbor who brings friends over every day for a “party” with shouts and hollers throughout the day. They fry all their food and watch TV non-stop. They make me more miserably than anything else. I do hope my noise-canceling headphones last the distance.

I get sad reading about rescue flights for “foreigners”. I could have taken one but to where? I have no home. I’d be on the street. So no. There’s no need to move. I’ve also read about the prices people were charged for flights, the lack of refunds and the airport crowds. Yes, there’s a tinge of “I wish that I could escape too”. But in reality, I’d only be leaving a pot and jumping into a flame outside.

Every moment I sit here there’s a pendulum above me that reminds me I am a “foreigner” living in a country that is not mine. I’ve already experienced xenophobia here. At any moment the tides could turn and all visas canceled. The last places have left. It would be an outrage. But as we read every day “these are unprecedented times” – anything can happen. This is the pendulum.

Meanwhile, I’ve read about the super-rich retreating to underground bunkers, isolated islands, and yachts at sea. I read about people paying their way to get test kits when there’s no need. I’ve read about the minuscule donations many of these people and companies have made.

It’s these people that make me worry more than any virus. I know some people that have had COVID-19 and others have had a high fever. Some have died while others have shrugged it off. I remember the people in far-flung countries. Refugees at border camps. Countries with desolate hospital systems. I wonder what will happen there. Then I realize I am in one of those places, again. But, I have water, electricity and yes that all-important toilet that flushes. Small things that once didn’t exist in my life.

What will happen?

Today I sit here with simple dried foods on my shelves. I have a refrigerator with frozen food. I have bottles of water stacked up. It’s amazing that I have these things this time around.

I don’t go out because I fear getting sick. I don’t go out –  because I care about others who might. If I stay inside I might well be saving a life. Why should I go out? I have food, water, electricity, and a flushing toilet. It’s a lot more than I ever had before. It’s more of a luxury than many have. It’s more than I’ve had before.

Across the pond, Lonely Planet has announced it is not going to publish new titles and will be laying off its staff and closing offices (source).  It’s also been revealed that they plan to use a computer system to automate their guidebook updates (source). It’s a shockingly sad state of affairs when today people are looking for a future with travel inspiration and are in need of a job.

My paperback publisher Himalayan Travel Guides in Nepal is in lockdown but their Nepali staff are still getting weekly wages. I update all my books manually based on real boots on the ground research.

I do not have worldwide offices nor a commercial shipping entity like Amazon or Lonely Planet who can deliver my paperback books. But the moment DHL or the Nepali post office opens my paperback guidebooks we’ll be ready to go again. In the meantime, all digital Nepal guidebooks are available for instant download.

I have no income these days. I spend my days writing another travel guidebook. The research finished up last month. So this is the next step. There’s no income from it, but I reckon it’s better than wasting a day away on a movie marathon. Now is the time to create.

Lest we forget that after the great plague came the great Renaissance

I have a fan, electricity and a flushing toilet for today. Tomorrow I don’t know. But for today I can remember the past and think about how good things are now and how pushing forward helps make a better tomorrow. It helps me through the day.

Like all things, these days shall pass. I’ve been through worse. Maybe I’ll need a different job after this. Maybe not. But in some ways, things are better today than they have been before. In some ways that’s ironic. In some ways, I hope that this gives perspective and hope to others.

Tange in Upper Mustang
Tomorrow we can rise up to go forth and discover something new in the places we already know so well

Tomorrow is coming and I want it to be brighter than today. I keep working on it. I shall not falter. Tomorrow will be better. We all have brighter futures if we can learn from this.

After writing this, I think we’ll move onto that future next. I will indeed write about that secret place I discovered in Nepal. It’s easy to reach. No tourists go there. You can see the mountains, a temple, and a valley. It’s peaceful. It’s good. Nobody knows about it. You can discover it too. We can plan a trip to Nepal together today, and tomorrow we will visit it.

Maybe it’s time we all discovered how to find a better place in the world.

Together, it’s time to make the world a better place.

Stay strong, it will get better.


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20 Replies to “How I got through other outbreaks, epidemics & this pandemic”

  1. I’ve been reading your Nepal guides up until now. But I’ve just started to read the rest of your journey! Wow.

    Something here is better than the TV these days for sure.

  2. It’s always a great reboot to think about others who have got it worse. Thanks for that!

  3. Just bought your Kathmandu book. It’s great. Planning to visit later in this year and now is the best time to start getting ready.

  4. Hi Dave, it’s been years I have been guilty of not really read through your newsletter, let alone left a comment in your blog. (Un)fortunately, the movement control order in Malaysia has spared me some time to touch base with you while staying in the comfort of home.
    Your encounters in life made you an extraordinary person. I hope we have chance to cross path in Nepal, that’s how our story began :)
    Take care and stay safe & healthy.

  5. There’s always going to be something isn’t there? Life is a risk. Those are some amazing stories from the road. Thank you for sharing them. I hope you are safe and well.

  6. Great introspective, Dave. Loved the read.
    I keep reminding myself every day how lucky I am having a roof above my head, money to buy food and a place to buy it from.
    After reading this, I am adding the running water and flushable toilet into my gratefulness list. As you rightfully said and experienced, these privileges still do not come granted in the big part of our world…

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