Monday, November 12, 2012

That time I didn't have malaria

Where can you go after being blown away by the insultingly photogenic Ha Long Bay? If you're a more ambitious and less burned out traveller than I was at this point, you could head south along Vietnam's dysraphic spine to visit demilitarised zones, napalmed jungles and more ancient cities, but I went north into the mountains for a rest.

That was the idea anyway. But less than an hour after drifting off to sleep in a cosy hotel bed in a comfortably cool climate, my fifth different bed in as many nights, I woke up delirious, shivering, sweating and subsequently doing a few other things I won't describe here because you'll probably be eating at some point today.

I'm still not sure exactly what was to blame, but like any other unqualified internet commentator I have my wacky theories. As sceptical as I am about these pseudo-medical observations, I will give you one piece of sage advice: if you're already struggling to get to sleep due to a mysterious fever and troubled thoughts, don't make the mistake of looking up your symptoms online.

Gecko and seahorse whisky helps the medicine go down. And come back up pretty sharpish

For a few hours I was pretty convinced I had malaria. It was only when the symptoms didn't repeat themselves after a day and a half that I finally discounted that horrific possibility, and whatever I'd actually had didn't seem so bad.

What is going on? Didn't I used to boast about never getting sick? I never even got colds, there was just that time I caught the mumps going around university, which I wish I'd taken a photo of because my puffed-up hamster cheeks looked hilarious. But now I'd been sick twice in as many months, last time when I arrived back in Thailand after Laos and got stomach pains and diarrhoea that lasted for about two weeks. Something definitely seems to have happened to my constitution, and I don't think I can blame it all on advancing age. If this is what happens at twenty-seven, I don't want to hit forty.

Now, I'm no doctor (despite protestations to the contrary by a very drunk man who used to live in my street), but I've heard about these sort of psychologically influenced illnesses before, despite never having had them. There must have been some recent changes in my life that have caused me to lose my Doctor Manhattan style level of physical perfection. Either that or it's really time to stop eating like a six-year-old.

Theory 1: Stressed?

Sunrise, approaching Sapa.
This would have been a more welcoming sight if I'd managed to get any sleep yet

I blamed my previous sickness on disturbances to sleep caused by a couple of night buses in a row and the extreme stress caused by my bank being an uncommunicative, disorganised, inept mess when it came to the task of sending my new debit card overseas. It was a lot more complicated and stressful than it sounds.

I'd taken another mostly insomniacal night bus to Sapa the night before I got ill, so there might be a link there, but I didn't really feel stressed in Vietnam, despite the mental traffic of Hanoi getting my heart rate up and the overly mercenary attitude of hoteliers and travel agents getting under my skin.

Really, I was conscious of being between stresses right now, as having to arrange visas for all these communist countries was really consuming my remaining passport pages and I knew I'd have to prepare for another long international delivery and inevitable delays a couple of months down the line when I needed a replacement. But it wasn't troubling me too much. Next wacky theory please.

Theory 2: Overworked?

Ha ha. Yeah, I know - that's a good one. I've heard about people who are used to working hard taking time off for a holiday or Christmas and then getting instantly sick because their minds and bodies aren't used to relaxing, but it would be embarrassing if this was the case here, considering the paltry amount of actual work I do now I'm freelance (especially compared to the months before I travelled, when I was doing about 12 hours a day).

If working two to three hours a day was somehow too challenging, I could easily get by on less if I wasn't always supporting other people financially in some way or other, either by paying for them to tag along with me on these jaunts or 'lending' them (let's be optimistic) five-figure sums to help pay off their mortgages, bad interest loans, English studies, hospital bills, family funeral fees and devious old men who think they can buy a wife against her will and actually can, because Thailand's a depressing place sometimes.

Actually, go back a little. I think I might have it.

Theory 3: Poor time management?

This is my best bet about where the problem lies, in that it fits both my post-Laos apocalypse and Vietnam bodyslam. Like any other flimsy theory, it'll doubtless collapse when further evidence arises the next time I get sick in different circumstances, but like a good conspiracy theorist I'll have to stick with it in the face of facts and sense.

For the best part of two years I was travelling by myself, striking a balance between work, travel, compulsive blogging about travel and general laziness that suited me perfectly. But then I had to go and get a bloody girlfriend who was free enough to be able to accompany me sometimes (Laos and Vietnam were her ideas, I'm out of my own ideas) and the balance got all skewed.

Accounting for regular meal times, talking and those other distracting things couples like to do together meant I had to make the time by waking up earlier and going to sleep later to get all the work and blogs done outside of the already full daytime hours, and it turns out long term sleep deprivation and worrying about fitting article batches into those activity voids like bumpy bus journeys and sitting in loud bus stations waiting for the bumpy bus to turn up isn't the best thing for your mind or body.

So what are you going to do about it?

I'm not prepared to sacrifice valuable work, fulfilling travel, weirdly fulfilling blogs or time spent with my patient girlfriend, so I'll just have to strike the right balance now my life's a little busier. It could be as simple as going back to my standard model of spending a little longer in each new place than is generally advised, so I can dedicate a couple of days a week to working and blogging in comfort and can spend those bus journeys sleeping, looking out of the windows at the country I'm supposed to be appreciating and whatever else normal people do.

Vietnam's down there somewhere

On planes, I could fold my chair back and appreciate the miracle of flying, rather than tearing my laptop from my bag as soon as the seatbelt sign blinks out and trying to get a batch of articles bashed out before it flicks on again and I have to go grudgingly back to my book. Not to mention avoiding all those futile dashes around airports and bus stations for non-existent Wi-Fi just so I can send completed work to editors two hours earlier when the office is closed in their time zone anyway. Let it go!

Despite having a little work piled up, I took the day off after my strange night, exploring the charming mountain town of Sapa where there's reprieve from the insane traffic of Hanoi. Reading some Iain Banks and tucking into some duck by a crackling fire with some Strauss accompaniment, I felt pretty darn relaxed and let my mind wander to retirement. A quiet mountain town would definitely be worth considering.

If you can find something similar without the tourists or pushy tribeswomen, I'll stay

Come to think of it, that retirement could come a lot sooner if I took on more work. Not a great deal, just five or six times more, so I can retire five or six times earlier and endure the remainder of my shortened life span in ill health. I was happy working 12 hour days in those final Edinburgh months, right? I didn't need to make massive changes in my life and physically run away from the stress or anything?

I'm doomed.

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