Food poisoning and sickness are a normal part of traveling- especially if you travel long and far enough. While you do your best to avoid questionable food and drink, take the necessary precautions for water and street food depending on where you’re traveling, getting sick to your stomach is almost unavoidable and some might say, a rite of passage.
In light of the recent Ebola outbreak and paranoia that has swept the United States’ media, I’m curious as to how today’s fearful atmosphere could have affected my experience of traveling while sick, and how it’s affecting international travelers today.
Food poisoning can happen anywhere: at your room at night (which makes for a shitty night’s rest), while you’re out and about, or mid-travel. The latter happened to me while I was leaving Ukraine, traveling back on an itinerary that included multiple plane rides and airports. As with most bouts of stomach sickness and food poisoning, you can’t really choose when to vomit or pay heed to the calls of trouser chili, and air travel really is a nightmare scenario.
Read on to get my full, harrowing story of the winning combination of food poisoning and air travel. Or if you’re one of those TL;DR types, skip this section to go to the smarty pants parts.
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Part 1: Sweet Goodbyes
My first trip to Ukraine was a side note to Nikita’s longer trip- his first time seeing the motherland and Ukrainian family. I stayed a week in total, and on my last day, Nikita, his uncle and mom drove me back to the airport in Odessa for my flight later that evening.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’d been suffering from traveler’s uh… troubles with constipation since stepping foot on Ukrainian soil. The combination of lots of travel with plenty of bread, cheese and cured meats really did the trick. Any chance I got, I was out in the backyard garden picking any plum within reach in an effort to move things along- but to no avail.
I was more excited to get home to get away from the food problems more than I was excited to actually be at home, so on my last day I munched on a few placindi before going and not much else. Three hours later in Odessa, waiting in line, I was painfully hungry.
Rookie mistake #1.
Nikita and I split a questionable apple blintz from the tiny airport “cafe” in the “terminal.” (Liberal use of quotations here because the Odessa airport is essentially two large rooms with a tarmac behind it.)
Rookie mistake #2.
Once loaded on the plane, a small dinner was served. I munched on a pack of crackers (it was sealed) that came with a dinner salad. I ate a few bites of lettuce, and the sliced tomato, but decided to wait until I was Istanbul to kill time eating.
Part 2: The Reckoning
After arriving in Istanbul, it was about 1:00 AM and I still had 4 hours til I needed to head to my gate and board. I wouldn’t even know my gate number for 3 hours.
After waking up to get my gate number at 2:45 AM, I started to feel strange.
It started with a sudden needing to go- you know– and the more I walked in search of a bathroom the more I realized I needed one now because I was actually about to puke. Stomach wrenching, I availed myself of the crackers, dicey Turkish airways salad, and Odessa airport blintz.
Thus followed a torturous journey from the main terminal to my boarding gate- of course the very last gate in the whole terminal- stopping at each and every restroom on the way.
If there was any silver lining to this- it was that it was so late (or so early) that there was no one around. No crowds to stagger through, no bathroom lines to wait in. Navigating that situation during a peak time would have been much worse.
Once at my gate, I parked my pathetic, trembling body on a bench outside and waited for the line of passengers into the gate to dissipate. Seconds ticked by murderously slowly and I was locked in a constant argument with myself, evaluating whether I could walk the 10 feet to the check in without needing to puke.
Too sick to even wait behind two people in line, I located a tiny, desperate waste-basket in the hall.
Stomach still wheeling and unsatisfied, the last of the placindi came forth before I could hand over my boarding pass. I heaved, straight through my nose (the worst).
There are pros and cons to the layout of the Istanbul International Airport.
- Con: Gates are enclosed within individual rooms, and large, glass walls allows everyone inside to watch someone outside vomit violently from multiple orifices.
- Pro: Each gate room has a male and female restroom, allowing you to make a beeline to the nearest toilet to puke more and attempt to clean yourself up once inside.
After standing up for a maximum of two minutes to get my passport and ticket checked, I scurried into the women’s restroom to continue my in-depth coverage of the Istanbul airport toilet system.[pullquote type=”right, left”]I scurried into the women’s restroom to continue my in-depth coverage of the Istanbul airport toilet system.[/pullquote]
Only after getting inside the gate did I realize that the intense waves of trembling and chills I now felt weren’t just from the food poisoning, and that a strong itching sensation inside my nose was to blame.
Dill’s not my favorite herb by any reasonable stretch. I can tolerate it in food- but a sprig of dill lodged in my sinus was pure hell. A small, but just large enough, sprig of dill from the placindi was stuck inside the very back of my nose and throat from vomiting out of my nose. (You don’t realize how much you don’t chew your food until it finds its way out.) I launched into a fit of constant, violent sneezing, as my sinus tract forced it out.
At this point, my situation was nearly impossible for the other passengers to ignore. People around me looked uneasy with my presence, and didn’t come near. I become convinced that someone was going to haul me away and attempt to quarantine me. Or at least make me wait until I was fit to fly.[pullquote type=”left, right”]I become convinced that someone was going to haul me away and attempt to quarantine me.[/pullquote]
After another bout of puking in the restroom I leaned against the wall outside the restroom, trying to breath calmly and not look too much like patient zero in a fast-spreading epidemic.
Food poisoning aside, I was suddenly alone again, navigating international airports by myself, another 18 hours away from home, and hours away from communication with Nikita or my own family in America.
I was scared.
I held it together long enough to board and find my seat, and flagged a flight attendant, asking for medicine.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a thick German accent, “are you saying you’re too sick to take the flight?”
I would’ve given anything, ponied up any amount for a travel ration of generic Pepto, but it looked like I was going to weather the storm. “Never mind, I’m fine. Can you just bring some more of these bags?”
Freaking out the other passengers with my rapidly progressing symptoms continued to worry me, but luckily the Turkish couple next to me were absolutely enthralled with their young baby and spent the majority of the flight fawning over her and her reaction to being on an airplane, almost entirely oblivious to me.
[pullquote type=”left, right”]I clutched my stack of barfbags like a baby blanket and prepared for take-off.[/pullquote]
I put on every spare layer of clothing I had to stem the chills, clutched my stack of barfbags like a baby blanket and prepared for take-off. By the time we were in the air, there was nothing left in my stomach. I used a few bags, but I think I passed off my condition as being nervous to fly. *Pat on the back.*
The true test came when breakfast was served. The other passengers eagerly dug into huge, steaming blobs of powdered eggs. The sight and smell was enough to send me reaching for my bags, but luckily, the worst had passed.
Part 3: The Aftermath
Arriving in the Frankfurt International Airport, I was merely a shell of the human I once was. Weak, shaky and with 4 hours to go til boarding, I made my way slowly to the next gate, hobbling forward and resting on whatever chair or bench I could find for 20-30 minutes before gathering some strength and moving on.
The flight across the Atlantic with Lufthansa was on a substantially larger plane, and included more experienced and professional staff. A senior flight attendant was more suspicious of me than the other had been, but let me have some Sprite before take-off and checked in on me every other hour or so.
I snuggled into my window seat and managed to get in a stretch of unbroken sleep. The rest was unremarkable.
What if it were Ebola?
Paranoia is currently gripping the United States as Ebola cases are being contained within the country’s borders. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, racial profiling has fast become a way that the public has identified as a tool to spot potential cases.
Because of this, I’m unsure as to whether I would have been labelled a threat or not. I’m very blonde and pale, and did not have an itinerary including travel to the African continent. Yet my symptoms were so severe that it was almost impossible to ignore that I was very ill.
Getting sick in today’s current hysterical climate goes along as it normally would, with maybe a few jokes from friends and acquaintances about contracting or spreading Ebola. But international travel has emerged as a motif in the current discussion on Ebola, with airports being a prime target for public outcry and hysteria.
I think that if I were flying within the United States with the same symptoms in today’s current hysterical climate, there’s no question that I would be removed from the flight, and at least attempted to be quarantined, because of caution and fear over the spread of Ebola. We’re already hearing stories about similar excesses of caution in airports across the United States.
Weakness and vomiting are symptoms of many illnesses, from food poisoning, to Ebola, to cholera. Even the deadliest outbreak of influenza in history, the 1918 pandemic, included symptoms of hemorrhaging so severe, health workers misdiagnosed it as other diseases. While it’s best to stay safe and sanitized, especially while you travel, the chances of contracting Ebola from a stranger on an airplane are so rare- like getting attacked by a shark on your beach vacation.
It’s amazing what you can get away with in the Developing World.
I’m still astounded that none of the staff at the boarding gate in Istanbul, nor the Lufthansa flight staff let me fly, or even said anything to me about it at all. It really makes we wonder what protocols they have in place for disease containment, or whether some degree of illness in passengers is just part of everyday life. Doesn’t say much about their sense of hospitality either.
This isn’t a license to do whatever you please while you’re there, but just a precaution that safety standards aren’t up to what they are in the Developed World. I’m almost positive it was the shady Turkish Airways salad that got me into that mess to begin with.
Be prepared, be self-reliant, and…
Prepare for the worst.
You never know when food poisoning can strike. Even though I probably wouldn’t have been able to keep it down, some Pepto Bismol tablets, Immodium, or anything for stomach upsets would have provided some comfort in those torturous hours inside the Istanbul International Airport.
Take a first-aid kit. You don’t even have to buy one, you can make your own. I recommend things like Advil, medicines for stomach upsets and diarrhea, and things to help you sleep. Though if you are suffering from vomiting and diarrhea, oral rehydration therapy is the clinical course of action (it works for hangovers too!)
When the worst strikes, sometimes you need a little help to get you through the worst of it- wherever you are.
What about you? Have you gotten sick or food poisoning while traveling? Or have you experienced any of the airport Ebola hysterics during the recent outbreak? Share in the comments section!