Dengue Days"You don't die from [Dengue], but you wish you could"
Before we left The States, we heard the same thing over and over from every long-term Asia traveller we talked to: be prepared, you're going to get sick. And so we were. Although we certainly hoped it wouldn't happen, we were both expecting to be sick; steeling ourselves for it.
And it never came. In five months it never came. We drank the water. We ate God-knows-what. We didn't wash our hands (how could we, there were no sinks). We bathed in the Nam Ou. We swam in the Mekong. We didn't want to offend, so we accepted it and closed our eyes and held our noses and swallowed and hoped for the best. We decided we had iron stomachs, and felt invincible.
And just to be safe, we took our Malaria pills every day.
But we didn't count on Dengue. By now, we've met quite a few people who have had Dengue Fever. No matter how stoic or understated the person, the description of the disease has always sounded nightmarish to me. High fever. Body aches. Bone pain. No fun. I worried about Dengue, back when we were on the islands. We took precautions against Malaria, namely Doxycyclene, but there really isn't too much you can do about Dengue other than slather on the DEET. And even with an inch of DEET on our skins, we still got bitten. On Haat Napharaat Thara, we got so many bites that the mosquitos had to start drilling on each other because we ran flat out of blood.
But in Laos, I didn't really worry about it, even as I took my Malaria pills, because there were virtually no mosquitos. I was bitten maybe ten times in the entire month. But one of those turned out to be a nasty little bite.
On the 12th, our last day in Laos before our visa expired, we were enjoying a fairly typical Don Det evening. We watched the sun set over the Mekong, had a couple of BeerLaos, and took a snapshot with Nina on what we thought would be our last night together. Then the three of us walked back to our bungalow complex, and ordered dinner. Harper, after ordering, complained that her back was hurting, and said she was going to go lie down until dinner came, and would I please call her when it did. I said sure, and noticed my back was hurting too. I assumed it had something to do with not having sat in a chair for a week. Or being over-hammocked. Not sickness.
By the time the food arrived, however, I had a headache to go with my backache. I assumed it was from the heat and the beer. I didn't think much of it, to be honest. So I went to the bungalow to roust Harper, and found her in tears. She felt sick, and was running a low fever. I brought the food to the bungalow, and tried to take care of her as best I could. I wiped her head with a wet rag. I gave her some Tylenol. I told her it would be okay, and I worried like hell as her fever shot up rapidly (within an hour) from 100.5 to 102.5.
There is, for all practical purposes, no healthcare in Laos. As our friend Josh said of the hospital in Vang Viang "No thank you. I'll just sit here with the other Westerners and drink beer and eat Pringles." By the time Harper's fever had begun to come down, mine had started to go up and I was feeling rapidly worse, something I wanted to conceal from her as best I could. In reading our and Nina's guidebooks (which advise if you get sick in Laos to get the hell out of the country), I was already relatively sure we had Dengue, although I remained in denial about it (and would continue to for another week). The advice was to a) drink lots of water b) take Tylenol c) get to a hospital as fast as you can. We were two days from Bangkok and had all of three Tylenol, excluding the two Harper had already taken and the one I swallowed afterwards. Before we left Chaing Mai, I had done the good Boy Scout thing. I'd stocked the first aid kit. I'd bought more Band-Aids and alcohol and sleeping pills (transportation is so awful in Laos that the guidebooks actually recommend you take tranquilizers for some trips) and strong pain killers in case we broke something two days from a Thai hospital. But I'd neglected to get any Tylenol...
The next day we woke up feeling like hell, but looking forward to the minibus (a minivan) that we though was taking us to Pakse, a three hour drive from the islands. But when we got to other side of the river, the minibus turned out to be a songtheau--a covered pickup truck with two rows of benches in the back. And it was crammed. Absolutely loaded with people. There were 35 of us packed in the back of the thing, plus several more riding on the roof. I was feverish, in lots of pain, and had people literally swarming all over me. I couldn't straighten my legs, which were already hurting like hell from both the Dengue and an old knee injury. Behind me, the tropical sun was smashing into my back and head. Harper, sitting across from me, looked equally miserable. This went on for three hours. I swallowed a Tylenol, and prayed for Thailand. Nina, meanwhile, took pity on us, and decided to see us all the way to Bangkok instead of remaining in Laos as she had planned.
But before we got there, we had to switch to a tuk-tuk, which took us to another bus station, and then another songtheau, which took us to the border. This was almost equally packed, and I had to hang off of the back for the first part of the journey. Thankfully, Nina had scored a seat, and she switched with me after just a few minutes, by which point I was pretty much convinced that I was going to pass out before we made it to the border and have to be carried across.
When we finally did get to the border, we had to walk across. It was only about a kilometer, but in the 90-plus degree heat and intense mid-day sunlight, with our Laos-souvenir loaded packs, it felt a lot longer. I had to stop and rest and eat some ice-cream at a little shop before we got to the border. While I was sitting there, my fever started to spike again, and the pain hit me all over again. We were out of Tylenol, to I took some Advil, which helped.
In Thailand, it was decision time. Would we take the twelve hour bus ride direct from the border to Bangkok, or ride two songtheaus into Ubon Ratchithani and catch the train? Both options seemed equally unappealing, but in the end we went with Ubon, because the bus wasn't leaving for several hours from the border, we didn't want to sit in the sun until it did, and we wanted a sleeper berth to Bangkok if we could get it. So two hours and two (blissfully empty) songtheaus later, we arrived at the Ubon train station, where we bought sleeper tickets, more Tylenol, and sat down to wait for four hours until our departure time.
At one point, we walked into town to try to find an Internet connection, to let our folks know we were safely back from Laos. But the place we'd heard about's connection was down, and along the way Harper's fever spiked, and we had to stop and sit on the steps of a bank as she cried until it leveled off somewhat and we could hobble back to the train station. I spent the rest of the time wiping her down with a wet bandana, trying to get the fever under control. The train finally left, and we had the conductor fold down our beds as soon as we got the chance. Harper took one of the strong painkillers I'd bought for Laos, and I took some more Tylenol and a sleeping pill and dozed off.
Dengue is commonly called "break bone fever," and I found out why at about 2 AM on the train. I woke up with a 102 fever, in the most intense pain I can recall having in years. Everything hurt, but especially my back and legs. Harper later described the sensation as one of having someone scrape your bones with a knife, and that sounds about right. It was incredible, I was moaning in agony and literally having to bite my pillow because I wanted to just start freaking screaming bloody murder. I roused myself from the bed, and woke up Harper. Now it was my turn for the wet rags to bring the fever down. After an hour or so, the fever broke, and I climbed back in my bunk and went to sleep.
We finally arrived in Bangkok 24 hours after we set out from Don Det, on Valentine's Day at 6 AM, and grabbed a nice hotel room with air-con and a TV with HBO. As soon as we got our bags in, we got a tuk-tuk to the hospital. I was impressed with how quickly they took care of us. Much faster than in the States. We had hardly gotten in the door of the emergency room when they were weighing us and taking our temperature. We got into see the doctor pretty quickly, and he immediately sent us to have a blood test. Poor Harper was so dehydrated that they had to stick her repeatedly trying to get a vein. At one point I watched as the flobotomist dug and dug in her arm trying to draw blood. Brutal.
The hard part was waiting for the test results. It took an hour, during which time we leaned on each other in a heap in the waiting room, watching the clock. When we finally got to go back to see the doctor, all he could tell us was that we didn't have Malaria, which was a relief, but that we had some sort of viral fever. Possibly the flu. Probably Dengue. Rest. Drink lots of fluids. Take tylenol. Come back in 3 days if you still have a fever.
And so that's what we did. The next three days were three of the slowest, most hellish of my life. Fortunately for us, I was a lot less sick than Harper, so I could go out and procure water and fire off occasional email messages back home. Which is not to say I was feeling well. We spent most of the time lying in bed. The pain was so bad that you couldn't hold still, you had to writhe around and squirm in agony. The tylenol kept the fever in check, which helped with the worst of it, but the pain was still pretty unrelenting. My back and thighs felt like someone was beating on them with a pipe. My eyes ached. We didn't eat for several days, too sick to do anything but drink water. To make matters worse, although the room was better than we were used to, it was by no means comfortable. The bed was hard as a slab of granite, and outside on Khao Sanh Road, Eminem blared all day and all night. It was a long painful blur.
On the fourth day, we went back to the hospital. By this point we also had a rash, and were itching all over: a classic Dengue symptom. The doctor told us what we already thought we knew. The good news was that we were on the verge of recovery if we had the rash. The bad was that Harper's platelet and white blood cell counts were too low, she was dehydrated, and needed food. She needed to be admitted and get on an IV. We spent the night in the hospital, her hooked up to an IV, me sitting close by.
The next day we went back to the hotel, where we only stayed one more night. Harper's parents offered to pay for our room, and we took them up on it, and moved into a nice place with a bathtub (which Harper had been *longing* for) and a soft bed with boxsprings. It was paradise. And slowly, over the next several days, we got better.
We still have some odd pains, but we are essentially recovered. It was by far the sickest I've been since I had Mono in high school, and Harper says she's never been so ill. We both lost a lot of weight, I weigh less than I did 14 years ago when I first got my driver's license. And we're not going to Burma for a variety of reasons, including both a lack of time now that we've spent ten days sick in Bangkok, and our fear of going somewhere without good medical care just yet. So instead we're off to Singapore the day after tomorrow. We've never had any desire to go to Singapore as all we've heard about it is how sterile and modern it is. But sterile and modern sound pretty good right about now.
I remember when we first arrived here in Thailand, way back when on Ko Chang, we met another Californian named Mark, who told us about his bout with Dengue and his hellish airplane ride across the Pacific racked with fever. I remember thinking "I don't think I could hack that." Now I know I could. A plane flight? With flight attendants bringing me cool beverages, ice, and pain killing medicines? That's nothing compared to our little voyage through hell. Hell yeah, I can do it.
It's something traveling does for you. It lets you know you can. It tells you you're tougher than you thought. It tells you that despite your cushy Western upbringing, despite your soft sofa and air-conditioned lifestyle, when it comes down to it you can hack it. We hacked it. We were never in any danger of dying, but we sure went through hell, and we did just fine. We didn't give up. We didn't get on a plane to go home. We made it through, together, and we're stronger (and weaker) for it.
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Grumble, grumbleIt's hot
I miss Nina
We have Dengue Fever
George Bush frightens me
We've been in Bangkok too long
We don't have enough time left to go to Myanmar (Burma)
Everyone annoys me on Khao Sanh road
I want to watch The Simpsons
I want some Ben and Jerrys
I miss California so much I'd settle for Nevada
We're coming home soon...
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Wow, Laos (version 2.0)We spent our last several days in Laos on a little island in the Mekong called Don Det. Don Det is part of the See Pan Don, or 4,000 islands, near the Laos-Cambodia border. It was heaven, but you had to go through hell to get there.
We left Muang Ngoi with the intention of making it down to Don Det. The journey started out nicely enough. Nina, Harper and I took a boat down the Nam Ou and Mekong to Luang Phrabang. We essentially had the boat to ourselves, the few other passengers aboard--all Laos--all disembarked early in the trip. It was the most luxurious transport we had in our entire time in Laos. Just the three of us in this boat heading downriver. Along the way, just outside of Luang Phrabang, we stopped off at the Pak Ou Buddha caves. In Luang, we stayed in a hotel overlooking the Mekong. We sat on our veranda at night and drank BeerLao with Nina. We watched the sun set over the Mekong, visited Watts, and talked to monks. We bought textiles and handicrafts from Hmong women in the market.
Next we went down to Vang Viang. This was a rather uneventful trip, our last such trip in Laos. Vang Viang was just a place I couldn't wait to leave. A party town for travelers. I might have enjoyed it at 20 or 22. But at 30, I couldn't see the point of going to an exotic locale if you're just going to hang out with other Westerners in bars.
From Vang Viang, we took a Songtheau down to Vientienne. A songthaeu is a converted pickup truck with two rows of benches in the back and a roof overhead. As we were waiting for our ride to depart, part of one of my crowns came off, stuck to my chewing gum. Toothy-gum. Great. We breezed through Vientienne, only spending one night there before jumping on a bus to Pakse early the next morning.
We got to the bus station early, to make sure that we got a seat. This turned out to be one of the wisest things we've done in the last several weeks. We got our tickets, and were waiting around for the bus to arrive. All of the sudden, Harper realizes that a bus we've been disinterestedly watching fill up is the Pakse bus! We scrambled aboard. I threw the bags on top of the bus while Harper and Nina grabbed some seats.
Nina grabbed a window seat, only to have an elderly Lao woman, who appeared to be somewhere between 85 and antediluvian. She wanted Nina's window seat. Nina turns around and asks me what to do. I demure. Nina then whips back around, looks at me and says, "Dude! She wants to spit shit out the window!" This pretty much settles the decision. The old woman was to be our amusement for the next 16-17 hours, spitting betel nut, sneaking smokes out the window, eating some sort of leaves and paste, and generally doing whatever the hell she wanted. Old people can smoke opium in Laos if they want to, so I guess Marlboros on the bus are A-OK.
Something we've learned is that in Laos there's no such thing as a full bus. When all the seats have been taken, they fill the aisles with stools, two abreast. Once al the stools are full, it's time to stand. After that, they start stacking people in horizontally. Each hour on the bus saw more and more people pile on. "Excuse me, ma'am, you're riding in my lap. Thanks. No. I wasn't using it for anything other than, you know, um, sitting and, um, being my lap." You can't move, you can hardly breathe, it's hell on wheels.
We finally rolled into Pakse sometime after midnight, and stumbled off of the bus into the night. By this point I could hardly even stand up. Every time I raised my head above the position it had been fixed in for the last 17 hours, I would get an intense feeling of vertigo. We caught a tuk-tuk into town for a few hours of sleep, and then set off again early in the morning for Don Det.
We caught a songthaeu, which was inexplicably only about 90 percent full when we left. Although a few others piled on along the way, it never got totally Laos'd out. But then, about halfway along, we stopped in a small village, and the guy who sod tickets on the truck disappeared for a few minutes. He came back with another Laos man, the two of them carrying a screaming, squealing, hog, which they proceeded to, er, hog tie to the back of the truck. It was pretty brutal, and although it didn't affect me overly much, Harper was pretty much devastated. She spent the rest of the trip taking solace in the soothing sounds of Eminem's rage.
But after 17 hours on a dangerously overcrowded bus, two with a distraught pig, and ten minutes in an open boat on the Mekong, we arrived on Don Det. We've stayed in a lot of guesthouses now, but Mr. Deng's Sabai Dii on Don Det is by far my favorite. Deng was the sweetest, nicest guy we've stayed with yet. Although the bungalows themselves were nothing to write home about, he was by far the most hospitable, caring wonderful host we've come across. He completely reinforced the way I'd been feeling about Laos, and about the Laos people. His wife, Seng, was one of the best cooks we've met in Asia. He also had two incredibly adorable kids one of whom, Dipoy, would wake up every morning, walk out to the river, and do a little song and dance looking out over the Mekong.
One of Don Det's major attractions is the pod of Irrawaddy dolphins that live just downstream from the island. We took a boat out hoping to catch a glimpse of them. They're highly endangered, with only about ten individuals remaining in this stretch of the river. We got lucky, and saw about 5-8 of them, swimming there, just off the coast of Cambodia. It was a remarkable sight.
Just upriver from the dolphins, there was a major set of falls, too big for the French to navigate when they colonized this area. In order to negotiate the falls, they built a railroad between Don Det, and a neighboring island Don Khon. It was Laos' only rail system, and although the tracks have been ripped up, the bridge still survives today, which allows you to walk to the (larger and more populated island) Don Khon. I don't know what the French were doing on Don Khon, but they left a few graves behind. It was eerie, seeing these growth-covered graves scattered around the island. Forgotten. The families of the dead having long since passed away themselves. One such grave marked an entire family that all dies on the same day. No cause of death was listed.
It was a remarkable place, and a wonderful time. And I wish we could have stayed much longer than we did. In fact, I wish we could have stayed in Laos much longer than we did. All in all it was the most relaxing, idyllic destination we've been to on this trip. About the only downside is the utter lack of medical care there. But more on that later.
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