The (Unintentional) Medical Tourist
By John Kimble
Fin. Sitting in a Bangkok hospital for the 10th day in a row, gnawing on a Thai McRice burger. My attitude toward traveling, and this journey in particular, suddenly soured: I hated Bangkok from the moment I arrived when I'd gotten the runaround about the bus schedule into the city. Now, forced to stay in the cultural Disneyland, Western playground, and pervert's paradise that is Thailand, my hatred had phased into prostrate frustration.
The news that I would have to return for more blood tests in two weeks was more crippling than my diagnosis—epilepsy, meaning a strict regimen of anti-convulsive medication for the next two to three years. All I wanted was to get out of Thailand and into China where I planned to begin teaching and, more importantly, living a static life.
Months of traveling through Europe and Asia had taken its toll on my body in ways completely unexpected, and now I regretted trying to rough every moment for money's sake. I had pushed myself too far and now have to face a new reality.
Scene 1. My brother and I had decided to go to Myanmar because ... well, just because we could. It promised to be cheap, adventurous, and not littered with tourists—a blessing coming from Thailand.
We began in Yangon, Myanmar's capital, where characters abound: a book preservationist who was, paradoxically, also a chain cigar-smoker; a six-fingered 12-year-old girl running a coach business and talking on two phones at once; a black-market Indian money-exchanger who exclaimed "Oh my Buddha!" when we told him where we were from; and what seemed like every man on the street chewing and spitting the red nectar of the mildly narcotic betel nut.
We decided to go from Yangon to Mandalay, the last imperial capital of Myanmar, and then move on to Bagan. En route from Mandalay to Bagan, we decided to take a train because it was the cheapest option, and we figured that it would be nice to see the countryside.
Scene 2. The train was more violently bumpy than I could have ever imagined. Our upper-class tickets meant we got cushioned seats instead of hard, wooden benches. Despite the class distinction, though, the car was filthy and appeared to be as old or older than the 1960s Mazda taxis dominating many of the tourist sites.
Hanging from the roof of each car were two lonesome 40-watt bulbs that increased and decreased in intensity depending on the speed of the train. The eerie, Cronenberg-esque lighting scheme didn't do anything to alleviate my fears that we would derail any minute.
I had been awake for over 20 hours but still couldn't fall asleep with my body being tossed about the cabin. Somehow others were managing, though, and I was immensely envious of the Japanese man across from me sleeping like a baby despite his head violently bashing against the window pane.
To pass the time, I was reading intently in the dim light. At 4 a.m., I saw a mouse run over my feet. Though already uncomfortable, I cringed at the thought of a third-world mouse nibbling at my feet. So I lifted my legs up to my chest and sat like this.
Scene 3. Suddenly, my jaw and mouth began to open uncontrollably. I started to yell, loudly, unable to stop. I looked over at my brother, helpless.
And then there was the feeling of my mouth opening so wide that my mind descended into the dark abyss of my throat.
Scene 5. My next conscious moment: My brother and a Burmese train employee are hauling me off the train and laying me down on a bench in a back room. I am dizzy and throw up, completely disoriented. I am dragged into the bed of a pickup truck where I stare up at the sky while the Burmese men sharing the taxi stare down at me. We are taken to a hotel, where I get in bed and (finally) get to sleep. I wake up feeling a little better.
My brother, noticing I'm up, asks, "Dude, do you know what happened?"
"Motion sickness?" I guess.
"You had a seizure."
Scene 4. I had been convulsing for five minutes after which I collapsed and went straight into a comatose state. That's when my jaw was opening and why, later, I felt the soreness of my muscles and bitten-up tongue.
Scene 6. A string of calls to the American embassy to arrange a flight out of Myanmar, an offer to take me to a hospital in an ox-cart, and a Burmese doctor coming to the hotel to check my vital signs and give me vitamins. Eventually, we got out of Bagan, and back to Bangkok, where I would be marooned for the next two weeks.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 2 ("travel")