My Biggest Travel Disaster

I’ve been pretty naive in some of my past travel experiences, but never more so than the time I decided to head out to Ghana, equipped with very little but a steadfast belief that I could do some serious good, that I somehow had something to offer, and that I was definitely tough enough to deal with anything that came my way.

For the previous few months, I’d been speaking with a couple who created an eco-village right on the shores of Lake Volta. I even met a Ghanaian friend, Tutu, beforehand through some sheer dumb luck (he overheard me mentioning to someone else that I was going to Ghana, and he jumped over a couch to tell me that he’s from Ghana, and also it’s the best place in the world). Tutu came to pick me up from the airport and let me stay with his family while I got accustomed to Accra. My first day there, New Year’s Eve, I accompanied his family to a funeral for a 5 year old girl who had been killed on Christmas day. The trip didn’t get much better from there. Days later, Tutu’s family drove me out to the village, fresh-faced and eager to get shit done.

Beautiful Lake Volta. See the dark clouds? Foreshadowing.
Photo Credit.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the village was really no village at all – it was composed entirely of me and a man named Bongo. Just let that sink in for a minute, and know that it was every bit as horrifying as it sounds. My first mistake was probably staying, but I roll with punches – I pride myself on rolling with punches (to a fault, I’ve come to learn). I unpacked my bags and decided to get to work. I had no real plan or knowledge that could have been of any use, but I did have a willingness to wake up early every morning and work myself near to the point of collapse, just to keep busy and protect myself from the long chats with Bongo that occurred every time I stopped for a rest.

The Bilharzia parasite lives in the waters of the Volta region – when I needed to wash my clothes or my body, I filled up buckets in the lake and let them sit for a day so the parasites could die off. Washing clothes by hand really isn’t difficult to do, but Bongo still insisted on seizing all of my underwear (just my underwear, though) and tenderly scrubbing them for me, and then laying them out to dry on the line connected to his hut. This wasn’t the first clue that I needed to leave fast, but it brought me pretty close to my tipping point.

One night, a bird flew in through a hole in the thatch roof of my hut. I asked Bongo how we could patch it up, and he ushered me into his own hut – “no problem, from now on you’ll sleep in here”. It was very matter-of-fact, as though it were the only solution a reasonable person could ever arrive at. I’d had enough, and I told him I was leaving (I’m not proud of this, but I wasn’t nearly as calm as that probably makes it sound. I’m a little hot-headed, and I let him have it right then).  We were miles from the nearest village, though, and I wasn’t entirely certain how to get out on my own (this story is not a how-to guide, this is a plea to not be a complete and utter moron like I was, please.) Bongo insisted on accompanying me, and we set out. We walked 6 miles to a little spot on a dirt road and he told me to just wait there with him. “When will the bus come?” “When it comes.” The bus, I’d discover a few hours later, was no bus at all – it was a minivan built for 12, though we somehow managed to stuff over 20 in there. Someone else’s child sat on my lap, and I’ve never been more certain of my own death.

When I returned to Accra, I felt ill. My hypochondria is well-documented, so it took people a little while to take me seriously. My friends in Accra laughed it off – “obruni, you white people think malaria is worse than cancer!” (‘Isn’t it?’, I thought, ‘won’t cancer at least give you a few months or years, at the very worst?’) For Tutu, malaria was just a fact of life. I insisted on seeing a doctor, who gave me a blood test and diagnosed me with malaria – and worse, it was falciparum – the type you really, really don’t want to get. I need to let my dear readers know, at this point, that I did everything reasonable to prevent this – I took my pills religiously, I sprayed all those gross chemicals that are meant to keep the bugs at bay. At night, when malarial mosquitoes are out in full force, I slept under my netting and peed in jars so as to avoid venturing outside of my little fortress (I wasn’t joking about being a hypochondriac). Unfortunately, sometimes shit still happens no matter how fanatically you try to prevent it.

This is the little guy made me pee in jars! (Note: not a photo of the actual mosquito who gave me malaria.) (Also Note: I’m not that hairy.)
Photo Credit.

I spent the next week puking my guts out from the Artesunate I was prescribed. I tried to buy a new flight home with cash, but it was a disaster, and I lost a lot of money, too. I’d like to blame this whole experience on the fact that I was misled, the eco-village really misrepresented itself to me, and I was a teenager. This stuff is all true, but also, I was an adult, and I was in charge of making sure that I didn’t put myself in situations like that, and I really wish I had known better.

This trip was a perfect example of Murphy’s Law in action, but I learned a key lesson from it: Have somewhere to go if shit hits the fan. I made the mistake of thinking that  I would be fine because I’d traveled alone in poor countries and my experience in Ghana would be similar. Everywhere you go will be different, and you might not have a clue what you’re getting into until you’re already there. I was lucky to have friends in Accra, or things could have been much worse, but it was really just sheer dumb luck. And Bongo, creepy as he was, did lead me out of there. Never go somewhere without having a clue how to get out. That’s just common sense.

Also, for goodness sake, please bring a book. Bring three, just in case. You don’t want to find yourself somewhere like this after you’ve finished your last book.

12 Comments

  1. carrie says:

    enjoying the tales of your travel misadventures!

    zlzlzlzl,
    carrie

  2. joe says:

    falciparum is super bad. I did a bunch of research on malaria and malaria meds before going to northern brazil. since the malaria in south america is the tamer variety, I decided to do without the meds. after watching the people I was traveling with struggle with nightmares, mental health and sunburn (side effects), I think that getting malaria and taking drugs for a week was worse than getting side effects for four months. also cheaper. also doesn’t breed drug resistant malaria.

    • dirtyv6 says:

      I think that was a good call on your part – those side-effects sound scary. I used Malarone to prevent it instead of Lariam and it didn’t give me any crazy dreams or hallucinations, but clearly it didn’t work, either. Do you remember the drugs you were given to cure it? Nothing in my life has made me feel as wretched as the Artesunate.

    • joe says:

      it’s interesting that malarone didn’t work for you. I looked at malarone, doxy and mefloquine. malarone isn’t supposed to have noticeable side effects, and none of the people I traveled with had any problems. unfortunately my insurance didn’t cover malarone. mefloquine seems to cause nightmares fairly regularly, and two of my friends had pretty substantial and negative reactions to it in terms of mental health.

      I don’t remember what I took. I didn’t get sick until I was back in the U.S., so it was the drug that the doctor here usually prescribed. it wasn’t bad at all, though. took it for a week, and the worst part was that I couldn’t drink on new years eve.

  3. Lehua says:

    I knew someone (a zu alum, in fact) who took malaria medication for way longer than you are supposed to, I guess he didn’t read the side affects before he started to take them. He started to hallucinate, and for months he was tripping so hard it never occurred to him to quit his medication, and it was a bad trip the whole time. He was living in a tent in Africa and his dog was his only friend, and his dog could talk (he frequently hallucinated) and always gave wise advice. And then the villagers killed and ate his dog, that was his low point. I don’t know what the medication was, though.

  4. Raphaela says:

    It was probably Mefloquine/Lariam. That’s the most common one (one with the least resistance, maybe?) and it causes some scary stuff.

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