This post is going to be hard to write. I have to admit it. I broke the first rule, and it bit me, badly.
What first rule, you wonder? Well, they do depend on who you ask. My mother’s first rule was always, “Never hit anything that’s harder than you are,” and a good and sensible rule it is. Thankfully, I didn’t break that one; thataway lie broken bones and concussions. But I did do something maybe even stupider. I broke the first rule of international travel, the one every tourist hears the moment they announce their first expedition beyond the boundaries of their own country (at least if they live in the west):
“WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T DRINK THE WATER!!!”
I did drink it. And I paid for it dearly.
I want you to understand that I didn’t drink the water willingly here, nor for lack of warning. There were very clear signs at Murchison River Lodge, telling you not to drink the tap water, and I fully respected them and intended to heed them. But I took a cooling-off shower on the fateful afternoon when I arrived there… and just a few drops of the shower water found their way between lips I hadn’t realized were the slightest bit parted… and then, startled by the presence of water in my mouth that I hadn’t expected, I did the worst thing possible by swallowing reflexively, before I had time to think about any of it.
It takes that little to make a person very, very ill. Just an instant’s inattention, a reflex action, and then no chance to take any of it back. I felt a little bit the way I did many years ago when, lying alone in an Iowa hospital after a highway accident with two new feet of surgical staples down my abdomen, I kept thinking, “But that’s not what I meant! I need a do-over!” That there are no do-overs in nature, no matter how trivial the error or how catastrophic the results, is one of the saddest things about the inexorable one-direction-ness of time.
I was fortunate in the extreme. Thanks to a habitually cautious nature and an excellent family doctor, I was already vaccinated against two of the really dangerous nasties that could’ve been in that water: typhoid and hepatitis A… and this water didn’t happen to contain cholera. But lesser bugs can still do a real job on you, and this one certainly did one on me.
At first, I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea whether that tiny amount could do me any harm; it seemed so unlikely, and yet I was uneasy. But I had a lot I was trying to do that evening, and I forgot about it, because I still felt fine. In fact, I still felt fine all through the next day (described in the last post) and partway through the day after that. After that, the wrench began to twist.
We did another game drive in the morning. I still felt well for most of it. I was especially pleased that I finally got good photographs of Oribis at close range, as well as some Kob behaviors I didn’t have yet (such as lying-down kobs and nursing kobs), and a nice lion sighting to round things out.
By the time we were heading back from the morning game drive, I was in a good deal more pain than usual from the jostling of the game car over bumpy dirt roads. I figured I would take a rest, and then for the afternoon we’d planned a drive to the top of the falls — a nice, easy trip mostly on paved roads and with only a little walking. I was already feeling bad enough to be frightened that somehow I might have caught Covid on the plane ride into Uganda after all — at this stage, there were no stomach symptoms of the water sickness; just bad headache and body aches all over. So I brought out one of the home rapid antigen tests I had brought and surreptitiously checked myself.
The test was very, very clearly negative. That reassured me for the moment, and I figured this must just be a bad fibro flare after all, and I would work through it and rest tomorrow, when we were on the road. So we started out for the top of Murchison Falls.
By the time we got there, I knew something was really badly wrong. My body hurt all over, my head felt like something held in a carpentry clamp, and I was so weak I couldn’t make the two-block walk from the parking lot to the falls. I had to lean heavily on Innocent’s arm just to stumble along, and I felt like I had no control of where I was putting my feet. It was scary. And I had forgotten the shower water completely by this point, so I had no idea why any of it was happening. Heat? Dehydration? Fibromyalgia? A non-Covid viral illness? What was going on?
Innocent was wonderful. He helped me get as far as I could on my own feet to see the Falls, and then he settled me on a bench and took my camera for me to the places I couldn’t go, so I would still have some kind of record of the place. Then he half carried me back to the car, stopping every few steps to let me rest… I was that weak.
When we got back to Twiga, all I wanted to do was sleep. Everyone was very kind, but they all thought that I should eat something, and I had to try and explain to them that the idea of eating was making me feel really ill. In fact, I suddenly realized (and told them), I was close enough to being sick on the spot that I urgently needed someone to hand me a bucket.
They stopped to deliberate about what was the best bucket to give me, and that made it just too late. They had to send for housekeeping — as well as quickly handing me the nearest plastic garbage pail in reach, and to hell with selecting the best. Well, I warned them.
After that, they left me alone about eating for the rest of the night, except to promise me that if there was anything at all that I felt I might want, all I need do is tell them. If it wasn’t something they usually cooked, they would try… just for me. After that, they left me to sleep. I slept mercifully soon; I took my own prescription anti-nausea medication, which has a side effect of putting me to sleep for several hours. I didn’t mind that side effect one bit. I was so hurt and delirious and afraid that sleep was a mercy.
The next day, we were scheduled to drive from Murchison Falls all the way across to Kibale Forest, about an eight hour trip. But all of it was on smooth, paved highways. I was way too weak to do my own packing, and I was running a low-grade fever as well. Innocent came to my room and packed up my things for me, only asking for occasional instructions about what went in which bag, or what outfit I wanted kept out so I could wear it.
I struggled my way into clothes, took another anti-nausea pill along with my regular morning medicine, and then stumbled out to the car on Innocent’s arm. It was just about all I had the strength to do. I collapsed into my seat, and Innocent helped me lean it all the way back for resting, and I let the medicine put me to sleep for most of the day. He had to wake me up when we arrived at our new lodge in the afternoon.
This was the lodge right outside of Kibale Forest, where the chimpanzees live. I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to go see the chimps, which were one of two highlights for which I’d really come to Uganda in the first place (the other was the gorillas, which we’re due to see in a couple of days). Fortunately, I did feel a little better. I managed to stumble down the path from the parking lot to the main reception and dining area by myself. And after a bit of a rest and a little fruit juice, I was even able to make my way further down to my own cottage — the closest one they had to the reception area, which was a damn good thing, considering.
Innocent, bless him, was determined that I should have a chance to see the chimpanzees if I possibly could, and so was I. By the time I woke up the next morning, it looked faintly possible. I walked, slowly but steadily, up to the lodge center by myself, and managed to drink two thirds of a glass of lemonade. Lemonade may not be most people’s go-to drink for when they’re sick enough to have no appetite, but it is mine. Innocent gathered me up, and with hopeful words on all sides, we set out into Kibale.
They say that these lodges are “right on the edge of the forest,” but don’t tell you that still means an hour or more away from where the chimpanzee treks set out, because that is from a point in the center of the forest. It seems so logical it may not even be a marketing ploy; just not thinking to state the obvious. It wasn’t obvious to me, and I grew a little concerned as Innocent kept muttering about whether or not we were going to make it on time, but as it turned out, we were there with 15 minutes to spare. Innocent settled me in the waiting room and went to hunt up help for me on the trek.
I have absolutely no idea what he said to whom, but I would really love to find out sometime. Because not only did he hire a porter (a slight misnomer by American definitions — this isn’t just somebody to carry your things, though he does do that; he’s a strapping young teenage boy whose job is to do whatever it takes to help you make your way through the dense forest), but he had induced the organization running the tours to assign me my very own private ranger. Even though people normally went out in groups of six! This was a godsend; it meant we could travel at my pace, and nobody else would have to be put out by my need to rest at frequent intervals. With a team like this, I was increasingly confident that I could walk as far as I needed to, and see the chimpanzees after all.
And I did. It helped a great deal that we found chimps within half an hour of setting out. They were very high up in a tree, however. There was a long, frustrating time of getting photos that could only barely show you that a particular small, black lump was, in fact, a chimpanzee — if I was very lucky, and caught it moving between patches of foliage.
Even so, two other groups were also watching our treefull of chimps, because there were few others that anyone could find at the time. My guide made a radical decision anyhow, and asked me if I were all right to go on. We might find more chimpanzees, she explained, in a better location. But we might also walk a lot longer, with no guarantee of finding any.
I took a deep breath, weighed my strength, and said that if she thought there was a decent chance she could find some, I would like to try. We seemed to have already seen everything there was to see in this tree.
God bless my ranger. She did some of her own tracking, and then connected with another group; and somehow she contrived to find us two more chimps, much lower down in the trees. She even did it without adding more than fifteen minutes of walking time to the load of fatigue I was carrying. SHE did a great deal more walking than that… but first she found me a wooden bridge where I could sit with my porter to look after me while she scouted around. So, when she came back to announce that she’d found more chimps not far away, I was in good enough condition to make the short walk, even though I was beginning to get wobbly by the time we arrived.
The fatigue was all worth it when one of the chimps — a pair of young males, and therefore much bolder than the big group of mothers with babies we’d seen back at the first tree — swung down far enough to look back at us with the same curiosity we were showing to him. He sized us up quite thoughtfully; there’s no doubt that a formidable intellect lives under those heavy brows. It was completely thrilling to be so close to an alien, and yet nearly equal (by cross-species standards, anyway), intelligence. I’ve never doubted that animals have feelings as real as ours, but this fellow was one of the first animals I’ve watched who appeared to be truly thinking.
We finally turned to go, because the chimps appeared to be settled in for some prolonged munching of figs, and I was getting too weary to know where I was putting my feet… a dangerous condition in a rain forest where the ground is a tangle of roots and vines with seldom even one flat step. But a sudden noise in the trees alerted my ranger and she stopped and urged me to turn around. The chimpanzees were coming down to the forest floor!
Down they came, so fast they almost appeared to free-fall down the trees. Then they barreled off into the distance as soon as they landed. I could never have gotten a picture of that; they moved way too fast. But on their way, those huge fuzzy bodies passed within ten feet of me, first one and then the other, before they were swallowed up again by the density of the rain forest. I hadn’t thought I would ever get that close to a wild ape, and I was delighted, picture or no.
Between the ranger and the porter, they got me back to the tour’s home base, and I think the ranger was as proud and happy as I was that I made it through. Innocent, who met us at the forest’s edge with a huge grin, may have been more pleased than either one of us.
This morning, I had to drag myself through packing, and that was a lot for me, even though I’m clearly improving. I had remembered overnight, finally, about the water, and was positive that’s what was wrong with me. And since I didn’t know what was in that water, I didn’t know how seriously I should be taking it. So I asked Innocent to get me to a doctor.
He asked the family who owned the lodge we were staying at where they went when they were sick, and they recommended a clinic in a town a little ways north. That was out of our way, but not too far, so we went there. The buildings were shabby and wooden, and the paperwork was kept by hand instead of by computer, but in every way related to the actual medical care, things were scrupulously clean and modern and professional. They had their waiting area outdoors under a tent to protect everyone against Covid (and still had mask mandates, which were universally obeyed). The doctor listened to my story, and sent me over to the lab to get some lab work done. When it came back looking clean, she gave me a couple of supportive medicines — basically extra strength Tylenol, which I already had, and an anti-diarrheal — and sent me away with instructions to see someone again if it wasn’t better in four days. Her attitude suggested she was pretty sure it would be.
The entire process cost less than $10. And that included physically giving me the medicines, not just a prescription to fill elsewhere.
So I also, am pretty sure I’ll get better. Heck, I’m already better; miles better. I’m just not all the way well yet. We stopped at a supermarket to pick up dinner of the cool, soft foods my body’s been demanding, and I got down half a tub of ice cream before it warmed up too much to eat. The yoghurt, I’m having for dinner tonight. We had a long, bumpy drive today, with several hours of it on the unpaved roads inside the park… but it only really began to hurt me badly by the very end. That’s a heck of an improvement. And I still managed to do all my walking unassisted afterwards.
I’m now at Enjojo Lodge, in the southern ‘Ishasha’ section of Queen Elizabeth National Park. It’s a lovely place, green and peaceful. The staff — as the staff has been everywhere else I’ve traveled since I got sick — just can’t do enough to take care of me. There’s a group of local children entertaining out there charmingly, with songs and drumming — I’ve heard it said that South Africa has great singers and West Africa has great drummers, but perhaps that means that East Africa has both? Anyway, I’m listening from my room, while I eat my strawberry yoghurt. I was too tired to go out and watch, but I’m enjoying the music nevertheless. But I having to send away staff members who want to check just one more time if there’s really nothing else they can get me to eat? No, sadly, not yet there isn’t. Getting through the whole strawberry yoghurt was an achievement.
Tomorrow, we hope to go looking for the famous tree-climbing lions, a behavior seldom found in lions anywhere but here. I’m looking forward to that, and with most of the direct symptoms gone and only my strength and my appetite still to get back, I think I should be able to handle it.
In the meantime, I rest in the cool darkness, listening to the children sing, and I think about some of the bits and pieces I’ve learned from this nearly disastrous little episode:
- Very cold foods are an absolute blessing on an upset stomach; it numbs the stomach and stops it from churning
- Even if you never, ever get sick to your stomach, both gas-X and Pepto-Bismol have a place in every travel medical kit.
- When my body is screaming at me with every breath, “I’m SO tired; I’m SO tired…” that can actually be a pretty good sign. It means that simple fatigue has finally had a chance to make it up the hierarchy of issues, and for the moment there’s nothing else more pressing going on.
- But most of all… DON’T DRINK THE WATER!!! Really. Even by accident. Find a way.
Bacteria have no respect for good intentions.