Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Solo travel is all kinds of liberating—after all, you get to call the shots on every aspect of your trip. But what happens when you get so ill that your decision-making abilities become practically non-existent?
It has been one of those glorious travel days. The type that makes you think, ‘Oh yes, I could do this forever. I will do this forever!’
I’m in Singapore at the end of a six-week trip around Indonesia. This morning, I took a local bus to Changi museum for a sobering history lesson, before hopping onto another bus to the pier where I boarded an old-style ‘bumboat’ ferry for the short ride to Singapore’s car-free island of Pulau Ubin.
With few facilities, Singapore’s last ‘kampung’ (village) is an antidote to the shiny city just a few miles away. And a day to myself on Pulau Ubin—cycling along quiet paths, spotting kingfishers, enjoying the views and finishing with a beer and fried rice by the water—has been joyous. It’s been a perfect day. And then it begins.
The fever comes first. And as I cycle back to the jetty, I notice my energy levels dropping. I feel hot and cold in rapid succession. I’m no stranger to food poisoning—but this isn’t food poisoning. Not by a long shot.
But this, whatever this is, comes with unexpected side effects: The inability to make (good) decisions. I should have taken the next ferry back, jumped into an air-conditioned taxi back to the hotel to glug water, take rehydration salts, and lie down in a cool room. But no. After the ferry, I decide to wait for a bus. And not because I want to save money…
My brain had shut down and left a sadistic maniac in charge, one who didn’t have my best interests at heart.
My original plan involved stopping in an interesting neighborhood on my way back, so I take a second bus and plough on, sweating, shivering and prowling around a blur of streets before eventually calling it a day.
Back at the hotel, I fall onto my bed and sleep. For hours. But with each hour I sleep, I become increasingly dehydrated. My brain has shut down and left a sadistic maniac in charge, (who’d later become known as The Joker), one who doesn’t have my best interests at heart.
I wake the following morning, parched, but with neither energy nor appetite, I muster the energy to crawl downstairs where I reluctantly sip one glass of juice for the best part of two hours. My body seems resistant to everything. I’m even unable to communicate just how ill I am through WhatsApp chats with parents and friends. I suspect The Joker has something to do with that.
With this sadistic maniac still at the helm, the crimes against common sense continue unchecked. It’s my last full day in Singapore and under the illusion of feeling ‘fine’, I sweat my way around the city’s metro system before deliriously dragging myself across Sentosa, Singapore’s theme park island. The entire time I’m there, all I can think is: “Why are you doing this?”
The day of departure. I take advantage of a late check-out and sleep in. I’m still severely dehydrated and even the hotel staff are concerned, suggesting I see a doctor. But my desperation to get home is stronger than my desire to feel better and I’m not prepared to risk being told I’m not well enough to fly. Which I quite possibly am not.
It turns out Singapore’s airport is not the worst place for the sick and solo. I find a row of lounger chairs, set my phone alarm, and doze until my gate opens.
I haven’t looked at my face in days, but judging by the crew’s reaction, I can only assume I look relatively close to death. That, or already dead. After asking a few questions and liaising with the captain, they deem me fit to fly, move me to a row of empty seats, and bar the occasional nudge to drink, leave me alone until we land. Back in London, the taxi driver lets me stretch out and sleep on the back seat, and carries my bag up to my flat. It only weighs about nine kilograms, but I can’t even lift that.
One of the joys of solo travel is no-one telling you what to do. But I’d also discovered that in times of trouble, one of the pitfalls is the same—there’s no-one telling you what to do.
Home. Less than three days since I’d become ill, but I’ve lost all concept of time. I speak to my parents, but still seem incapable of communicating how terrible I feel. Instead, I collapse onto my bed, crawl under the covers, fully-clothed and ‘shoe-ed’, and sleep: It’s the only thing I’m able to do. “I. Am. Never. Traveling. Again,” I tell myself.
At some stage, my flatmate arrives. Aware I’m not well, she messages me, so as to not wake me up, and I reply saying I’ll be downstairs after a shower. Perhaps the water’s too warm, or I lack the strength to stand, but I faint, pulling down the shower curtain and rod with me, the thud causing her to rush upstairs.
It spurs everything into action. The next day, my mum takes me to the doctors who sends us off to A&E where I’m diagnosed with a mysterious heatstroke-dehydration-virus combo. I narrowly avoid being attached to a drip on the proviso I’ll drink my body weight in water and Dioralyte sachets to replace lost body salts.
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This marks the beginning of the end, but it’s another few days before I can eat. Thanks to the Joker, it hasn’t registered that I’ve not eaten for a week, and when I do—tinned cream of tomato soup with Marmite on toast—it feels like a banquet. I’d forgotten how good it felt to be hungry.
I look different too—in fact, I’ve lost so much weight that I’ve developed catwalk-worthy cheekbones. I can also fit into dresses so tiny that I hadn’t realized what an optimist I was by hanging onto them in the first place. Parts of my body have literally dehydrated. My skin is scaly, particularly my legs, and bits of my feet would eventually fall off. I seem to be shedding—a side-effect of travel I wasn’t aware of until now.
As I get better, I have time to think. One of the joys of solo travel is no-one telling you what to do. But I’ve also realized that in times of trouble, one of the pitfalls is the same—there’s no-one telling you what to do.
Still, I won’t be giving it up. The freedom afforded by it will always outweigh the potential risks, even this—in fact, I was tested a couple of years later with a bout of altitude sickness in Peru, this incident rather nicely managed, thank you. But I do revamp my first-aid kit with rehydration salts, chewy fruit sweets, a thin scarf that can be dampened to cool yourself, a mini electric fan, and an ‘idiot’s what-to-do-if-you’re-sick list’ with such gems as, ‘Cool down quickly’ and ‘Mix sugar and salt into water if no salts’ and ‘Drink, drink, drink.’
Because if someone can’t tell you what to do, at least something can.