TRAVEL, AND YOU GET SICK, sooner or later. This truth is universal. I remember reading somewhere that the queen of England, when she leaves her country, always takes with her a certain number of units of her own blood. (Ordinary blood would be unsuitable, I guess, should the queen happen to need a transfusion.) Maybe that's just a myth. The fact remains that if you travel, no matter who you are, eventually you will be brought low.
Even when you're healthy, the dislocation of traveling is itself kind of like being sick. (Of course, this presumes that you're traveling somewhere different from the place where you usually are, a distinction increasingly difficult to make in the USA.) To begin with, in a different place there's the strangeness of time, exaggerated, almost always, by jet lag. Then there are other strangenesses of smell, of light, of currencies, of the way people dress and walk and smile or never smile. Sometimes just the sparrows flying around inside the terminal are enough to throw me. If you don't speak the place's language, or don't speak it well, a spine-deep queasiness comes with that, too. And when on top of everything you actually do get sick in this place, the experience is generally several times worse than it would be at home.
Worse, that is, and then better when you start to recover, you may feel a weird elation that's as great as your previous sufferings were bad. The only foreign country in which I've traveled much is Russia, and I've been sick there twice. The first time was in a hotel in St. Petersburg, the Oktyabrskaya, a Soviet-era immensity with doorways receding to the vanishing point down bleak halls, and room telephones like flatirons that always rang with calls from prostitutes half a minute after I came in and closed the door. Late one night, lying on the narrow bed pushed up against the wall (Russians love to sleep against the wall), I awoke in the direst kind of renal pain. I was clammy, contorted, and shaking so badly I could barely tie my shoe. Once dressed, I staggered out to the desk of the floor lady, at an intersection where two of the endless halls converged. (Most hotels in Russia have floor ladies, sort of like monitors, on every floor.) I told the floor lady I needed a doctor. Without the least show of sympathy, she said she would call one and ordered me back to my room.
I lay there. The doctor didn't come. I sweated, suffered, writhed. The lamps in the room were of a Soviet modern style, set flush with the wall so they cast their radiance upward like the lighting inside a coffin. At one point, despairing, I put on my coat and set out for a foreigners' emergency room in a far neighborhood mentioned in my Cadogan guidebook, but the floor lady caught me, berated me, and sent me back to wait some more. The doctor, when he finally did arrive, looked like one of the Marx brothers, from their early movies when they were young. He had a long white coat, wacky side hair, and eyes that seemed to rotate in opposite directions in his round black spectacles. He carried not a doctor's bag but a big black box, with shiny metal reinforcements at the corners. Inside it were row upon row of German pharmaceuticals in glass ampules that could be opened only by breaking the tops. I described my symptoms the best I could (he spoke almost no English), and he took out two ampules. They looked like something a Nazi would use to kill himself. The doctor broke the tops, administered the bitter, mahogany-colored contents to me, told me to drink lots of water, gave me his card, and left.
Whatever had afflicted me a constriction of the kidney capillaries, brought on by dehydration, was his diagnosis began to moderate. The light of dawn rose faintly in the room's high windows. The morning's first trolleybus went by on the street below, the sparks under its wheels throwing reflected flashes on the ceiling. The city's ravens started their morning ratcheting. In my sudden, growing feeling of non-illness, I became so grateful to the mad doctor, and so restored to myself, I almost levitated. Sinister-seeming foreign medicine was actually curing me. My irrational love of Russia returned, and I rolled back against the wall to sleep.
WHAT UNDOES YOU, USUALLY, is what you gulp. Once, in a bar in Montana, I held my hand against the glass of a case containing a coiled and rattling rattlesnake; if I could keep my hand against the glass when the snake struck, the bartender said, he would buy me a beer. The bet proved a safe one on his part, because it is in fact impossible not to flinch from a striking snake, no matter how thick the intervening glass or strong your will. When you travel, a similar deeply conditioned response occurs: You know the food is bad, the water dangerous. You discipline yourself consciously, stick to bottled water, eat only the mildest, most scrutinized food. Vigilance carries you through one trip, maybe several. But then in an unguarded moment you're hungry, you're thirsty, something smells good, the water from the spring looks refreshing, your reflexes take over and you gulp.
(Although, strangely, what sickened me that time in Russia was not gulping but caution. I had been so careful about what I drank, I became dehydrated from not drinking enough.)
And the result of gulping, most of the time, is that you come down with a certain ailment. This ailment is in fact the most common one that travelers get. It is so well known that it does not need to be named; you know the ailment I mean. Usually it is caused by food. It is disagreeable and inconvenient but not serious. It sneaks up on you no matter how careful you are. Sufferers usually recover from the worst of it in two to three days. In its commonest form I don't even consider it an illness, technically. It will not kill you. What does kill travelers is accidents (if you're young) and preexisting medical conditions (if you're old). These problems are rarer, thankfully. But in almost all travel stories, an unmentioned amount of the most common travel ailment can usually be assumed.