The Worst Travel Ailments I’ve Ever Experienced (Part Two)

by Brenna Holeman

Ginger juice in Guatemala

Some Beet and Ginger Concoction I Thought Would Cure Me (Antigua, Guatemala)

If you read my blog over the past couple of weeks, you know that I was struck by a cold in Antigua that lasted through Copan and now to Utila, preventing me from diving as much as I wanted to (my main reason for coming here in the first place). One of my most popular posts on this blog was one I did about my worst travel ailments in the past few years; bronchitis and vomiting, bedbugs and leech bites, nothing was too gross or too personal to discuss. “My poor body!” I thought as I wrote that. “What I make it endure just for the sake of travel! All of those things I put my body through!”

And then I talked to my mum.

“What about that time in Greece?” she asked. “Or about that time on the horse in Mexico? And didn’t something bad happen to you in the Philippines?” How quickly we forget all the problems we’ve faced.

Here then, are the worst travel ailments I’ve ever experienced. Part two.

Warning: I get graphic.


8. Blisters, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: Ah, blisters. We all get them with a pair of new shoes, or perhaps if we walk for quite a long way. I frequently get them when I travel, for both of those reasons. I even get them when I wear fins for a long time in water, even if I wear a pair of protective socks. None of these blisters, however, quite match the blisters I got once upon a time in Mexico.

This was years ago, and I was on a holiday with my whole family. Eager to break up the long and hot days spent sitting on the beach and by the pool, we decided to go horse-back riding through a little wooded area not far from Cabo San Lucas. Not what one would call an equestrian, I wasn’t exactly kitted out in the proper gear for horseback riding; I was wearing shorts and runners, with a pair of fairly thick socks. Everyone else in my family was wearing the same, so it’s not like I was absolutely mad.

We started riding along at a very peaceful pace, and within a few minutes I was aware of a rubbing feeling on my ankles, but, being a bit nervous, didn’t really focus on it and chose instead to just carry on with the group. A few hours later, after dismounting, I clearly remember my little brother saying, “Ewwww!! Bren, what’s on your ankles??”

The word ‘blister’ isn’t really an accurate description. Perhaps open, oozing wounds rings a bit truer. The fact of the matter was, I was forced to wear massive bandages on both ankles, plus socks, for the rest of my Mexican holiday. To reiterate, I had to WEAR SOCKS the whole time, including on the beach. For a young woman hoping to impress that cute American boy by the pool, this was almost as devastating as the excruciating pain I felt every time my ankles touched anything, anything at all, including the ocean. To this day, my family still refers to that incident as “that time Brenna’s ankles looked like pepperoni slices”. Here’s the first of many travel tips: wear appropriate clothing.

9. Sandfly Bites in the Philippines: I was hanging out on the island of Boracay for a few days back in 2010, and I had met a particularly lovely group of people (hello, Ross and Claire!). We spent many an evening sitting/standing/dancing in beach bars along the shore, drinking and laughing and becoming fast friends. One day I woke up, however, realising I had been scratching my legs in my sleep. Did I get a few mosquito bites last night? I thought.

It was so, so, so much worse. My legs, from the knees down, were covered in horrid, violent-looking bites, bright red and growing in size and voracity by the minute. I rushed to the pharmacy, where (never a good sign) even the pharmacist recoiled in horror. I was sent to a local clinic, where the doctor proclaimed I had a bad case of sandfly bites, and prescribed me a runny green liquid that would apparently help. The liquid did indeed help the itching, but only when it was applied liberally, therefore making my legs glow a disturbingly virescent hue. I still had the scars from the bites a good month later, and to this day I am always attacked by sandflies (though never quite with the same vengeance). As I sit writing this, my legs look like I’m recovering from a mild case of chicken pox. Another travel tip: always wear bug spray, even if you don’t feel like you’re getting bitten and/or can’t see the actual bugs. Trust me, they’re there.

10. Chafing, The Sahara, Morocco: Yes, chafing. Yes, this is vile.

I was living in Edinburgh at the time and, with a trip to Morocco coming up, I needed to buy a pair of trousers. Anyone who has read my blog long enough knows that I don’t really own trousers or jeans, so this was something of an arduous task. I finally found a pair I liked at the local Primark, a shop known for trendy but very, very cheap clothing. This is an integral piece of the story.

And so I set off to beautiful, exotic Morocco; I had been there a few times before, but this time was special in that I would be venturing into the Sahara for a few days, camping under the stars, eating tagines, singing songs by the fire that would warm us at night. The image was all very romantic. I hadn’t planned on what a long camel ride plus one very cheap pair of trousers might do to spoil that image.

There I was, lumbering along on my camel through the desert, when I realised my inner thighs were starting to itch and burn. Again, much like the blisters caused by the horse in Mexico, I tried not to pay attention to it and focused on the long and hot journey ahead (you’d think I’d have learnt by now). It was only after we reached our first camp at the base of the sand dunes that I knew something was horribly wrong. Again, just to warn you, this gets pretty disgusting.

I went into my tent to get changed and…my trousers were stuck to my legs. In horror, I realised they were stuck to my legs because my inner thighs had chafed so badly on the camel that they were sticky with blood and pus. Needless to say, the next few days in the desert were not the most comfortable, and I had the scabs and the scars to prove it for at least another month. It was oh so much fun going back to Edinburgh and explaining to my boyfriend at the time what had happened (I will say this: I have always been with the most forgiving men…or at least men who were really good liars). Again, wear appropriate clothing. Also, pay more than 5 dollars for a pair of trousers.

11. The Flu, Santorini, Greece: There is nothing too significant about this story, except that I did indeed have the flu while I was on the island of Santorini. I was travelling with a man; I didn’t particularly want to be sick in front of this man, but sometimes there are forces that cannot be stopped. See: hurricanes, true love, and projectile vomit.

It started early one morning, the day we had decided to take a bus to a nearby beach. As it was October, the beach was actually quite chilly, the water freezing. This did not help the fact that I was already feeling really shivery and ill, but I didn’t want to appear weak (reminiscent of a travel tip from the last post: if you feel sick, SAY SOMETHING. Don’t be a martyr). I remember very nearly passing out on the bus back to Fira.

After an afternoon of rest and a few pills popped, I thought I was feeling well enough to eat some dinner. We walked a few blocks up the road to a little cafe, where I indulged in a club sandwich and fries (yes, I was in Greece, but grape leaves, lamb meat, and ouzo were the last things my stomach could handle at that point). Ah, I thought, I am feeling better. We then walked to an Internet cafe to check our email (sidenote: remember when people travelled without phones, laptops, or tablets? Remember when people travelled without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.?) and while he was online, I decided to have a cappuccino. I downed the last drops as he finished up, and then we started to head back to our hotel.

What happens next, my friends, is really, really gross, grosser than oozing thighs. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

We were laughing and talking in the street, and I felt totally, perfectly fine, when…it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was going to vomit. Now, not at the hotel, NOW. Not wanting to throw up in front of a man I did indeed want to share my bed with again in my life, I ran down a back alley and attempted to vomit behind a dumpster; yes, I missed. If you didn’t already remember, I had JUST eaten and JUST had a very hot, milky drink. Revolting enough, right?

Oh, it gets even more revolting. As anyone who has ever been to Greece can attest, there is an abundance of stray cats almost everywhere you go. Santorini is no exception. So, as I stood there, buckled over, vomiting more and for longer than I ever remember before, swarms of stray cats began to run over and lap up my vomit. Yes, you read that correctly. I was horrified, but I couldn’t stop throwing up, and more and more cats kept coming for the free meal. The second I was finished, I ran back to where my poor companion was standing, too weak and too disgusted to tell him what just took place. I still laugh/shudder when I think of that story.


Here’s the thing – I don’t consider myself a sickly or weak person. I actually consider myself to be a very strong and healthy person, despite the discomfort I constantly put my body in and my often hedonistic lifestyle. I try to eat fruit and vegetables when I travel, I try to drink lots of water, and Lord knows I get enough sleep. So why is it, then, that when I travel, I am so often ill or in pain? If it’s not an upset stomach, it’s a cough, if it’s not a runny nose, it’s a sunburn. I am forever broken out, too hot or too cold, covered in bites, exhausted, and have sore muscles and blisters on my feet to boot. I look horrible, and sometimes, I feel horrible. Why on earth do I put myself through these things?

Because, despite my current state (for the record: skin is broken out, my chest has a heat rash, I have sand flea bites covering my legs, one ear is blocked from diving, and it is so hot in my room that I don’t even bother wiping the sweat from my brow, as it will be back in less than a minute), despite how badly I can feel sick one day, despite how horrible all of these conditions make me look, despite all of this, I feel amazing. I love the way I feel when I am on the road: full of laughter, full of curiosity, full of freedom. And no bug bite or sore stomach is going to prevent me from travelling (well, you know, unless I get yellow fever or diphtheria or dysentery or malaria or a virus or a worm or…you get the point).

Part three to come soon. (Edit: I wrote it.)

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[Ali] To Be Continued... June 13, 2012 - 12:07 am

Hahaha GROSS but such a great read sweetie!! Why oh why indeed do we put ourselves through it all (I say say here covered in mozzie bites with severe jet-lag and diarrhea!!)? xx

Amie June 13, 2012 - 12:42 am

i am DYING over the cat story. that is beyond funny!!! (although probably not at the time)

i think my two top travel illnesses were bronchitis i caught during a week in london that ended up developing into a 3-month long case of pneumonia once we were back home and the lovely “had to use the ocean as an emergency outhouse” episode in the cayman islands after too much beer, sun, and bad food. it wasn’t pretty…

This Battered Suitcase June 13, 2012 - 4:41 am

Ali – Why oh why indeed? I suppose it is because we were made for the road, and nothing will stop us when we put our minds to something…

Amie – That is horrible!! I’ve never had pnuemonia but I can only imagine how awful it is. And I’m sure we’ve all used the ocean as an emergency toilet at one point, ha ha…

Jay June 13, 2012 - 6:18 am

And here I went to grab breakfast and bring it back to my computer to read this post… not a clever idea!

The last story with the vomit & the cats – you couldn’t make that up! Horrifying in the moment I’m sure but a very good story indeed!

My worst came in Barcelona a couple of months ago – the husband and I decided to go to the Hunger Games (we hadn’t been out of the 3rd world in months) and grabbed a questionable bite to eat beforehand. I could feel my stomach grumbling throughout the movie and as time went on, I couldn’t ignore it. With about 30 minutes left in the film I told Joe something wasn’t right and to grab my things and follow me. When I stood up I was so dizzy and really struggled to make my way to the aisle. When I got to the door they were cloaked in heavy, black curtains and I thrashed around trying to get out when I fainted. I woke to my husband standing over me and helping me to my feet. Finally in the hall it came to a peak. I ran to the nearest bathroom and vomited everywhere for 15 minutes straight. It continued when we returned to the hotel and the next morning I had to catch a train to Valencia. It was awful.

Jay June 13, 2012 - 6:18 am

This comment has been removed by the author.

Katie @ June 13, 2012 - 12:29 pm

I’m with Jay — So glad I was taking a bite of my cinnamon & pecan cream cheese-slathered bagel just as I read the words, “blood and pus.”

Haha, yes, you warned us. 🙂

Rebecca McKanna June 13, 2012 - 5:23 pm

The image of the cats and you doubled-up vomiting! Oh, God. I don’t think I’ll be able to get that image out of my mind.

One of my worst travel ailments was on a road trip. I realized I was going to throw up while I was in the car and had the foresight to ask my travel mates for a plastic bag to puke in. As soon as I leaned over to vomit in it, I realized there was a hole at the bottom. You can use your imagination to picture what a disaster that was …

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures June 14, 2012 - 1:56 am

Pobrecitaaaaaaa! Gosh, been there done that, totally feel your pain. But at the end of the day traveling is so worth it right??? I hope your cold goes away quickly.

EM June 14, 2012 - 8:52 pm

I love this post – I feel your pain but could not stop laughing about the cats 🙂 I too end up with the WORST stuff when I’m traveling! Always with the heat rash, or the blisters, or the stomach bug in Peru that was so awful I lost 22 pounds in 2 weeks (but came home looking fabulous, so silver lining, right?) And those Bay Island sandflies are vicious… my legs are still covered in oozing gross bites and I’ve been home nearly 3 weeks. I even put up a photo of them on my blog while I was on Roatan because people at home didn’t believe how bad they were. I had bug spray on and everything, but those damn insects turn my legs into a disgusting mess every time. Fingers crossed that I get some sort of immunity when I move there!

Tom June 15, 2012 - 3:57 pm

Hahahaha ohmygod, I laughed so much reading this – especially when the stray cats came in! Ewwwww.

I once barfed Pepsi-coloured vomit all over a hotel bathroom in Turkey. I made it to the cubicle, shut the door, and managed to turn about 90 degrees before everything came spewing out. It went everywhere but actually in the toilet itself. Ick.

Anyways, love your writing style – I felt like I was there with you, holding your hair back and pretending not to look as repulsed as I felt.

This Battered Suitcase June 15, 2012 - 6:01 pm

Jay – Don’t say I didn’t warn you!! As for your story, that sounds HORRIBLE. Fainting is the absolute worst…combine that with throwing up AND having to travel? I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy…

Katie – Ewwww! Sorry!!

Rebecca – Oh God, how awful! I don’t want to picture what happened next…

Andi – Absolutely, it’s all worth it in the end! And my cold is feeling much better, thank you!! xo

EM – Holy crap (excuse the pun)! 22 pounds?! That sounds absolutely horrifying. And you’re so right about the bugs here in Honduras; I put on bug spray every night, but my legs still look like they have a minor form of lepresy…

Tom – Oh, the horror of missing the toilet. If only our bodies gave us one more second to aim! I’m pleased to hear you would hold my hair back, even though you’d be repulsed, ha ha! What a good friend!!

Nicole June 16, 2012 - 2:26 am

But at least you can look back on it all and chuckle, right? At least a little? 😉

This Battered Suitcase June 16, 2012 - 3:11 am

Nicole – Absolutely!! I think it’s all hilarious…now.

expatkerri June 17, 2012 - 7:14 am

poor thighs, poor brenna, but lucky kitties and funny stories now.

get well soon, but if not i’ll be happily nursing you back to health with extreme love in nicaragua in 2 weeks.

Ekua June 18, 2012 - 12:57 am

Sandfly bites are the worst! I got attacked by them at the beach in Cuba despite covering myself in bug spray (which I hate to do). Everything itched, but I was staying in a lovely hut and I was surrounded by white sand beaches and clear water for snorkeling… absolutely worth it 😉

This Battered Suitcase June 19, 2012 - 5:50 am

Expatkerri – Remember when you nursed me back to (somewhat) health in Burma and Thailand! More Tiger Balm on my temples, please!!

Ekua – Yes, it is often worth it, isn’t it? My legs look HORRIBLE right now but I wouldn’t give this up for anything…

Paulina Muez October 30, 2012 - 4:42 pm

Hahaha you have quite some stories!

Omg, the same happened to me in Puerto Penasco when I went horse riding! So much fun though!

Happy travels!

This Battered Suitcase November 3, 2012 - 1:35 pm

Thanks, Paulina! Happy travels to you, too!

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Of course I’m really late on commenting on this (I’ve just found your blog), but after living in The Bahamas, I’ve learned a life-saving tip to survive sandflies. Bug spray does not work, but if you slather your legs with baby oil, they can’t bite through it! One of the gross side effects is that they fly onto you and sometimes don’t fly off, so you’re covered in dead flies, but it works wonders! Apply liberally – even though you’ll look really shiny, it’s worth it!

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