The Self Reliant Traveler

Have you ever felt as if you had finally nailed the complete and perfect way to do something? That’s how I felt when I had assembled my small pharmacy for travelling to use in Thailand. I had carried basic first aid kits before because I know from experience that illness and injury is part of travel. But this kit was more than basic and really gave me confidence. Among other things, I packed Cortaid™, Neosporin™, Bayer™, Advil™, Tylenol™ and Advil PM™, Dramamine™, Benadryl™, Blistex™, Lomotil™, Super Lysine™, Moleskin Plus™, Band-Aids™, and Pepto Bismol™. I felt sure that I had covered everything. My adult daughter Sarah was traveling with me. I knew that my little pharmacy would take care of her too! We were entirely self-reliant.

Shortly after our arrival in Bangkok, we walked around the city streets, taking it all in. The sun had set long before and the streetlights were dim; I tripped on the broken sidewalk and fell, hitting my head hard on a tree. I was surprised that I didn’t knock myself out. Sarah, commiserating with me, readied wet towels and gave me some aspirin from the kit for the pain. The next morning, my legs from knees on up were dark purple from the impact and I had a sizable knot on my head. I figured I hadn’t concussed and congratulated myself for my preparedness.

A few days later, while riding an elephant north of Chiang Mai, I discovered the delight of feeding elephants. I fed my patient and hungry carrier bananas and sugar cane. She reached backwards with her trunk to where I was sitting on her back; very delicately, she wrapped her wet nostril around the food and carried it to her tiny pink mouth. I fed her over and over just to enjoy the feel of her soft trunk on my fingers. That night my right eye became inflamed and painful. I must have touched my eye with my feeding hand. I didn’t have anything for eyes in my kit. How could I have missed that? Luckily, across from my hotel was a pharmacy where a young pharmacist in a white coat listened to my story and examined my eye. She gave me drops and a bottle of eyewash with a little cup. My eye healed completely after a few days and, in fact, I continued using the eyewash to battle the effects of pollution and traffic and heat.

Still in Chiang Mai, we took a weeklong cooking class and learned how to make curries. We consumed everything we made from Tom Kha Gai Soup to Mango with Sticky Rice. After a day when I had made a particularly fiery Penang Curry, I became so ill that I couldn’t stand up. Not only did I feel as if I was being branded with hot irons on the insides of my abdomen, I also had excruciating aches in every single part of my body. I couldn’t remember ever having felt so ill. I couldn’t even think straight enough to make a decision on what kind of medicine to take. My daughter was concerned and provided palliative care. It wasn’t enough. Our driver wanted to take me to the hospital and I went with him gratefully. The air conditioning was so intense inside the shiny white hospital that I curled up in blankets in the waiting room until I saw the young doctor; after an examination, he told me he thought I had a bacterial infection in my stomach, and that on top of that, I was very dehydrated. With an antibiotic and electrolytes and a caring driver, I was back on my feet in three days, ready to resume cooking classes.

We returned to Bangkok and it wasn’t long before my final bodily failure occurred. I had a terrific pain in my tooth whenever I chewed so meals became liquids only. In a country where the cuisine is as richly varied and complex as Thailand’s, not being able to eat carried its own type of pain. The hotel sent me to a huge dental clinic for foreigners, and the young dentist took an x-ray. She showed me the tiny spot on the gum causing the problem, assuring me that it wasn’t an abscess and that it would heal on its own. She was right.

I may have thought that my fully packed first aid kit made me self reliant, but the truth turned out to be vastly different. At every step of the way, when something went wrong, God provided a solution that was outside me. When I fell and hit my head, my daughter took case of me. When my eye became infected, the pharmacist came to my aid. When my belly went up in flames, my driver and the doctor and the hospital staff came to my aid. When my tooth proved painful, the dentist reassured me. The kit may have been my “first” aid, but the universe took over after that – providing what I needed when I needed it. Despite what I may have hoped, there is no first aid kit that powerful.

Certainly my first aid kit had given me confidence. But what really helped me, for the most part, was depending on the kindness and knowledge of others. The lesson I learned was one I have to keep learning: self-reliance can only take me so far. Ultimately, I must abandon myself with trust to the unknowable workings of the universe.

Bio: Bridget Smith lives with her husband in Juneau, Alaska.  She is a fiction and non-fiction writer. Writing credits include: Death of an Alaskan Princess, a mystery novel (St. Martins Press); Color in Rain Country, a gardening book; Hunger and Dreams and Our Alaska, anthologies; as well as numerous public radio commentaries, essays and short articles. She travels as often as possible.

She is currently working on a book about how citizenship and civility are intertwined. See her blog, Mostly Alaska.

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