Redefining Adventure, Or: They Call Me Hepatitis A Because I Ruin Vacations

I am kind of high-maintenance, and I don’t travel well. That isn’t to say I’m incompetent or irresponsible; I am simply a challenge to be undertaken, like climbing Machu Picchu, but without the sense of accomplishment. On vacation, I’m the sickly pioneer woman who slows the pace of the whole settlement. I would definitely have been the first feast of the Donner party.

Here I lay out my most egregious examples. Judge how you must.

A. The Time I Got Ebola

Relax. I never had Ebola. My behaviour in this story might have been justifiable if I did, though.

Illness tends to come from nowhere and take me down like a falling A/C unit. I was sick quite often during my teenage years with various ailments, never serious enough to land me a hospital stay, but enough to keep me from ever fully participating in gym class. Now, with my mental health under control, I’ve seen a corresponding improvement in my immune system. But this story takes place long before that. In this story, I have a stomach virus… at the airport.

Lots of people say London Heathrow Airport is their favourite airport, as if anyone could have a favourite airport. It’s like saying fluoride is your favourite part of a dental treatment. Why bother ranking things that are all so terrible? Anyway, in case you hadn’t guessed, my family was travelling through Heathrow when this all went down.

Heathrow is set up like a sprawling little city, and we were on a long layover. I don’t recall where or how I got the bug, but what I do remember is that nobody was making a big enough deal about it. My parents pressed forward as if getting through this journey was their number one priority, not my life, which hung in the balance. So, like many who seek comfort and attention in the same breath, I developed a very unhelpful mantra.

“Oh, dear,” I moaned as we trudged through security. “Oh, dear,” I wailed as my mom checked out the duty-free shop. “Oh, dear,” I cried when my brother told me to cut it out. I kept insisting we stop and sit because I didn’t want to walk any more. When my mom tried to give me food, I whispered, “Don’t bother.” My family’s ability to ignore my mumblings ebbed and flowed, but there was a narrowness in their eyes that echoed a cornered prey animal. They knew there’d be no escaping me once we boarded that plane.

After almost one full day, we made our way to the gate. I shuffled along like a prisoner of war. The attendant scanning my boarding pass handed it back to me with two delicate fingers. And into the capsule I went.

Things got much, much worse on the plane. I bitched a lot more. I was nauseated and miserable, and damned if everyone around me wasn’t miserable too. I wasn’t doing it on purpose, since I never want to draw attention to myself; I genuinely thought I would die in a tiny beige cylinder where the only movies available to watch were King Arthur and Along Came Polly.

Now, I don’t recall how this happened, but I ended up stretched along three seats in the back of the plane (did people have to move? I still don’t know) with an off-duty physician attending to me. His diagnosis? Probably melodrama. I don’t do things halfway.

At one point during the flight, my sleep-deprived mother joked that I would be quarantined when we got back to Canada.

“Oh, dear,” I groaned, and started crying.

She stared into middle distance, no doubt contemplating life without children.

B. The One with the Sheep Feces

Yep. This one’s about feces. The fact that I had to specify the animal should tell you a lot about me as a person.

I love sheep. As a child, I had a little backpack shaped like a sheep in which I carried my most prized possessions (a tiny dollar store notebook, an empty Pez dispenser, and about $1.35 in change). So, on vacation to the Lake District of England (and please do note that this is the same vacation as the legendary Donkey Day Afternoon), I was hyped to pet some sweet fluffy sheep. But as is so often the case in life, I didn’t get my wish. I just got its leavings.

My dad liked to take us on long, meandering hikes. I earned my stellar reputation of ‘Mountain Goat’ by forging ahead and putting myself in danger because I never knew where I was going. Dad once remarked that the family knew I’d gone too far away because they couldn’t hear any complaining.

On this day, we were probably the farthest we could be from our B&B, which to me is like the witching hour. Something’s going to go wrong. And wrong it went, when I stepped on some dark rocks and my foot went out from under me. I landed, naturally, into the biggest pile of sheep shit I had ever seen.

My family drew to a collective halt. Three inhales of breath. I heard my dad yell, “Eri, don’t move.” I froze in place, half-hovering, unsure what to do next. My hands had fallen in the feces and would now need to be amputated.

I stretched out a hand, sliding further as I did, and asked for help. My parents looked dubious. My brother laughed his head off. I felt like a French peasant begging the bourgeoisie for a loaf of bread. I slipped several more times as I stumbled to my feet; each time I did, my mother took a deep breath. She pulled out some lemon-scented Wet Wipes that barely dented the coating on my arms and legs. At last I rose and walked stiffly on.

My brother made a huge deal of walking upwind from me. I’m fairly certain it took us several hours to reach civilization. As I baked in the sun, I thought back on the many days I’d spent not caked in feces, and I wept for that girl who never appreciated what she had, and who was dead now.

By the time we got to a pub on the edge of town, my brain had curled in on itself, armadillo-like. I drank my glass of lemonade in the booth, watching my family crowd on the other side to escape my sheepish aroma, and I knew I was a pariah. I wept, for no one would ever love me again.

Then, back at the B&B, my mom threw me in the bath and I was reborn.

C. gelato cures all ills

Have you ever woken up surrounded by strangers watching you? It’s the oddest, most vulnerable feeling. It’s happened to me exactly once, when I fainted in Venice, Italy.

My body, by and large, does not like me. It’s angry it has to live in the dry prairie instead of lush, sodden Scotland. So it’s always looking for ways to ruin my life. You liked crab that one time? Well, now you’re allergic to shellfish. Oh, you’re severely deficient in vitamin D? Guess what? You’re also allergic to the sun so good luck getting your nutrients, FOOL.

Considering my Victorian-corset constitution, it’s impressive I don’t pass out more often. On that hot summer day in the sinking city, I might have been dehydrated or something. The point is, I felt a bit nauseous and then I woke up on the ground in a circle of pigeons. The human onlookers, tourists and locals alike, didn’t seem too concerned, but the pigeons certainly were.

I think, had I been a different sort of person, my parents would have been more worried. But you’ve read the Ebola story. You know what was going through their heads. I was fine, but their day was over.

It was true. The day became about shepherding me back to the hotel and getting me hydrated. My dad groused about the €8 water bottles. Me, I enjoyed it just fine, because I didn’t have to walk anywhere and I got a bowl of stracciatella gelato from the place down the street. Pretty good day, I thought then. Now I think it’s a miracle no one suffocated me in my sleep.

d. omelet hell

My school band didn’t require auditions. As such, I got in. I learned to play my father’s 30-year-old alto sax, with its sticky keys and a bite pad retrofitted for my braces. You can imagine the noises emanating from that rehearsal room at 7:15am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, before most people have had their coffee.

In high school, the band went on a trip. I think our teacher lobbied pretty hard to get them. (I attended a private school where athletics and STEM subjects were essentially the only ‘worthwhile’ pursuits.) My best guess as to how we ended up in Cuba is that it was probably the cheapest of the Central America destinations. The school was always trying to send its very WASP-y student population to ‘exotic’ locales, which meant I ran through a metric ton of sunblock.

So we took a charter plane to Cuba. The two-star hotel was on the beach (great). We weren’t allowed to drink water from the taps, not even to brush our teeth (not great). While I showered, a centipede crawled out of the drain and onto my leg (so very far from great). I felt like I was in an episode of Survivor, and someone, I’m not sure who, was trying to vote me off the island. Or something. I’ve never seen the show.

Every morning at breakfast I ordered cereal, until I heard my father’s voice in my head. “Erin,” he said once as we lined up at a buffet, “there is nothing better than an omelet made to order.” So I decided to chance the omelet station. Now, I had watched my dad make omelets many a Sunday, and I was pretty sure the egg needed to spend more than ten seconds in the pan, but I am not one to shake any trees. I let the cook slide a rubbery half-moon onto my plate, and then I sat down to eat it.

This is where the trip took a very nasty turn.

We’ve all had some form of food poisoning, so I’ll spare you the rib-bruising details. Overnight I lost all the water in my body, and as my head swelled with fever, I imagined crawling out and dying serenely on the beach. Next morning, the teachers decided I could not be left alone in the hotel all day, so I heaved my way onto the bus. Everyone looked like I’d aimed a shotgun between their eyes.

Life suddenly became a lot worse for me and for the band. I played first alto sax. After I boarded the bus, one of my section mates crouched by me, a risky move given the volatility of my liquid organs.

“I really hope you feel better soon,” he said. “I can’t play that solo.”

e. Finally

Where does this come from? Not my father, who, during his one and only hospitalization of adult life, somehow still logged more work hours than anyone else at his firm. Not my brother, who helped me move into my university dorm and got invited to more parties that weekend than I did the entire year. Look, I don’t know why I’m like this. Rather, I don’t know why this nonsense happens to me.

I can’t regret travelling, though. If nothing else, going with me always makes for a great story.

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