My first night in Rome was unforgettable for two very distinct reasons. The first is that I attended an incredible cooking class with a local grandmother who filled me up with homemade pasta, delectable tiramisu, and heart-warming good cheer. The second is that I faced a dreaded traveller’s rite of passage: bed bug bites.
The delicious buzz of prosecco, asiago, and espresso quickly evaporated as I descended into an itchy, burning world of denial (surely these are just mosquito bites?), prayers (Dear God, please don’t let this be an allergic reaction to Italian food!), and finally, acceptance. The words “hot mess” have never been more aptly applied as I graced Rome’s elegant streets wearing angry, red welts.
Bed bugs were a travel worry of mine for years and, sadly, they do indeed live up to their awful reputation. But, like most worries and concerns, the creepy crawlies of the world can be conquered with equal doses of common sense and good humour. They didn’t get the better of me or ruin my trip – and nor should any of these worries.
How do you communicate an urgent need for hydrocortisone cream in the middle of the night in a foreign country? You roll up your sleeves, show off your pulsating wounds, and mimic chomping. Turns out, “Something bit me and I’m losing my mind” is a surprisingly easy message to convey to a pharmacist!
It’s natural to feel self-conscious when wrangling new letters and symbols, but take heart. Communication is much more universal than meets the eye. There is a remarkable amount of globally understood words and gestures, and oftentimes it doesn’t take much to share an urgent message.
The most valuable word I have in my travel arsenal is the local phrase for “thank you”. It’s always easy to learn and it demonstrates that you haven’t taken someone else’s efforts to speak English for granted.
When all else fails, let technology help. Apps like iTranslate lets you have real-time conversations with locals, and Google Translate decrypts text, translating signs, menus and more into your native language via your phone's camera lens.
Flickr/Robert Luna (CC by 2.0, edited)
Unfortunately, bed bugs are not my only travel mishap. My worst travel-related illness occurred just as I returned home from four months in Malawi and I was convinced I was bringing malaria with me. I proudly presented my self-declared diagnosis to the doctor, as well several potential parasitic backups. Dengue fever, river blindness, and sleeping sickness all made the list. Needless to say, I was devastated to receive the prosaic diagnosis of tonsillitis. Tonsillitis? How pedestrian!
Common things are common. A cold, a stomach bug – heck, even a bed bug – is far more likely to ruin a trip than a bout of yellow fever or Ebola. (Thank goodness for that!) However, it doesn’t lessen the annoyance. Just like at home, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Before I went to Malawi, I visited my travel clinic and followed their advice on preventative care. Being vaccinated against potential infections not only gave me peace of mind when I was overseas, it also helped my doctor diagnose my tonsillitis upon my return. Some vaccines can help prevent more than one illness, such as cholera, a disease that can cause severe dehydration if not treated properly, and diarrhea caused by enterotoxigenic E. coli, the most common bacteria causing diarrhea during travel to many areas of the world. Getting vaccinated can help you and your digestive tract rest easy.
“When travelling with children, the number-one fear for many parents is that they’ll get sick" says Corinne McDermott of HaveBabyWillTravel.com. "There are a few things that can be done to prevent this, such as having antiseptic wipes on hand at all times, especially when travelling with a toddler. Also, many illnesses that are very rare in Canada are still present in some of our favorite travel destinations, including in the Caribbean and Latin America. Talk to your pharmacist and visit a travel clinic or your family doctor well ahead of your departure date to make sure that you have your bases covered when it comes to vaccinations. Finally, food safety is an essential way to avoid illness. If you're unsure, remember: If you can’t peel it or heat it, don’t eat it!”.
Flickr/maitreyoda (CC by SA2.0)
There are some situations, sadly, that both travellers and locals have absolutely no control over. Natural disasters can strike anywhere, at any time, and often with little warning.
It’s a heart-pounding situation I’ve encountered first hand in Hawaii, waking to air raid sirens signalling a tsunami warning. Thankfully, it was a precautionary measure but it was a terrifying day. Even now, after many years, I’m proud of the steps I took to keep safe. I listened to the instructions of the hotel staff - who were well trained in the area’s emergency procedures - and prioritized carrying clean drinking water at all times, ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
The tragedy of natural disasters lingers long after the danger has passed, but thankfully these horrible events are rare. If the worst happens and you are in a natural disaster zone, reach out to your embassy for advice and instructions and then offer whatever support you can to the Red Cross.
Thankfully, natural disasters are rare, but financial disasters are more common. Yep, I’m talking about you, pickpockets! These sly thieves might have silken fingers but you CAN outfox them at their own game.
These crafty swindlers are looking for the easiest target in the crowd. Their game is to get in and out with as little effort and attention as possible. Give pickpockets a reason to look at elsewhere. Avoid large satchels, easy-to-open shoulder bags, bulging back pocket wallets, and keep your wits about you in popular tourist attractions.
I travel with a cross-the-body style PacSafe bag with compartments that close two ways. I wear my bag on the front of my body and ensure that my wallet within, never contains all of my cash or credit cards. (I keep a backup secret stash hidden in my luggage).
I also go armed - with knowledge. Before each trip, I take ten minutes to research common travel scams in my destination. I also read other women’s advice on blending in and keeping a low profile. Journeywoman.com is my favourite resource.
Losing Valuable Items
I wish I could blame pickpockets for my missing iPhone that’s forever lost to Amsterdam, but that one’s entirely on me. I’m still smarting with the shame of it all! I was utterly despondent for days and the only consolation I could drum up was at least it hadn’t been my passport.
Funnily enough, my passport may have been the easier item to replace (not that I’d ever want to put that theory to the test).
Embassy staff are experts in dealing with this kind of situation and they’ll walk you through everything you need to do get replacement documents. They’ll also be able to provide you with valuable advice if your wallet or other documents go missing as well. Another helpful resource is your hotel management. You won’t be the first traveller they’ve walked through a disaster!
Running Out of Money
There’s losing your wallet – and then there’s losing control of your wallet. Exactly HOW did your bank balance get so low and your credit cards get so high?
Take a deep breath and don’t panic. We’ve all been there. Challenge yourself to downgrade your expenses as much as possible. Swap your hotel reservation for a hostel (no longer just for budget backpackers) and cancel a guided tour in favour of a free museum. Embrace farmers' market fare, corner delis, and tiny bakeries to get your fix of the local flavours.
In many large cities, there are endless free events (often with food!) Joining a walk-a-thon, beach clean up, municipal fair, or community concert is a great way to enrich your travel experience on the cheap (and maybe get some free cake and BBQ at the same time!)
If the thought of low funds makes your heart palpate, pre-pay for your accommodations and activities and stash a few for-emergencies-only bills in a hidden corner of your bag. I use my first aid kit to store a few $20 bills – I almost always forget that I have them, which is exactly the point.
There’s no travel panic quite like missing a flight or other critical transportation link. Tickets are expensive, rarely flexible or refundable, and often limited in availability. No wonder the idea of a missed connection is enough to put any traveler into a tail spin. When you can control the situation, it is always, always better to be early – ridiculously early – than to challenge the clock.
When the situation is out of your hands, your greatest asset is an ability to go from running like a madman to being a calm, controlled, rational person. There’s rarely a ticket that is truly non-refundable, nor a problem that doesn’t have a solution. Be warm, polite, and friendly – but also firm and direct – when speaking with transportation staff.
Focus on your first priority – arriving safely to your destination – and not superfluous concerns. Who cares if your first class ticket has been downgraded to a seat on a coach bus? That’s why you take notes. A detailed diary of names, codes, and receipt numbers is invaluable for when you need to follow up.
I’m an advocate of light, carry-on sized luggage for many reasons, but especially for the flexibility it offers with tight connections and transfers. On one trip, I was the only passenger who didn’t need to retrieve checked luggage from a grounded flight. This meant the ticket agent could offer me an alternative flight departing in just 20 minutes. I’ll take limited outfits over 24-hour delays any day of the week!
When my train from Berlin finally pulled in Prague’s central station, my heart sank. Suddenly, all my excitement dissipated as I contemplated facing a new language, a new currency, a new region, a new political history – all before I found my way to the hotel!
But, with a few steps and a few stumbles, I managed to make change, operate the subway token machine, find the right subway platform (as well as the wrong subway platform), make my way to the city centre, and hop onto a street car that stopped right outside my hotel. As I stepped into the sunshine, a delicious smell wafted through the window of a nearby restaurant and a musician played in the square. The city buzzed with a relaxed, good-natured energy and I couldn’t stop laughing at my good fortune – and relief - that all went exactly according to plan.
Figuring out the initial nuances and logistics of airports, train stations, and local transportation is high on my list of travel worries and I know I’m not alone. They should be intuitive and easy to use, but that’s rarely the case. I even manage to get turned around in my own home town! But those blunders give me the confidence to strike out on my own in new cities. It’s not just tourists who end up in the wrong terminal or get bamboozled by subway maps. It happens to everyone.
Short of following the crowd and being patient with yourself, this is where I find a good guidebook really earns its stripes. I’m a personal fan of the Rick Steves guides. Their sections on how to get to the city center and how to get around town are comprehensive and easy to follow. Thanks to this guidance, I knew that the subway token machine in Prague only accepted coins, prompting me to stop at a snack kiosk to break my bills. Less stress and more snacks is a formula I’ll follow every time!
The Bottom Line:
I learned the hard way that there’s a special anesthesia in a bed bug’s saliva, making it impossible to detect their insidious nighttime feasts. It’s only when the anesthesia wears off - about 48 hours later - that itchiness sets in. It turns out that my travel disaster occurred long before I had realized it. It was a good reminder to never judge a city or a trip based on one bad experience or one unlucky incident. I left Rome with fading welts, an excellent knowledge of the Italian pharmaceutical system, a great story, and a bit more confidence that I can handle whatever the open road throws at me.
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