When in pursuit of sidewalk endings, adventures are bound to pop up along the way. Most of the time, the escapades that seem the craziest at the time, once survived, end up being the best stories and they are the reason we sling on our backpacks as much as possible and go-go-go. But, not all adventures take us down a road we want to travel, and that, my friends, is how I almost became Thad’s personal ACS case last week. (ACS= American Citizen Services.)
It all started on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon, three weeks ago. I had just driven back to the embassy from a going away lunch at a local polo club (great Indian food!) and was settling in at my computer for an afternoon of sorting and scanning diplomatic notes. Strangely, my left eye was super blurry, but I blamed it on the raging sunshine outside and figured it would quickly adjust to the florescent lights of the office.
By Sunday night, I was doing the worst thing anyone with any kind of ailment can do: I Googled it. Suddenly, WebMD had me convinced I had rare eyeball cancer and was going to die before morning. Thank you, internets. The upside to my internet searching was that it made me realize maybe my blurry vision was a bigger deal that I was giving it credit for and maybe, just maybe, I should pop in to our embassy medical unit to have them take a quick glance on Monday morning.
Which I did. After finishing the visa intake for the morning. (I was really not too panicked about this whole thing yet. I’d get to MED when I go there…) Going in, I told the medical officer that I had only half-vision in my left eye. I would have slated it nearly a horizontal line across my eye, with vision on the bottom. Without much hesitation, I was shuttled off to an ophthalmologist here in Kuala Lumpur for a series of tests, but I still wasn’t feeling super worried about the situation.
That sense of calm would not last much longer.
After a succession of eye tests at the hospital here, the ophthalmologist sat me down and without much ado announced that he was diagnosing me with optical neuritis and that I must be admitted to the hospital immediately for an MRI, as the condition is a precursor to multiple sclerosis. Suddenly, I went from having what I thought was a bit of blurry vision to the possibility of a life-long, potentially debilitating disease. How did that just happen? Not really sure what to think or do in the moment, I told him I needed to check in with the embassy before making any further plans. I was in shock and couldn’t really process what was happening. Had my life just changed in the course of two minutes? I quickly got ahold of the medical unit, who decided if that is the route we were going to take, we were going to take it in Singapore.
Back to the embassy I shuttled to throw together the makings of an emergency medical evacuation. By this time it was Monday evening and I was scheduled on an early Tuesday morning Air Asia flight, with specialist appointments booked for Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. (All of these bookings happened in the course of about an hour. When MED moves, they move!) Before leaving post, I had to get a few things in order at my desk, I had to top off my cell phone minutes, I had to pack a bag for a week and load up as much school work as I could fit to take along. Things were a blur, and not just because my left eye had quit working!
It was all happening quickly.
Which is how my crazy medical condition also nearly made me become Thad’s personal ACS case! In the midst of the chaos of prepping and packing to go, as I moved all of my money and cards to the purse I was taking to Singapore, my credit card got left sitting on the dining room table. On Tuesday, I caught the quick one-hour flight to Singapore and headed to the 4 Seasons hotel where I would be lodging for the duration of my stay. The great medical section team in Singapore had the room pre-booked, so when I arrived, I just rolled on up to the counter, ready to sign in. I passed my credit card over and scanned the fancy lobby as I waited for the desk clerk to run it. Soon, he had a worried look on his face. He swiped the card again, but I could tell something was wrong.
Oh no! He didn’t need to say a word. I might be partially blind, but the lightbulb went off.
A few weeks ago, we had some weird taxidermy charges on our credit card out of Texas. (You know how I like to keep stuffed dead things lying around my house!) The credit card company shut off those cards and sent us new ones. Well, the card in the hand of the desk clerk was the old card and the new shiny one was sitting at home, in Kuala Lumpur. Not good.
So, there I was, in a foreign country, half-blind and with only the cash in my purse: about $200USD total, trying to pay for a hotel that ran $300 a night. Uhhh…Thad to the rescue! I quickly called him and had him give his card number to the hotel so I could check in. He then had to sign an avadavat saying he would cover my costs for the entire stay (room service, anyone?!), but he quickly sorted it from his end so I was able to drop off my bags before heading to the first appointment.(It is almost as if sorting out unprepared Americans is his job or something!) But, the lack of functioning card did make me basically destitute in what is definitely not one of the cheaper cities on the globe. I spent the next four days, until he was able to join me in Singapore, convincing doctors and hospitals to take my card by just the number, without physically having it in-hand. (Scary how well this actually worked! I was able to put thousands of dollars of medical bills on a card I did not actually carry.)
I felt like such a dunce! Maybe the eye-sight really was a bigger brain issue.
Over the next three days, I had eye tests where I realized that no, I did not have 50% vision in my left eye, but closer to 5% and that I was basically color-blind as well. I had an MRI, which at the cost of that thing, I’m not sure why they can’t add a muffler to the machine. And I was admitted to the hospital for three days of IV steroids to reduce the swelling on my optical nerve. (My nurse friends will attest, I have what must be close to the world’s worst veins, so this was a rather unpleasant period for me. I’m such a terrible blood donator that Red Cross usually sends me away, not able to get enough blood to bother with. The doctors at the hospital in Singapore had to call in the head phlebotomist, who was still not able to get three full vials of blood and then had to poke and prod to find a place to insert the IV. No fun for anyone! Three weeks later, my right hand still has two rather good sized bruises on it from the poking and prodding procedures.)
To make a long story short, the answer to the big question is “we don’t know.” Thankfully, the MRI scans came back clean, no lesions, so for now, no MS. (This is something that will have to be monitored long-term with follow-up MRIs in the future, but clean and clear for now.) The IV steroids and subsequent oral steroids (don’t mess with my right now, man!) have brought my vision back to probably 90% and its improving each day. With nothing to go on, the doctors are leaving the diagnosis as “optical neuritis” and will just monitor. I’m headed back to Singapore in a month for follow-up exams (you can bet I’ll have my credit card next time!) and then it will just be a wait and see (literally!)situation.
Adventures, for the most part are fun, but sometimes the sidewalk gets a little blurry, which gets a bit scary. Over the last three weeks, my sidewalk nearly disappeared but is slowly coming back into focus and is a good reminder to keep searching and enjoying the journey. (It’s also a good reminder to always carry a valid credit card!)
Open Water Dive #3-
Day two of our SCUBA weekend dawned early as every rooster in the vicinity was keen on letting us know the sun would soon rise. I was a bit sore from the previous day’s long swim (you know, the one where we damn near died) and my coral scrape was redder and angrier than the day before, but my biggest complaint was my feet. The big toe on my left foot had a giant blister, and I couldn’t imagine shoving it back into a flipper. When I got to the dive shop, I asked one of the workers about trading for a new pair of fins, thinking at least if they rubbed, they would rub in a different spot. Taking a quick glance at my fins from Saturday, we quickly realized why only one foot was sore- my fins were two different sizes! The one on my right foot was the correct size, but the left flipper was a size smaller. No wonder if rubbed so badly! After getting matching fins (and a pair of socks to help lessen the already painful blister), it was time to head out for a day of boat diving.
The first task of the day was to get our equipment ready to go, something we had done numerous times before, but never with the added challenge of a boat bumping over waves as it made its way to our destination. It took longer, but eventually we all had our BCDs strapped to our tanks, our weight belts on and our masks ready to go. There is only one way to exit a small boat once your equipment is on- the back roll! We had not practiced this at the pool and it took me a couple of deep breaths to psych myself up for the maneuver, but with one final draw of air, over I went. Thank goodness for an inflated BCD! I quickly popped back to the surface, ready for another outing.
Convincing myself to deflate the BCD and head under the water usually takes a few extra seconds. Each time the teacher would give us the signal to descend, my classmates all quickly disappeared below the surface, but because I had been having ear problems, I was always more cautious about the decent. As I worked on getting myself ready to head under on Saturday morning, my little routine was immediately sped up when I saw a sea snake, just inches from my face. He was black and white striped and came swimming along right in front of my eyes. I’m not talking about an arm’s length away or ever a comfortable foot away. He was in my space bubble 100%. Not wanting to spend any extra time with him, I dropped at a rate faster than I ever had before. Goodbye surface. Goodbye snake! (I learned that evening that he was a particularly poisonous sea snake, lethal to those he bit. And he was inches from my FACE!)
For some reason, I had no equalization problems with my ears all day on Saturday. They easily popped and I never got the shooting pains of Friday’s dives.
This third dive was the last one where we had to check off skills, which we did in quick succession. The reef we were swimming near was full of fish, so while each person when through their various checks of removing their mask, using the compass (a skill I am sure I didn’t really pass, as I pretty much just swam in a circle, but whatever!) and demonstrating proper buoyancy, the rest of us enjoyed swimming around in the world’s largest aquarium. Apparently, a few people saw a turtle, which I am hugely bummed I did not see, but I did see lots of brightly colored fish and sea urchins. (This weekend also taught me that those sea cucumbers that I thought were so rare and exotic when I did my 4th grade research report on them are really not nearly so special. They sea floor was covered with them, looking not unlike certain parts of male anatomy, scatter hither and thither.)
On this third dive, we went down to nineteen meters, the maximum regularly certified divers are allowed to go. (Technically, we are certified to eighteen meters, but when our instructor checked her dive computer that evening, it showed we made an extra couple of feet before hitting the ocean floor.) I think one thing that stunned me the most about this dive was how it didn’t feel like we were nearly sixty feet below the surface of the ocean. Amazing!
Open Water Dive #4-
Finally! The final dive of the weekend. A week ago I would have told you I was not sure if I would make it this far, but there I was. Off the boat I bailed, not even the last to back roll into the sea.
The final dive was really about just enjoying SCUBA. We had no skills to check off, but rather a start point and an end time and away we went. We swam through coral reefs and saw fish of all types, including the dreaded trigger fish. (Stay away from that one!) We wove our way through rock formations to which clung spiky urchins and wavy anemone. We spent forty minutes under the sea, all of which passed much too quickly, as there was always something to see around the next corner.
And, it was done.
I am now a certified diver! A few years ago, it would not have even been on my radar to get certified (not a lot of cool SCUBA to be done in Idaho, after all) and a year ago when I first saw the classes offered in the embassy newsletter, I was skeptical. A month ago I was a nervous wreck. But today, I am a SCUBA diver. While I am never going to be the Sportiest of Spices, I do have a few tricks up my sleeve!
Top Ten Books Which Feature Characters Who (Travel)
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is about finding ten books whose protagonists have something in common. Of course, because my entire reading life revolves around travel literature at this point, my mind went instantly to that place, but I didn’t want to fill my list with non-fiction narratives, so tried to expand and include some of my favorite “travel” books of all time. As always, because I have a hard time just getting to ten, I avoided having to choose a #1 by putting them in alphabetical order. (Cop-out, I know!)
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson– (Non-fiction) This is a hilarious adventure of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. If you’ve not picked up something by Bryson before, I’d say this is the one to start with!
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– (Fiction)- Beautifully written story of a Nigerian woman who lives in the US for a time and then returns home, juxtaposing the two worlds. I loved the discussions of being African in America, but not African-American, a distinction that I had never thought about before, as well as the peek into the world of Nigeria, a country a deal with on a daily basis, but mostly in terms of warning people away from scams.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini- (Fiction) Another beautifully written story that has many elements of travel in it, both within Afghanistan and from the US to Afghanistan. This is one of those books that I can’t stop thinking about. It was both heartbreaking and magnificent at the same time. Again, if you’ve not read Hosseini before, this is the one to start with!
Blood River by Tim Butcher- (Non-fiction) This is the travel narrative of Butcher, who attempts to cross the Congo, following the path of the famous journalist H. Stanley (“Dr. Livingston, I presume”). It is a powerful look at what the country has become post-colonization and post-dictatorship with a great mix of history and culture included in the tale of his journey.
Carpe Diem by Autumn Cornwell- (Fiction)- One of my all-time favorite YA novels and a huge reason I decided to study a combination of YA literature and travel literature. If this book doesn’t make you want to pack your backpack and catch a flight tomorrow, I don’t know what will. (Kelsey, if you are reading this blog, find this book!)
Peak by Roland Smith- (Fiction)- Another great YA novel about travel- this one awfully timely with the horrific earthquake in Nepal this week. The main character heads to Everest in an attempt to be the youngest to ever summit the mountain, but along the way learning as much about himself and life as he does about technical climbing skills.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro- (Fiction)- A new release, just having come out earlier this year, this book is amazing. It is a strange but great combination of fairy tale and fantasy with a touch of historical fiction thrown in. The story itself meanders a bit, but I loved the overall theme of memories and whether we should take the bad with the good and what it is worth in the end. Powerful!
The Martian by Andy Weir- (Fiction) – I suppose there is no travel father than to Mars! If you haven’t read this one yet, do it before the movie comes out. (Always read the book first!) I’ve given this book as a gift to several friends/family members and have had only positive reviews.
The Odyssey by Homer- (Fiction)- What list of great traveling characters would be complete without The Odyessey? It is the first and foremost leader in travel narratives! Really, no further comment is needed.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams- (Non-fiction)- I didn’t want to get away from this week without at least one more contemporary travel literature entry. I love this one because Adams writing makes you wish you were there with him on the adventure, even when you really don’t want to be a part of some of the situations he encounters. Now that is great writing!
It is no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am not the Sportiest of Spices. As much as I sometimes think I would like to be a runner, I have no stamina and I definitely do not have any rhythm for Zumba or the like. (Heck, I can’t even get an elliptical to run smoothly!) So, it may come as quite a shock to those same diligent readers to learn that I am now officially a PADI SCUBA certified diver! That’s right. After two days of closed water courses as the embassy pool (click here for those details), I headed to the scenic Tioman Island last weekend to do my open water courses for final certification. (Look for more on the travel itself in an upcoming blog, tentatively titled “From Marsing to Mersing”!)
Finishing my certification required four open water dives, each of which turned out to be a bit of an adventure in and of itself; luckily, I had a good group of colleagues/classmates (and, of course, my dive buddy for life!) who braved the journey at the same time. I had been dreading this weekend for months, not sure if I would be able to actually complete the course without total panic setting in. As a matter of fact, for the entire week before the trip, I felt like I used to feel during finals week in college. I just wanted it to be over, for better or for worse. Good grades or terrible grades, certification or no certification, just let the stress end.
We made it to Tioman by midmorning on Friday, dropped our stuff in our rustic (clean, but low on amenities, like a flushing toilet) cabin and headed directly to the dive shop. We were off and running with no time to fret. This was smart planning.
Open Water Dive #1
This dive is meant to be just a dip of a toe into ocean waters. After becoming comfortable in the pool (not an easy task to begin with in my case), it can be a huge jump from knowing the surface is always just a few feet overhead to being in a much less controlled situation. Because this was a shore dive, we had to suit up at the dive shop and walk to the ocean, a few hundred meters away. Let me just remind you that I am about the wimpiest person on the face of the earth (I’ve never been able to do a single pull-up and I could do maybe three pushups if my life depended on it), so hauling that tank about did me in. Picture Quasimodo in a bathing suit. Once we reached the water, it was a literal weight off of my shoulders.
For the first dive, we only went down about five meters and I don’t think I even realized we were that far down, though my ears screamed we must be at the bottom of the Marinas Trench. This session was mostly about passing off skills that we had previously practiced in the pool and it all went well until we had to change from our own regulator to the spare one our dive buddy was carrying. (Thad has been my dive buddy throughout this process. If you want to send him condolences, I can provide you with contact information! He definitely got the short end of the dive-buddy stick.) I took my regulator out and grabbed his spare one, only to have the mouthpiece of it fall off! Luckily, our dive instructor was there and handed me back my own regulator before I even realized what was happening. Before I knew it, I was back breathing my own air, Thad’s spare was fixed and away we went.
The biggest issue for this first time out to sea for me was my ears. They just wouldn’t equalize! I’ve never had a problem with them when we fly, but for some reason the water pressure really got to me. My ears would not pop! (I also realized on this trip that I apparently do not know the difference between my nose and my mouth. I would try to hold my nose and breathe through it to pop my ears and each time, air would come flowing out of my regulator. Or, I would take a deep breath in preparation for clearing my mask, only to realize my entire breath went out my mouth instead of my nose, leaving me with salt water to the eyebrows. After three plus decades of life, how do I not know the differences between these two parts of my respiratory track?!?)
Since this was a shore dive, it meant surfacing and wading back to shore the way we had come, which was fine until a wave crashed me into a bit of coral, leaving a rather nice scrape on my right leg. My first (but surely not my last!) SCUBA injury! (Can I be on the SCUBA DL?)
Dive #1 was only about twenty minutes and while we didn’t see a whole lot worth reporting home, it was nice to have some fish to look at while my classmates checked off their skills, rather than staring at the pool tiles like I had done in the past. Watching bright little fish flit does a much better job keeping my mind calm than smudgy blue tiles.
Open Water Dive #2-
This is where the poo hit the fan. Dive two was another shore dive, but rather than wading in from the beach, we all did the “giant stride” off the end of the jetty. I did a much slower ascent on this dive, hoping my ears would take care of themselves, which they did, kind of. They never fully equalized and while they weren’t killing me like the first dive, there was definite pressure as I went lower and lower.
Once I finally reached the bottom with my classmates, we were all just floating in a circle, waiting for another round of skill checks when I felt a nip on my leg. Already a bit freaked out about the possibilities of hostility beneath the sea, I looked at my instructor, wide-eyed, only to see him laughing (as much as is possible through a mask and regulator.) He pointed at white and yellow fish and then made a biting motion with his hands. Not a second later, I felt the nip again. That dang little fish was biting me! Apparently, I had invaded his territory and he was having none of it. Jerk fish! (To be fair, maybe I was the jerk by stationing myself right on top of his house, but still…)
Dive two was going swimmingly (yup, I went there!) until the end, at which point it the whole thing went a bit south. We were all supposed to head back to the jetty, but a strong current kicked up and no one could make any progress under the water. Some divers made it back to a rope as a meeting place, but others of us were hauled in the wrong direction. Soon, we all surfaced, but fighting the current on the surface was no easier than below. For every foot of progress I made, I lost the same amount of ground. Using a brightly colored fence on the shore as my gauge, I quickly realized that I was getting nowhere, quickly.
After nearly half an hour of paddling (remember, I am a terrible swimmer and super wimpy) I pretty much thought I was going to die. With the shore just 100 meters or so to my right, I had pretty much resigned myself to death at sea (or at least the need for a boat rescue.)
Instead, though, I gave up on the jetty as a goal and just headed inland. It didn’t matter that I still had two more skills to check-off; I was done. I aimed my body for shore and paddled like mad. Before long, I realized most of my classmates had done the same thing. No one could fight the current any longer and we all just wanted out of the water at that point.
To shore we headed!
Meeting up again on the beach, the general agreement was to call it a day and to finish our skills during the first dive on day two. Even the instructors seemed surprised at the strength of the current! (Neither of them made the jetty either, both making for shore with the rest of us.) Friday evening, as we sat at the dive center, filling in our dive logs for the day, one classmate succinctly and cheekily summarized the dive in his log with a single sentence, “We damn near died.”
Day one was done. I had a nice battle wound; I provided a bit of nourishment for an angry fish; I bobbed at sea like a tropical Titanic survivor. I finished.