Since returning from vacation, I had an airplane-caught cold that became a vicious sore throat and fever and has now morphed into an infection that’s completely blocked my left ear and given me the worst tinnitus of my life–and I spent most of my teens and young twenties in tiny rock clubs without earplugs. This, plus the fact that our beloved staff writer brought back some nasty critters from Costa Rica, got me thinking about getting sick and hurt while on the road.
My worst illness while traveling has already been somewhat described in these pages: whatever sort of awful stress-induced road flu knocked me flat in Budapest.
A close second, mainly because I had to get on a plane while dealing with it, was the food poisoning I got from one of the big tourist cafes lining Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakech. Take my advice: stick to the street food that you can see them cooking right in front of you. Much, much safer. Nothing quite like having to run to the back of a tiny commuter plane several times during a flight while the huge pack of hungover lads sitting around you makes snarky comments.
Germs can get anyone, though; injuries take special talent. My worst injury on a trip was the time I crashed my bike in Amsterdam. I’ve alluded to this a few times here, but it appears I’ve never fully told the story (which is nuts, because everyone who knows me or who has even met me more than twice has heard this).
We are, as mentioned, in Amsterdam. T. wanted to rent bikes, because there are three things you do in Amsterdam (according to him): smoke pot, see the Van Gogh museum, and ride bikes. He’d been taking care of #1 since we hit town, we’d done #2 the day before, so now it was time for #3. I am not now, nor was I then, a regular bike rider. And as a generally scared person, I was afraid of riding a bike near cars, especially without a helmet. But no one there wears helmets. So we rented the bikes and within two minutes we were on a main road.
Now, to understand this story, you need to know a little about how the streets in Amsterdam work. Amsterdam is ringed with canals. Sometimes the street goes in both directions on one side of the canal, and sometimes the street goes in one direction on each side of the canal. And there are intersections of some of the streets where it switches from one to the other.
We were approaching just such an intersection, T. in the lead, me doing my best to follow him. Traffic, both bike and car, was reasonably heavy, but not rush-hour packed. T. turned right over the bridge and then left to continue in the direction we’d started on the other side of the canal. I managed the right-hand turn OK, but then there was a car right behind me, and a car coming toward me, and T. had already turned and was riding away, and I panicked and turned, very suddenly, left. I missed the oncoming car, but the turn was so fast and so sharp that I lost control for a moment, and then my front wheel got caught in between the cobblestones, and bam! I was over the handlebars and down on the street on my hands and knees.
The fact that I didn’t bust my skull open still amazes me. What I did do was scrape most of the skin off the heels of my hands and cut up my forearms and bash my knees to hell. I pulled myself over to the sidewalk, and two lovely shopkeepers ran out to ask if I was OK and if I’d like to come in and sit down and have a cup of tea. I was shaking so badly, and in massive amounts of pain, but what I felt most was embarrassment at being the kind of idiot American who can’t even handle riding a bike properly. So I told them no, thank you, I was fine, and T. and I decided to walk our bikes the next few blocks to the park, where there were no cars for me to be scared of.
A day later, I was still picking bits of stone and dirt out of my palms, and my knees looked like rotten grapefruit–discolored and swollen. I could barely walk. Which was a shame, as we had a week left on the trip, including a planned hike on the Rhine, which became impossible in my condition. It wasn’t bad enough that the accident was scary when it happened and left me in pain for a few weeks. It had to go and ruin other bits of the trip, too.
That’s the worst part. It’s always bad to be sick or hurt, but when you’re on the road, being sick or hurt is actively preventing you from having specific and special kinds of fun. Kinds of fun you don’t just get every day. Kinds of fun you may never have the chance at again. So stay safe out there, kids. Get your shots, drink bottled water, watch them cook that chicken to a crisp, and when riding a bike, try not to be an idiot who doesn’t know how to turn.