A couple of friends recently returned sick from South America. Very sick!
Both had come down with Montezuma's Revenge, the illness travelers can get anywhere. Americans tend to get it most easily in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But you also can get it in Great Britain and on the European continent, in Canada and in other supposedly "safe" areas.
I'm no medic, but I'm convinced that we become especially vulnerable to "The Revenge," also known by half a dozen other colorful nicknames, when we're tired. That means we are at risk when we arrive in any distant country.
Tales of Woe
Listening to my friends' tales of woe, and knowing them as I do, I couldn't resist asking them questions.
How did they eat? Lightly? Full meals? Two a day? Three a day?
Where did they eat? Good restaurants? Roadside stands?
What did they eat? Spicy, local stuff? Something closer to their normal diet back home?
Did they imbibe the way they do when they're home? These people do like a nip now and then, and the temptation to drink always increases on vacation.
Their answers indicated that they had contributed to their own downfall by not taking even the simplest of precautions.
They're the kind of people who love to mix and mingle and patronize the same bars and restaurants as the locals. And they believe that the "grungier" the place, the more atmosphere it has.
I've traveled with them and have seen them break bread abroad in places I wouldn't enter without a rabies shot. They boast that they're immune to the germs and viruses that cause illnesses in many other Americans.
Their confidence in their own invulnerability has always seemed justified. Until now.
I always go gently the first couple of days after arriving in a foreign country. I don't have a lot of patience for those gung-ho types who want to hit the hot spots as soon as they step off the plane.
My advice: try coasting for a while. Don't overload your stomach with food and drink, especially the exotic stuff, until you've become a little more acclimatized.
I remember watching a man make a dinner of three dozen heavily garlicked escargots in the Guam Hilton Hotel six hours after he landed in the place. He got sick.
(Moral: Don't do in the Guam Hilton anything you wouldn't do at home.)
I remember another man whose brother had told him that the best curry in the world was made in Durban, South Africa. He hit the airport there, hopped a cab to the recommended restaurant and pigged out on several bowls of eye-popping, pore-opening spicy curry for lunch.
He got sick.
(Moral: Slow down there, buddy. If you must have curry immediately after a 20-hour flight, try one helping. Find out if your system can handle it and then, if you must, go back for more later, after you've rested.)
A woman traveling companion of mine, in a hotel dining room in Alexandria, Egypt, thought she was playing it smart. She asked the waiter for bottled water.
He brought the bottle, but it was already opened.
How, I asked her, could she be certain that the water hadn't come straight from the kitchen faucet, the very thing she was trying to avoid. She assured me they wouldn't do that to a hotel guest.
She got sick!
(Moral: Don't be so trusting. I'm not suggesting that you get paranoid about it, but asking for an unopened bottle of water isn't an unreasonable precaution. Nor, by the way, do most foreigners take it as an insult.)
Ice is another troublesome item. For some reason, many people who meticulously brush their teeth with bottled water and stay clear of any food that hints of having been covered by ice, still cheerfully order their Scotch on the rocks.
However, Scotch doesn't kill germs!
Thoughtlessness is our undoing. We eat unpeeled fruit and salads that consist basically of raw vegetables prepared who knows how. We eat ice cream from roadside vendors, then wash it down with drinks, the origins of which are dubious at best.
There's something reassuring about the availability of a bottled Coke or Pepsi on a trip. Even if they were bottled locally, the processing was under the highest standards.
There's no guarantee that you'll stay healthy abroad because a number of things can cause upset stomachs, some of which you can do nothing about.
However, with a little will power, moderation and common sense, you can do a lot to minimize your exposure to illnesses.