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The Wander Year

Adventures in Paradise . . . No, Make That Parasites

March 05, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

NELSON, New Zealand — A traveler's riddle:

What do you get when you cross three meals a day with food handlers who lack hot water?

Answer: Sick.

I guess I picked something up in Fiji other than seashells. The culprit may have been the lovo, the earthen oven feast where villagers put fish and fowl onto our plates with their bare hands. Or it may have been the kava, the ceremonial drink made by a man who submerges his hands into the communal bowl.

Either way, I confused paradise with parasites.

The symptoms struck after we arrived in New Zealand, where I soon felt lower than a pregnant sheep dog's belly. My insides gurgled like a chemical factory. Then came fever, sweats and chills. Within a week, most of my sightseeing was restricted to the bathroom. When I did step out, it was with a stomach-distress bag and directions to the nearest loo.

New Zealand is a great place to be sick, actually. It's clean, convenient and comfortable. Motel units with kitchens go for $40 a night and come with milk in the fridge. In Wellington, the capital, our room at the Wellingtonian was almost like an apartment, equipped with a washer-dryer and a stereo.

"It's almost like home," I said to Andrea as she cooked dinner and I channel-surfed from the bed.

"There's a few things missing," she said. "But if you mean I'm working while you're watching TV, you're right."

Each day, we traveled shorter distances between hotels, as I sought the security that comes with porcelain. I stopped eating, unable to keep anything down. I grew so weak that I could no longer muster the energy to criticize Andrea's driving--tailgating, fish-tailing around mountain curves, driving on the right (in a country where they drive on the left).

We loaded our rental car onto a ferry and crossed Cook Strait to the South Island. When we reached Nelson, a mellow city on Tasman Bay, I could go no farther. Andrea checked us into the Mid City Motor Lodge and called the local hospital for a referral.

I sensed that the Kiwi approach to health care is more casual than others when I rang Dr. Gill Harker's office for an appointment. Playing in the background was the unmistakable wail of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." When I staggered into the office, I was extended a "G'day" by a receptionist dressed in a tank top and gym shorts. Harker greeted me in jeans and Teva sandals. The music now thumping from her office boombox was Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Under Foot."

Harker led me to an examination room, where I half-expected her to say "Take two classic rock CDs and call me in the morning." But apart from the thermometer under my arm, her methods were conventional. She poked and prodded and quickly found my problem: an enlarged, tender liver.

She directed me to the medical lab, where all the usual suspects--along with specimens that I had never given--were wrangled from my body. I tested negative for hepatitis and giardia, but my liver function test registered four times above the normal range.

Harker diagnosed me with a viral liver infection, most likely of Fijian origin. She said I'd feel "washed out" for several weeks and commanded me to bed. There was no cure. I could only ride this sucker out.

Things got worse before they got better. I became more familiar with New Zealand tile work; the rest of the time I was on my back. Andrea drifted in and out of my daze. One day our entire interaction was the following exchange:

"Do you want me to take your shoes off now?" she asked.

"No thanks," I said. "I need something to look forward to."

Harker prescribed anti-nausea pills so I could eat some broth and yogurt. With nourishment came strength and a desire to return to the road. At the end of the week, the doctor pronounced me in fine color and released me from her care, with the agreement that I undergo another blood test before I left the country. (Later lab worked confirmed that my liver was returning to normal.)

My treatment cemented New Zealand as the bargain destination of the developed world. Three visits with Harker, two batteries of lab tests and two prescriptions came to $51.

But I paid in other ways. I lost 20 pounds. My legs resembled two knobby noodles. And my pants now hung halfway down my backside, making me look like an aging skateboarder.

What's more, I felt guilty about derailing the trip. My illness forced us to cancel two backpacking treks, and we'd seen much less of the country than we planned.

"This hasn't been so bad," Andrea said of the downtime. "It just feels so good not to be working."

One of the many things I love about Andrea is that she is easily pleased. Her unemployed and me sick, and our world journey is complete.

NEXT WEEK: Bored with nature's beauty.

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