One of my greatest fears in life is shitting myself on a plane.
What? That’s totally a natural, healthy fear to have.
Call it Travelling in the Tropics for Too Long Syndrome because the more time I’ve spent on the road, the more aware I’ve become of what my bowels are doing. And in certain countries, the answer is usually: not so great.
In Tonga, the answer was exceptionally poorly.
In Tonga, I was now very concerned that my greatest fear was about to be realised.
On my final night in ‘Eua, I ingested something dubious and I’ve since narrowed it down to two culprits: rainwater or pork.
“You alright with rainwater?” the guesthouse owner had asked when I’d landed on the island, and I’d nodded despite having never had it before.
I figured if it was on offer, it would be fine and I would be fine. I’ve reached the point in my travels where I have zero qualms about consuming something the locals are cool with offering me. Sometimes it comes back to bite me in the ass, but most of the time, it works out wonderfully.
So rather than paying for bottled water and contributing to the plastic-driven destruction of the world, I gulped down several litres of rainwater and now I was feeling like death. Let’s just say googling “is drinking rainwater safe?” didn’t exactly set my mind at ease.
The second culprit was the pork-based gift I’d received from a local.
A guy I’d met on the island had been talking up Tongan pork to me and insisting I try it while I was in the country. I’d told him I’d love to, unaware that he would then put in a call to his friends to see if they had some going spare after their Sunday festivities.
When he surprised me with an overstuffed plate of juicy, crispy pork, I was on top of the world. Tongans extend such extreme levels of generosity to visitors to their country and I was touched by his gesture.
I ate it to be polite, although it wasn’t exactly warm and I’d had no idea how long it had been sitting out for.
I then awoke at 3 a.m. to a stabbing pain in my stomach that just wouldn’t quit.
Normally this wouldn’t faze me.
I’ve waged many wars with food poisoning over the past seven years, and I know the easiest way to vanquish it is to relax in my room with a book, drink a ton of water, and wait it out.
This day, however, was different.
On this particular day, I was due to board a flight to Tongatapu followed by another to Ha’apai, and having already flown with Real Tonga, I knew the plane barely had enough seats for four passengers let alone a bathroom. On top of that, the airports themselves were the size of a living room and I wasn’t sure either of those would have a toilet either.
At a time when I was running to the bathroom every five minutes, I was facing down the prospect of four straight hours without access to a toilet.
Oh, and I also wasn’t travelling with Imodium.
Always a staple in my travel first aid kit, I’d left it behind in an attempt to take as little as possible to Tonga. Having access to Dave’s parents’ home in New Zealand to leave my unwanted stuff in meant I’d pared down even my medications, leaving behind antihistamines, decongestants, and yes, Imodium. After all, I hadn’t needed to take it for the past couple of years, so obviously my stomach was getting steelier with each passport stamp I obtained.
I shouldn’t have been so confident.
As I sat in the guesthouse with my backpack beside me, its contents strewn across the floor after I’d desperately ransacked it in search of a single pill, I realised there was no avoiding the next step.
I tiptoed up to reception and cleared my throat.
“Mālō e lelei.”
“Um, do you happen to have any Imodium?”
“Water?” She made to grab a bottle from the fridge for me.
“No, no, no! Imodium?”
“What is that?”
“Something for, um, diarrhoea?”
She frowned and shook her head.
“You know, like…” I began shamefully miming pulling streamers out of my butt with a panicked expression plastered across my face.
“Oh! No. I have some but it’s at my home.”
“Oh, ok. It’s just because I have a flight and… Well. No, it’s okay. No worries. Thanks anyway.”
I stumbled to the bathroom for the eighth time that hour.
Naite — one of the owners of the guesthouse — arrived to take me to the airport and I asked her if she had any Imodium.
“I’m sorry, I have none. We Tongans — we do not get these sicknesses!”
“I knoooooow,” I groaned. “Damn it. Is there a pharmacy I could go to before we head to the airport?”
“No. No pharmacy on the island.”
I let out a sound that only dogs could hear.
“We have a hospital. Just one hospital for the island. I will take you to the airport and then we will go to the hospital, okay?”
I let my shoulders relax, but not my bowels. “Will we have enough time?” My flight was due to take off in less than an hour.
“I think so.”
We arrived at the airport, where two passengers were already sat waiting. Naite spoke with the lone woman behind the check-in desk, carefully explaining my situation.
My mind was blown when the staff member reassured us both it was going to be okay. She told us that we could go to the hospital. That I should leave my bag behind and she’d give us a call if the flight started boarding. That she’d hold the plane for us until we got back.
Talk about being on island time.
We had 45 minutes until take-off, so I dropped my backpack to the floor and followed Naite back to her car.
The hospital was grim.
It was, perhaps, what you may expect a hospital to look like on a tiny island in one of the lowest income countries in the world. It was dark, dirty, and filled with dust. There appeared to be no patients.
Our footsteps echoed down the dim corridor as we peered into empty room after empty room.
“Mālō e lelei,” Naite called out, but was greeted by nothing but silence. We wandered the halls of the run-down building until we found a group of people conferring in an office. Naite spoke with them while I attempted to ignore the whining of a mosquito in my ear. There was no air conditioning in the hospital, it was 30°C/86°F, and close to 100% humidity. I wiped a bead of sweat from my forehead and grimaced.
“Come with me,” she said eventually, reaching out and spinning me around. “The doctor is having lunch so we’ll go to her house.”
“Can we just interrupt her like that?”
“It’s fine,” she reassured me. “She lives opposite the hospital. I know her.”
We traipsed over the road to a small cottage and Naite called for the doctor through the fence. A beaming woman hurried outside and began to speak to me in Tongan. I blinked.
“Oh. You’re not Tongan?”
I shook my head.
That would be a no. Not so Tongan. How much of a tan had I gained over the past week?
The doctor and Naite conversed, and my ears pricked with euphoria when I heard someone say loperamide. That’s exactly what I needed!
I thanked the doctor profusely as we left, and walked with Naite back inside the hospital. As I waited for her to grab my prescription, I eyed the rickety stretcher outside and shuddered. The residents of ‘Eua had been so wonderful to me and I couldn’t stop thinking about how this was their only option on the island when it came to medical care. I shook my head as I tried to process the strange blend of gratitude and sorrow that I was feeling.
When Naite returned, she pressed two small bags of pills into my hand.
“Thank you so much!” I smiled, my bowels flooded with relief. I clenched tighter. “How much were they?”
“Oh, no charge. They’re free.”
“Tongans have free healthcare,” she told me. “You don’t need to pay anything.”
I popped a couple of pills into my mouth and we made our way back to the car. My flight was due to depart in ten minutes, but we were five minutes away, so I wasn’t concerned. In countries like Tonga, airport security doesn’t exist and queues are non-existent. I knew I’d grab my bag from the airport floor, throw it in the plane’s hold, then retrieve it once we landed again. Boarding the plane would take less than a minute.
What followed was a surprisingly comfortable travel experience, thanks to the enormous supply of Imodium I had to last me through the day and potentially the rest of my life.
My short-but-terrifying-as-always flight got me to Tongatapu in under ten minutes, and I was touching down in Ha’apai several hours after that.
And when I arrived at Matafonua Lodge and saw this stretching out before me?
I immediately decided it was worth all the shit it took to get me there.