Hospitalised in Tonga


hospital in tonga

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.

Real Tonga plane from Tongatapu to Eua-1

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.

The Hideaway in 'Eua Tonga

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.

Road bridge in Eua Tonga

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.

“Hi.”

“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?”

Oh god.

“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.

Ocean views in Eua Tonga

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.”

House in Eua Tonga

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.

hospital in tonga

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!

stretcher in a hospital in third world country

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.”

I blinked.

“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. 

Island of Tonga from above

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?

Beach on Matafonua in Ha'apai Tonga

I immediately decided it was worth all the shit it took to get me there.

Literally.

 

What’s your greatest fear when you travel?

Previous March 2018: Travel Summary and Statistics
Next Ha’apai: My South Pacific Island Paradise

25 Comments

  1. Dee
    April 16, 2018
    Reply

    Hilarious! :D I once had to endure a half hour on a train without a bathroom and that was horrible enough, so I really feel your pain..

    • Lauren
      April 23, 2018
      Reply

      I’ve been quite fortunate in the past, but this time. Man. I was so worried I was going to explode mid-flight, haha!

  2. Kristian
    April 16, 2018
    Reply

    Wow! I’m so glad that worked for you in the end (pun not intended). I have a trip coming up. I’m going to buy some immodium. :-)

    • Lauren
      April 18, 2018
      Reply

      Hahahaha! I highly recommend doing so :-)

  3. Natalia
    April 16, 2018
    Reply

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time! I’m in awe that you remained so positive throughout the whole thing! Imodium is one of the few things I ALWAYS take; I think I even have them in my regular handbag!

    • Lauren
      April 18, 2018
      Reply

      Thank you! By this point, I’ve had so many travel disasters that I tend to plaster a smile on my face and trust that’ll always work out for the best. It hasn’t let me down yet! But yes, I’m definitely going to have Imodium to hand at all times going forwards.

  4. Amanda
    April 16, 2018
    Reply

    This is a huge fear of mine too! (Well, basically feeling ill on any form of transport without easy access to a bathroom.) I’ve always traveled with Imodium, but never had to use it until last year in Egypt when my whole group came down with a stomach bug (at first we thought it was food poisoning, but more people got sick every day until our whole group + guide had it!). Thank goodness I had Imodium with me then, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it to King Tut’s tomb. My stomach was messed up for weeks, though – not fun!

    • Lauren
      April 23, 2018
      Reply

      Oh my god, that sounds like a nightmare! Thank god you had some Imodium to save the day!

  5. Jessica
    April 16, 2018
    Reply

    What a crazy experience! So glad it worked out! I’ve always had tummy/bathroom issues when we travel internationally. Years ago my doctor recommended taking 2 Pepto in the morning & 2 Pepto in the evening during our entire trip. She said pepto has a slight anitbotic in it but won’t stop you up like immodium. This has been life changing for me during my travels! It’s business as usual in the bathroom department- even after eating grilled rat & snake in Vietnam,lol!

    • Lauren
      April 19, 2018
      Reply

      Oh, interesting! The one time I’ve taken pepto, I threw up and was alarmed to see bright pink vomit gushing out of me, haha, so I’ve never taken it again. I should try it and see how it goes.

  6. Natalie
    April 16, 2018
    Reply

    What a miserable experience turned kind of incredible. And I think worrying about shitting yourself on an airplane is a totally healthy fear.

    I actually worry about not having access to a bathroom while traveling and I tend to get dehydrated because I won’t drink enough water.

    I always travel with pepto, but I think I need to add immodium to my list.

    • Lauren
      April 23, 2018
      Reply

      Yes! I’m the same. I’m always trying to find that perfect balance between being hydrated but not so hydrated that I need to pee while I’m on a long bus journey or something. I mostly just end up dehydrated and with a headache, haha.

  7. Dominique
    April 16, 2018
    Reply

    Hahaha I love the ending! Oh wow, I’m so happy this never happened to me on a flight. I always see the queues for the toilet and the idea of being sick and waiting in line frightens me so much! Thanks for the reminder to bring loperamide with me when I travel :-)

    • Lauren
      April 18, 2018
      Reply

      I definitely learnt my lesson and won’t be risking going without it again!

  8. Markus
    April 18, 2018
    Reply

    Oh my God! That was one heck of an experience for you. Nevertheless all’s well that’s ends well….keep traveling and keep sharing.

    • Lauren
      April 18, 2018
      Reply

      Always! :-)

  9. guineveruca
    April 19, 2018
    Reply

    Ha! I’ve had my share abdominal adjusting to new cuisines, and one horrendous (in hindsight hilarious) bout of food poisoning while couchsurfing that caused me to miss a train, but never when I was about to get on a flight. My partner carries Immodium, and I’ve never used it. This story makes me think I should add it to my kit just in case…

    • Lauren
      April 23, 2018
      Reply

      You should! It won’t take up much space or weight so there’s no reason not to, which is a lesson I have now learned.

  10. Ryan Biddulph
    April 24, 2018
    Reply

    LOL Lauren! I feel for you buddy. Last year I shit myself during an 11 hour bus ride from Bagan to Inle in Myanmar, vomiting, dry heaving, terrifying all folks on board. Definitely go over myself during that experience hahahaha…Your blog is brilliant buddy. Keep up the good work.

    Ryan

    • Lauren
      April 25, 2018
      Reply

      Oh noooo! Hahahhahaha. Worst nightmare!

  11. Jean
    May 24, 2018
    Reply

    My greatest travel fear, and it really does cripple me, is vomit/ing. It’s been a true phobia since I was a toddler, and I haven’t managed to conquer it. I do not go ANYWHERE without peppermints, ginger, and four kinds of motion sickness pills. It’s frustrating because it affects my experiences with foods (fear of food poisoning), airplanes and boats (travel sickness is myself or others), nights out (can’t be around excessive drinking), and all sorts of experiences that most people would think of as normal. It sucks too that nausea is such a typical anxiety reaction, so if I’m generally anxious about a new experience the nausea kicks in, which flips my emetophobia into gear, which makes me more anxious, which makes me more nauseous, and the feedback loop goes on and on. Short-circuiting it is hard because my anxiety symptoms make my anxiety worse.

    I’d like to say I’m better than I used to be, but the best I can say is that I work to minimize my anxiety in general, try to avoid my triggers when I can, and do my best to cope when I can’t. There are some travel experiences that I’ll probably never be able to enjoy the way other people do, but I’m learning to cherish things that I can do and worry less about the things that I’m missing because of my anxiety. Sure, there are a ton of foods that I haven’t been able to try, but I got to see some incredible architecture and a few lovely sunsets, so I’ll call it worth it.

  12. Natalie Allen
    May 31, 2018
    Reply

    Oh I totally feel you here! I actually shat myself on a bus in India after I stood up when we pulled into the airport. I had to run to the bathroom to clean myself up before security. Bye bye, undies! This was a great piece, really enjoyed the read.

    • Lauren
      June 4, 2018
      Reply

      Oh nooooo! You need to rename your blog to two pairs of travel pants, haha.

  13. Hayley
    June 3, 2018
    Reply

    Oh! My! Goodness! I was literally sweating while reading this post – I definitely share the same fear. I got food poisoning in London about 2 weeks before we left to go travelling and I’ve been terrified ever since that it’ll happen while we’re in transit. I was ill again in Vietnam, but thankfully we didn’t have to travel anywhere that time. I did, however, dislocate my knee on our last day in Vietnam and had to fly to Hong Kong the next day, which was horrendous! We’re still in HK, I was admitted to hospital for a night and am now waiting for our insurance to help us get home. Freaking nightmare! Loving the blog as always and excited to hear about your move to Bristol! It’s one of my favourite cities in the UK.

    • Lauren
      June 6, 2018
      Reply

      Oh man! What a nightmare. Hope it’s all sorted out for you by now.

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