I knew as soon as we stepped aboard the jumbo jet I was in trouble. I had to pee. Not the normal pee either, the urgent, painful kind that could only mean one thing: Urinary Tract Infection. Anyone who has experienced the agony of a UTI knows that you don’t wish it on your worst enemy.
I was about to embark on my first trip to a ‘developing’ nation, a place where my comfort level was 0, and my anxiety level was 100. And it started with a UTI on an 18 hour flight. The flight attendant must have thought I had just survived a month in the desert, as I desperately asked for water every 5 minutes. At the start of the trip I decided not to tell my travel mates. I mean, who wants to hear about a gross UTI when they’re on their way to Thailand!?!? Elephants! Curry! Temples! Heat!
Thailand came onto my radar at college when my best friend thrust an orange wrinkled flyer at me and said “elephants,” her arms crossed in front of her with a look that said we’re going. My college offered a month-long field school to the country, which meant a). We could spend part of the summer traveling and earning credit, and b). Elephants. That orange flyer was all the convincing I needed.
We landed in Bangkok at night and were shuttled to our hotel through hot rain and neon lights. I had Mad World (the Gary Jules cover) in my headphones, and it seemed a fitting tune for the bright chaos outside my foggy window. I also had to pee. I cringed and squirmed in my seat. The streets passing by were crowded and steamy, motorbikes piled with families, tuk-tuks carrying sweaty foreigners, taxis and cars honking as if having a conversation, food carts smoking while small Thai women tossed noodles in the air, and dogs darting among the shuffling feet. I smiled at how wild and exotic it all seemed.
After a few days in Bangkok adjusting to the heat – a heat that grips you with intense, sweaty waves of humidity - we traveled north along the Chao Phraya River. We visited the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, and careened through bright green rice fields along old highways built during the Vietnam War. We risked our lives by jumping out of moving boats, eating street food and staying in the car while the driver filled the gas tank with the engine running. We drank soda from a bag, haggled our way through markets, and made friends with a disfigured dog called ‘Smashie.’ We even met, rode, fed, and swam with a lovely group of elephants in a sanctuary in Lampang. A highlight of my life.
By the time we arrived in Loei, a small northern town close to the Cambodian border, we’d had time to get to know one another. This was why, one evening when we were all crammed into one person’s room brushing tiny ants out of our beds and drinking Spy wine coolers, I decided to share my UTI woes. Without hesitation, my travel companions all decided that I should immediately get medication, and were stunned (and mildly impressed) that I had let it go on for so long. I reluctantly agreed.
I was nervous to visit a Thai hospital, so I went with my best friend, and a chaperone from Loei who could translate. The hospital was a large new building sitting on top of a hill, and it looked exactly like a hospital. Because it was late, it was quiet, and our chaperone chattered with the nurse while we sat on a bed and waited. On a nearby bed was a child with a very serious cut on his leg. He was screaming, and squirming and his mother was doing everything to calm him. You could see the worry and exhaustion on her face.
A few minutes passed and two young nurses came to get us, and we were taken to the doctor’s office. The doctor, wearing a white lab coat and thick glasses, peered over his glasses at us as we entered.
“Hello, can I help you?”
“I have a urinary tract infection.” I said, wincing a little.
“It hurts for you to go pee-pee?” He asked, very seriously.
I laughed a little, and the two young nurses who were still in the doorway giggled behind me. He raised his eyebrows, waiting for an answer. I suddenly felt marginally uncomfortable. “Yes.”
He handed me a cup. “You go pee-pee in this cup. Give cup to nurse.” I did, and ten minutes later we were back in his office.
“Can I please have this kind of antibiotic?” I asked and handed him a piece of paper with the type I usually use written on it.
“Ohhhh no no no!” He focused his glasses on the paper and shook his head. “We do not use this type, very bad for your kidneys. I will prescribe something else.” He scribbled illegible Thai on a prescription pad. I thought about the ubiquity of illegible doctor’s notes…
“Here. One for infection, one for pain.” He handed me the piece of cream paper, smiled, and nodded at the two nurses. Still giggling to each other, they led us out to the waiting area where I collected my prescription from a woman behind smudged plexi-glass. My chaperone explained how many chalky white and orange pills I was meant to take, and I popped them immediately, choking them down with my ever-present bottle of water.
On the drive back to our hotel, feeling instantly better, I thought about the events of the evening. Before visiting the hospital (and the reason I delayed it for so long), I had imagined a dingy back-door clinic filled with sickly looking people, and green fluorescent lighting. What I got instead was something strangely familiar. I was embarrassed by my own naïve assumptions. As I looked out the car window that night, concrete block walls blurring together with the orange street light glow, I vowed that I would never assume anything about a place again. I would jump in and experience as much of the world as I could. No assumptions, no expectations, and no fear. For it is the unknown that beckons us to wander.