Welcome to the final installment of my 5-part travel series for katieincuba. In previous posts I discussed the following:
-Mental preparation for travel abroad
-Differences between traveling alone and traveling with a group
-Language and cultural differences
-Navigating your way through a new city
Here, I will cover the process of physically adapting to your new environment. While I am NOT a doctor and have no intimate knowledge of the medical profession, in this post I will discuss some of the physical manifestations of moving or traveling abroad based on my personal experiences.
This topic is important because both during my visit in June and at several points throughout the last few weeks I became convinced that I was gravely ill because I had problems ranging from headaches to muscle aches to zero hunger to digestive problems to burning eyes and a variety of other physical issues. The majority of these issues, however, were the result of my body adjusting to a foreign environment, new food and a new routine. Dramatic changes in the following areas can quickly and dramatically affect your health or physical condition as your body adapts to your new environment.
1) Climate & Environment
This will obviously be less of an issue for someone moving from Maine to London, where the climate change would be less of a shock to the system. But if someone were, for example, moving from Chicago to Cuba, the climate variances are at times shocking. The environmental differences between countries are not restricted to differences in weather, but can extend to differences in air quality, including pollution level and altitude.
We have hot days in Chicago, but the really hot ones are few-and-far-between and often sandwiched by days with more moderate temperatures. I certainly survived weeks of oppressive heat and humidity during my time in Texas and North Carolina, but a nice quiet room or car with air conditioning and ice cold lemonade were always just a skip away. This is not the case in Cuba, where the sun and humidity from 9 am until sundown are brutal, and an open window or abanico are often all that stands between you and heat stroke. Physical issues resulting from this can range from sunburn to heat exhaustion to heat stroke to headaches. Try your best to ALWAYS wear sunscreen, bring a handkerchief or small towel to ‘politely dab’ the buckets of sweat that will be constantly dripping down your face, and walk in the shade whenever possible.
A change in air quality can be very difficult to adapt to as well, especially if you are very active or a non-smoker or have respiratory problems. If you are moving from an area with non-smoking laws and low pollution levels to somewhere like Habana or Seoul, your lungs and eyes and skin will need to adapt. As a distance runner, this transition has been particularly difficult for me. As a result of the combination of car exhaust (the cars in Cuba are the antique US models running on any variety of fashioned engines, gas, oil, what-have-you) and the crowding and traffic and smoking and industry in Habana streets, the pollution level is higher than I am accustomed to. It has been difficult transitioning and trying to run with the different air quality as my lungs are used to running in a cleaner environment. In addition, if you have sensitive eyes or skin, high pollution levels can result in stinging and irritation for the first several days until your body adjusts.
Unfortunately, there is little you can do to change the air quality of your new environment. If you are near an ocean, you can take a walk on the beach to relieve your lungs with fresh sea air. Also, drink tons of water all throughout the day to replace the fluids lost through sweat and to flush the toxins out of your body and skin.
If you are one of those people who plans to reach your destination and immediately look for the nearest McDonalds or pizza place because you do not want to try the local food, please skip on to the next section…this part is not for you!
For those of you who are like me, and will try anything at least once, this is my warning to you to take it easy as your body adjusts to its new environment, and try things in moderation. My personal struggles with Cuban cuisine have involved high salt and oil content, and I have to always be aware of how much of each I am consuming on a given day. While new foods can be delicious and exciting, the last thing you want to do on your trip is get sick!
Besides monitoring intake of things like salt and oil that you usually do not eat much of at home, also follow basic rules of making sure produce is washed well and using your best judgment when buying street food. (I have had no problems with this so far in Cuba, but know of a few examples in Mexico of several miserable days in the bathroom following a midnight run to the taco stand.) Also be aware of main aspects of your normal diet that may be absent in your vacation food, such as protein, dairy and fiber, and try to replace them in any way possible with supplements or food. (Suggestion: Emergen-C packets and Fiber-One bars are portable and a good way to get your nutrients while traveling.)
Similar to the food issue, be sure you are not dramatically changing your daily pattern with exercise. If you normally work all day in an office and then go home and relax with your family in front of the television and use your weekends to relax and catch up on sleep, do not expect to go on vacation and be able to “go, go, go” from sun-up to sun-down every day. If you are planning a trip that will involve a lot of walking and activity, start adjusting your daily routine at home before you leave to integrate more activity so you are physically able to participate in the activities during your vacation without getting ill or injured.
On the other hand, if you are someone who runs or goes to the gym six days a week and walks to work every day, be careful not to plan a two week vacation of just sitting around on a beach or taking tour busses everywhere. While the prospect of a break from your workout routing and enjoying your vacation may sound appealing, the sudden sedentary lifestyle will have physical and mental implications that will negatively impact your experiences on the trip.
That being said, I recommend to all travelers everywhere that you try to see as much as you can, not only the hotel bar and the beach. Go exploring, practice the language, try local food, go on excursions, and ask a local what they do for fun. EXPERIENCE the culture of a new country, do not just go out and do the same things you would do back home.
Here is a special message to all spring-breakers…but basically for everyone who plans to go out dancing or drinking or to shows and parties every night during your vacation. In the US we are very good at “burning the candle at both ends.” I cannot begin to count the all-nighters I pulled trying to finish my thesis, only to do it all over the next day, all while trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. During our normal, daily lives, this is something we have adapted to.
However, during your first few days in a new country, I urge you to take it easy and ensure your body gets the rest it needs as it attempts to heal and adapt to the new environment. If you are only going for 5 days or a week, suck it up and have a blast, you can pay for it when you get home! But for an extended trip or study abroad try to take it easy at first. When your body feels back to normal then you can get back to your “all-nighters”, but give yourself time to rest and adjust first.
5) Drink Water!
There is no need to get into detail on this one. In my opinion, most of the world’s problems could be solved if everyone drank more water. It is good for the skin and hydration and general health and well-being, and can help your body as you adapt to every one of these changes while you travel. There is no excuse for not getting at least 8 glasses a day. If the country or city you are in does not treat their water you can boil it or buy bottled. Hook your Nalgene to your purse of backpack, wear a Camelback, and buy a bottle at the corner store, Just Drink Water!
I will share a story from my trip to Cuba in June to point out what can happen when all of the aforementioned factors combine in a short time period.
I arrived in Cuba with one of the worst sunburns of my life thanks to an irresponsible day in the Miami sun the day before my departure. Unwilling to let a little sunburn slow me down on the most exciting trip of my life, I went about my daily life in Cuba, eating the Cuban food (that is not without a generous portion of salt), loading myself to the point of explosion on Cuban coffee, spending most of our day sitting on the bus or in rooms where we had meetings and events with various representatives of the education system, and going out until all hours with my new friends enjoying a mojito or two. On day 3 as we arrived at a center in Habana for children without families I felt a strange sensation in my legs and looked down to see that both of my ankles and feet were swollen to at least double their normal size. A member of our delegation was a doctor and she informed me that I had edema, a common occurrence among pregnant women that can occur from a sudden change in diet, excessive salt, caffeine or alcohol intake, or a change in physical activity. Check, Check and Check! Luckily, a very nice old man at the King Center eventually suggested I try caicimón, a large green leaf with anti-inflammatory properties used by Cubans for ages to treat inflammation. Within a day my ankles were back to normal size, but it was a scary and frustrating and AVOIDABLE experience.
While none of the physical issues resulting from the change in environment and lifestyle are particularly enjoyable (I know I did not love my week with ‘cankles’), you do not need to rush immediately to the hospital, convinced that you are gravely ill. Instead, control the rate at which your body is exposed to these different elements where you can. Limit sun exposure, stay active, monitor your diet, and drink TONS of water.