It started with an itch. Not a metaphorical itch this time, but a literal, physical itch that spread across my shoulder blades and up my neck. Recognising the familiar sting of bug bites, I cursed the insect population of Vietnam and covered my skin with tiger balm. But then my neck started to swell, and I couldn’t turn my head without pain. My muscles stiffened and tightened. I had a night of no sleep, tossing and turning, feeling feverish. The next day I woke up with a line of swollen red welts stamped down one side of my neck and over my shoulder like love bites.
If you read about that time I got stung in the face by a wasp, you’ll know that my body doesn’t do well with insects. This allergic reaction, coming at the end of a difficult couple of weeks travelling, seemed to me like the full stop at the end of the message my body was trying to give me – slow down. Take care. Listen.
So I listened. I left Vietnam a couple of days later, and flew to Thailand. I headed for Koh Lanta, one of my favourite Thai islands, with the aim of spending three weeks there relaxing before flying to Spain for my friend’s wedding in June. I spent five days on Koh Lanta reading, walking on the beach, watching the monsoon storms pass overhead from my tiny treehouse room. I ate mango and sticky coconut rice, and drank beer on the beach with new friends whilst the sun sank below the horizon of a sky tinged with pink and bruised by clouds. And then.
Dengue fever bides its time, attacking stealthily like the unseen mosquitos that carry it; crawling through your blood for days before biting with hot, jarring teeth into your bones. It swells in your brain and kills your platelets, joy riding through your arteries and burrowing into your marrow. Your skull aches with that dull, foreboding fatigue, your eyeballs lancing with pain in their sockets. Your temperature climbs, your skin burning below the surface and clammy to the touch. Your bones feel splintered and broken, your joints aged by 60 years overnight. You cannot move. You can barely think.
The international clinic on Koh Lanta drew my blood into vials and found the fever running through it. Meanwhile, the military in Bangkok assembled like chess pieces to stage their coup. The international news channels were replaced with white noise. The streets grew dark and empty as curfew set in. I called my insurance company and cried hot tears when they told me my treatment wasn’t covered. It was time to leave Thailand.
I remember only pieces of the journey home. Trying to force down a slice of toast in the morning with my paracetamol. The single minded determination it took to get myself and my backpack onto the first ferry. The kindness of the man who carried my backpack onto the second ferry when I couldn’t lift it anymore. Watching the coastline of Phuket drift past the window through half closed eyes. A fleeting moment of panic, four hours into my flight, before I slipped back into the hot, dreamless sleep of the fever. My parents’ faces when I finally came through the arrivals gate at Manchester. The unfamiliar familiarity of the drive from the airport, and the surreal feeling that the past eight months had passed within the haze of a dream.
I spent my first night back in England in a hospital bed, needle bruises on my forearms and fever shivering through my skin. A couple of days later my fever was broken, and a week after that I no longer slept for most of the day. I flew to Spain for my friend’s wedding, and I spent a week in Barcelona as well as some unexpected, but much appreciated, time at home with my family and my friends. And then I returned to Asia, because, to paraphrase the show folk; the adventure must go on.