Visions of a broken ankle galloped through my head last month when I was slip-sliding on ancient walkways around the Parthenon in Greece. I thought, "How the heck would they get an ambulance up here?" Or would two hunky Adonises have to carry me down the Acropolis?
I walked gingerly and purposefully in sensible shoes (thank you, Naot) but it was difficult to take in the sights because I was so busy looking at the ground. A lady went down just a few feet away and was finally hoisted up by her companions. I watched another woman, wearing slingbacks with kitten heels, slap her way around the ruins grabbing everyone she could for support. Cute shoes, silly choice.
(Note to self: Next vacation bring a collapsible walking stick for tromping through historic sites with uneven pavement and no handrails.)
Getting injured or being felled by some vague ailment is always a possibility when traveling. Even the most careful travelers can pick up a bug, or trip on an unfamiliar path (especially when they are sightseeing).
My Parthenon wobble got me thinking about how to stay healthy while on the road without becoming so obsessed that you can't have a good time. For most of my travels — with the exception of a very bad stomach thing in Aurangabad, India, and a crying jag in a snowed-in Denver airport — I've done pretty well.
Here are my top tips for staying healthy on the road:
It's not a fashion show
Everyone says that Americans can be identified by the clunky athletic shoes they wear when traveling abroad. I say, "Who cares?" If your New Balance trainers keep you balanced while walking over all kinds of terrain, wear them. You will see plenty of people in tennis shoes and, guess what, the locals know you're not native as soon as you open your mouth. You won't be able to outdress the Italians anyway.
Study your itinerary and make sure you have appropriate footwear for whatever you'll be doing. Take new shoes on a few laps around the block before you leave. This will keep you from getting blisters or at least tell you to pack moleskin pads. Plus, the appropriate shoes might save your ankles.
Like a Boy Scout, be prepared
Pack Band-Aids, aspirin, motion sickness medicine and any other first aid equipment you might need. It's not that you can't buy Advil in Hong Kong, it's just more convenient to have it with you for that middle-of-the-night headache. If you're going to a developing nation, take along water purifying tablets and don't forget your shots. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a country-by-country list of health precautions.)
Always keep a few days' worth of medications with you, rather than stowing them all in checked baggage that could get lost. In some countries, medications are quite inexpensive at pharmacies, but be wary unless you really know what you are buying.
Be prepared II
Mental health is as important as physical well-being, especially when you are traveling in a country where you don't know the language. You want to be able to keep your wits about you, and if you've done a little planning, you'll be able to handle nearly anything.
On a recent trip to Spain where I was planning on driving a rental car, I studied some of the road signs before I got there. I learned the difference between autopista (toll highway) and autovia (the free highway that runs parallel). One less thing to figure out at 100 kilometers per hour.
I don't plan everything out — part of the fun of travel is the unexpected — but I know myself enough to know I need a travel outline. That keeps me in a good frame of mind and I think that's well more than half the battle when it comes to staying healthy on the road.
Watch the food and drink
If you can't drink the water, don't eat the ice. And be careful about brushing your teeth using tap water. If in doubt on the water's origins, you might want to skip the in-flight coffee and tea, just to be safe.
Trying new foods is one of the joys of discovering a new place, but be wary of overindulgence. We joke that calories eaten on vacation don't count, which of course they do, but what may be worse is eating a lot of food that you don't normally eat. An upset stomach can upset plans for an outing.
And not to be too indelicate, but eating a diet completely out of the norm for you can cause constipation. For people who have a tendency toward this affliction, eat a couple of prunes in the morning. Many breakfast buffets at hotels include them or other dried fruit. Drinking lots of safe water can help, too.
Furry friends or enemies?
Even animal lovers will want to be careful about touching critters they don't know. Rabies can be a risk in developing countries. Admire animals from afar but don't put yourself in harm's way by inviting every fluffy fellow to sit on your lap.
The plane truth
We all know people who return to work sick after a vacation and then blame their illness on the airplane ride home. All those germs, they say, circulating through that closed air system. Well, that's not exactly accurate. Only part of the air is recirculated but it is also run through filters that help sterilize it.
Health experts say it's more likely that someone near you on the plane is sick and passes the germs on to you. Like a cruise ship, you're in a captive situation. Sometimes, it's just pure bad luck. Low humidity in the cabin can dry out your nose and make you feel sick, too. Bring saline nose spray to equalize the situation.
Also, your body might be worn down because of all the fun you had on vacation and that allows you to pick up a bug more easily.
Wash away germs
I wash my hands more on vacation than I do when I am at home. And when I am cruising, I get a handful of antibacterial goo every time I walk by one of the dispensers. I figure I am touching handrails, door handles, tabletops, chair arms, telephones and many other communal items that have been fingered by a multitude of people before me. Maybe they don't all have harmful germs . . . but they could. I use the hottest water I can stand and lots of soap.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.