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Is there a doctor aboard this ship?

(ran TP edition)

Most travelers soon discover the places that beckon them the most can be the most dangerous _ sometimes politically threatening but, more often, health threatening.

That poses a problem for mid-70s seniors like myself who want to see exotic places without contracting exotic diseases _ or even run-of-the-microscope native germs, for that matter.

I had, for many years, wanted to see India and other Indian Ocean countries but only _ as I would joke _ if accompanied by my personal physician.

I never got rich enough to rate a personal, traveling M.D., but I did come up with a solution: Find a doctor who is accessible to you and is available around the clock. The answer is an easy one since such doctors _ plus, usually, a couple of nurses _ are found on every major cruise ship.

In our case, my wife and I selected an India-to-East Africa cruise on the world cruise ship Marco Polo. The cruise included pre-cruise and post-cruise packages on land, which were short enough to keep us worry-free but long enough to see the wonders we sought.

After a flight to New Delhi via London, we spent three nights in a New Delhi hotel, long enough to explore the Indian capital and also to put in one long, tedious but satisfying day trip to the Taj Mahal. Before you see the Taj, you are aware that it is considered one of the seven wonders of the world. After seeing it, you feel that nothing else created by humankind can compare. It is, indeed, the most beautiful structure on Earth.

The next day we flew to Bombay and boarded our ship. It was a welcome change since now we could drink the water (no more toting a bottle of purified water around) and eat the salads, plus any other uncooked goodies we might savor.

Our past, however, did catch up to us _ but, thanks to the ship's physician, only briefly. Even though we had observed all the cautions in India, we still came down with a gastrointestinal upset. Not to worry, however, as we went right to the doctor, a young South African man with up-to-the-minute skills and a good bedside manner. He prescribed some tablets and also some salts, which we dissolved in water and drank for the purpose of "restoring our electrolytes." After missing one dinner, I was feeling much better and my wife was not even inconvenienced that much.

Going back for followup visits, we compared notes with fellow patients and all agreed that traveling by ship with a doctor at hand does give seniors a certain peace of mind not always attainable while traveling by other means. The doctor's two Filipino nurses were very professional when dealing with patients.

I later learned the Marco Polo's medical center was not only well-equipped but dispenses only U.S.-approved medication. Some additional research revealed that the ship participates in a Washington-based medical network that enables the ship's doctor to communicate with specialists 24 hours a day. In the event of an extreme emergency, the ship has a helipad so that any seriously ill passenger can be swiftly transported to a land-based facility.

In our case, we had no further problems and we never saw any copter landings, so I assumed the doctor was able to cope with whatever challenges arose among our fellow passengers.

We went on to visit the Indian ports of Goa and Cochin, each worthy of inclusion on most lists of exotic locales, followed by stops in the Maldives and Seychelles islands. Nearing Africa, we spent a day exploring Zanzibar.

We left the Marco Polo in Mombasa, Kenya, from where it would sail on toward Capetown with a new group of passengers. We were bound for a three-day safari, most of it within sight of famed Mount Kilimanjaro, before ending up in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, which we toured before flying home.

As one last precaution, before leaving the ship I obtained a small supply of the pills that had restored our gastrointestinal health, just in case! Sure enough, maybe it was the long safari days or possibly the long, overnight flight from Nairobi, but during our stopover at London's Gatwick Airport, I experienced a slight upset and took one of the pills. It worked, and it was smooth traveling all the way back to our Florida home.

In retrospect, I am happy, of course, that we encountered no major microbes and am also feeling good about the fact that if we had, they could have been dealt with.

_ James Pettican is a retired journalist and freelance writer who lives in Palm Harbor.