Traveling Abroad with Chronic Physical and Mental Illnesses: A Series on My Experiences

In college, I majored in anthropology, because I wanted to talk to a bunch of people, learn from them, and hopefully use what I learned to help people as a future career.

I applied for a bunch of grants to go do research the summer before my senior year for my thesis. I had been wanting to travel and see the world for what felt like my whole life (which until then had mostly been spent in Texas). So I applied for the grants, wrote a proposal and miraculously got the funding to go to…. India.

Why India, you ask?

Everyone around me wanted to know why India too. I had never been. I had never been to a country that didn’t speak English before! And most people knew only the stereotypes the media had told them about India or what they saw in movies like Slumdog Millionaire. India to them was poverty, dirt, disease, a third world country.

And honestly, they didn’t think I could handle it. I had not been diagnosed with OCD or anxiety yet, but my family had been living with my pretty strong germophobia for years. How I was going to live in India where I couldn’t drink the tap water?

And that doesn’t touch on the fears of me managing alone, as a woman, in a place that is widely stereotyped as a site of gender-based violence (not that India doesn’t have gender based violence, but we tend to focus on the gender based violence in places like India, and ignore the rates of gender based violence in places like the US).

Would I be safe? How would I travel? Would I be able to get around on my own? This was before smartphones were widely owned and I all I had was an old flip phone. No Maps or Google on my phone everywhere I went.

My parents spent the two weeks before my trip helping me plan and pack, and also freaking out about my trip. They went with me to get my prescriptions from the pharmacy, which included malaria prevention pills. We went to Walmart and got a purse you could wear under your clothes to hold your passport.

My mom, who is a seamstress, made me long maxi skirts made of seersucker so I would fit in with local clothing norms for women (which I didn’t—women mainly wear loose trousers and long tunics, not skirts and shirts, but at least I was covered!).

I read a couple books on traveling to India for women which recommended many of these things, including a personal alarm. As a result, we went all over our small town to the Radio Shack and Best Buy looking for one. My dad tried explaining it to the guys working there.

“We want something that she can press or activate if she’s in danger. You know, if she’s in the street and some guy is threatening her. Something loud to get help.”

The young guys working at these stores just looked at us blankly.

“Uh, we don’t really have anything like that. We have house alarms?”

So we didn’t get that. We did get a lot of other stuff that ended up being totally useless. But my parents felt like if they couldn’t stop me at least they had helped me prepare with diarrhea meds, water purifiers, 85 SPF, a door stop, and a suitcase lock.

The closer we got, the more they asked about my plans and preparations, they asked if this was really what I wanted to do, if I would be able to call them regularly (uh, maybe, if I got a sim card?), and if I would take care of myself.

The morning of my flight, it was my dad’s job to take me to the airport. My mom said goodbye at home. We hugged for a good five minutes.

“Okay, I love you. I’ll let you know as soon as I get there. I promise. I gotta go!”

A few more “I love yous” and she let me go. Not without a tear or two.

We got in the car, and I swear, I wasn’t sure my dad would actually take me to the airport until we got there.

“Are you sure? Are you really? Do you think you can deal with the germs? Are you going to be okay? Can you handle getting sick? Especially getting a bacterial infection? It’ll be gross. Can you handle something like diarrhea? I worry about you, Daughter.” He warned me with his typical Okie candor.

By then, I really wasn’t sure, but I was committed. So all I said was, “Definitely, it’ll be fine I promise. I can do this!” and he hugged me, got my suitcase out, and took me to the security line.

So why on Earth was I so eager to go to India? And how did I do once I was there with my physical and mental illnesses?

I will address these questions in my series on my experiences living in India with chronic mental and physical illnesses. I will have regular posts on Wednesdays and India related posts on Sundays. Please comment with any questions I can address in future posts!

(For the second post in the series, click here).

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