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Illustration by Yatish Asthana/Mint
Illustration by Yatish Asthana/Mint

The breathless traveller

In places unfamiliar, a familiar illness dogs the author

The worst vacation of my life began when our flight touched down in Hong Kong, deep into a March evening in 1993. At the time, Hong Kong was still using its old international airport, Kai Tak, and the precarious drama of landing there unfurled outside my window. The slim, rectangular runway extended right into Victoria Harbour, so that there was, at one point, water on three sides of us; until the wheels hit tarmac, it seemed all but certain that we would miss the ground and slide into the sea. The lights of the city’s skyscrapers burned all around the plane.

A staircase rolled up to the aircraft’s door. When we stepped out, a long gust of wind, still bearing whispers of winter, swooped down at us from the mountains to the north.

“Put your jacket on," my mother told me. “And you really need a scarf."

“But it feels so pleasant!" I protested. I was 12 years old, and I relished the prospect of a few sweat-free days before we flew back home to a tropical summer. And then I said the words that tempted fate: “Really, it’s exhilarating!"

Within a day, I had fallen ill: a bout of asthma, one of the worst I had ever had. I remember the rest of that week only through a medicated haze. We barely left the apartment of the friends we were visiting, unless it was to go to the clinic nearby, for a fresh prescription or another whack at the nebulizer. Mostly, I stayed in bed, wheezing quietly to myself, miserable that I was ruining my family’s holiday.

Only two short excursions into the outside world now return to mind. In one, we rambled around downtown, my asthma briefly tamped down by drugs. On a side street, I sighted my first Rolls-Royce as well as my second, and I nearly persuaded my father to let me get my ear pierced. Towards the end of our stay, we also rode the tram up Victoria Peak; in a restaurant at the top, we sat around a table by the window, drinking tea and gazing upon the sunny shimmer of Hong Kong in the late afternoon sun. But the precise details elude me. While the tram was still dawdling its way up the flank of the Peak, I had felt a return of the old, wretchedly familiar state of breathlessness. Somehow I made it through teatime, slumped over and expending my energies just to inhale and exhale, and then we went home. When our flight lifted us out of Kai Tak a couple of days later, I was still wheezing. The drama of take-off went entirely unnoticed.

Throughout my life, my asthma has been my most constant travel companion. I recognize instantly the first prickles of its onset: the creeping tension in my chest, the odd shallow breath, the mild clouding of my thoughts. In full asthmatic bloom I am incapacitated. I work so hard to take in air that it can seem like I am gasping. My shoulders and back ache from the effort. My mind wanders in fuzzy circles. My world shrinks, and time is marked off by laborious breaths.

In adulthood, my asthma is not the chronic nuisance it once was; I now go months, or even a year, without a grave attack. But its triggers are as unpredictable as ever, touching off attacks with alacrity on some occasions but sparing me on others. Dust and pollution can set it off, but on the other hand, I have lived in New Delhi since 2008, and I am clearly not asthmatic every day of the dusty, polluted year. Humidity plays a role sometimes; so do pollen and mites. An allergenic pillow cover. Sharp paint fumes. A burst of physical activity. A sudden transition of weather might strike me down, as it did in Hong Kong, or it might not. Any sort of change, in fact, is potentially suspect—and since change is the very essence of travel, it is as if my spirit and my constitution are squaring off against each other every time I pack my bags. Within the mix of uncertainties that lends travel its air of adventure, the disquieting thought lurks even today: Will I fall ill?

***

The literature of travel is, inevitably, littered with accounts of illness. The unfamiliar stresses our minds and bodies in unexpected ways, and what is travel but a pure pursuit of the unfamiliar? In some instances, the illness can even be the most emphatic aspect of the unfamiliarity, definitive physiological proof that you are far from home.

Setting out for Liberia in 1935, Graham Greene consulted a British government advisory for the country. Even before he left England, he was worrying about getting sick. In Journey Without Maps, the book that resulted from his trip, Greene quoted a section of the advisory:

“As far as is known, the principal diseases in the interior include elephantiasis, leprosy, yaws, malaria, hookworm, schistosomiasis, dysentery, smallpox and nutritional conditions. In the whole country there are only: two doctors in Monrovia, both foreign and both engaged in private practice, a medical officer on the Firestone Plantation, and three or four missionary doctors working in the interior."

The spectre of illness dogged Greene’s thoughts and steps. He saw sick people everywhere in Liberia, or heard stories of them. Finally he succumbed himself: “My temperature was high. I swallowed twenty grains of quinine with a glass of whisky, took off my clothes, wrapped myself in blankets under the mosquito-net and tried to sleep…. I was sweating as if I had influenza; I couldn’t keep dry for more than fifteen seconds." In the morning, though, Greene realized that, in the throes of his fever, “I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living. I had always assumed before, as a matter of course, that death was desirable." The illness delivered epiphany, as travel often does.

So much of travel writing features Westerners abroad in Asia or Africa that a particular species of sickness tends to populate these narratives. Fevers are common, as in Greene’s case: states of delirium that reflected the dreamlike way in which the narrators often perceived their fantastic surroundings. Even T.E. Lawrence, near-native of the Arabian Desert, fell victim. Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, Lawrence’s memoir, carefully catalogues his various ailments. Afflicted by fever during a long march, he wrote that dysentery in these parts “used to fall like a hammer blow and crush its victims for a few hours".

Lawrence’s march is tortuous. “The puffs of feverish wind pressed like scorching hands against our faces, burning our eyes. My pain made me breathe in gasps through the mouth," he wrote. After dinner, he slept deeply but not calmly. “The illness…had stimulated my ordinarily sluggish fancy, which ran riot this night in dreams of wandering naked for a dark eternity over interminable lava (like scrambled egg gone iron-blue, and very wrong), sharp as insect-bites underfoot; and with some horror, perhaps a dead Moor, always climbing after us."

The loneliness engendered by being unwell in a strange land is acute. Greene was travelling with his cousin Barbara; Lawrence had his troupe of men with him. In Black Lamb And Grey Falcon, Rebecca West recounts to her husband the experience of being felled by dengue, holed up by herself, in a Belgrade hotel. “When my temperature was very high and I really felt wretched, Angela and two other chambermaids and a waiter came and stood at the end of my bed and cried nearly the whole afternoon. Also my nurse cried a lot. I liked it enormously."

“But you always say you hate scenes," West’s husband points out.

Indeed she does, West replies. But in Belgrade, she felt cheered by the sympathy. The cascades of tears told her that she wasn’t alone.

***

No chambermaids wailed at my bedside when I sequestered myself for a full morning in my hotel room in Veraval, Gujarat. Admittedly, I wasn’t quite as sick as Rebecca West; also, the hotel had no staff other than the wizened man who had shown me to my room. I was there for a week’s worth of research, but on the second day, I found that my inhaler had run dry. The monsoon was then imminent in that part of the country, and the air was glutinous with humidity. I woke up the next morning uncomfortable and wheezing, and I lay abed for hours, staring at the ceiling fan and napping intermittently. Only in the afternoon did I manage to drag myself to the road, hail a rickshaw, and get to a pharmacy I remembered seeing near the railway station.

Perhaps, because of my asthma, I view destinations differently. I subconsciously note, as I did in Veraval, the locations of pharmacies. I look up a country’s drugstore policies before I visit, to determine if inhalers will be sold over the counter. I regard hot, sweaty locations with disfavour, and groan inwardly at the thought of testing mountain hikes. Quite possibly, even my keen preference for urban holidays over countryside treks is tied in some way to my wish to minimize the chances of an attack—and not, as my friends claim, to my insuperable laziness. By temperament, it is true, I seek out culture over nature, but it’s also difficult to ignore the fact that the facilities of a city—museums and book stores, concert halls and monuments, bars and restaurants—are all easy, controlled environments, free of the allergens that can meddle with my breathing.

Any illness is misery, of course, but there’s a particular misfortune in being unwell while travelling. Sickness turns us inwards, into fretting over ourselves, precisely when we should be oriented outwards, absorbing the world around us. And there is, in addition, a certain bleak irony to these situations. In places that are abjectly unfamiliar, the most intimately familiar thing around me can be my asthma. I know its foibles and its rhythms the way I will never know the streets of the city, or its language, or the low, blurry hills that line the distant horizon.

Samanth Subramanian is the India correspondent for The National and the author of Following Fish: Travels Around The Indian Coast and This Divided Island: Stories From The Sri Lankan War.

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