By Casey O’Brien
Paradise, with one exception: our apartment is on the second floor, and right now, I don’t think I can get up the stairs.
It is the second week of my three-week backpacking trip with my boyfriend; we are staying in downtown Granada, Spain. Guitar music floats towards us from up the street, and sunshine paints the walls of the buildings a soft gold. Passersby are bathing in warm light.
We went to dinner at a little café on the central square of the city, and as soon as the food hit my stomach, I felt a familiar wave of nausea rise: I was having an allergic reaction, as I do all too frequently. I stumbled out of the restaurant and called behind me to my boyfriend, “Get the check. Now.”
Traveling with a chronic disease can be a painful balancing act, walking on a tightrope between exploration and rest, achievement and limitation.
The diseases that I live with can make travel difficult, but it is not impossible. I have a series of chronic illnesses: a histamine disorder and PCOS, a genetic disorder, a long list of acronyms that seem mostly to string together the words: dysfunctional body.
But I believe fully that there is strength in difference, and I do not hate my body; I love it in spite of flushing skin, my nausea and dizziness and unexplained aches. I love it because it belongs to me.
I have had to learn how to make the most of the experiences
I have also learned to do this while still respecting the limits of my body, at times a tall order.
I leaned against the side of the restaurant, hoping that the fresh air would help my vertigo and now-intense nausea. I felt exposed, certain the small Spanish children running past me in flamenco dresses were thinking, “What’s wrong with her?” By the time by my boyfriend had paid up the check, I could barely walk.
Which brought us here, to the front door of our rented apartment building, a beautiful 16th-century building with lovely tile details and a sweet central courtyard with a bubbling fountain…and no elevator.
“You can do this,” he said as if it was Mount Everest, not two stories. My eyes plead with him to make the stairs go away, to magically whisk me upstairs to a warm bed.
He put out a hand.
With a deep breath, I took it and painfully slowly, I made my way toward the stair railing; with the railing on one side and my boyfriend holding me up on the other, we make our way to the first landing.
Travel is not just for the able-bodied.
Travel is not a race, or a competition. It is an embrace of the unknown, in sickness or in health.
I take a beat here and remember what I have done already this week: hiked, explored, navigated, spoke in rapid Spanish to locals about where to eat, where to drink, and how deeply I love this country where I now stand.
I can do this.
I can do anything.
I push off the wall and continue towards the second flight of stairs. I can see the door to our apartment from here.
One step, two, three, and then ten, fifteen. I don’t know how long it took, but it felt like an eternity.
He fiddles with the lock of the heavy old door and when he gets it open I practically fall forward, onto the sagging couch in that temporary home, grateful for its lumpy embrace.
I swallow antihistamines and drink as much water as I can and fall into a dark sleep.
Traveling while ill brings unique challenges, a series of small calculations: can I eat there, can I walk up those stairs, can I breathe in this restaurant, is the perfume in this boutique too much? If I wake up too early or too late, will I be fatigued all day?
The most important lesson I have learned is to listen to my body.
I want to challenge myself without pushing myself beyond the limits of what is possible for me—not forever, but today.
Today maybe I cannot hike ten miles. Today maybe I cannot walk up the hill. Today maybe I cannot go dancing.
But today I can have a picnic on the Seine and nap in the sun; today I can read my book on the beach and watch the waves; today I can buy a pair of earrings from a street vendor who tells me the mandala on them is representative of the tree of life. I can catch her bright smile and put it in my pocket for later, when I am back at work or doing laundry or cleaning my kitchen and remember that there is a world beyond bedrooms and doctors’ offices.
I wake up in the morning after that reaction, pull myself out of my addled dreams, and with a sigh, pull myself out for another day.
The world is waiting.
You can follow Casey’s journey @littlequesadilla