People often ask me about the bad side of travel—don’t I get lonely, lost, etc.? Of course! It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and sometimes it’s downright awful. The story below is for those of you who want to hear more about the things that go wrong. It contains no fun descriptions of exciting activities, so if you’re armchair traveling with Stowaway, this one might not be for you.
“If something can go wrong, it will.” So goes Murphy’s Law, which I am assuming is named for some poor guy whose life did not go according to plan. I hope no one actually uses this as a guiding principle in their life; what a sad way to view the world. But sometimes rules prove true even when we don’t want them to, and such was the case for me in a little town called Rainbow Beach, on the east coast of Australia.
Rainbow Beach is one of the towns used as a launching pad to Fraser Island (future post!), and after my exhilarating time in the Whitsundays, I rolled into town on an overnight bus for a couple nights’ stay before going on a tour of the island. I planned to spend the day relaxing, but instead I spent it hyperventilating.
It started out okay. The bus got in at 9, and I had some breakfast, did some journaling, pondered a nap. But my right arm was really sore, and felt more so as the morning went on. Then my right leg hurt. My head was swirling from adjusting to being on land, but now it started to ache too. My chest felt tight. I started to freak out, and then I did something really stupid: I went on WebMD. I know, I know! All it ever does is convince you that your symptoms all point to either cancer or inoperable brain tumors. Self-diagnosis on the internet is a terrible thing. But too late, I’d done it, and I saw the symptoms stacked up under heart attack. I started to seriously freak out. I Googled “Australia health line” and found a number to talk to nurses for advice. (Note to women: Very often, heart attacks start with pain in the right arm in women, rather than the left, as is normal for men. Don’t ignore inexplicable right arm pain!)
Now, through all of this, I’m sitting on a bunk bed while seven other girls are wandering around the dorm room. It felt very strange to be having this private freak-out in such a public place, but there it was. I didn’t have a phone, and Skype wasn’t working, so I asked if anyone had a phone I could borrow. They were all pretty reluctant, which I like to think is because most people have text-heavy plans and not many talk minutes, and not because they were ungenerous. But one girl loaned me hers, and then I had an involved phone conversation about my health with a stranger.
I returned the phone and the girl went to the beach, and then I thought over the advice of the nurse, which was to wait a few minutes and see if I felt better or worse, and if worse, call an ambulance, because it sounded bad to her. After a few minutes, all I felt was more panicked that I hurt in strange places, and I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know what to do, and I wanted to abdicate adulthood if it meant someone would take over and make everything better.
I went to reception and asked to borrow their phone so I could call an ambulance. They could not have looked more indifferent when they asked why I needed an ambulance, and when I told them, they informed me that the nearest hospital was almost an hour’s drive away, and seeing as it was a Sunday, the one doctor in town wouldn’t be available. Also, they really didn’t want to loan me their phone, but eventually decided that maybe a potential heart attack was a good enough reason.
I then spent a good ten minutes discussing costs and payment options with the ambulance guys, and finally I decided that if this really was an emergency, I should just treat it as one and not worry about costs right now. So they said they’d be there in about thirty minutes, and then I wanted to call my insurance company collect to make sure it’d be covered, but the woman at reception said I couldn’t use their phone for that, but there was a phone booth up the street I could use.
I was in tears at this point. I thought I might be having a heart attack and I was an hour away from a hospital, I thought I’d have to pay at least a thousand dollars to get checked out, and the reaction of everyone around me was indifference and unwillingness to help. I was astonished at their coldness and felt utterly alone. I was going to be seriously pissed if I died from a heart attack surrounded by these assholes.
And then! A young woman approached me and asked if I was okay. She’d noticed I was crying and having trouble with something at reception, and could she help? God bless Canadians, is all I have to say. This 19-year-old girl dropped everything she was doing and offered to help however she could—come to the hospital with me, loan me her single room for a few hours to relax, whatever. Thank you, Anya, for brightening up that miserable afternoon.
The ambulance arrived, and they wanted to do some tests on site before deciding about hospital visits. By this point, with Anya’s attentions, I was feeling much calmer. I sat in the ambulance and a cute attendant hooked me up to a machine while a giant with a handlebar mustache and a nametag that read “Gorilla” asked me questions. Gorilla decided I was probably just having muscle spasms from running around on a boat and using muscles I don’t normally use, and also that I’d completely fatigued myself with my aggressive travel schedule. The cute guy said all my readings were normal, and Gorilla nodded in satisfaction that the machine agreed with him. The right arm pain, in particular, was from that weird rope-winding machine I’d worked a few times on the boat.
Okay, so now I felt relieved and totally stupid that I’d overreacted so strongly. It’s amazing how easy it is to get discombobulated when you’re in an unfamiliar place. Sure, I’m unfit, but I exercise sometimes and I know what muscle pain feels like, and this was way different, and also the difficulty breathing was new, so that’s my rationale for freaking out. Gorilla said it was better to be safe than sorry, when it comes to this sort of thing, but now I could just take some pain relievers, drink a lot of water, and rest, and I’d be fine. He said I was okay to go to Fraser Island, which is the only thing I hold against him, because the rough world of Fraser, so soon after this panic attack/muscle spasm day, is probably what pushed my body over the edge to developing shingles. Oh well, I guess that mustache can’t be right all the time.
Hurrah, I was going to be okay! Anya and I went to the ice cream store to celebrate. We took our ice creams to a bench overlooking the ocean and chatted about our travel plans. We went back to her room so she could do some organizing, and after another thirty minutes or so we got up to go to the hostel bar for dinner. I did my usual check through my purse: keys, camera, wallet—WALLET. Where was my wallet?
Oh shit oh shit, I must have left it at the bench overlooking the ocean. I always take my purse with me places, but this time I’d just taken the wallet, and I’d put it down on the bench to eat my ice cream, and I had no memory of picking it up again. Oh shit oh shit. I ran to the bench, but nothing was there. I asked at the few stores open near the bench, but no one had turned in a wallet. If I wasn’t having a heart attack before, I might have one now.
Abandoning my wallet
I went back to the hostel and told a hopeful Anya that it was gone. Happily, I knew enough of long-term travel to have separated out my back-up credit card in a different bag, so I wasn’t stranded with no means of getting money. I used the card to order dinner, and afterward I went back to reception to borrow their phone again. They love me there.
Once again, they didn’t want to loan me their phone, even when I explained I had zero money so I literally could not use the pay phone. I assured them I’d be calling a toll-free number to report a missing item. (Queensland has this thing where you can report a crime with the main number, and they tell all their stations, so if something relating to your case happens a few towns over, they’ll know to contact you, which is cool.) They tried to reassure me that when the local police find things around town, they go to the hostels and see if they belong to anyone there, so probably they’d come by in the morning with my wallet, if it was going to be found at all. I said that might be true, but it couldn’t hurt to file a report so the police had all the information they needed. Reluctantly—they wanted to go home—reception let me use their phone.
I filed my report and went to bed sore, tired, and angry. Angry at reception for being unhelpful jerks, angry at myself for misreading my body’s signals and for being so stupid as to leave my wallet on a public bench, angry at whoever stole my wallet. The day had gone from bad to worse, and that was my fault, which was even worse.
The next day dawned brighter and better. Someone had turned in my wallet, with everything still in it, down to the last dollar. They’d turned it in to a town several miles away, which meant that it was a good thing I’d ignored reception, because the police several miles away wouldn’t have thought to tour the hostels in Rainbow Beach to find the wallet’s owner. As it was, they only knew where to find me because I’d filed the report and left the hostel’s number, and they called to let me know—so I used reception’s phone again, ha!
When the cop delivered my wallet to me a few hours later, I could’ve kissed him. I wasn’t going to die of a heart attack, I wasn’t going to be destitute in Australia, and I was ready for my next adventure.