Friday, March 11, 2016

“Travel can be a powerful force in changing our world into one where there is more understanding and less problems.”

­- scribbled on a washroom wall at a hostel


“Only man with small penis pees in cubicle.”

- also scribbled on the wall

CHAPTER 1

BRUTHA FROM ANOTHER MUTHA

Ammon was my ‘brutha from another mutha’ in every sense. He was a ‘brutha’ in the sense that he was a black man, he was my ‘brutha’ in the sense that we were best friends, and he was legally my brother, since my parents adopted him. And that pretty much explains the ‘another mutha’ part, if only in the strict biological sense.

My parents adopted him before I was born. They had tried for many years to get pregnant, and when they eventually consulted with a doctor they learned that they would likely never conceive a child naturally. Faced with this news, my parents considered the options. There were medical procedures they could undergo, but in the end they decided if they couldn’t get pregnant without the help of medical science then they simply weren’t meant to conceive and they decided to adopt. Instead of adopting locally – they would have to wait several years to get a baby in Canada – they decided to adopt a baby that really needed the help. They travelled to Africa, and in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, they met and fell in love with baby orphan Ammon, my big bro.

Three years later when I came along, they called me their ‘miracle baby.’ According to the doctors, my father had ‘low motility’ and my mother ‘poor egg quality,’ which basically meant I was the product of lazy sperm and shitty eggs, so I never really understood how that made me a miracle. It seemed a more likely explanation as to why I was always the smallest kid in my class and bad at sports.

With my straw hair and rosy cheeks, my parents called me their “little toy soldier.” Ammon was my opposite in every way. Besides the obvious black-white thing, he was tall, muscular, good looking, charismatic, and brave. Growing up, we were inseparable. If Ammon had an idea, I was sure to think it was a good one, and since I was smaller and younger than Ammon, I was the one who always got hurt. Whether it was tobogganing down a big hill and jumping over a frozen creek or racing our bikes down a big hill, I would be the one to crash through the ice or swallow a mouthful of dirt. I could never say no to Ammon, which was why when he suggested we go backpacking in Africa, I agreed, even though the thought of it scared me witless.

Having lived my whole life in a small town in northern Ontario, to me backpacking meant strapping on a backpack, hiking into the bush, and sleeping in a tent. I figured that was what Ammon wanted to do, only in Africa. I didn’t much like camping, mostly because of the bears and the black flies, but lions and mosquitoes with malaria frightened me even more. I envisioned us huddled inside a flimsy tent on the African savannah as lions circled, patiently waiting for one of us to venture outside for a pee – and I have a very small bladder. But Ammon explained to me that ‘backpacking’ was just a term to describe a certain type of vacation, which didn’t sound much like a vacation at all.

“This isn’t going to be an ordinary vacation, Will,” he said. “We’re not going to be tourists. We’re going to be travelers.” He pronounced ‘tourist’ like it was a bad word.

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Little bro, you have so much to learn.”

What I learned is this:
“Backpackers” call themselves “Travelers” precisely because they don’t want to be confused with tourists. Although, the distinction seemed blurry to me, Ammon claimed there was a difference. Tourists see a place. Travelers meet it. Tourists are clean. Travelers get dirty. Tourists expect safety, comfort, and service. Travelers expect little, sometimes risking their safety, and often their comfort. Tourists have little time, but ample budgets. Travelers have little budgets, but ample time. Tourists travel on package tours or arrange everything before they leave. Travelers fly air-only and arrange little in advance. Tourists simply visit places, whereas Travelers, well, travel.

He said Africa was a place where a person could make a little money last a long time if they didn’t mind a little hardship. I didn’t much like hardship. I got picked on and beat up a lot in school. It happens when you’re the smallest kid in the class, but Ammon said it would be a grand adventure and a life changing experience, and that sounded pretty awesome.

The turn of the millennium had just come and gone, and the world didn’t end, as some religions predicted, nor, as almost everyone predicted, did all the computers stop working and send us back to the dark ages. Ammon had just turned thirty. I don’t know if it was surviving the millennium or surviving his thirtieth birthday, but Ammon suddenly became very fixated on doing something with his life.

Ammon suggested we quit our jobs and travel for a full year. He’d always wanted to see where he was born, and he said we could raise the money by selling all our stuff. I hated my job as a junior computer programmer and my boss was a jerk, so that part I liked, but I didn’t like the part about selling all my stuff.

I had a lot of stuff. I owned furniture, clothing, a nice home theater system, and even a car. I’d spent a lot of time saving up the money to buy that stuff, especially the home theater, which I’d meticulously researched to get the best rated brand for the money. My car was nothing special, but I couldn’t tell you how many used car lots I visited before finding one I both liked and could afford.

“I can’t sell all my stuff,” I told Ammon.

“It’s only stuff,” he said. “It can all be replaced.”

“But it’s my stuff,” I said.

“You only think it’s your stuff because you bought and paid for it, but if you can’t get rid of it, then it owns you.”

In the end I decided he was right. He was always right. I couldn’t let my attachment to my stuff hold me back from going on this grand adventure.

I didn’t have anything else holding me back. Ammon had a girlfriend to break up with, or “take a break from” as he put it, and friends to say goodbye to. Ammon always had a girlfriend, he seemed to get a new one every year or two, and lots of friends. That was just another one of the ways we were opposites, I suppose.

I did have a girlfriend once. We even slept together. She broke up with me soon afterward. I was pretty sure I knew why:

I don’t look good naked.

I make a good clothes hanger. I once tried on an expensive Armani suit and was surprised by how good it looked on me, and then I realized it was because I’m built like a coat hanger – two pointy shoulders tapering to bony legs. I’d tried to change this. In high school, I tagged along with Ammon to the gym a few times, but it didn’t take me long to realize the gym was going to kill me.

The final straw was the incident with the bench-press machine. I chose the machine because it was supposed to be safe. There was no risk of the bar crashing down on my neck and crushing my windpipe – something I had envisioned with great clarity. How I managed to get my hair caught in the machine’s weight plates, I’ll never know. I realized my hair was caught when I felt the tug on my scalp after a couple of ‘reps.’ I tried to yell for help, but all my strength was focused on keeping the bar elevated, and I only managed a gaspy “heeeelp.”

A few seconds later my wobbly arms gave out and the plates crashed together with a resounding CLANG that rattled the fillings in my teeth and caused everyone to stop what they were doing and stare at me as I hopped off the bench, patting the newly formed bald spot on my head like I was trying to put out a fire, and yelling, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

There was a shock of hair – it looked like a bundle of dried grass – sticking out from between the forty and fifty pound plates. Ammon came over, lifted the bar with one hand, grabbed my clump of hair with the other and grinned at me. “Do you want this back?”

I swooned a little when I saw the hundreds of dewy roots still clinging to the ends of my hair. My hair never grew back properly after that and I still have a quarter-sized bald patch on the top of my head. Worse still, for the rest of my high school days, I become known as “Little-Willy.”

Let me explain. Mr. Willy, or Mr. Willard as he was properly called, was the least popular teacher in our school. He wore thick glasses and had lush hair ringing the back and sides of his head, but was completely bald on top. Behind his back, the kids all called him Mr. Willy. It wasn’t just a shorter, cuter, version of his name, it was a reference to the fact that everyone thought he was a dick.

Upon noticing my bald spot, one kid compared it to Mr. Willard’s considerably larger bald spot and nicknamed me “Little-Willy.” The inevitable double-entendre didn’t help my situation with girls any.
I decided to avoid gyms after that, but it wasn’t like I’d had any success in bulking up. Instead of developing bigger muscles, I’d simply tightened and knotted the muscles I already had. Instead of being just slim, now I was wiry and my elbows and knees looked even knobbier.

While I didn’t have a girlfriend, I did have a few acquaintances to say goodbye to. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t going backpacking in Europe like everyone else, and they all said more or less the same thing, “Africa, why on earth would you want to go there?” They could understand why Ammon wanted to go, but they couldn’t understand why I’d want to go with him. Some thought I was brave, but most thought I was foolish. A few thought I was crazy.

“Ammon is not just my brother, he’s my friend.” I told one of them. “He wants me to go with him.”

“Whatever! I got lots of friends.”

I thought for a moment before I replied. “I don’t.”

We had lots of preparations to make, but of all the things we needed to do to prepare for our trip, the part I was dreading the most was getting the necessary vaccinations. I hated needles.

  
                                                  
CHAPTER 2

NEEDLES

“A lot of needles?” The words squeaked out at such an unnatural pitch I hardly recognized my own voice. My mouth went dry. Needles were the reason I avoided doctors.

“Yes. You’re going to need multiple vaccinations.”

I took a gulp of air. “How many is a lot of needles?”

“Hmmm, let’s see…” the doctor continued, oblivious to the fact I was now feeling faint. Her face was buried in the form I had just completed in the reception area. It was several pages long and asked about my medical history, my family’s medical history, what type of accommodation I planned to use (from bush camping to 5-star hotel), if I would be visiting rural areas, and finally to list every country I planned to visit. As her eyes moved down the list I saw them widen and low guttural sounds escaped her lips. “Hmmm, uh-hmmm, hmmm, oh! Mm-hmmm!” She finished with a loud “hmmph!” and looked up at me with raised eyebrows. “That’s a lot of countries.”

“Uh-hmmm,” I said. I wasn’t sure I would visit all of them, or any of them even, aside from South Africa where we planned to start, and Malawi – Ammon’s birth country, but we were considering traveling the entire “Cape to Cairo” route to Egypt, so Ammon insisted we list every country in between, just to be safe. I had no idea where we might end up. “We’re going backpacking.” I said. “We’re not going on an organized tour. We’re going to make it up as we go. That’s what backpackers do.” I realized I was parroting the very words Ammon had said to me in the waiting room just moments before. An organized tour would make us tourists, and that was the last thing Ammon wanted to be.

The doctor wasn’t the first person who made me feel like I was crazy to be considering such a trip. The travel agent we’d visited earlier in the week to buy our flight tickets had tried to convince us to go on an organized “African safari.”

“You can’t just hop on a jet and fly there,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Well, I suppose you could, but you probably wouldn’t come back.”

“Wouldn’t come baaack?” I asked, my voice rising in octave so that “back” came out as more of a squeal.

“The potential health risks scare away even the most hardened travelers.” She leaned closer. “Didn’t you say this would be your first trip overseas?”

“I was born there,” Ammon said, “but I was only a baby when I left.”

“What health risks?” I asked.

She leaned back in her chair and whistled out her breath. “Just everything from diarrhea to several horrible and possibly fatal diseases.” She paused a moment to allow her words to sink in before leaning closer again. “Some don’t even have vaccines. Are you sure I can’t interest you in an African safari? It’s much safer. Isn’t that worth the extra expense? Can you really put a cost on your safety?”

Ammon crossed his arms. “We’re going backpacking. We’re not tourists.” Ammon always pronounced ‘tourist’ like it was a bad word.

“Of course you’re not, but how are you going to get around? Public transportation is limited. When it’s available, it’s usually uncomfortable, inconvenient, unpredictable – and often dangerous. You have to be prepared for the possibility of becoming stranded, separated from your possessions, or worse. Are you prepared for that?”

“No!” I said.

“Yes!” Ammon said. “We’ll be fine.”

She shook her head in resignation. “OK, but you’re going to need multiple immunizations. I shouldn’t even sell you a ticket until you’ve had them. Some countries will not even allow you entry without proof of vaccination. You’ll need to visit a travel clinic before you go.”

That’s why we were here. Ammon had already seen the doctor. He’d emerged with both arms bandaged. Now it was my turn.

The doctor began scribbling on a yellow card. “You’ll need a Yellow Fever vaccination. You’ll have to come back for that, we only do them on Wednesdays.”

“Yellow Fever?” That didn’t sound good. I gazed around the room. I was sitting on a squishy nylon examining table that made my bum sweat. The room was windowless and white – the only decoration a cheap watercolor print hanging lopsided on a wall. There were shelves filled with various medical-looking things, and a counter with a sink. My eyes narrowed on the lone container sitting there. It was labeled “Sharps Disposal.” Next to it were several shiny new needles. I looked at the doctor hopefully. “Isn’t there a pill for Yellow Fever?”

“No, I’m afraid it’s a needle, and you’ll also need a polio, diphtheria and tetanus booster. I can give you those today. We’ll also have to vaccinate you against meningitis and hepatitis, both A and B. Those require multiple shots, so we’ll have to schedule a series of follow up visits.”

My skin was now clammy. The stale air of the windowless room smelled of rubbing alcohol and disinfectants, which only contributed to my growing nausea. I tried to stay positive. “You’ll give me pills for those?”

She looked at me blankly.

I realized only dogs could have heard that last question. I cleared my throat and tried to sound breezy. “I mean to say, um, you’ll administer those vaccines with pills?”

“No, I’m afraid those require shots too. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for C, D, E or W, so you’ll just have to hope for the best. And we’d better vaccinate you against Japanese encephalitis, Chinese chowmein, and purple plague as well, just in case.”

I had no idea what she was saying anymore.

“And while we’re at it we might as well give you a flu shot.” She dotted her pen on the card with an air of finality.

“Um.” I took a deep breath and struggled to regain some manly composure. “Just how many needles will that be?”

“Well, let’s see…” She began silently counting. My eyes grew wider with every count. “Shouldn’t be more than a couple…”

I sighed. I guess I could endure a couple.

“…dozen.”

I felt like I was sinking into the examination table, but then I had a brilliant idea. My voice perked up. “Couldn’t you give me the vaccines with a hypo-spray like they have in Star Trek?”

She smiled at me. “I’m afraid I’m all out of hypo-sprays, but I do have some lovely needles – how about a nice red one?” She held the needle out like she was offering me a lollipop.

I pouted.

“I’ll also have to prescribe an anti-malarial prophylactic.” She handed me a fact sheet that described the effectiveness and possible side effects of each drug. “I recommend either doxycycline or mefloquine, which is more commonly known by its brand name, Lariam.”

“A propha – what?” That didn’t sound good at all.

“It’s just a pill. Lariam is considered more effective, but it has more side effects.”

I sighed and felt a small measure of relief wash over me. Finally, a pill. Then I realized what she had said. My voice croaked as I tried to speak. “Side effects?”

“Doxycycline’s main side effect is photosensitivity. Lariam’s possible side effects include headaches, nausea, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, vivid dreams, hair loss – ”

“I’ll take the doxy… thing,” I said. I didn’t need to hear the rest of the list, which I later learned included seizures, depression, and psychosis.

Lariam’s side effects have become the stuff of urban legend, I later learned. Stories abound about people going mad, running down streets naked, freaking out on airplanes, or jumping out of hotel room windows. I even heard conspiracy theories—like it was secretly developed by the US military for reasons unknown. (I found out it was developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Medical Research in the US to protect the Peace Corps volunteers.) I was told no one is really sure how Lariam works (which I found out is somewhat true) and no long-term tests have been done on the drug (which I found out is not so true).

She wrote me a prescription for doxycycline and another for an antibiotic for diarrhea. Then she handed me an armload of brochures with various titles like, “Bon Voyage But... Information for the Traveler” and “Son of Scam: How to avoid being Robbed, Beaten, Imprisoned, Sentenced to Death, and other Travel Nuisances.”

“And we should talk about sex.”

This got my attention. She wasn’t bad looking, a little older, but it wasn’t like I often got propositioned, or ever propositioned. Women liked guys like Ammon, tall and muscular, not short and gangly like me.

Here?” I asked.

She gave me a puzzled look and continued in a strangely businesslike tone. “AIDs is rampant in Africa. As many as one in four people are infected with HIV, so you’ll want to exercise extreme caution where sexual matters are concerned.”

She turned her back to me.

“Just so you’re aware…” She faced me, now armed with a needle. My eyes fixated on the long piercing steel shaft. “…your visit is covered by your medical insurance, but not the vaccinations.”

 “And how much will the vaccines cost?”

She placed a sheet of paper in front of me itemizing the cost of each vaccine. “It shouldn’t come to more than five hundred – ”

“Dollars!”

It was an effective distraction. I hardly noticed the cold chill of the steel entering my body. Only the faintest “mommy” escaped my lips.

“That was just the alcohol swab,” she said. “Are you ready?”

Bravely, I squeezed my eyes shut. “No.”

I don’t think she heard me, because I felt the nerves in my arm spasm, sending a lightning bolt of pain through me, and then I remember looking up at the doctor’s brown eyes. All I could see were those eyes. Everything around them was fuzzy.

Her eyes were smiling. “Well, that’s one.”

“What happened?”

“You fainted.”

I heard a voice from somewhere in the fuzzy space. “Here’s your juice doctor.”

“Yes thank you,” the doctor said to the voice, then turned her eyes back to me. “Here, drink this.”

I sat up. The room was coming back into focus. I drank the juice and immediately felt better.
I got through the rest. Somehow. Each time the needle pierced my arm it sent a bolt of pain through me, but I numbed my mind to what was happening and tried to think of happier times. After several jabs, in each arm, she walked me outside to the waiting room where Ammon sat with a big grin on his face.

“You did it bro!”

I felt cold and clammy, and noticed I wore the same bandages on both arms that my brother did. Just looking at them made me feel quivery and nauseous all over again.

“Sit here for ten minutes before leaving,” the doctor said, “just in case of any adverse reactions.”

She didn’t specify what these adverse reactions might be. She preferred to allow my imagination to supply the images of bubbling skin, festering growths, and crippling deformities.

“Help yourself.” She pointed to a basket of lollipops.

I plopped a lollipop into my mouth with a sweaty hand and sat down next to Ammon, who was still grinning at me from ear to ear. I shuddered to think how many more jabs I would have to endure.

“Enjoy your trip,” she said with a smile. She began to walk away, then stopped and turned to me.

“I was just curious. Africa? Of all places for your first overseas trip, why on earth would you want to go there?”

“We’re going to go see where I was born,” Ammon answered. “We’re going to have a grand adventure, me and my brother.” He put his arm around me in camaraderie. His hand landed right on my bandage.

“Owww!”

He jerked his hand away. “Sorry.”

Over the next several months, we returned multiple times to get the rest of our vaccines. I’d like to say it got easier, but it never did.

Our flights were booked for January of the coming year. It would give us time to make all the necessary preparations and Ammon said it was a good idea to start fresh in a new year.

With only a week to go before we were scheduled to leave, Ammon said he needed to see me. He said it was urgent. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

“Travel can be a powerful force in changing our world into one where there is more understanding and less problems.”

­- scribbled on a washroom wall at a Hostel


“Only man with small penis pees in cubicle.”

- also scribbled on the wall



Somewhere in Nairobi, Kenya...


“POLICE. STOP!” A man in a black business suit appeared out of nowhere and flashed a laminated card in my face.

My first instinct was to run. He wasn’t in uniform, and I wasn’t convinced he was a police officer, or if it even mattered—I had heard so many stories about corrupt police. All I could think about was the very thick wad of cash pressing against my thigh. The travel agency was only a short sprint away.

“I am Kenyan Secret Service, you must come with me,” he said.

“I’m not going anywhere with you.” I tried to sound confident as I reached out to grab the ID card he was holding, but he snapped it back.

“Cannot touch. Look only!”

I leaned close to examine his identification. It bore his photograph and fingerprint and said “POLICE” in large letters across the top. It looked authentic, but what did I know about Kenyan police ID? I noticed his hand was shaking. He was nervous. I sized him up. He was lean and wiry with angular features. I wasn’t sure if I could outrun him, but he didn’t look big enough to tackle me. I turned to walk away, but as I did so another man in a black business suit appeared and cut off my escape. This man was much larger, but with a round face and soft features that made him look almost friendly. His police card was in my face.

“I am police officer,” he said. “That man is Secret Service. You must answer his questions or we will take you to jail.”

And then two more similarly dressed men appeared beside me. My heart started pounding in my chest. The four of them had me surrounded. There was no escape.

Chapter 1: The Travel Clinic


If you go to Africa, it will change you forever.

A stranger at a dinner party once imprinted these words on me. He told tales of bribery, corruption, travel in broken-down buses, and guns everywhere. It sounded like a wild and dangerous place. When he said, “Go there, man.” I swore I would. One day.

But years later, when I told people I was going backpacking, alone, in Africa, the response was always the same.

“Africa? Why on earth would you want to go there?”

Some thought I was brave, but most thought I was foolish. A few thought I was crazy.

In the past, backpackers headed to Europe, Australia, or Southeast Asia, although nowadays they go pretty much anywhere. Anywhere but Africa. And with good reason: public transportation is usually uncomfortable, inconvenient, and unpredictable; sometimes unavailable; and often dangerous. One has to be prepared for the possibility of becoming stranded, separated from one’s possessions, or worse. And you can’t just hop on a jet and fly there. Well, I suppose you could, but you probably wouldn’t come back. The potential health risks are enough to scare away the most hardened traveler and include everything from simple diarrhea to several potentially fatal diseases, many of which have no vaccine. Multiple immunizations are required and some countries will not allow entry without proof of vaccination. That’s why I visited The Travel Clinic.

“Fill this out.” The receptionist thrust a clipboard at me. Without raising her eyes, she flicked me away with her hand. “Have a seat over there.”

The form, several pages long, asked about my medical history and my family’s medical history. It also asked me to list every country I planned to visit, what accommodation I would be using (from bush camping to 5-star hotel) and if I would be visiting rural areas.

“Hmmm,” the doctor said when she later scanned my list, “uh-hmmm, hmmm, oh! Mm-hmmm.” She finished with a loud “hmmph!” and looked up at me with raised eyebrows. “That’s a lot of countries.”

“Uh-hmmm,” I said. I wasn’t sure I would visit all of them, or any of them even, aside from South Africa where I planned to start, but I was considering traveling all the way to Egypt, so had listed every country in between, just to be safe. I had no idea where I might end up. I was going backpacking. I wasn’t going on an organized tour. I was going to make it up as I went along. That’s what backpackers do.

It didn’t surprise me most people visited Africa on pre-arranged “safaris” or organized tours, but I wasn’t interested in that type of trip, despite the dire warnings from my travel agent. An organized tour would make me a tourist. I wanted to be a “traveler,” as backpackers like to call themselves. Although the distinction is sometimes blurry, I believed there was a difference. Tourists see a place. Travelers meet it. Tourists are clean. Travelers get dirty. Tourists expect security, comfort, and service. Travelers expect little and often forego their comforts. Tourists have little time, but large budgets. Travelers have a lot of time, but small budgets. Tourists travel on package tours or arrange everything from home before they leave. Travelers fly air-only and arrange little in advance. Tourists visit. Travelers, well, travel.

In truth, I wasn’t a traveler. I’d hardly been anywhere. This was to be my first backpacker trip. I always said I would backpack around the world, and yet somehow my twenties had slipped away. So I left my teaching position, said goodbye to family and friends, and stowed everything I deemed of any value in a storage container. Then I bought a ticket to Johannesburg. I had a friend in Johannesburg. It seemed a good place to start.

“Hmmm.” The doctor shook her head. “You’re going to need a lot of needles.”

“Needles?” I gulped. Needles were the reason I avoided doctors.

“Yes, hmmm, let’s see.” The doctor began scribbling on a yellow card. “You’ll need a Yellow Fever vaccination. You’ll have to come back for that, we only do them on Wednesdays.”

“Yellow Fever?” That didn’t sound good. “There’s a pill for that, right?”

“No, I’m afraid it’s a needle, and you’ll also need a polio, diphtheria and tetanus booster. I can give you those today. We’ll also have to vaccinate you against meningitis and hepatitis, both A and B. Those require multiple shots, so we’ll have to schedule a series of follow up visits.”

“You’ll give me pills for those?”

“No, I’m afraid those require needles too. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for C, D, E or W, so you’ll just have to hope for the best. And we’d better vaccinate you against Japanese encephalitis, Chinese chowmein, and purple plague as well, just in case.”

I’d lost track of what she was saying. Actually, I’d lost track from about when she said, “You’re going to need a lot of needles.”

“And while we’re at it we might as well give you a flu shot.” She dotted her pen on the card with an air of finality.

“Um, just how many needles will that be?”

“Well, let’s see…” She began silently counting. My eyes grew wider with every count. “Shouldn’t be more than a couple,” she said.

I sighed. I could endure a couple.

“…dozen.”

I gulped, “Couldn’t you give me the vaccines some other way?”

She looked amused. “What other way?”

“I don’t know. How about with a hypo-spray like they have in Star Trek?”

“I’m afraid I’m all out of hypo-sprays.” She smiled at me. “But I do have some lovely needles. How about a nice red one?”

I just pouted.

“I’ll also have to prescribe you an anti-malarial prophylactic.” She handed me a fact sheet that described the effectiveness and possible side effects of each drug. “I recommend either doxycycline or mefloquine, which is more commonly known by its brand name, Lariam.”

“A propha – what?” That didn’t sound good at all.

“It’s just a pill. Lariam is considered more effective, but it has more side effects.”

I sighed. Finally a pill. Side effects didn’t scare me.

“Doxycycline’s main side effect is photosensitivity. Lariam’s possible side effects include headaches, nausea, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, vivid dreams, hair loss – ”

“I’ll take the doxy… thing,” I said with a sudden interest in side effects. I didn’t need to hear the rest of the list, which I later learned included seizures, depression, and psychosis. Lariam’s side effects have become the stuff of urban legend. Stories abound about people going mad, running down streets naked, freaking out on airplanes, or jumping out of hotel room windows. I even heard conspiracy theories—like it was secretly developed by the US military for reasons unknown (it was developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Medical Research in the US to protect the Peace Corps volunteers). I was told no one is really sure how Lariam works (which is somewhat true) and no long-term tests have been done on the drug (which is not so true, Lariam is one of the most extensively evaluated drugs in history and the most widely prescribed malaria prophylactic in the world). She wrote me a prescription for doxycycline and another for an antibiotic for diarrhea. Then she handed me an armload of brochures with various titles like, “Bon Voyage But... Information for the Traveler” and “Son of Scam: How to avoid being Robbed, Beaten, Imprisoned, Sentenced to Death, and other Travel Nuisances.”

“And we should discuss sex.”

This got my attention. This was usually my line.

“Of course.” I winked at her and nodded toward the couch. She wasn’t bad looking, a little older than most women I’d dated…

She gave me a puzzled look. “AIDs is rampant in Africa,” she continued, her tone strangely businesslike, “as many as one in four people are infected with HIV, so you’ll want to exercise extreme caution where sexual matters are concerned.”

She turned her back to me.

“Just so you’re aware.” She faced me again, now armed with a needle. My eyes widened and fixated on the long piercing steel shaft. “Your visit is covered by your medical insurance, but not the vaccinations.”

“And how much will the vaccines cost?”

She placed a sheet of paper in front of me itemizing the cost of each vaccine. “It shouldn’t come to more than five hundred – ”

“Dollars!”

It was an effective distraction. I hardly noticed the cold chill of the steel entering my body. Only the faintest “mommy” escaped my lips.

“That was just the alcohol swab,” she said. “Are you ready?”

Bravely, I squeezed my eyes shut. “Ready.”

Several jabs later, in each arm – I felt like a human pincushion – she walked me outside to the waiting room and instructed me to wait ten minutes before leaving, just to make sure I didn’t have any “adverse reactions” to the vaccines. She didn’t specify what these adverse reactions might be. Clearly, she preferred to allow my imagination to supply the images of bubbling skin, festering growths, and crippling deformities.

“Help yourself.” She pointed to a basket of lollypops.

I plopped a lollypop into my mouth and sat down rubbing my bandaged arms. I shuddered to think how many more jabs I would have to endure.

“Enjoy your trip,” she said with a smile. She began to walk away, then stopped and turned to me.

“I was just curious? Africa? Why on earth would you want to go there?”