The sun has caught my face today, I can feel it. First out in the garden, clearing the planter boxes of weeds which had overgrown them due to neglect.
Next to the beach for a walk, and then just to sit and watch life go by - the surfers, children playing in the shore break, parents chatting, visitors on the look out for turtles.
Finally back home to finish the planter boxes.
A good day. Now I can feel tiredness creeping up on me as the fresh air and exercise from the day leave their mark.
The weather can be beautiful at this time of year, perfect. Yes there can be days of rain in the part of Maui where we live. That’s welcome, one because we need it, and two because for me days and days of sun can get a little old. But when the trade winds wind down, when the sun does not beat too strongly, there is a quality to the light and temperature that feels…well, perfect. Indeed, inspiring as well. Today is such a day.
This piece started to take shape towards the end of the summer. It is now the last day of October. I was just coming out of recovering from pneumonia, which I had contracted in Portugal though at the time I did not know what I had, and wanted to document for myself what had happened to me over the space of a few months over the spring and summer. Why? Because the experience had been so…so many things to me…debilitating, frightening, humbling, helpless. As I say in the opening sentence, I cannot remember a time that I had been so unwell.
I am now in the air en route from Lisbon to San Francisco, returning to Maui after a further month in Portugal. A good month, but a month that I was apprehensive about of what happened during the previous visit. Let me try and explain.
Short of loosing the tip of a finger before I was ten, and having an urgent operation just after I was born which I have no recollection of except for a scar on my stomach, this is most unwell that I can remember that I have been, and an experience that has left a mark on me. A mark as to my own vulnerability, and how one’s health can take a very sharp and sudden turn for the worse. I’d like to think that this experience has left me recalibrating priorities and what is important to me, but I don’t think that it is the case. What it has done though is show me how the body can slow down and loose its vitality quite quickly. As I have just past my 60th birthday, and while I hope that I have many more years left, I am left reflecting on how each day is a blessing and to be grateful for all that comes my way, however small.
Starting at the beginning
This all started towards the end of May, I am going to bookmark the day as May 20th. My wife and I were in Portugal. We have a house there in a small town about fifty minutes south of Lisbon. We had been there for a month working on the house. We were looking forward to moving from work mode to fun mode. To that end, we had just been joined by my step-daughter and her family.
Seasonal allergies were bugging me, and although they can be a very unpleasant, I was coping (sort of!). We had all travelled led to a hotel towards the eastern boarder of the country. There was something in the air. Dust from the Sahara maybe? One could feel it and a very red sunset one evening confirmed my felt sense. This was all aggravating a sense of feeling unwell.
The night before we had been to a local restaurant which turned out to be a stretch for bellies informed as they were by a US diet. We left quickly having not eaten that much - though me, being my ’noble’ self and not wanting to be seen to be dismissing the work of the restaurant staff, ate as much as I could.
Early the next morning, after an uncomfortable night, I threw up. I put that and subsequent experiences through the day, down to food poisoning. Though reflecting now on how I felt the previous night - seasonal allergies, mixed with whatever was in the air - I just felt yuk, and I wondered if I was going down with something else?
The drive back to our Portugal house was very uncomfortable. My body was aching all over and I just yearned to stop and flop into bed. As soon as we were back home and the car was unpacked, I did just that and did not surface for the rest of the day.
I expected this to last for a few days, for me to get better and then to meet up with family and continue to enjoy our time together. But whatever I had either ended and morphed into something else, and maybe something else again, or was just with me for a very long time.
The symptoms appeared to change and vary. For example the vomiting which was present at the beginning, maybe for a week, disappeared. Sitting here now, I remember a potpourri of symptoms, but what is less clear to me is what happened around them. Some days felt better than others, I could do more, or make myself do so. Other days, I simply cancelled all plans.
My energy varied, sometimes very little, other times it seemed that I could do more, though invariably it also felt as though I was pushing against something just to function.
I was waking up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, more often than not more than once. At times during the day sweating became my experience as I tried to function in the world.
My appetite dropped right off. I ate less, sometimes nothing, and played with any food that was put in front of me, slowly nibbling away at it. And then a day would appear when I ate well. On my return home I found that I had lost 15lbs (6.8kg).
Nothing was clear, apart from an underlying feeling of something definitely not being right.
So one question that might come to mind is why did I not seek treatment?
Our house in Portugal is in a small, very local town, only fifty minutes drive from Lisbon - sadly the train service has been discontinued. The localness of the town and its proximity to Lisbon were two the things that attracted us to the town. That and the coast only being twenty minutes away.
Two well stocked pharmacies in town provide us with prescription and non-prescription drugs. Accessing what we needed in that department was not a problem. The problem was getting that diagnosis and a corresponding prescription.
There is a small health center in the town which offers basic medical facilities. We made two, or was it three visits there? One visit was for my wife who was diagnosed with bronchitis. Another visit saw us both being treated, myself for a fever which they managed to bring down. However, as I said the facilities were basic, this was no hospital, and language was a problem. There were staff members who spoke some English, but we also had to rely on our translation apps.
We soon realized that we did not know how to access the health care that a hospital could provide. We were unsure of where to go in Lisbon, which hospital, and what to do once we got there? With the help of a friend we managed one visit to a Lisbon hospital, but that was to the A&E department to treat my wife. I was having a good day and with the way the system worked, we would have had to wait longer than either of us could manage. I, who was doing most of the driving, became too sick to face the drive and figuring all of this out. This oversight, ”you don’t get sick while you are abroad, right?”, we rectified and were better prepared for on this current visit. One lesson learnt the hard way.
Towards heading home
By the end of our two months in Portugal, I was not doing much. We were not going far. Evenings were spent at home watching HBO or Netflix. The experience, though there was little that I could do, was becoming a strain on our relationship. We had not come all of this way to sit in a house each and every day.
As my energy diminished, I was beginning to wonder how I would get home - really. The energy needed to pack, lift suitcases, navigate busy, chaotic airports, I just did not see how I could do it? Walking around town was an effort that I rarely made. I even caught myself wondering if this was where it was all going to end? That was a visceral feeling that still sits with me.
I had decided against going to England to visit my mother. I wanted, needed to get home and see a doctor. Thankfully, through phone calls made over a few days, I was able to get myself onto the same flights as my wife. But I still did not know how I was physically going to manage the travel?
I then heard of a doctor from Lisbon who holds a clinic in our town a couple of times a week. One such visit was about three days before we left. All I wanted, if that ”all” was not too great an ask, was something to give me a little boost in order to get home.
I got in to see the doctor early in the morning. Thankfully he spoke English and asked me to describe my symptoms. He gave me a very simple exam, and somehow from that diagnosed that I had a stomach infection. He put me on antibiotics which I started taking straight away. Whether I had a stomach infection or not, I don’t know, but those drugs gave me just enough energy to manage the journey home. It still wasn’t an easy trip. I slept a lot, had to get a separate hotel room to my wife at one stage as I was coughing so much, but was only too happy when we landed back in Maui.
Diagnosis and Recovery
A day after returning I was seeing a doctor and getting a whole raft of tests - blood, chest X-Ray, CT scan. I was diagnosed with Community Spread Pneumonia. I was taken off the antibiotics that I was given in Portugal and put on two new ones. I was told that the recovery would take time, upwards of two months.
Now, as I said at the beginning, I had not been this unwell before. I was use to taking antibiotics and starting to feel better within a couple of days. Two weeks later and both antibiotics completed, I was feeling no better - weak, coughing, my heart racing. I took myself back to the hospital and went through the same lot of tests, eventually being sent home told that I just needed to rest and to get another chest x-ray in a couple months.
So that is what I did. I went home, rested, started acupuncture treatment to help boost my recovery, and started very basic exercise…just walking up the road a little way, going far was not an option. It was humbling to feel how my restricted lung capacity withheld my ability to be able to walk far, lift much, or simply do anything requiring anything beyond a modicum of exertion.
With time, with rest, with exercise, I slowly started to feel better. I eventually got a follow up chest x-ray which showed a clearing of my lungs.
Returning to Portugal
With our next trip approaching, I was anxious about returning to Portugal. I was looking forward to seeing our house again and reviewing work done on it since we were last there. Of seeing the small town that it is in, the people who we had met there. At the same time I was fearful. Was this a form of PTSD? Portugal was where I got pneumonia. Would I get it again? I told myself that I had to go otherwise this fear would sit in me. It’s like taking a tumble. Pick yourself up and get back on your bicycle, horse, surfboard. If you really want it, get back up and do it again otherwise the tumble is all that will remain with you. Fear will become your commanding emotion. Anyway, this time we were much better prepared than last, though I return home understanding that some fine tuning is still called for.
So we sit through the first leg of the journey back to Maui. I look back on the last month with happy memories. This was a good visit, enjoyable, and I very much look forward to the next one. I wrote the following a couple of days after our arrival in Portugal,
We have been here for a couple of days now. We are settling back in, getting back into the rhythm of life here. The weather is very hot, too hot, and we are blessed with a lovely little house. I can feel voices in my head reminding me of earlier this year, and when something happens - I can’t sleep, I sneeze, I just feel a little off kilter - I checkin with myself to see if I am unwell, or if it just one of life’s small ups and downs.
A heatwave morphed into autumnal weather. We started off sitting on a beach, and ended up sitting around our wood burning stove in the evening. The seasonal change caused some coughs, but we were both fine.
It still feels hard for me to believe how unwell I became, and how quickly it happened. I am looking forward to a further follow up with the doctor once I am back, but consider myself very much out of the woods…for now.
Today I made a pilgrimage to Nazaré, the home in Portugal of big wave surfing, and where the biggest wave ever to be surfed was surfed.
Even though I don’t surf, I am surrounded by family and friends who do. I live on Maui where surfers from all over the world come to practice their sport, and just down the road from us is Jaws, the home in Hawaii of big wave surfing. It would not have felt right not to come to Nazaré. I was so close.
Although there were no big waves today, I could feel the power of the ocean below the lighthouse that marks the location where the waves break. The overcast day, strong winds (so strong that I was wary about getting too close to the small wall that served as a barrier between me and the rocks below, for fear of being blown over), and the vast expanse of open ocean stretching to the north, south, and west to the distant horizon, only added to that sense of foreboding power. Although I don’t follow the sport too closely, I have deep admiration for those who do pit themselves against these giants.
We found ourselves in Cascais around lunchtime. The restaurants were closed, opening in forty minutes, and it was raining. So we went for a walk, as you do when it’s raining, and found a bookshop. If my stomach hadn’t been rumbling and there wasn’t a destination to reach after lunch, that bookshop would have been a great place to spend a wet afternoon.
Sitting by the harbour in the small Danish town of Havnebyen. Friends from Maui have moved here and we are stopping by to visit them on our way to Portugal.
My stay here in Denmark will be no longer than a long weekend, but I’m pleased that I am here. Not just to see my friends, but to experience Denmark. I was last here in the mid 1990s to listen to a series of lectures given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We visited in the middle of summer, and time was available for us to explore Copenhagen. Many details elude me of that time, but I remember a boat tour, a walk in a beautiful park, and walking around Christiania.
I chose to spend just one night in Copenhagen on this visit, instead spending the time with my mother in England. My wife flew on to Denmark to take advantage of a house swap that we had done with a Danish family, and to fulfill her love of design. For her, Copenhagen’s architectural and design aesthetic are a place to immerse oneself in.
I finish writing this on a very wet morning in a summer house owned by the family which we are visiting, just down the road from Havnebyen. Our friends are in the middle of converting an old building into their new home, and so we were kindly lent the summer house to stay in. It feels snug and cozy, even more so as the rain falls outside.
I’ve enjoyed my short stay here in Denmark. The flora and fauna is so similar to Britain that I am feeling very at home in the rural landscape where we find ourselves. The autumnal changes happening around us, the light, the damp smells all take me back to memories that comfort me.
The Danish people have been friendly and welcoming in our meetings with them, and the built environment feels like one in which I could be very at home.
As we move onto our home in Portugal, I look back on these few days fondly, hope to return soon, not least to see the progress on our friends’ home.
There’s a quote from the book Danziger’s Travel that has sat with me since I returned from my travels in the early 1990s. Danziger’s words spoke to how I felt on returning to my home country, Britain. I was feeling lost and his words told me that I was not alone.
Nick Danziger had returned from an extraordinary journey, traveling through Afghanistan during the war with Russia, crossing the Kunjerab Pass between Pakistan and China before it was open to foreigners, making his way into Tibet when that country as well was closed to foreigners, and after finally arriving in Beijing he found a boat to take him back to the UK.
Back in his parent’s house in rural southern England, Nick is reflecting on his trip. He writes in his book (I paraphrase here as I no longer have a copy of the book),
I feel a stranger to the worlds that I have traveled through, and yet a stranger to the world to which I have returned.
I read the book before I set off on my travels. Danziger’s journey had a huge influence on my travels and the route that I chose. I picked it up again when I returned and this quote stood out to me. Something had shifted in me. I felt a connection with the places that I traveled through and peoples who lived there and who I met along the way…but I was not one of them. And at the same time I felt a stranger to the country that I called home, where I was born and had grown up. To put it another way, I felt more culture shock in returning to England than traveling to Central Asia.
Time has allowed me to integrate these feelings, and yet sometimes I can still find myself caught with the feelings that I am in the wrong place or don’t belong.
At some point I gave the book away, or sold it to a second hand bookshop…I did something with it such that it is no longer in my life. But with my 60th birthday around the corner, I find myself reflecting on it, on the journey that Nick took, how his travels influenced me and that quote remains omnipresent in my life.
A couple of days ago I went looking online for a copy of Danziger’s Travels. It is out of print, but second hand copies are available. I purchased one from a bookshop in southern England and had it delivered to my mother’s home. It has now arrived there. I will be visiting her soon and look forward to holding a copy in my hands again. I always have some trepidation when revisiting the old. Will it have the same impact on me? Maybe yes, maybe no. Either way, that cannot take away the effect that the book had on the direction that I took in my life, and the affirmation that Danziger left with me on my return.
And there is an added bonus. The book is a signed copy.
I spent yesterday hiking Haleakalā Crater with a friend. The mountain sits at just over 10,000ft in altitude. The crater that is there today is not a classic volcanic crater, but rather a large erosional valley. It is believed that two valleys, Ko‘olau to the north and Kaupō to the south, expanded into the remains of a much larger volcano, possibly 12,000ft high, creating the crater that is there today.
I love being in the crater. It has a beauty made up of barrenness of the landscape, the otherworldliness of the cinder cones and lava flows, all which change in colour and mood as the light and weather flow through the day.
This was my first time in the crater since recovering from pneumonia and I wanted to see how I would cope with the eleven mile hike - down, flat, up, down, flat, never ending up.
This was certainly not my easiest hike across Haleakalā, “house of the sun”. Despite the elevation or maybe because of it, the sun was hot and there was little cloud cover. I had done some walking since I had been unwell, but this hike pushed me a lot.
We were treated though to some wonderful views and the Silver Swords, endemic to the region, were on full display.
As if a tired body was not enough to contend with, my boot needed some first aid as it lost its sole. Not having much at hand I used a plastic bag and my bandana to try and keep it in one piece until I was back at the car - which it barely did.
Before the final hike up and out of the crater, we took sometime to catch a nap at one of the huts that are in the crater. With advance reservation it is possible to spend the night in a hut, carrying in and out all of your supplies.
Yesterday was a lovely day. The funny thing was to see hikers return to parking lot at the end of the trail letting out exclamations of pain and exhaustion after the final, long climb. I myself am nursing aches and pains right now. While I am in no hurry to go back up there right now, hopefully I will do before too long. Haleakalā Crater is a special place.
I was driving to the post office this morning, and a mongoose suddenly ran out into the road. I tried to swerve, but it was too late, the little animal gave me no time. I hit it.
I turned around and drove back to see if it had survived, but sadly not. I lifted it off the road and laid it in the grass verge.
I regularly see small animals making a run for it across the road, chickens occasionally as well. This was the first time that one had been close to me, though I have been behind people slowing down for a hen and her chickens.
Yesterday a conversation on Micro.blog brought back memories of an episode early in my travels in 1987. In the Micro.blog conversation I wrote,
I remember hitchhiking out of Estes Park many moons ago when I was just starting my travels. From my memory the breaks weren’t working properly on the vehicle that picked me. The driver managed to slow down, but I had to run, throw my pack in and then jump in after it.
You might ask why I chose to take the ride? Looking back over the years, a similar question goes through my mind - adventure and youth?
Estes Park had come up in the conversation and memories of my brief visit there came back from nowhere. Sharing the story, I was struck by how I had this vivid and visceral recollection of the open road, freedom, possibilities and adventure. The memories excited me.
Today I went back to my journals to see how I had recorded the story, and how accurately I had portrayed it. The day was April 29th, 1987, Day 6 of a trip of then unknown length. Here is the relevant section from my journal (I am trying to get back to Denver from Estes Park),
I stood there (I-36) for a while, thumbing and eventually a very beat up car pulled over. A guy jumped out of the car, as it rolled backwards(!), and I chucked my camera bag in, onto a pile of rubbish, then I climbed onto a collapsed back seat and my rucksack was chucked on top of me. The car rolled backwards and then slowly pulled off. The window next to me was broken. Almost non-existent in fact. The car kept on cutting out on the hills, and at one point we had to stop and work on the engine for half an hour. They were going to Denver, but had to make do with limping to Boulder. Cyclists kept on passing us, and then we’d pass them. From there I caught a bus to Denver.
Clean up done. Sitting quietly now.
Yesterday evening a collection of friends - kids, parents, grandparents - came over to play on the water slide that my son-in-law had constructed in a large natural bowl that sits on our property. There were a few collisions, but no injuries. My wife barbecued a delicious meal. Conversation continued into the night, while the kids (and adults) played in my step-daughter’s swimming pool next door.