I am sweating as I slowly walk uphill. Fit runners pass me by, but the only thing that is up for a race today is my heartbeat. You used to walk a lot, I remind myself.
You can do it, common! You´ve done it before.
When I was twenty, I walked more than 850km in a single take. It took me a month and some days and afterwards, I was fitter than ever. I was even skinny for a short period of time! Well, skinnier than I am now, anyway.
Somehow I have fallen for the illusion that I am still that girl; the one who carried her eleven kilograms of bullshit across Spain and didn´t give up.
I carry a lot less today; yet my soft belly shakes with every step and so do my thighs. My back is itching, but I can´t reach it through the backpack.
I howl in agony inside of my head – there is nothing worse than an itch you cannot scratch, as somebody said in the Blade Runner movie.
My whole body is covered in red rash anyway so I just start scratching another part of it, trying to forget about the small of the back where I feel most of the discomfort. After frantically carving my sharp nails into my arms, my knees and that annoying place under my breasts that sweats more than a jazzman at a midnight show, I am painfully and guiltily satisfied – I am now bleeding from several small wounds, but pain is easier to deal with than the incessant itching. A couple of muscular hikers have passed me by. (I tried to pretend I am normal but I think I failed.)
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I continue walking – my husband is far ahead of me already – but after ten minutes, the salty sweat burns so much that I have to stop again and take off my backpack. I sit and wait for my shirt to dry in the sun and wind; I sadly caress my back and tiny squares of dry skin come off, sticking to my hand. I carefully root one finger in the most annoying place. Shit, I think as I feel the crust give in and I see the blood under my nail. Fuck this fucking shit.
am feel disgusting. What I am is ill.
I can´t go on like this, can I?
On the other hand, I am not willing to postpone my travel plans although many people advise me so. I can be allergic in whatever corner of the world, isn´t it true?
But how have I come this far in the first place?
I´ve had atopic eczema since I can remember; when I was fourteen, my mouth and eyes were all swollen with it – I hardly ever spoke in public back then, pale bookish creature that I used to be, but when I did speak, I´d cover my mouth with my hand to hide my shame. Luckily enough, I never got bullied for it.
When I reached twenty, my skin was sort of fine; small red patches on my arms and back didn´t annoy me or my crushes and I didn´t worry or treat them much.
The real trouble began perhaps in 2014 when I left to live in Colombia. The oily food and chlorine-treated water or perhaps pollution affected my skin badly – it went crazy and has been raging ever since. (I have an unclear idea that it has to do with the lowered immunity after having dengue fever.)
At first I applied the usual creams and said I just ate something bad. I´ve always had that, no worries. I can handle that.
Only I couldn´t.
So what did I do about it?
I cried in the night. Then I cried in the day. I applied lots of corticosteroids but it didn´t help, on the contrary, my skin was getting uglier and itchier every day.
I cried some more. I made scenes. I cleaned up our apartment to avoid any allergic reactions, then I screamed at my boyfriend for touching me without washing his hands. I boiled herbs and poured cups of oddly smelling brew all over myself, shaking in the cold shower. I stopped using perfume and bought plain soap with no fragrance. I stopped washing my (horribly greasy) hair to give the skin some rest. Nothing worked.
Then, I gave up on the corticosteroids completely.
I have gone without corticosteroid creams for a few months by now as they have stopped working for me after years of heavy use; I have tried diets, not taking showers (water worsens my condition), coconut oil, black cumin oil, cream with cannabis seeds oil (that one is wonderful, really), baths in magnesium salt, baths in the ocean, applying fresh aloe vera, pure cocoa butter, panthenol, only eating fresh food, bitching about itching, mud baths on a volcanic island and many other things that I am forgetting, all along with searching for and trying the cleanest, most hypoallergenic body lotions to sooth my panicking skin. All of it to little or no effect.
In April, I quit my job; we – me and my patient, sweet, helpful boyfriend who applied fresh aloe on my back for months and worried for me, googling possible causes and remedies all along – emptied our flat, packed a couple of shirts and took a flight to San Francisco where we were about to start hitchhiking all the way down to Cancún.
I filled my bag with creams and lotions, anticipating difficulties, but I got a surprise instead; after a few days, my skin started recovering and soon I was fine again. I ate spicy tacos in Mexico and drank heavy beer in California and went without showering for days, but my skin was happy.
Until I came back to Slovakia, that is.
In September 2015, I looked just as fine as when I was leaving my home-country – only I was fatter (and engaged). In December, however, I was back in trouble, neck deep in shit.
I am just stressed, I said. I´ll be fine.
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I didn´t cry anymore; I resigned. I was grateful that my skin was sort of normal on my wedding day so that I didn´t look like a clown on my photographs, but that was about it. I stopped caring – I stopped looking for a magical solution, I stopped pretending I am not itchy and I scratched myself in public shamelessly because, who cares?
I hoped once my thesis would be done, my finals would be over and I would be free to roam again wherever I please, my skin would be clean and happy again. I politely declined the PhD. position offer (jeez, I see myself whistling in a tent in some hills, not writing papers!) and waited for my academic process to wrap up finally. But unfortunately, traveling is not a cure all, not even for people who can´t manage their stress levels as
other decent human beings.
After my finals, my skin did get a tiny bit better, but not for long. Soon it got back to worse.
Tell me more about responsible behavior now.
I put on my backpack anyway and went off to the mountains, where I sweated and sweated and the salt of my sweat burned my swollen epithelial tissue as if it were a scarlet letter. I went to a hippie festival, I hitchhiked around, I couchsurfed and stumbled towards mountain tops.
Then I saw myself in a mirror one day.
Red as an apple, but not quite as healthy – my face full of dark blemishes, my thighs, my arms, my back and my belly of a constant purple color as if I got burned, my butt reminding me of a hipster bicycle – white with red dots. I couldn´t sit as my ass would scratch. I couldn´t lie on my back as it hurt, but neither on my stomach because that was even worse.
That was just a few days ago. I came home and reluctantly searched through the huge box full of pills, syrups and tinctures past the expiry date (every Slovak household has one of those, believe me) until I found a corticosteroid. I took a long shower in cold water, bathed in magnesium salt and applied that white mystery all over myself.
Then I felt the need to defend this decision in front of my husband:
I did what my doctor told me to do. I´ll use what she gave me for ten days and then we´ll see.
Ok, he only said. I hope it helps you.
After many months, I´ve spent a night without scratching myself. Now I sit here and hope that it will work, that my skin will get back to normal. I want to get closer to that girl who´s walked hundreds of kms without the need to constantly scratch her butt until it bleeds.
Wish me luck with achieving that.
* * *
Do you travel with an illness? How do you go about it? Do you have any special tips for curing / treating atopic eczema? Share them with me in the comment section!
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We are hitchhiking from Europe to India and we didn´t prepare a single thing – stick around to see if we can make it! You can cheer us on if you think we´ll get there, or laugh about us if we don´t.