What I did on my summer (also winter, spring and fall) vacation


by Cleo Paskal, BA’90

Oh, I’ve heard the rumours going around. So let me set the record straight. Sure I’m always on the move, travelling to obscure corners of the world, but contrary to popular belief, I am not an illicit tulip bulb smuggler. Or a spy. Or even a trafficker in genetically engineered DNA culled from the rain forests of Papua New Guinea and altered in secret government labs deep in the bowels of McGill’s Stewart Biology Building.

Since bursting out of the Roddick gates in 1990, I have yet to spend more than three months in one place. I’ve roved from Timmins to Timbuktu, from Sudbury to Samoa, from Sault Ste. Marie to Sioux City, Iowa. Yes, I belong to that most envied of all professions:

I am a travel journalist (albeit one with a bizarre soft spot for industrial small town Ontario).

Don’t hate me. Despite what the newspaper travel pages would like you to believe, it isn’t all white sand beaches and blood red sunsets. What most travel sections tend to leave out are the trips that result in, say, extended hospital stays. I personally have been hospitalized at least once on almost every continent.

It’s incredible what you can learn about a place by spending some time in its hospitals. Or by trying to spend time in its hospitals. In London, I had a freak, severe allergic reaction to the elephants in the London Zoo.

It happens, okay? Just, it seems, not to anyone else.

I had to get to Emergency pronto, before I died from anaphylactic shock. I called 911 only to be told there was no service at that number. After trying a variety of combinations, 119, 991, 111 — even, in a fit of desperation and perversion, 666 — I finally got through to an operater at 999.

The British version of Lily Tomlin said that, rather than wait for an ambulance, I should take a cab, it would be quicker. When I finally made it to the hospital, the doctors were so thrilled with my case, I spent my entire stay being used as a teaching tool:

“And here, in bed 325, we have the Elephant Lady. Tell us, Elephant Lady. What happened?”

“I had an allergic reaction to an elephant.”

“Jolly good!”

Having learned my lesson, when I had an allergic reaction to aspirin in Paris (my immune system has a mind of its own — the mind of a deranged five-year-old), I didn’t even try to call an ambulance, I immediately stumbled out of my hotel and hailed a cab. The only problem was, the driver didn’t know where the hospitals were — a fact he wasn’t ready to admit.

After circling for eons, with me passing out in the back seat, he finally decided it was my fault he couldn’t find the hospital and kicked me out of the cab on an abandoned street corner. After charging me, of course. I actually can’t remember how I ended up getting to Emergency.

And then there was the time I caught dengue fever in the South Pacific and had to be treated by the only doctors within a thousand miles, a charming Estonian couple with no training whatsoever in tropical medicine.

They had such little faith in their own hospital that they refused to let me stay there since they thought it likely I would catch tuberculosis from another patient.

You get the idea.

“But,” I hear you object, “how about all the fabulous places you get to see? Doesn’t that make it all worthwhile?”

Do you mean that eight-day white water rafting trip down the Zambezi that left from the foot of Victoria Falls? Did you know that hippos kill more people than any other mammal in Africa? And that the Zambezi is full of hippos? And ‘gators? And that the snake we found slithering on the bottom of our raft was, in fact, poisonous?

“OK,” you continue persistently, “but how about all the interesting people you get to meet?”

What, like the officer that arrested me in South Africa for traveling on a “Blacks Only” bus? Or the drunken Louisiana cop who thought it would be a really good idea if we headed back to his place? Or, scarier still, the seemingly endless legions of sadistic immigration officers?

No, it ain’t all white sand beaches and technicolour sunsets. And don’t believe any travel rag that tells you so. But the job does have its perks. I have good friends all over the world, some who have saved my life and one (in Samoa) who named her daughter after me. I get to see my far flung University pals more often than most.

And, best of all, I don’t have to find innovative places to hide tulip bulbs.

Cleo Paskal has done travel pieces for the BBC, the Independent, the Economist, and a variety of other non-Canadian organizations, which is why her friends and family at home never believed her when she told them what she did. To rescue her reputation, she is now a travel columnist for Canada’s newest daily, the National Post.

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