Being born and raised in Indonesia, I have the stomach of steel. Meaning I’m used to eat any food that’s been left out (and cooked, of course) for more than a couple of hours without getting sick. Before you say ‘eeewww‘ and crinkle your nose, hear this out. Since we were kids, we’ve been fed food that’s been on the table or cupboard for a while, after it’s being cooked. At home, school’s cafetaria (kantin), and small local restaurants or the street vendors. We were ‘introduced’ to bacteria at such a young age.

enjoying satay when back home in 2006Having lived in the US only for 8 years, my intestines were being pampered with the better hygiene that they have here. When I flew back home to Indonesia in 2006, I had a mild diarrhea at the end of my trip. I was hesitant to go to my favourite food street vendor in Jakarta (Sate Ayam Pondok Indah), but I was longing for it and even had a dream about it. But my stomach of steel had helped me going through eating in other countries’ road side food.

The only ‘bad’ thing about it is; I tend to forget that some people don’t have the stomach of steel and they tend to be very cautious to go anywhere in the world that is less ‘safe’ and ‘clean’ as the US. Working in a medical clinic who also provides travel medicine service, I came across a lot of travellers who are hesitant to go to a ‘poor’ country. Our travel clinic provides pre-travel counselling, immunization advice and delivery, and also immunization certificates (yellow fever). Before I work here, I didn’t know that there is such thing as travel clinic. I didn’t know that yellow fever vaccination is required for countries like Brazil, Paraguay, Angola, and some others.

Personally, I have nothing to worry about to go to places like Mexico or the Caribbeans. I’ll be fine eating their food and won’t fuss about vaccination. But this is not the case for others. Even the most touristy places are questioned by them,”Is there any vaccination needed for Playa del Carmen, Mexico?” 

My smart-ass state of mind would blurt out, “Duh… no. It’s a touristy destination, just like going to Miami, Florida.”

But fortunately I was able to bite my tongue and keep my manner (otherwise I’d be fired by now). The ones that I couldn’t comprehend are, “We’re leaving to Tokyo then Singapore next month. Do we need any vaccinations?” and “Do you guys know if I need to worry about the water condition in Dublin, Ireland? Should we get a typhoid injection or prescription before we go?

As an avid traveller myself, I’d go places in a heartbeat if money and time aren’t the issue. That’s why I sometime tend to advise patients not to hesitate to travel and not to be so worked up about vaccinations. Just last week, a 60-something old lady called because she’s  travelling to Peru with her husband but was too freaked out when she find out 2 or 3 different vaccinations are needed (plus a malaria prescription). I spent 20 minutes on the phone consoling her. 

Oh my goodness gracious. Hepatitis A, typhoid, yellow fever, and malaria prescription? Oh this is too much. And I need to have this 3 weeks before leaving? Oh my word… we’re leaving in a week. The travel agent said I won’t need anything,” she said all this in one breath!

Then I explained to her, depending on which area she’s visiting in Peru, she might not need the yellow fever or malaria. She then asked me to hold on while she’s looking for her printed itinerary from the travel agent. I usually am the one who put callers on hold, not the other way around, he he. After a while, she’s finally back on the phone and read me her itinerary from Day 1 to Day 4! Double checking with the CDC website, I was sure that she’s not going to need malaria and yellow fever. Then she questioned what’s the use for Hepatitis A vaccine for. I explained that it’s for precaution for virus which is most commonly transmitted by the fecal-oral route via contaminated food or drinking water.

That’s when she panicked, “Oh no… this is not good. I don’t want to go to a poor country and get sick. Oh my, I better tell my husband I’m not going.”

I felt really bad for her. I told her not to worry because she’s staying in an Americanized hotel; not in a local home. Just don’t drink tap water. Then she went on and on about the quality of the lettuce of the salad which probably would be provided by the hotel. I told her not to worry so much, just enjoy Peru and go to to the Macchu Picchu. This is where I was thinking for myself. I was wanting to scream, “C’mon already, just go. Don’t fret so much. I’ll go if you don’t want to.” But I didn’t. I understand that for some people, ‘differences’ could be very scary. Just like James Michener, an American author, said: “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”

… and she did.