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The Grit: Crohnie Traveler Tips

I'm so thankful to be getting feedback on my blog, as my hope is that we build a community that is positive, supporting and helpful for each of you.  No matter if your concern is traveling across town or across the world.  I have been asked to share some specific gritty details about how to manage travel abroad, but again many of these can be applied locally.

So here goes!

1.  Do Your Homework

Whether you are traveling to Europe, Southeast Asia, or across the Continental US, do your research well in advance of your trip.

Booking your lodging:
This includes finding accommodation that will maximize your time and waning energy levels, if you like me struggle with fatigue.  Particularly in Europe, it is quite easy to find hostels or safe budget accommodations in the heart of town.  Keep in mind that for hostels and lower budget accommodation options, this may likely include sharing a bathroom.  In my travels, I had to quickly get over any fears, embarrassment or squeamishness levels.  I survived a Crohn's flare in 3 months of solo backpacking in co-ed hostels, with co-ed bathrooms.  You hold your head high no matter what is going on in your stall.  And if you must, hey just wait until everyone has left and then you leave.  We are strong; we are survivors!  But be prepared to have all your boundaries tested.

Researching food options:
I write about this throughout my blog, but in this day and age it is quite easy to go online and look up restaurant menus.  Gone are the days you can pop in a cute bistro and hope for the best, if you have IBD.  Research - inconspicuously if you must!   Say there is a group of new travel buddies throwing out ideas.  If you are not ready to share your life and health story, check out some options on your phone so you can know what will work for you.  Speak up or tell a white lie if you must!  "Oh you guys would like to get curry?  Darn, I just had that for lunch."  Lunch, as in never!! 

If there are no online menus, or for many tapas type places in Europe the offerings change regularly, slip some baggies of safe food in your day bag and eat a snack in advance.  I have no shame in travel; I do what I must to get by and stay healthy.  So plenty of times in restaurants abroad I have very clandestinely slipped food from  my day bag if I am in a situation where there are limited food options.  In that case, order what you can, eat what you can of it, and tip generously.

To be honest, in some countries, you may not even get what you intended to order, so be sure you ask plenty of questions first.  I'll never forget the time I was in rural England without my dear friend I was staying with.  The local pub was the only food option in town.  I could not for the life of me remember if Brits refer to "ham" as "bacon" or vice versa.  I ended up ordering the version that turned out to be bacon, which is not my friend.  And it came with soggy fries.  Also not my friend.  In that situation, you go hungry if you don't pack snacks!

Keep in mind that "spicy" is personal opinion.  Enough said.  Mildly spicy to one is fiery hot to another.  Be forewarned!

As often as you can, stock up on food items in grocery stores.  If you are backpacking, then buy as much as you can carry.  If you are driving, or have roller luggage, then fill up!  In many rural areas, they will give you a box and you can throw that in your trunk.  Never assume you will find more food options later.  Buy it when you see it.  I've written past blogs about getting so sick of rice crackers to this day I can't eat them.  But it kept me safe and healthy and from being tempted to just eat what was available in the moment.  

Food Safety:
I cannot say enough how important it is to stick to the most stringent version of your own personal IBD diet while traveling.  I always go more conservatively because my body is always more worn down.  I work to stay hydrated better - and I NEVER drink the local water.  I don't care if I am in Florida, China, or London.  The mineral make-up of local tap water varies, and if our bodies are not used to it, it can cause issues - and while they may be very minor, this is not the time to play around.  Particularly in any developing country, you absolutely 100% must not drink the local water.  I don't care how many in your group or friends do it and brag about it, not a good idea for anyone.  I also strongly encourage you to check the safety seal on bottles of water in developing countries.  It is a common scam that local shops will re-bottle tap water and tightly seal it.  Make sure the seal has not been tampered with!

I typically do not eat anything that would have been washed either.  So salads, fruits, etc... I stay away from.  Just like each Crohnie has to come up with their own diet and no-no's, I realize that some Crohnies traveling abroad may do so just fine, which is great.  However, for newbie travelers or those with more moderate to severe IBD, I would urge caution.

Yes, the food looks good.  Yes, the vacation mindset has slipped in.  But you don't want to ruin your trip by getting sick!

2.  Take a change of clothes.  

Have them in your day bag, your car trunk, your backpack - just make sure they are with you at all times.  Depending on how adventurous your travel is, you may want 2-3 backup pair of underwear for peace of mind.  I also pack tightly wound rolls of toilet paper in ziploc bags (just unroll and re-roll in tightly), wipes, antibacterial hand soap and then empty bags/ziplocs for the "after" / trash.

Trust me that this is not just preparation for Crohn's accidents.  Bathrooms can be extremely hard to come by in the rest of the world.  Many are closed to the public; others are hidden away and impossible to find. Most require a purchase to utilize a toilet.  Most are ridiculously tiny, typically without toilet paper or soap.  Often times in parts of the world you are squatting over a hole in the ground.  Other big cities in Europe in rail stations and certain public areas, you must always carry loose change to use toilets, as they NEVER have change.  Who wants to go to an ATM and find out you are going to have to pay $20 to use the loo?  Not me!   But I have.  I have cried in front of an operator of those stands, having been on a train that changed countries, and I didn't have local currency.  I offered up a smorgasbord of international change, and he took pity on me.   Then, they didn't have toilet paper!

If you are driving your own car, be prepared for pit stops on the side of the road.  Be discreet and you won't get in trouble!

One of the reasons I avoid group tours/travel, is because so much of your time is on a bus or shuttle van or some other mode of transportation with limited bathroom options.  My entire time in China was filled with endless hours on a bus without a bathroom.  Not good for a Crohnie.  However, that is not a country I would be comfortable touring about on my own, due to language barriers, so I opted for what I could.

My advice is be prepared as you can, and know that much pain and embarrassment will likely follow. Hold your head high; you are never going to see these people again anyway, so who cares?!

The Bus With No Bathroom: Crohnie Nightmare!

3.  Buy probiotics after you are settled into the new country

While in New Zealand earlier this year, I ran out of probiotics, as apparently I hadn't counted out enough for the trip.  I was having some Crohn's issues, and ended up going to a local shop, where I was pleasantly surprised at their offerings.  Granted, some towns will not have any at all, but it's worth popping into a pharmacy, large grocery store, health food store, or other option to see if they do.  Ensure that you purchase shelf-stable, temperature-stable probiotics, unless your lodging has a fridge.  Most of ours did, but endless hours in a car still led me to opt for the shelf-stable.

4.  Live fully, laugh at yourself, soak it in!

I traveled through China barely eating anything but morsels of rice here and there, going through as much food as had fit in my suitcase from home.  Despite being as careful as I was, I came home and three days later came down with a severe flare that lasted for months.   I say that not to scare you, but to remind you that even with our best precautions, we can still not control our disease.  It has a life of its own.   I backpacked Europe for 3 months with a flare, toting steroids and enemas, and often times felt I would pass out from pain and exhaustion.  Yet those months are the most gloriously alive and beautiful of my life.  They transformed me.  Years later, I don't remember the pain; I remember the friendships, the glorious vistas, the sea.

You can't let fear keep you from going.  You can plan as best as you can, and still be unprepared.  Travel is about throwing caution to the wind, and making ourselves vulnerable by opening ourselves to the world, to strangers, to the unknown.  To truly do it justice, you must be able to laugh at yourself, live in the moment, and be gracious to yourselves and others.

To those who asked for more grit, I hope this is a step in the right direction!  Please continue to give feedback and let me know specific areas, scenarios, or topics.

Crohnies unite!  If we help each other, we can make it through the challenges. 


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