Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Your Body

Last month, I spent two weeks gallivanting around Cape Town with one of my friends from Canada.  It was a great trip!  We rented a car and had a blast driving the Garden Route all the way to Jeffrey’s Bay.  On the other hand, I have never spent so many consecutive days worried about my health and safety before.

The first concern was that I might have gotten herpes.  Yep.  Went to CT and came back with an STI.  How classy.

How did this concern come about?  It started with an intense 24-hour stomach bug that hit one of the other Canadian interns as soon as we landed in CT, but I didn’t get it until the third day.

Unfortunately that was the day we’d planned to hike Table Mountain.  Determined not to miss out, I spent four hours climbing the mountain, puking up first my breakfast then lots of stomach acid.  Luckily my friend wasn’t grossed out.  On the contrary, she thought it was hilarious and took plenty of photos of me vomiting into the bushes. 

At one point she even laughed and said, “Beth, I’m glad you’re the one who’s sick!  Because you can be sick and still laugh about it and be cheerful.  I’d power through, but I’d be grumpy about it.  So good job.  Thanks for taking one for the team!”

“Thanks for the sympathy.”

By the afternoon, though, I was no longer laughing.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been that sick.  By 3pm I was completely delirious.  My friend and I went to the beach and I drove right through a red light.  Upon arrival, I could barely stand.

I finally told her I couldn’t power through any more and went back to the hostel to sleep it off.  I knew it was only a 24 hour bug since the other intern had gotten over it quickly, but I just couldn’t make it through the day without crashing.

The next morning I felt way better.  I still didn’t have any energy and could tell I was seriously dehydrated, but at least I was able to keep my food down.

Then something weird happened.  Over the next few days I developed two major canker sores inside my lips.  I started freaking out.  Could this be herpes?  When was the last time I kissed someone?  How long does it take the disease to show itself?  I frantically google imaged “herpes” and in all the images I saw, the cold sores were on the edges of the lips, not the inside.

After a couple days, the two canker sores were gone.  Now I think they were the result of major dehydration and too much acid going through my mouth.  They were located on places where my teeth hit my lips, so maybe it was just too much irritation.

But this is all preambles to the actual story behind today’s posting.

When I told my ZA friend that I’d started the trip worried about somehow contracting an STI, he had no idea what herpes was or how it spread.

“You’ve never heard of herpes?  Is it not common here?” I asked.

“It probably is.”

“And you never learned about it?”

“When would I learn about that?  When would I ever talk about it?” he seemed a little grumpy at my surprise.

“We learn about STI’s in school.  You don’t do that here?”

“We only learn about AIDS.”

I know HIV/AIDS is a big deal in Africa, but I was shocked that basic sex education isn’t part of the school curriculum.

I explained to my friend that herpes is only contagious when someone has a cold sore and that he should never kiss someone with cold sores.  I also told him that the disease isn’t actually that big a deal, that my ex-boyfriend had it but he only got something like four cold sores in the five years we were dating.

“So YOU have herpes?” he asked, disgust and alarm creeping into his voice.

“No,” I tried to explain.  “No, we were always really careful any time he could feel a cold sore.  That’s what I mean that it’s not a huge deal.  This last week in Cape Town was the only time I’ve ever gotten cold sores before.  No I don’t have it.”

“Are you sure?  I have a friend who’s a doctor and she said sometimes you can be a carrier of a disease without showing symptoms.”

“Um… yes… that’s true.  But I highly doubt I have herpes.”

He seemed placated.

Our conversation explained a lot to me.  After I’d recovered from the stomach bug, but still had the cold sores, I was highly conscious of them.  When my friend and I went out to the bar, I felt too self-conscious to really enjoy myself, even though men tried to talk to me anyways.  I went back to our hostel early and spent an hour chatting with another hostel guest, during which he tried to convince me to come out clubbing with him.  I was shocked.  We were sitting side-by-side, both looking at his computer, and I felt like my canker sores must be clearly visible to him, yet he was obviously trying to orchestrate hooking up.  Who would attempt to hook up with someone who had cold sores????

On the other hand, I was probably overly self-conscious.  My friend told me the cold sores weren’t even noticeable.  And the guy was American, not South African, which makes me think he should have learned about herpes.  But then again, who knows?  Maybe Hawaii has abstinence-only sex education too.

Thank goodness for BC’s education system!  I’m so grateful to understand my body and know what chances I’m willing to take – and what I’m not.

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