Mastos abroad: The China Chronicles (Part 1)

It surprises me how often people think I am unflappable. A lot of times people asking questions say things like, “I know this is stupid,” or “I did a really stupid thing” or “You are going to think I am an idiot.” We all do dumb things sometimes. We all get confused.

I do not think you’re stupid and I do not think you’re an idiot. In that spirit, I would like to share some stories to ensure you that sometimes I am not just flappable but next level flappable. I flap. A lot.

People who have been following along for a while may remember that I went to China in 2015. Seeing the Great Wall has always been a dream of mine. I am fortunate to have a dear friend who lives in Hong Kong for half of the year. She has MCAS and we met because she came to Boston for treatment. She invited me to Hong Kong and suggested we take a tour to mainland China. After spending a few days in Hong Kong, we flew to Beijing on November 10.

There really was no way to prepare myself adequately for mainland China. Hong Kong struck me as a European city with Chinese sensibilities. Mainland China could be compared to nothing. It was like an all you can eat buffet that somehow also had a scarcity of food. I’m amazed I didn’t see anyone get run over while I was there since the locals just hurled themselves haphazardly into traffic. The pollution was unlike anything I have seen before and the entire city smelled like coal.

There was no social understanding that people should be orderly and wait in line or take turns. Louise, our tour guide, warned me, “Do not be a gentle lady.” I am not a gentle lady so I was tossing old ladies out of the way in no time. I will remember this for the rest of my life because it was the only time I have ever been called gentle and it will probably never happen again.

I had wanted to travel to Asia for years before I actually got there. The main reason I hadn’t gone was because my health is unpredictable and I was afraid to receive medical care there. I was also worried that they would confiscate critical meds or supplies. I don’t speak any Asian languages and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively in a health care setting.

Because of how nervous I was about needing medical attention in Beijing, I basically traveled there with nothing but meds and supplies for both routine use and emergencies. I flew with a set of three nesting luggage pieces, my backpack with infusion meds and pump, and another bag. The only things I brought that weren’t meds or supplies were three changes of clothes, sneakers, spare glasses, my journal, an electrical converter, a plug adapter, and an iPad. I bought everything else there or got it from Pat.

The other thing that had held me back from travel to Asia was food. I couldn’t eat soy, seafood, vinegar, or fish sauce. It is almost impossible to find food in China that does not contain any of those. I was fine in Hong Kong because I was staying at Pat’s house and we had ready access to fresh groceries and a full kitchen. I didn’t have those things in mainland China and didn’t expect to have them.

The staff at our hotel (the Peninsula) were unbelievably helpful and accommodating of our food restrictions. They came to our room to get a list of what we could safely eat and what we could not. They made us boxed lunches to bring with us on the tour. They made breakfast items that weren’t on the menu because I couldn’t tolerate anything else. Our dinners were carefully made without contamination. We didn’t need to get food anywhere else. Truly, it was an amazing experience. They could not have been more accommodating.

I sometimes print images of places I want to go and paste them into my journal as a reminder to live my life with purpose. The Forbidden City was one of those places. We visited it the day after we arrived. It was a palace for the Emperor that was more likely a small city. The day after we arrived in Beijing, Pat and I passed under a spectacularly large picture of Mao Tsetong and entered this magical place. It was stunning and amazing and better than I had imagined.

The following day was a day I had waited decades for. I was finally going to see the Great Wall of China. Our tour guide recommended that we visit the Wall at a less visited site called Mutianyu to hopefully avoid big crowds. As we drove out of Beijing proper, Louise told us things about the neighborhoods we passed and stories about Chinese history. We chatted about the effects of Communism on her generation versus her parents’ and grandparents’. She was intelligent and spoke really impeccable English.

I lost most of my hearing years ago. I can’t hear high pitched sounds really at all. As we were driving out, Pat turned to me and asked, “Can you hear that?” I couldn’t. I asked what it sounded like and she said she wasn’t sure. She kept hearing it. I kept not hearing it because Deaf. She started looking around in the car. “It’s like a chirping,” Pat explained. Finally, she asked Louise if the chirping was the ring tone on her phone.

We were pulling into a parking spot when Louise answered that she thought it was the driver’s. She asked him in Mandarin if it was his phone. After he parked the car, he reached into his jacket pocket.

I wasn’t looking at them when he pulled it out. I turned back to find him holding out a small cage with an enormous cricket in it. This was the biggest cricket I have ever seen. Easily the size of my palm and black. It was so large that you could see all the features of its creepy little face including its eyes looking back and forth.

If I had been aware that I was going to encounter a cricket the size of Rhode Island on this trip, things might have gone better. But I wasn’t so they didn’t. I’m not sure exactly what happened but I screamed and starting flapping my hands hysterically while making a noise that was sort of like turkeys gobbling.

“Is that the international sign for “get that thing the hell away from me?” Pat asked. It was in fact the international sign for get that thing the hell away from me.

I felt it best not to make eye contact with the cricket as it sized me up. The driver explained that this cricket was a fighting cricket and that people would have cricket fights and bet on the outcome. He kept it in his pocket in case he came upon an impromptu cricket fight. You know. Just to be prepared in case that happened.

Pat asked if this cricket was a champion. Louise translated his response.

“He wants you to know that yes, this cricket is the champion, and also, that if this cricket bites you, you will bleed.” And you know? I believe that. It had to be carried around IN A CAGE. This thing was clearly a menace.

 

This is a different cricket our driver brought the next day. Sadly, this cricket is not a champion.

 

 

The Great Wall was a good distraction from the fact that this cricket was sharing the van with us. It was so foggy. Like walking into a cloud. It seemed to swallow the wall and me with it in the cold damp. After we took the cable car down from the Wall, Pat and I went into a shop looking for something to warm us up. There was a little coffee shop in the visitor’s center. I ordered a small coffee to have something hot. Pat did the same. We sat at a little table outside drinking our coffee while we waited for our driver to pick us up.

For the record, this cup of coffee was the ONLY thing I consumed in Beijing that was not made by the Peninsula. Somehow, despite my excessive fretting over food and drink contamination in China, I decided that this shady little café was definitely capable of making me coffee safely and that it would be fine. I have no excuse. I just flung caution into the polluted Chinese wind.

 

The Wall disappearing into the fog

 

 

As I sat there, sipping my coffee and staring into this grey abyss, I thought to myself, “This is a lot sweeter than I thought it would be.” This didn’t worry me at all. I have no defense. I continued to drink it. I drank the whole thing in about five minutes and got into the van to go the Ming Tombs, the next stop on our tour.

As you might be expecting, that van ride turned into a circus real fast. About fifteen minutes after drinking the coffee, literally within seconds of each other, Pat and I both started having symptoms. It quickly became apparent that this coffee wanted out of our bodies. For me, the coffee felt that vomiting would be the path of least resistance. For Pat, it charged through her GI tract all the way down.

The road we were driving along was punctuated by people sitting on the side of the road and burning hell money, a ritual that they believe will provide their deceased loved one money to spend in heaven. Literally every 100 feet or so had what looked like a small garbage fire being tended to by locals wearing masks. When we finally got to a stretch of road that wasn’t hosting small fires of fake currency, I told Louise that we needed to pull over. I threw up on the side of the road. I threw up enough that poor Louise got out of the van to pat my back while I puked everywhere. Making memories.

I felt better after I threw up but Pat was still having some problems. Our tour guide assured us we were only a short distance from the next stop. After fifteen very long minutes, we jumped out of the van and ran to the bathroom. We told the driver to park as close to the bathroom as possible in case we needed to get out of there quickly. Our tour guide ran with us while the driver went to find a parking spot.

Once Pat was safely in a stall, I walked out of the bathroom to see if the driver had found us. As I was looking for him, the gates flew open on the far side of the parking lot as a van came screeching through the fence. The van pulled up close to the bathroom and slammed on the brakes. The driver jumped out and opened the van door so his passengers could get in quickly. It was our driver.

The good news is that Pat did not shit her pants. The bad news is we were trapped in that bathroom for a while. There were a couple of chairs near the bathroom entrance that we commandeered for a while while we waited to see if this was going to pass or not. Long suffering and committed Louise knelt down on the bathroom floor holding a map and calmly telling us the history of the site while we waited to see our intestines would continue wrenching. We learned all about the Cultural Revolution and how adherents to communist philosophies had permanently damaged ancient monuments and works of art. On the bathroom floor. At a very busy tourist attraction.

After about half an hour, we told Louise that we were ready to brave the world outside of the bathroom. She was very pleased by this turn of events. She led us into the main courtyard and told us about the people entombed there. There was a door where it is traditional for people to walk through, then to walk backwards and hop over the threshold backwards so as not to be trapped in the land of the dead. I was feeling pretty cocky since I hadn’t puked in 40 minutes so I went for it. (I did not get trapped in the land of the dead, if you’re wondering. I think.)

I looked at Pat to ask her if she was feeling up to it. Her response was, “If I don’t keep both feet on the ground, something is coming out of one end or the other and I’m not sure which one.” She’s a lot more practical than me. We carried on with the tour.

Pat and I had some other adventures in China that I’ll get around to writing about someday. I’m sure we’ll have more if I ever get to Hong Kong again.

Anyway, see my point? I’m totally flappable. Your questions are not stupid. You are not stupid. It’s all good.

More posts about my trip to China here:

Great Wall

Just before waking

River stones

Postcards

I started collecting postcards when I was 14. My uncle died abruptly that year and I took a road trip with some relatives to visit his son several states away in Georgia. When we were getting ready to leave, my parents told me to send them a postcard. I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for (and not finding) postcards in every rest stop and 24 hour gas station between here and Savannah. I finally found some at a visitor’s center near Roanoke, VA. An obsession was born.

I have thousands of postcards now. I get a bunch anytime I travel anywhere, even if it’s somewhere I have been before. Even if I’m only passing through a state or country. Even if it’s just a layover. If I find out someone is going to a country I don’t have a postcard from, I am not shy about asking if they will grab me a few.

There was a long time when I was too sick to travel. I lost a lot of things in those years. Travel was one of the hardest. Planning trips had always been an escape for me, even if I were planning trips I knew I would never take. I would read guidebooks and research flights and destinations and places to stay. I would often take out my postcard collection and flip through them, a palpable connection to this piece of myself that had been removed by force.

My health stabilized in later years but there are still many places I will never see, places that are just too far flung to chance with my need for accessible medical care. I have tried hard to make peace with that. Some days are easier than others. It is still something I struggle with, a loss that remains raw even after so long.

In 2014, I flew to Seattle with my best friend to visit one of my other best friends. It was sort of a rematch. My previous trip to Seattle had suddenly turned into a clusterfuck when I suffered GI failure 3000 miles from home. So in 2014, I took myself and my PICC line and two pieces of luggage stuffed with meds and medical supplies to Seattle. And I made it there, and I made it through the trip, and I made it home. For the first time in a long time, I started to feel in control. Not really in control of my life or my body, but in control of something. Something I wanted badly, that was an essential part of me. The ability to travel.

In the year after Seattle, I honed my traveling with masto skills with some domestic trips. I went to Colorado, Florida, and California. In November 2015, after months of planning, I flew around the world and spent two weeks in Hong Kong and mainland China. It was exhausting and complicated and very stressful. But it was also amazing in a way that few things in my life have been. When I am having a super shitty day, I think back to the way I felt when I landed in Hong Kong. Or when I first saw the Great Wall of China rising before me as it emerged from an otherworldly fog. Or when I crossed the threshold into the Forbidden City. Just pure gratitude for being able to be there in that moment. And awe that I was able to figure out how to work around the incredible complexity of international travel with the need for daily IV meds, IV fluids, and ready access to emergency medical care.

I used to be adventurous in the more traditional sense. I wanted real adventure: hiking in the Himalayas, long boat rides down remote rivers, cliff diving, camping in Patagonia, watching the Northern Lights from a sleeping bag under the endless sky in Iceland. I will never be able to safely orchestrate many of these real adventures. But in a way, the disappointment of this is tempered by the fact that I have unwittingly uncovered a different type of adventure: learning how to game my body and my disease to let me take these bites out of the world.

This is my adventure. Figuring out how to fold my life up into complex origami shapes and walking along the edges, planting a foot in the space governed by my disease, the other in the space of exhilaration and dreams. I will never know the triumph of summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. But so many people will never know the triumph of making it to another continent, of spending years to see a place you dreamt about, of eating and working and waking the morning after a day you thought would kill you.

I do not enjoy the experience of having mast cell disease. I like things about my life but this is real life and not a symbolism-ridden novel. If I could snap my fingers and find myself occupying a healthy body, I would do it in a heartbeat. Being sick amplifies everything but that means every good thing is amplified, too. Every time I am able to figure out how to experience something or go somewhere safely, it is such a victory. It is infinitely more satisfying than if I never had to worry about my health. And I think that’s worth something.

I’m flying to Mexico in a few days for the wedding of a family friend. I have never been to Mexico. I started preparing for this trip six weeks ago, started packing two weeks ago, and now it’s almost here. I am currently having an obnoxious episode of “normal people sick” (as distinguished from “masto sick” – I have a nasty cold). A few years ago, I would have been panicked that I wouldn’t recover in time to safely travel. But after all the work I have put into this trip, it just seems silly that something like a bad sore throat and wet chest cough could get in my way. It will be fine. My doctors have cleared me and I’m not concerned.

In three days, I will be in Mexico. In nine days, I will have seen Mayan ruins, swam in the Gulf, and warched my friends get married on the beach. And in ten days, I will be home. With postcards.

River stones

The day I was diagnosed, I left the hospital holding a piece of scrap paper with notes all over it. I occasionally come across it again while looking for reports in my massive collection of medical documentation. The paper is soft along the folds, but the ink is still bright. Words jotted down haphazardly surround a crude drawing of a mast cell heavy with granules. Words to explain my disease and its accompanied wreckage.

These words meant more than too many mast cells, too much activation. They meant the pain and stress of being sick. They meant all the things I had lost. They meant fear and loneliness. They meant desperation and need for validation. They meant that this was real and that meant that it wouldn’t go away. The words were arbitrary. They had no power on their own. They had power because of what they represented in my mind.

In the weeks that followed diagnosis, I said the words out loud when I was home alone. I turned them over in my mouth until the edges were smoothed, the jaggedness smoothed like a river stone.

I arrived in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon. It was cold and raw there, the kind that makes every movement feel heavy and dully painful. The city was overlaid with soft fog, fluffy and moist. It looked sleepy. Our wonderful tour guide apologized for the poor visibility but I liked it, this ethereal dressing. In fairy tales, that’s where magic happens.

On Thursday morning, we went to the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall. We walked up to a cable car that delivered us into the heavy mountain fog. We made a short climb up slick stone steps to reach the wall, visible only in glimpses through this wet cover.

The shrouding was so complete that I could almost believe that if I stepped off the wall into the fog, I just might disappear. We were high above the world. We were in the sky.

There was a sharpness to walking through the mist in this place that had borne witness to eons of man. I can’t find the right words to express how it felt to walk along the Great Wall. If let down was a positive feeling, it might feel like that. I was awestruck by this experience. It could not have been more amazing for me. It feels like putting down something I carried for so long that my body began to accept it as its own. It is the knowledge that after so long, I will never again see the Great Wall for the first time because I already did.

I saw the Great Wall after years of doubting I would see it at all. I did this impossible thing. I wanted to cry tears laden with the salt of all the impossible things I had hoped for in that place where it seemed the very mountains were crying, too. Hope is the only way forward, but it can be so, so heavy.

Our tour guide explained the function of the Wall, its amazing length and structure. It was designed to prevent invaders from returning, watchtowers manned with sentries. It surprised me that the mountains themselves weren’t enough protection without the wall. I’m not sure that the wall was ever any better than the mountains alone. But the people believed it did and that made them better. Maybe it gave them hope.

A lot has changed since I was diagnosed. The words I smooth are different now. They are still painful. But if I think of the coolness of the stone, the feeling of another world encroaching, the realization that dreams come true, maybe when I say these words, they can mean that, too.

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Just before waking

For most of my life, I have seen things in that creeping inertia toward sleep. Figures made of vibrating inkiness would move towards me until I screamed and jumped in the moment before we touched. I would shake my head from side to side and rub my eyes like an incredulous cartoon character while my pounding heart slowed.

The shapes I saw never existed outside of that thin slip of time that bounded waking from sleep, but logic is not enough. It didn’t matter that I knew that these were hallucinations. The panic was real.

From the moment I decided to visit China, I was panicking. I fretted about bringing medications, transporting IV bags, getting medical notes, dealing with the airline, the weather. Everything was a variable I could not control. The mental invention I could muster to frame worst case scenarios was impressive. Every obstacle brought fresh waves of anxiety until I believed I may never get there. I worried and worried and worried.

By the day I was set to fly to China, my fear had reached fever pitch. What if the airline staff wouldn’t let me carry my supplies onboard? What if I need an epipen? What if my port clots off? What if I can’t reaccess my port? What if all my IV bags pop? What if I have a severe reaction during the sixteen hour flight?

I had actual nightmares that I would arrive in China to discover all of my medication bottles were empty. In the half slumber just before waking, vignettes of my illness destroying this trip paraded before my eyes.

Late on November 2, I went to Logan Airport with my new matching luggage and checked in for my flight to Hong Kong. As anticipated, there was some trouble with getting approval to bring my critical supplies and meds as my carry-on luggage. Lots of calling supervisors and discussions. At last, a supervisor walked over to us. In his hand was the printout summarizing my health conditions and necessary accommodations. I could bring this small piece of luggage onboard with me.

Things went much better from that point. A wheelchair was brought to transport me to the gate. TSA gave me no trouble. I boarded the plane first to get medicated and settled. A flight attendant came over, holding a copy of my medical approval form.

“It says you have ‘mas-to-cy-tro-sis’, this is right?” she asked warmly.

“Yes, that’s me,” I said, fighting with my infusion pump.

“This word does not mean anything to me. How can we help you during this flight?”

“I’m fine, I can handle everything myself.” And I was fine and I could handle everything myself. I manage my disease everyday. There was never anything to fear.

After we took off, I laid back and fell asleep for nine hours. I flew over the North Pole and landed in Hong Kong without any trouble.

I have been in Hong Kong for five days. I am very tired. I am very sore from the flight. I am reacting mildly. It is hot and hazy here, the air like droplets of lead weighing everything down. I can eat almost nothing that wasn’t prepared at the house and need to nap every afternoon on top of sleeping 10-12 hours a night.

But I am here. I made it to Asia. I have seen the Star Ferry and the Peak, the bustling central area and the sun blazing through the fog over the South China Sea.

The nightmare is not that I would be sick in China because I am sick and will always be sick and being in China won’t change that. The nightmare is that I would wait so long to be “healthy” that I would never experience the blinding joy of going to the other side of the world. The nightmare is that my disease would prevent me from living a life of wonder and meaning.

You don’t need a good reason to pursue your dreams. It doesn’t have to be logical or convenient. You don’t need a plan. You just need to decide that you want things to be different and believe that they can be.

In a season when it feels like I have lost so much, I can no longer be controlled by these nightmares. And even when I’m queasy and sore, I am happy in those quiet moments just before waking.