Looking back through my pictures from the last few years, I found a few fun photos of vagabonding and backpacking travel injuries that I’ve accumulated while on the road.
Some of this grizzly collection were mere annoyances, while others nearly changed (or finished) my life. Either way, given some of the situations that I put myself into, I’ve been incredibly fortunate!
Sadly, I don’t have pictures of all my bang-ups, and I’m glad: Some I would prefer to forget. I am proud of the scars, though.
So, just for fun, here are some mighty fine examples of bodily harm and backpacking travel injuries. I apologize in advance for the pics of my manly feet, but that’s the body part that most often gets hurt while traveling.
Egypt Infection #1
This is an infection enjoyed in Egypt after cutting myself diving the Thistlegorm, a German WWII wreck sitting on the bottom of the Red Sea. There’s nothing like squeezing mustard-colored puss out of your finger like a gigantic pimple! I bought a bottle of strong vodka in Cairo and dipped my finger into it at night. My efforts to heal myself were for naught. Only lots of antibiotics did the trick.
Eventually, I had to see a doctor when I got home, and I actually ended up with nerve damage — my whole finger tip is still numb!
Egypt Infection #2
One Egyptian infection deserves another: Here’s a nice little marine bacteria that I picked up from the reef. It was a small travel injury, but I lost the use of my left hand for a while! Three different courses of antibiotics barely cleared this pesky little thing up. Each time the pills ran out, it came back to haunt me. I guess there are some serious nasties living in the Red Sea.
Backpacking Travel Injuries Often Involve the Feet
Foot travel injuries are extremely common while backpacking. Mine are permanently scarred up unfortunately.
Stepping on a Nail
I got my money’s worth out of my tetanus vaccination by stepping on a rusty nail protruding from a bamboo bridge in Pai, Thailand.
Motorcycle Guy Attack
A rather nice guy threw a bottle at me from a speeding motorcycle while I was standing on a street in Bangkok. The glass shrapnel made these gashes that took nearly a month to heal. Bangkok is one dirty environment!
Holy s*@! — can this ankle get any more swollen!? And sadly, I don’t even remember how I did this one.
Attack of the Hungry Mosquitoes!
This is what I get for falling asleep without securing my mozzie net in Koh Lanta, Thailand. I think I lost a pint of blood in one night. As always, the bites festered and refused to heal in the humid, island environment. Treat every tiny scratch you get as if it could get worse, which they often do on islands.
Reef Injuries While Snorkeling and Diving
My foot tangled with a coral reef while diving on Koh Tao in Thailand. In case you didn’t notice, the reef won!
Marine Bacterial Infections Are Dangerous
One of my worst backpacking travel injuries ever: I cut myself on the reef while spearfishing in Indonesia. Some kind of grumpy little marine bacteria literally began to eat a hole in my foot despite my best efforts!
The wound turned septic, and I fled to Singapore with a high fever to get treatment. My leg was swollen to my thigh. Even strong antibiotics (doxycycline) couldn’t kill this thing, so I hobbled around for months. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is nothing to play around with. You can end up with a wooden pirate’s leg to show off on your next dive trip.
When I had the wound treated back home in the U.S., they told me that there were actual coral cells alive in my foot. Yummy.
They know this because they swabbed the wound and sent samples to the Center for Disease Control’s Exotic Pathology Laboratory to ensure I had not brought something unknown into the U.S. from abroad — no joke.
I damaged my shoulder and knee while trying studying kung fu in China and attempting some of the acrobatic moves at the Shaolin Temple. The joints still pop and grind today. Since my medical options were very limited, I had another student do acupuncture treatments on the injuries. The treatments helped tremendously — acupuncture works!
I Set My Own Broken Thumb
A bigger wave than I could handle took me down while surfing in Sri Lanka. I caught my thumb on the sandy bottom and bent it completely backward. My most useful of phalanges was flopping around with a damaged socket. It’s damn near impossible to accomplish anything when the thumb on your dominant hand is out of commission. Packing my backpack grew from a 5-minute ritual into an all-morning-long effort!
I later treated this injury myself by wrapping my thumb to immobilize it. A nurse friend at home advised me from afar. The thumb healed fairly well, and I have full range of motion [knock on wood]. I never went to see a doctor.
Thanks, Unqualified Surgical Team!
On Koh Lanta island in Thailand, I had a toothpick-sized bamboo splinter snap off in the bottom of my foot. My Austrian neighbors were kind enough to do surgery for me, albeit slightly medieval. Pliers were involved. Yes, a cigarette lighter and electrical tape were also part of the “surgical” tools.
Amazingly, we forgot to snap a picture of the foreign object they removed. I guess I was still in shock.
Oh…and she didn’t have any medical training — she was a photographer. Gasp.
I Got to See My Kneecap
I was kayaking in Malaysian Borneo along the border of Kalimantan in 2013 when I turned my boat over. The rapids themselves were a joke, but the rock I banged my knee on certainly wasn’t. I opened the wet skin deep enough to actually see my kneecap. Now confirmed: Kneecaps aren’t pretty sights. It didn’t really hurt until later.
Lucky for me, our young guide was a calm-and-collective badass who got me patched up enough that I could get out. And unlike most jungle injuries, it never even got infected! Today, I have some deep ache inside of the knee from time to time — perhaps a small crack?
And saving one of the best for last…my favorite! Technically, this happened at home, so it’s not a true vagabonding travel injury.
In 2005, a skydiving mishap left me in a mess. My chute opened too quickly instead of dragging behind to slow us down as expected. We went from 120 MPH to 30 MPH, which felt like being in a head-on car wreck at those speeds.
The harness caused a major hernia, which is about as fun as having a drunken gorilla juggle your testicles. After ignoring the pain for months, I broke down and went in for surgery. They sewed a piece of gortex material inside of me to hold my guts together. Bionic enhancements are sexy, I know. I was immobilized in bed for one month to recover and munched through a bag of Percoset like Skittles. But I did get a nice scar to go with my story…isn’t that what it’s all about?
You can see the calcium from cracks in the hip thanks to other injuries (rock climbing fall). The spine curvature will supposedly cause me some serious trouble one day. My back was once usually in pain, but after years of suffering, I took control and now have very little.
My back re-injury happened just one month before I was supposed to fly to Bangkok. My ticket was nonrefundable. I couldn’t even stand, walk, or sit; the thought of getting onto a 23-hour flight seemed laughable.
But there is a happy ending (not this kind). Through copious amounts of prayer, chiropractic treatments, anti-inflammatory efforts, yoga, and help from friends, I made my flight! The best part is that I have practically healed. I continue to apply what I learned during that dark, painful time and still reap the rewards of being pain free.
Other Enduring Backpacking Travel Injuries
There have been many more travel injuries over the years for which I don’t have photographs:
- Fractured bone in my right foot — that keeps re-cracking for the past seven years — thanks to my teacher slamming me during kung fu training in China.
- A corneal abrasion on my left eye, thanks to a small pebble while caving, made one eye weaker than the other. That really makes for some fun photos when people use flash. It did, however, give me a legitimate excuse to wear a black pirate’s patch for eight weeks!
December 2013 Update: I’m literally typing this now with a mostly broken left ring finger jammed on a rough boat ride in Boracay, the Philippines.
May 2015 Update: I got a parasite in Laos! Apparently, a nasty one. Went to the emergency room in Thailand. After x-rays and lab work, I left with a bundle of strong pills that nuked the suckers. It was fun being able to eat as much as I wanted and still lose weight for a while though.
July 2015 Update: I cracked a rib while running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It hurt for months!
February 2016 Update: I broke my toe. All those years of kung fu coordination training didn’t exactly pay off: I clumsily kicked a door frame and the subsequent snap! was actually heard by family in the next room. Little did I know, it would still be hurting (and crooked) as I type this in September. It re-broke itself while I was trekking in Nepal. Corrective surgery to come, no doubt.
June 2016 Update: During the same aforementioned trek in Nepal, I became lost in a blizzard. I still have dead skin on my nose and forehead from the start of frostbite.
October 2017 Update: I stepped on my first sea urchin while swimming in Nusa Lembongan, an island near Bali. I’ve got a nice little black barb in the ball of my foot that will probably be there for a long time. Given how much time I spend in the sea, this was an inevitable travel injury. I have no idea how I got away with avoiding the grumpy little things for so long.
[This Space Reserved]
I can guarantee that there will be many more backpacking travel injuries before I’m done. But I don’t mind. These injuries are a small price to pay for the years of wonderment and blessings I have enjoyed.
A Special Thanks
By the way, thanks to Sarah B, Amanda W, and all the many other brave, tough, caring nurses in the world that help people (like myself) heal and recover. I was able to handle many of my own backpacking travel injuries myself in the field thanks to their expert advice. Medical workers truly are the real heroes.