Handy tips on preventing illness overseas: Or why never to eat animal parts with hair

Grinning and bearing it while attending a game with the flu in 38-degree Frankfurt.

Grinning and bearing it while attending a game with the flu in 38-degree Frankfurt.

FRANKFURT, Germany — I just finished the worst road trip of my life, which is saying something after traveling to 101 countries and 47 states. That includes such backward rural outposts as Haiti, Borneo and Nebraska. This time I went to a very tame destination, one I’ve always enjoyed visiting and that has all the modern conveniences of every day travel.


No one gets sick in Germany. You get hung over in Germany. You don’t get sick. It’s as clean as Switzerland with funner people. But how bad was my magazine assignment to Germany? In five days, I didn’t drink one beer. I didn’t eat one sausage. I mean, what’s the point of going? It’s like going to Italy and consuming nothing but Pringles and water.

It proves my point: When you are sick overseas, even Shangri-la seems like the third circle of Hades. That’s where I just spent five days, curled up in a feverish pit in Hell where I barely had enough energy to crawl to a grocery store for food rendered as tasteless as last month’s Der Spiegel.

This marks my 40th year of international travel. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I’ve had very few illnesses overseas, but a lot of it isn’t luck. I know how to take of myself on the road. I get the proper inoculations. I know what preventative medicines to take and keep a keen eye on what food and fluids I ingest. Traveling primarily alone, I’m my own medicine chest/nurse/doctor/free clinic.

However, if you stay off the beaten path long enough, you’re bound to get nailed. It’s inevitable. Evil lurks in the unknown shadows of the world’s darkest corners. You won’t know what will hit you. You’ll just know when. However, if you try too hard to stay on that beaten path, for fear of eating fried tarantulas will upset your system, chances are you’ll be praying to the porcelain gods, too. I once met an American couple scuba diving in Mexico. The woman was so paranoid about the local food, she packed enough food to last her the whole week. She was violently ill in three days.

Overseas one must build an immunity system. Otherwise, any strange strain will invade your system like armed jungle bandits, all of whom I would’ve welcomed the one time I had typhoid in Northern Thailand.

For all those planning international travel in 2018, here are four key rules I’ve learned — the hard way.

Yangshuo, China

Yangshuo, China

DON’T EAT EGGS IN ASIA. I’ve been sick five times in Asia. Three times came from eating eggs. Eating street omelettes in Taiwan and South Korea left me retching in the streets before I even made it back to my room.

I once traveled 28 hours to the lovely Chinese lakeside village of Yangshuo. Arriving late at night, the hotel lost my reservation and they stuck me in a hotel out in the sticks, where dirt roads border rice paddies. The next morning, the crestfallen Yangshuo hotel owner felt guilty and came over with a free breakfast. That included eggs. Sometime about noon I finally stopped projectile vomiting.

In Asia, they often don’t refrigerate their eggs, and that region of southeast China in summer is hotter than the inside of a Buddha’s bowels. Heat plus spoiled eggs is not exactly sweet ‘n sour.

Buffalo salad in Vientiane, Laos.

Buffalo salad in Vientiane, Laos.

DON’T EAT ANY ANIMAL PARTS WITH HAIR ON THEM. This time last year I was in Laos where I woke before dawn to catch the Super Bowl at a U.S. Embassy annex. When it was over it was about lunchtime and I found a small outdoor place with an item loosely translated to “buffalo salad.” This “buffalo” was not the buffalo I enjoyed in hamburgers and stew in Colorado. It wasn’t the bufala mozzarella I eat with tomatoes and olive oil in Rome. This “buffalo” was the shin of a water buffalo. The chunks of buffalo skin featured little sprigs of bristly hair that don’t have the same palatable effect on a salad as say, oh, sourdough croutons.

The next morning, the symptoms of food poisoning came one at a time, like messengers welcoming me to Hell: “Good morning, sir. My name is diarrhea. Welcome to Laos.”

Buffalo skins in market

Buffalo skins in market

“Hello, sir, this is your stomach calling. Please empty my contents all over the toilet.”

“Hello, sir. My name is Migraine. And I’ll be accompanying you for all your waking hours today.”

“Good evening, sir. This is your fever. Try not to move too far off the bed.”

Fortunately, I was in the capital of Vientiane and the nice Lao woman in the pharmacy knew exactly what I needed and wasn’t surprised by my plea. I think she often gets cases of buffalo skin hangover. She sold me some Tylenol and Thai-made orange electrolyte powder and I was fine by morning.

TAKE PEPTO-BISMOL. They are little pink chewable tablets that serve as a contraceptive against stomach ailments. I eat two after every meal in the third world and my intestines are comfortably blocked up. You get a little constipated but that is much better than the alternative, particularly when taking an eight-hour bus ride through land void of bathroom relief.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take Pepto-Bismol in 1978 when I went trekking in Northern Thailand. I do remember eating stirfry from a street stall in the days leading up to the trek. I just don’t recall what was in the stirfry or where it was before getting fried. I learned quite painfully that if a pile of food has been sitting in the hot sun all day, it doesn’t matter how much they stirfry it. It’s going to explode inside you.

To this day, I am the only person I know who ever had typhoid. What is typhoid? It’s basically when your insides wake up and go, “FUCK IT!” and stop working. The list of symptoms could fill a medical dictionary: 103-degree temperature, vomiting attacks, diarrhea, migraine, severe dehydration, dizzy spells. I lost 20 pounds in eight days. I’m 6-foot-3. I was down to 138 pounds. I could put one hand completely around my bicep. I could put two hands around the top of my thigh. I looked like a ghost from Dachau.

When it happened I was two days hike from the nearest road. What did you do on New Year’s Eve 1978? I was throwing up my guts in a bamboo-thatched outhouse in Northern Thailand.

Yes, I did get a typhoid innoculation. Here’s the myth about innoculations: They don’t keep you from getting sick. They keep you alive. I put my head down and walked, without food, for two days to the nearest village. One bowl of soup resulted in a mad dash to a jungle outhouse where I got attacked by rats coming up from the hole in the floor. I made it to the major Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai where they pumped me full of antibiotics, penicillin and glucose. No help.

I took a very painful overnight bus ride to Bangkok where I called my parents to say I was headed to the hospital the next morning. My mother was old enough to remember as a child when entire small towns in the U.S. were wiped out by typhoid. She immediately wired me $250 as I went to a local clinic specializing in VD.

This was 1979, pre-AIDS and I think I’m the only male alive to visit Bangkok and not have sex. I walked into this clinic and I made a zombie look like George Clooney. My eyes were bloodshot. My hair resembled a snake’s nest. My skin had a weird orange tint. My tongue was swollen. This Swede waiting to get treated for syphilis took one look at me and said, “My GOD! Who were YOU with?”

There is a happy ending here. After the clinic gave me another dose of medicine, the next day I didn’t vomit for the first time in four days. I built up enough strength to move on to Phuket, with my mom’s generous gift going to fresh seafood and beer. The typhoid also built up an immunity system stronger than a bank vault. I never missed a day of work due to illness in 40 years. Then came Germany and my new rule of the road …

Eintracht Frankfurt's Commerzbank-Arena.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena.

DO NOT, WHEN RACKED WITH FLU, SIT IN 38 DEGREES IN A SOCCER STADIUM FOR THREE HOURS. Part of my assignment was to attend a Bundesliga game and capture atmosphere in the best attended soccer league in the world. Eintracht Frankfurt hasn’t won a league title since the Bundesliga’s inception in 1963 yet still fills 50,000-seat Commerzbank-Arena almost every game. Cheap tickets. Beautiful stadium. Tradition. They all help. Also helping attendance is the kilometer-long road from the tram stop to the stadium lined with beer stalls. The walk to the stadium was one long frat party.

I sat in my press seat coughing so much I couldn’t have asked a question in the mixed zone afterward even if the one American on the team, Timotny Chandler, deemed me worthy to grant an interview. After the game, I had to weave through seemingly an entire nation of drunks. Women helped steady plastered friends onto the sidewalk. Men yelled obscene songs where translation was not needed. Fans stumbled horizontally on the dark sidewalk, glass beer bottles waving dangerously in hand. At the tram stop, I saw a man wheel an adult with severe cerebral palsy onto the edge of the platform. The man in the wheelchair was spilling his beer all over his lap. Even he was drunk!

For two days prior to the game, I laid in my AirBnB and stared at the ceiling, too weak to read, eat or move. The flu epidemic that has hit the U.S. has hit Europe, too. Alone, in pain and frustrated, I alternated between shakes from chills as if I sat in the stadium naked and sweats from a fever that made me think I was back in the jungle in Northern Thailand. I managed to take a tram to the train station pharmacy where they gave me menthol lozenges. They offered temporary relief but not enough to counteract a trip home that seemed like a return from Jupiter.

Part of RyanAir’s poverty-level discount fares is a bus connection from the Frankfurt airport to Cologne, 115 miles to the north. An airport shuttle bus took me to the FlixBus terminal on the fringes of the airport. The FlixBus terminal has no lobby and the lone seats are on a cement, uncovered platform, a lovely place to spend 90 minutes with the flu in 38-degree weather. How’d I stay warm? For 90 minutes I sat on the floor of the heated bathroom like a stray dog. In my delirium I asked myself, Where the hell am I? Rural Kazakhstan?

When I finally managed to land in Rome that night, Marina was there to greet me — with the flu. I happened to land in a two-hour window where she had enough energy to drive. We hacked and sniffled and shivered all the way back to my place where she dropped me off and went home to sweat out her own illness.

We’re fine now. Good pizza, pasta and wine are great Italian medicine. So don’t let potential illness discourage you from venturing into strange unknowns. When I sit around with fellow travelers, the best stories don’t revolve around museums, hotels and beaches. They often center around travel tales from hell, feverish hikes and strange clinics and foods of questionable origin. To truly travel, one must truly suffer. It’s the nasty little side effect of adventure. So is one other symptom.

I am dying for a sausage and a beer.

Berlin: “Silicon Valley on the Spree” heading toward a very bright future with eye still on a very dark past

One of the many musicians in front of Brandenburg Gate, once the symbol of East-West division and site of the 1953 East German uprising. It's now one of the top attractions to 12 million visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

One of the many musicians in front of Brandenburg Gate, once the symbol of East-West division and now one of top attractions to 12 million visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

BERLIN — I like a country that admits its mistakes. It’s why I like Germany. It’s a country that has gone from arguably the biggest human degradation in man’s history and economic collapse to the fourth largest economy in the world. It took one generation to do it.

How many generations will it take for the U.S. to acknowledge the savagery of slavery with more than just token monuments? Or the Vietnam War? Or the Iraqi War? Last month the city of New Orleans tried to remove the monuments of four figures from the Confederacy and the mayor received death threats. There are various plaques dedicated to ex-slave Frederick Douglas, a leader in the abolitionist movement. Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., have Civil Rights museums. But America’s acknowledgement of its systematic racism pretty much stops there.

Washington has the Vietnam Memorial where 58,000 dead Americans are listed. I don’t imagine it will ever share concrete with anything reading “Iraq” and “War” in the same sentence.

Germany from 1945-90.

Germany from 1945-90.

Meanwhile, all over Berlin you can find chilling, haunting memorials to Germany’s ugly involvement in the Holocaust and communism. A four-story museum is dedicated entirely to the evils of Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. The Stasi prison still stands, as is, giving three tours a day to show what they did to prisoners who merely had a negative thought about their lovely lives in East Germany. A Holocaust Memorial was erected as recently as 2005 and covers a space the size of a football field. A DDR Museum shows what life was like under communism, a system that strives for mediocrity, a quest that undermines all human emotion and drive.

I took Marina here for her birthday last weekend. OK, so touring grotty, 30-year-old prison cells isn’t an Italian woman’s idea of romance. However, she’d never been here and I’d never been as a tourist. I came here for the 2006 World Cup final when Italy beat France. I remember that World Cup for another reason. Crisscrossing the country, I talked to Germans who said the German team’s run to the semifinals marked the first time since the disastrous end of World War II that Germans showed national pride. The red, black and yellow German flag flew from windowsills. People wore the flags like capes. The sounds of “DEUTSCH-LAND! DEUTSCH-LAND!” became a national mantra.

Since 2005, Berlin's economy has gone ahead of the rest of Germany. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Since 2005, Berlin’s economy has gone ahead of the rest of Germany. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In years preceding the World Cup, whenever I talked to Germans about World War II, they gave a knowing nod. They acknowledge it. Now, can’t we move on? It’s like me when I talk about Vietnam or Iraq — or now, about Donald Trump. (I still refuse to defecate on the office of the presidency by putting that title before his name.)

Yet today in the U.S., the flag of Dixie, the flag of the Confederacy which fought for slavery in the Civil War, flew over the state house in Columbia, S.C., until two years ago. It’s still waved throughout the South, particularly at Trump rallies. Sarah Palin, the one-time vice-presidential candidate and all-time dingbat, once posted on Facebook photos of the Confederate flag and Planned Parenthood logo. She wrote, “Which symbol killed 90,000 black babies last year?”

Berlin still has many signs of its dark, communist past. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Berlin still has many signs of its dark, communist past. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My one regret from my travels is I never visited Berlin during my trip around the world in 1978-79. I frankly didn’t think I had time to make the four-hour train ride from the East German border to West Berlin, a beacon of freedom inside a dark, foreboding communist country. I found it hard to imagine living in a dynamic, progressive city like Berlin, even in the ‘70s, and you can cross a street and step into a world of oppression, torture and paranoia. Imagine living in West Berlin. You could drive three hours and still be behind the Iron Curtain, in the middle of nowhere.

It’d be like living in Omaha except the sausage is better.

On this trip I wanted to see the black hole of East Germany. Marina demurred (actually I think she signaled with a fist), choosing instead to visit Berlin’s excellent photography museum. The Stasi museum is in the far east side of Berlin. It’s a good 20-minute tram ride from Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall’s main East-West crossing point until its destruction in 1989. Checkpoint Charlie, where the little checkpoint shack remains, has since turned into Berlin’s biggest tourist trap. It’s at a crossroads full of souvenir stores and two guys posing as American soldiers with tourists holding selfies. What was once East Berlin has become commercialized to where it could pass for downtown Singapore. East Berlin’s dilapidated buildings and government offices have been replaced by the likes of Max Mara, Starbucks and a Westin Grand hotel. A Porsche convertible passed me carrying two beautiful blondes dressed as if they were late for a catwalk.

As the tram went farther east, more of the old East Berlin materialized. Old red brick buildings. Ugly yellow apartment houses that looked like identical burnt match sticks. Cement business offices. A bombed-out, two-story concrete building looked like the city never touched it after Allied forces did. I passed an old sports hall with crude images of athletes painted on the walls and sporting the rounded roof characteristic of East European sports facilities.

The Stasi prison held prisoners from 1945-90.

The Stasi prison held prisoners from 1945-90.

But then the tram dropped me in the neighborhood of Hohenschonhausen, the prison’s name which for 45 years sent chills through the spines of East Germans from Dresden to Rostock. On the street I saw parts of East Berlin’s gentrification: a kabob restaurant, a modern supermarket, a sandwich shop where a nice guy pointed me to the street for the prison.

I could see it at the end of Freienwalder Strasse. A four-story fortress made of red brick on the first two stories and yellow brick on the upper two. The barbed wire and guard towers remain on the corners as I entered. I noticed something odd diagonally across the street: a youth hostel.

No, this is not your father’s East Berlin.

You can only see the prison by an excellent 6-euro tour and ours started with a 30-minute documentary. A few chilling nuggets about East Germany:

* When World War II ended and the Soviet Union took East Germany in the distribution, Josef Stalin was the man in charge of East Germany. Under Stalin 100,000 East Germans were sent to special camps.

* After 1949 when East Germany formed, 2.6 million left East Germany.

* After the wall was built in 1961 to prevent the escapes, 1,000 were killed at the border.

* At one time, 91,000 people worked for Stasi, either as officials or unofficial spies. By comparison, only 7,000 worked for the Nazis.

* Between 3,000-4,000 prisoners died and were buried on the prison grounds, despite most never being convicted of a crime.

* In the prison’s 45 years of operation, no one ever escaped.

* On East Berlin maps, the prison’s location was represented by a large white unmarked space.

This cell held up to 18 prisoners. Yes, the bucket was the toilet.

This cell held up to 18 prisoners. Yes, the bucket was the toilet.

Our guide, a calm, pleasant Dane named Jesper, took about 15 of us English-speaking visitors on a 90-minute tour that left me shuddering a little as I left. We started in the basement of the original building, back when the Soviets ran the place. Compared to the Soviets, the East German officials were school marms with rulers. Physical torture was the Soviets’ MO and we saw the torture chambers in the basement known as “The Submarine.” They called it the submarine because prisoners who worked in submarines had the same feel of claustrophobia.

We walked into a dingy room about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. The yellow and white paint was caked with 30-year-old dirt. We were told not to lean on the walls or paint might fall onto our clothes. This was once two cells. A wall has since been removed. Each cell imprisoned eight to 12 men. It consisted of one large bed with no mattress, covers or pillows. The light was on every hour every day, giving the Submarine the nickname Hotel of Eternal Light. During the day, no one was allowed on the bed. They had to cram together on what remained of the floor. A bucket in the corner served as a toilet. There was no water.

Interrogation room

Interrogation room

A hallway with some of the 200 interrogation rooms.

A hallway with some of the 200 interrogation rooms.

And they weren’t allowed out.

The ventilation consisted of a tiny vent in the upper corner of the roof. When it reached the ‘90s in the summer, it was over 100 in the cell. They were allowed to wear only the clothes in which they were arrested. If arrested in the winter, you had to wear your winter coat in the steaming cell. Food consisted of stale bread and thin soup.

If a prisoner could no longer take it and confessed to a crime he didn’t commit, the Soviets sentenced him to 25 years in a Siberian labor camp. Or, if they were lucky, they were executed. No one knows exactly where except the Russians. The documents are in Moscow and the Russians won’t release them.

The prison got worse. In 1953, East Germans staged a major uprising in East Berlin. It failed miserably. From 45-50 East Germans a day were thrown into the Stasi prison, putting up to 30 people in a cell. I asked what happens when they get sick.

“Sick?” Jesper said. “Bad luck for you.”

As we left, I noticed something: In the 10 minutes in the cell with 15 people, the heat inside had noticeably risen.

After the Soviet Union allowed East Germany to operate as a state in 1949, it gave control of the prison in 1951. They closed the Submarine and built the third and fourth floors of yellow brick. Then the torture went from physical to mental. The East Germans built standing cells in which one prison stood in a cell the size of a phone booth. All day. All night. He was not allowed to lean against the walls. Sometimes they’d pour water from above above their ankles. In winter, standing that long in freezing water could cause heart attacks.

The prison tore down the standing cells when the prison closed in 1990 but we saw plenty of others. All consisted of a short, flat, wooden bed only 4 ½ feet long. To prevent suicide, the prisoners were ordered to sleep only on their back with their hands folded across their chest. Guards came by every 15 minutes on position checks.

One upstairs hallway consisted of nothing but interrogation rooms. The prison had 200 of them. Each one had two adjacent tables, a phone and a recorder. Prisoners were brought in before Stasi officials who had Ph.Ds in — yes, they offered this major in East Germany — interrogation. They sat in the chair for six to eight hours, their hands planted under their legs, until confessing. Someone asked about defense attorneys.

“There were less than 50,” Jesper said. “They were for thieves and for minor crimes.”

The prison remains such an iconic representation of East German oppression, parts of the 2015 thriller “Bridge of Spies” was filmed here. Star Tom Hanks, in an attempt to get a better feel for the subject, turned down a fancy dressing room on the lot and instead had it on the top floor of the prison, forever endearing himself to the German staff.

As we left, I asked Jesper what Berlin schoolchildren are told about East Germany and the Stasi.

“I hear not much,” he said. “But we get a lot of German school groups come through here.”

Germany is littered with concentration camps open to the public. How many Americans have gone through slaves’ living quarters? Where is the Vietnam War Museum? It’s in Ho Chi Minh City, that’s where. It is called the American War Museum after a change from the more appropriate Museum of American War Atrocities.

Berlin is the place to be for the young German. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Berlin is the place to be for the young German. Photo by Marina Pascucci

When I returned, I never thought a hotel room would feel so good but I’d never visited an East German prison before, either. We stayed at the Hotel Palace Berlin, a five-star beauty with a disappointingly frigid spa. It’s located in City West which so well represents the new Berlin. We window shopped up and down Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s busiest shopping street featuring some of the top brand names in Europe. That doesn’t count Bikini Berlin, Berlin’s first concept mall across the street from the hotel. Built in 2014, it gets its name from the construction of a blank level covered by glass between two floors of shops, giving the concept of a two-piece swimsuit. Get it?

Since 2005, Berlin’s economy has outpaced the rest of Germany. So many tech companies have moved here, it is known as “Silicon Valley on the Spree.” Tourism has become huge with 12 million visiting in 2015, not including 100 million day trippers. The unfortunate side effect is the rents in this once-notoriously affordable city are no longer cheap. Builders are more interested in high end for the new elite than the rank and file German.

One other reason I love Berlin. Photo by Marina Pascucci

One other reason I love Berlin. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Berlin’s food scene is also exploding. It has become very trendy with Berliners flocking to new restaurants featuring German regional cuisines using only regional ingredients. With 620,000 residents from 190 countries, Berlin has an ethnic food scene that exploded our minds coming from Rome where all the ethnic restaurants could fit on one street corner. Our first night we went to Katz Orange (Orange Cat), a typical farm-to-table restaurant built inside an old brewery. We sat at the bar and tried a wide variety of German wines from the friendly bartender with an easy pour. I never liked German reds before but if you ever get a Cabernet-Merlot blend from Abril in Baden, try it. It’s best German red I’ve ever had. Of course, the free range sausage with potato salad made me swear off American hot dogs for life.

On our last day, a Sunday, Berlin changed. The city closed down some of the major boulevards and hundreds of cyclists took to the streets. Traffic cops held us up from crossing the street as a pelaton a kilometer long passed before us. Old. Young. Male. Female. Racing bikes. Mountain bikes. Cruisers. Everyone in Berlin seemed out doing something active. Marina and I noticed something else. Despite German cuisine’s fatty reputation — although I could live on sausage and beer the rest of my life — people in Berlin seemed remarkably fit. Berlin reminded me of Sydney in how active people are.

Tiergarten is 1,277 acres and is the Central Park of Berlin. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Tiergarten is 1,277 acres and is the Central Park of Berlin. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We eventually made it to the S-Bahn, Berlin’s super efficient surface train system, and went to Tiergarten. This is Berlin’s Central Park. It is 1,277 acres of grassy lawns, small lakes and streams. We went to a supermarket and picked up some fried chicken legs, salami, cheese, cherries and a bottle of German Riesling from the Rhine Valley. Tiergarten is spotless. I didn’t see a single cigarette butt, not one plastic wrapper. Nothing. Plenty of people slowly cycled down the bike paths, one hand on the handlebars and the other on a bottle of beer.

We spread a towel along the banks of the river and took out our spread as swans slowly floated by. Berlin was hot, in the mid-80s with high humidity. But in the shade of one of the thousands of big trees, it felt like a cool spot on a romantic beach. And I don’t recall a chicken leg ever tasting this good. It’s also a pretty good pairing with Riesling.

Me and Marina finished up a great weekend with a picnic at Tiergarten.

Me and Marina finished up a great weekend with a picnic at Tiergarten.

We came home with a few regrets. You need more than three nights to enjoy Berlin. A savage abscessed tooth that put me in the dentist’s chair much of Friday put a dent in the trip. Getting examined by a dentist in the shadow of the Stasi prison and “Marathon Man” being one of my favorite movies only added to the stress.

But we survived to make it back to Rome where I immediately watched “Bridge of Spies” again. The movie has a happy ending. That’s fitting. Berlin has a happy ending, too.