Most of us bring souvenirs home from our travels; tribal textiles, a golden cowrie, the rusted knife of a long dead Bedouin warrior. Turns out I collect parasites and have been illegally importing them for years.
I first happened across them a decade ago whilst researching a novel set on the Mexican Border. Back then I was an eat-anything, sleep-anywhere, plumbing-optional kind of traveller. The initial bout of sickness, which erupted in the town of Nogales, was your regular Montezuma’s Revenge. Guts wracked by cramps, bowels turned inside out. The insistence to anyone who’d listen that death was imminent followed by an embarrassingly quick recovery.
Except in this case, recovery wasn’t as quick as I would have liked.
In England, unwell for a month, I took myself off to a GP. Giardia, the diagnosis came back. A water-borne parasite. Nasty but no big deal. Flagyl, the prescribed cure, was the real strong man of antibiotics, he assured me – a muscular pill that packed a punch. A single round was more than enough for a knockout.
After four doses of the stuff, I sought the help of a nutritionist, a homeopath and finally a Chinese herbalist whose shaman-like potions proved surprisingly effective. Gradually, symptoms began to die down.
Two years later I became re-infected. Again in Mexico, this time up in the mountain town of Patzcuaro where I was helping a doctor friend set up a clinic for the local population of Purépechan Indians. A savvier traveller by then, I knew to avoid water logged fruits, rogue ice cubes and any dish billed as a salad. But who could have resisted the 98% homebrew from the market or the rice and eggs in the café where the fat police chief and his eight officers liked to eat at night? And then it was spring in Patzcuaro. Unusually stormy for the time of year. Floodwater coursed through the streets. The gutters of the main square were roiling with donkey poop and the peelings of rotting vegetables. The whole town was listing in dirty water.
As soon as this new detachment of parasites found their way into the muggy jungle of my stomach, they roused their comrades and together began building new infrastructures, colonizing. Cue a second visit to the GP. More Flagyl. Greasy bottles of dark apothecary sludge once again took up residence in the door of my fridge. It was two years before symptoms settled into a manageable cycle. I didn’t feel exactly golden during that period but if you’re cavalier about your own health, it’s easier to put up with minor ailments than make the extra effort to get rid of them.
I got sick for the third time in Afghanistan eighteen months ago. By then I was no longer an idiot abroad. I bared my arm for booster shots and resisted the mystery meat kebabs in the market, no matter how good they smelt. So where had the bugs been lurking this time? The dripping tap of the compound’s icy bathroom? The slobber of the mangy dog our security guy slept with to keep loneliness at bay? Or had merely breathing in and out been enough? It’s long been claimed that the air quality of Kabul is as polluted as Beijing. Afghans burn animal dung in their stoves to keep warm. 90% of the city’s waste is untreated and flows directly into roadside drains. The rumour that there are as many fecal particles in the air as dust motes never quite goes away. At the time I put it down to the old Kabul Crouch. Another country, another stomach upset. After all, no one else I’d been out there with got sick.
But then, no one else I ever went anywhere with got sick.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a really incompetent traveller. In Panama, I drove a seven-inch bamboo spike through my leg. In Naples, a bee stung me on the mouth. On my first ever deep-sea dive, a sea lion bit me on the top of my head and I’d really rather not discuss what happened on Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’ve had e-coli in my sinuses, catapulted myself over the handlebars of a quad bike on a cliff edge and recently even managed to fracture several ribs tripping over the emergency lighting on a BA flight. The scars from these (ok, with the exception of the BA ribs) I wear as badges of honour. I’m expert at spinning them into travel anecdotes to make myself look cool and adventurous, but there’s nothing cool about my stomach’s apparently open door policy where parasites are concerned. When someone says, ‘how d’ya get ‘em?’ I am forced to admit that somewhere along the road, I ate shit.
Sure enough, tests when I returned showed that another parasite had joined the party. Blastocytis Hominis. Blasto, according to my doctor, was an odd one. Not only was its pathogenicity controversial but it was not considered treatable. The only antibiotic on the market cost £2, 000 a pop and reports of its effectiveness were tainted by the whiff of pharmaceutical corruption.
‘You’re just going to have to live with them,’ he said, ‘and pray they go in time.’
Imagine having your house broken into by a bunch of squatters with lousy hygiene who refuse to keep the drains clear. This is what it’s like living with parasites. To say their manifestations are grossly anti-social is no exaggeration. Don’t mess with me when I’m under siege, people. I am toxic.
Post Afghanistan the cycle changed. Four occurrences a year became four a month then twice a week. Before long I felt bad every time I put food in my mouth. I got thin. And thinner still. Friends went from saying how lucky I was to door-stepping me with trays of Krispy Kremes, as though I’d become a bulimic head case. There followed X-rays, ultrasounds, barium meals. Cameras were dispatched on safari up my ass and down my throat. The resulting imagery showed nothing more than a landscape of inflammation.
The UK might have one of the world’s best healthcare systems, but instead of treating the patient as a whole, it matches sick body part to specialist. If you don’t wow your gastroenterologist with cancer or a beautifully suppurating ulcer, you risk being filed under non-specific, chronic sufferer of something pathologically dull. Time and time again I was sent home with instructions to take probiotics and stop going to third world countries.
Lanserhof Tegernsee, Germany
All of which is how I ended up on the threshold of the Lanserhof Tegernsee in Germany. The Lanserhof is a clinic offering a modern take on the Mayr method- a restorative heath cure pioneered in the early 20C.
Dr. FX Mayr believed, as did the Chinese 5,000 years ago, that a skanky gut was the body’s no. 1 public enemy but though clinics like the Lanserhof are growing in popularity, I’ve always steered clear. Can they really sift through the twaddle of non-specific? Do they offer long-term cures or only the emperor’s clothes of a short-term fix? Certainly the Lanserhof offers the most advanced diagnostics for health assessments but the jury is still out on preventative medicine. Advocates claims it cuts down on sick days, saves millions of pounds in health costs, saves lives. Detractors cite the adverse economic impact of the false positive. The potential harm from unnecessary surgery and procedures.
Either way, the idea of an ‘enforced rest,’ has always made me nervous. What to do with the compulsive obsessive work ethic? Where to park the neurotic and largely unnecessary multi-tasking?
Bordered by dense forest, overlooking Lake Tenerg, the Lanserhof is a whopping 21,000 metres of modernist build set in the olive green of the Bavarian Alps – a collaboration between architect Christoph Ingehoven and landscape architect Enzo Enea. The outside is a perfect symbiosis of stone, glass and timber. The inside hums with space station productivity.
In my suite a welcome note leans against a cactus. The ultimate symbol of abstinence and hardiness, a cactus survives on a drop of water a year. Here, patients are encouraged to drink three litres a day. An array of herbal teas is on tap – multiple taps as it happens, plumbed into the walls of the clinic’s inviting communal areas or piled in oversize sachets next to the kettle in my room. As you would expect, no mini bar. No naughty Toblerone or crackling packs of nuts. Special emphasis is placed on the room’s two loos, which as loos go, are wondrous indeed with electronic flushes, seat warmers and strategically angled water jets. Before leaving the orderly hands me a tiny tub of white cream.
‘Lovely.’ I thank him, ‘for my face?’
‘Nein.’ He replies emphatically.
Press accounts of the Mayr cure have almost become a cliché in their own right: The day before travel is spent gorging on pizza, mainlining caffeine and sewing Lindt chocolate balls into the heels of socks. Then come the Epsom salts, the stale bread, a slow descent into the madness of withdrawal, followed by the fifth day break-through. The brain sneezes, the gut drains and lo! Re-birth. The journalist in question will marvel at the translucence of their eyes and skin, the clarity of their thinking. They will return home to pen an opus and will commit to annual visits for the remainder of their days – which, should they adhere to the clinic’s ethos, will number considerably more than previously expected.
In other words, a magic pill of skeptical to evangelical – precisely the journey I’m hoping for. And why not? The original Mayr clinic, so they say, was a dreary amalgam of brown walls and grey food. A stalag 49 of deprivation and no Wi-Fi, but the new Lanserhof, with its delicate cuisine and tranquil vibe, has been awarded Best Medical Spa seven years running. Frankly, the place is glorious. My suite is heavenly, airy and white. My bed a plump cloud. Double doors open onto a view that may very well stretch to Neverland. Below, a path meanders down to a tiny village of gingerbread houses with lolly stick fences and I’m pretty sure those are cowbells tinkling through the sweet Alpine air.
Seven whole days here and Season 1&2 of The Fall to boot.
What’s not to love?’ I text family back home.
The medical wing of the clinic is a series of corridors leading to a pod of curved sofas where patients in fluffy dressing gowns are greeted by doctors in blue shirts. One of them takes my blood. Agent of my heart, ambassador of my emotions, I’m curious to see what my blood will reveal about me. There’s nothing here that can’t be examined including mental health. I’m new to the business of spa breaks. Whether I’m ready to be quite so physically and emotionally stripped naked remains to be seen.
My first appointment is with Dr. Benedetto Reisch, the prominent Mayr medicine doctor who presides over the clinic. An elegant sixty year old and the personification of Teutonic no-nonsence, she plunges her hands into the spluttering volcano of my stomach.
‘You’re here for the basic package,’ she says, ‘fast, cleanse, renew.’
‘Yes, especially renew. Lots of renew, please. ‘
‘Let’s see how you get on.’ She dismisses me with a list of powders and potions and instructions to return in three days time.
In the dining room, I am seated alongside four other strangers. Silently we rattle our pillboxes and stare into our bowls with the anxiety of androids whose model no. has been recalled. Faulty, we are here for tweaking. Worst-case scenario, we might need to be scrapped altogether.
Chew the bread, slurp the soup, gulp down the salts. Within 48 hours I have an apocalyptic cold and a burgeoning chest infection. Dr. Reisch is off–duty at weekends but her sympathetic associate hooks me up to a vitamin drip. Nevertheless by Monday morning, I am feeling like a shadow of the shadow of my pre Lanserhof self.
Dr. Reisch peers at me over the top of her glasses. ‘You’re quite a lot of trouble.’ She says.
‘Most people who come to us are overweight, under-exercised, off balance.’ She consults my test results. ‘You are sick. Compromised immune system, understand?’
I blow my nose pitifully. Over a billion people worldwide are infected by parasites of one sort of the other. At least that’s the figure for third world countries, tropical, or sub tropical, where disease and dirty water are part of everyday life. As the world’s borders smudge, as we travel more freely, as bacteria turns more lethally drug resistant, parasites are arguably becoming one of the most undiagnosed and untreated health challenges of the west. Statistics for people with autoimmune diseases are rising exponentially and the number of those with gut related problems like mine, exploding. Not all parasites are deadly, but the insidious cyclical symptoms they induce have a debilitating effect on people’s ability to work and function. And don’t I know it. If I’ve been living with light version of it – discomfort, lethargy, my brain an ever dimming light-bulb, I can’t imagine the misery of an existence with river blindness or sleeping sickness or malaria. So yes, I understand.
‘You need a liver detox,’ Reisch says, ‘but I’m not sure you’re strong enough.’
‘Bring it on,’ I say vaguely insulted.
The liver detox arrives in my room in the form of a large jug of bitter grapefruit smoothie. I gulp it down, grateful for the extra calories. The ensuing 48 hours are all about the tiny tub of white cream left by the orderly. As I wrap myself around the loo’s warm comforting body for the second night running, I notice its brand name. Toto. Ah yes, my constant companion and most loyal of friends.
Day five now and time for the much-heralded break-through. I’ve never felt so poor. I haul my snarled, leaking guts off to Dr. Reisch for appraisal. ‘I’m not sure this is working,’ I complain.
Restorative medicine, she explains patiently, is about finding equilibrium. Balance. I’m only paying half-attention. Through the panoramic windows of the clinic, I watch fellow patients, many of whom had arrived the same day as me, performing vigorous exercise in the woods, front crawling through the outdoor saltwater pool or pumping away in the uber-tech gym. I look enviously at light in their eyes, the electricity sparking from their brains. Skeptics to converts, the lot of them.
Oh, the irony. You spend your whole life trying not to be a cliché. The one time you’re dying to fit in, turns out you’re the anomaly.
‘Stick out your tongue,’ Dr. Reisch commands.
I comply, a cur off the street, hoping I’ve just enough appeal left to be offered a home.
She stares at my tongue for a long time then makes a neat annotation on my file.
‘We need to do more for you,’ she says.
There follow a battery of further treatments. Comprehensive allergy testing, a session with a nutritionist. Bags of minerals and vitamins are dripped into my arm. My limbs are folded into soothing herbal baths and light machines. Poison is extracted through the pores of my skin via suction cups. In the kitchen, chef demonstrates the art of a classic vegetable broth while the gentle nutritionist lady teaches a baking class. In between, I hang out with Toto a lot and generally wonder how the hell I got myself into this mess…
The day of my departure, I enter the dining room to find a leviathan of a man sitting at my table. He stares at the shallow puddle of tomato soup before him.
‘Is this it?’ he whispers in heavy Russian accent.
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘But I don’t like soup.’
‘You’re lucky. Some people are only given tea.’
He raises terrified eyes to mine. In his Adidas track shorts and slippers he looks like Strewel Peter’s overweight, overblown Augustus. The boy who would not eat. He dips his spoon, sighs, places it tentatively to his lips, lowers it again.
Yet, though he feels so weak and ill,
The naughty fellow cries out still.
“Not any soup for me, I say!
O take the nasty soup away!
‘How does it work?’ he says indicating a neighbouring couple tucking into what looks suspiciously like a Sunday roast.
‘I’m not sure. Distribution is a little Kafkaesque.’
Tears well in his eyes. He’s here for twelve days, he tells me. His name is Yanno, and he has a business in Georgia selling pharmaceuticals on the web.
‘What kind of pharmaceuticals,’ I ask curiously.
I snort, imagining Dr Reisch, surveilling us from her Lanserhof control room, smiling secretly at her matchmaking as she sips gooseberry tea. It’s all about equilibrium. The skinny parasitic and the heavyweight pharmacist.
‘Can I tell you something?’ he whispers, splaying meaty fingers over his gut. ‘I am scared to be here, but it’s what I need.’
‘That’s the spirit.’ I whisper back, ‘you’ll leave thinner and happier. It will be OK.’
But will it though? I think as I climb into my taxi later that afternoon.
Here’s the thing. The Lanserhof is an excellent gift to the body. It offers a genuine re-boot and that’s something I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend, but despite the best efforts of everyone there I didn’t leave fresh, I left depressed and a little frightened.
‘It’s down to you now.’ Dr. Reisch told me before I left.
‘To me?’ I said, belligerent to the end.
Apparently so. Nearly everything about our health hinges on our digestion. Our brain, mood, even libido. You are what you eat is a term that’s thrown around a lot, but every cell, every platelet of blood, every glob of marrow is made up of what we put in your mouth. Food isn’t something to be consumed alongside medicine. Food equals medicine. Every day each of us commit foodie crimes, whether bad combining or snacking on autopilot. How can a week in a clinic remedy the millions of unwitting mistakes made over a lifetime let alone reverse parasite and anti-biotic damage?
‘Unless you take this in hand, you will be susceptible to even more serious long term health problems than you are now,’ Reisch warned.
‘Parkinson’s disease, cancer, dementia.
‘Can’t wait.’ I muttered.
She fixed me with her unnerving stare. ‘Persevere. Stay on the meds. Steamed food for the next eighteen months. l will check up on you.’
I imagined I would not hear from her again. There’s always another journalist to be wowed or an award to clinch. I fell easily back into old habits – waking tired, going to work on a diet of espresso, booking a trekking holiday in Burma. Reisch’s emails, however arrived with precise irregularity and the tone of them served as a gentle reminder of the deleterious consequences of complacency. I began to realise that getting sick was nothing to do with the places I’d travelled. I was no different from Yanno, the 20 stone Russian who tended to overeat and under exercise. My whole life I’ve tended to run on empty then crash and burn, creating the perfect storm of compromised immunity for parasites to exploit. I began to follow Reisch’s instructions and the more assiduously I did so, the better I felt.
Preventative medicine – what does it actually mean?
I thought of the money spent over the last few years on bills and pills. I thought of the number of work days lost and opportunities wasted. I thought about the book I was still struggling through which should have taken half the time to write. What price ill health? The false economy of put up and shut up, that silly British leftover of the stiff upper lip? We service our car engines, back up our computer hard drives, dye our hair before it turns grey, yet remain utterly resistant to applying the same logic of maintenance to our bodies. No wonder Germany and Austria are way ahead of us on this one. I was wrong about these clinics. These doctors know their stuff. The Lanserhof is expert at tackling that umbrella term, non-specific, catchall complaint knows as 21C life and what underpins their offering is education. I needed Dr. Reisch to slap me round the face and knock the apathy out of me. A quick fix is a jump-start. A week’s package at the Lanserhof comes with a solid commitment for the future. It’s not a magic pill, it’s a bitter one, but one that needs to be swallowed nonetheless.
Prices at the Lanserhof Tegernsee start from £ 2623 for a 7 night stay (including accommodation, basic treatment programme and all meals). 7 night minimum stay is required. Bookings can be made at www.lemongrassmarketing.com or 0049 8022 18800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.