So last month I went on what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle in my journey with allergies: I travelled for the first time with allergies. Alone. For almost a week. To visit family, and go to a wedding in… Southern Ontario.
I know what you’re thinking, because the logical part of my pre-allergy brain looks back and says: “THAT seemed like an insurmountable obstacle? But Ottawa and Kitchener/Waterloo aren’t that far apart. Plus, staying with family. How hard could it have been?”
A careful observer might note that my first trip with allergies was actually in early February for my grandmother’s funeral… but that was unplanned, I wasn’t driving, and involved almost pulling an all-nighter frantically preparing meals to bring with me for the few days we’d be there. I had only very recently been diagnosed, we were literally learning what I could and could not eat as I travelled… so it was stressful, full of major hives, and totally INSANE.
It also prompted a realization that I needed new ways to cope with allergies as I travelled.
Level 1: When I was only mildly allergic to hazelnuts, travelling was super simple. Most restaurants make blatant references to nuts in food, they’re not usually found in fast-food situations, and even airlines have a little “nut allergy” checkbox these days when you book online.
Level 10: When I had my list of 13 fruits and vegetables, I made a little business card for restaurants. It had my picture, the things I was allergic to, a brief summary of how to avoid cross-contamination, and the same on the back in the language of my destination. I learned the hard way to remind fast-food restaurants to change their gloves and be careful while preparing my meal. For airplane trips… I called ahead to the airlines, got notes from my doctor to allow me to bring food and epipens on board airplanes, and sat in the camping stores for HOURS reading ingredient lists and literally buying every freeze-dried meal in the store that I could eat. Those later came in handy as emergency car meals, and made their way into road trips as a means to avoid taking unnecessary risks if the fast-food restaurant was too busy to really listen to my requests.
Level 3000 (Now): I had a LOT of questions to answer for myself before I left. Here’s the summary:
- Why? This trip had really awesome motivation for me: my second cousin Kerri was getting married!!! She’s one of my best friends, and we’ve been really close pen pals for a very long time, so I was quite determined to be there for the wedding! And since it had been a very long time since I had visited my extended family in that area, I decided to stretch the trip to a week.
- Who? I figured out pretty quickly that everywhere I was going to stay would have people I trust to be able to handle my emergencies. In Toronto, I would stay with my aunt, who used to have many of my mild allergens, and happens to be a family doctor. In Wellesley, I would stay with my aunt who is a nurse, and has had experience in remote medicine for most of my life. Kerri herself is currently working as a registered nurse in the local ER department… and on the way home I was hoping to see my friends who are both former paramedics (and one of whom is now a current ER nurse, too!). If all my future travels have me this surrounded by medical professionals that I know and love… I’ll be very happy.
- Where? The plan was Ottawa-401-Toronto-401-7/8-Wellesley-lots of little places around there-401- Milton-home. I looked up the hospitals along the way, and while there were a few places where the hospitals were more than 30 minutes away, I had an AHA moment when I realized that if I drove, I was never going to be very far away from ambulances at all. Ambulances are basically portable ERs, and for my current allergy situation I figured it’d be very much do-able. Also, because I wasn’t leaving the province, the health care coverage was always there.
- When? I started by planning this trip REALLY FAR AHEAD of time. My food was packed several months in advance… Yes, I’m a “be-prepared” kinda girl, but for a trip to visit family >7 hrs away… usually I throw stuff in a suitcase the night before.
- How to get there? At first, I wasn’t sure how I would get to the wedding… because I was having so many serious reactions at the time it seemed like a good idea to plan for the worst. I wasn’t sure driving myself was a good idea, but I really treasure driving long distances. I also love taking the train or an airplane… but both of those options seemed to me like they could leave me even further away from a hospital than I’d like, and with enough baggage restrictions as to make my trip very complicated. I did not want to be lugging an extra bag of food around with the chronic back pain that particularly acts up when I travel!
- What will I eat? On the road, I didn’t want to plan on eating at any restaurants.
- Begging to use a Tim Horton’s microwave in February was risky, embarrassing, and expensive because I feel guilty bringing my own food into restaurants, I always leave a small tip. Maybe it’ll encourage them to continue letting people with serious allergies bring their own food…
- I was also concerned about bringing only frozen meals, both because they’d likely thaw somewhat in the car, but also because I wasn’t sure there’d be room for two weeks worth of meals in my hosts’ freezers! My own freezer barely fits enough for two weeks…
- So… I opted for dehydrated meals. If I could have borrowed a freeze-drier I would have tried that! Those are rare, though. I planned out the meals in advance, borrowed the dehydrator mid-summer from a friend, and dehydrated food for about two weeks non-stop (I tried not to use it during high energy cost times, though). Finally I borrowed my brother’s vacuum sealing machine and made educated guesses as to the amounts of everything to put in.
- I planned for a full 7 days of travelling, though in the end I was only gone for 5, and I was actually able to bring along a few foil-packet meals for barbequeing, and I was also able to cook along the way as well.
- What about water? As far as I have been able to find out online, and from personal experience thus far… Some charcoal filters put trace amounts of sulphites into water. Apparently sulphites somehow end up being added to city tap water, too, depending on where you live. So… given that I’ve had multiple experiences of CRAZY hives just from filtered water, I’m getting more careful with that. I called my own city and found out I can drink the tap water no problem… but although I meant to, I never got around to calling Toronto and Wellesley. Besides which, I’m not a huge fan of the way water tastes in either of those places… so I decided to bring all of my own water from Ottawa, and then supplement with the probably-safe tap water for dishes and such. It ended up being almost the perfect amount with 1.8L in a large collapsible camping jug, and 3.5 L in water bottles, though next time I’d prefer an extra litre or two.
- How to cook the food??? This one had me thinking up contingency plans for months. Eventually I ended up using four different meal-preparation techniques:
- 1) The Emergency Stove: I wanted something that long-term, I could keep in my car… with extra dehydrated meals just in case. My friends love to be spontaneous, and I use to happily come along until allergies made it a *lot* harder. So I started bringing along freeze-dried meals (at level 10). My brother in law teased me, saying I had water in my car, and meals in my car, but if I got stuck in a snow drift somewhere they’d find me frozen and starving because I wouldn’t be able to heat the water! So part of this trip plan was to solve that blatant preparedness issue. Imagine my annoyance with the camping store folks when they couldn’t find me something simple that could safely be stored long-term in my car… until I looked over and happened to catch a glimpse of the emergency stove. It uses solid fuel pellets- and Priscilla (my car) thought those sounded much better than miniature propane canisters! I only ended up using the stove once, but it worked beautifully. The water was boiling quickly, and because I dumped the entire contents into the pot and stirred, it wasn’t a long wait before the meal was ready. Not the most delicious meal ever… but edible. I learned along the way that different dehydrated items will re-hydrate at different amounts of time, so you have to put the meat in first, then the veggies, and finally the grains last.
- 2) The immersion kettle! I wasn’t expecting this one… but I saw a little portable travel immersion kettle a few weeks before my trip and bought it on an impulse. I wasn’t ready to trust that all the kettles on my trip were sulphite-free (see: filtered water, above…), so this one actually became the main method of heating water for my meals. It took a loooong time to actually boil water, and with no shut off it was sometimes left on longer than I should have left it on… but… it worked.
- 3) Foil packets: I started using these earlier in the summer, so when my aunt suggested BBQ in Toronto I leapt at the chance to add real food. Ice packs in insulated lunch bags kept everything quite frozen until I made it to Toronto, which for that meal was hamburger & a bun. My aunt provided corn and sweet potato, which made everything fabulous.
- 4) Kitchen Appliances: In the end I bought a pumpkin to use to make soup with in wellesley, and fresh local beans. It was a bit tricky to cook in an unfamiliar kitchen, having to re-wash all the surfaces & dishes, but all in all successful.
Overall the trip was a resounding success, with a few hives (mostly related to accidentally drinking filtered water) and lots of positive travel memories to spur me onto planning a visit around Christmas!