Soup, Cats, and Beach Towels: Fighting off Extreme Allergies While Traveling the World


Soup, Cats, and Beach Towels: Fighting off Extreme Allergies While Traveling the World


I have a thirst for travel that runs deep within me.  Living abroad as a high schooler got my travel creative juices going. I had to learn very early on how to travel on the cheap and make myself understood while also blending into new identities.   For instance, when I was in Egypt everyone thought I was French. I never dispelled that identification. At that time, being American would cause a bit more head turns and the need on the part of many to provide me with a lecture on American policy.  I became a cultural diplomat at a very early age between going to boarding school and traveling on my own at a young age.  Something else I have learned: how to travel with allergies.


I didn’t readily know this growing up but I have a severe allergy to cats and shellfish. I also tend to get massive heat rashes out in prolonged sun exposure. I will state outright, I do not avoid beaches although beach destination vacations are not my thing but I do them for my son who loves building sand castles.   For his fourth birthday we went to Curacao where, due to a hurricane, we were stranded a few more days on the beach to his utter delight. Meanwhile my arm and face were getting rashes galore. I have been wanting to go to Thailand –every year I put it on my list of potential trips to look into-however, my allergies hold me back a bit. I have looked at how to use an Epi-pen and have similarly trained my business-travel colleagues. Yet, I am still a bit scared of Thailand considering that much food has shrimp paste or crab flakes. So much so that oftentimes there is no way to take them apart. I will eventually go to Thailand. I know I will. However, I must do my due diligence beforehand and during.


I am fairly good about letting waiters know about my allergy. Many have then gone out of their way to be extra careful which I have totally appreciated. Yet, despite my warnings I have had several  instances where I have started to swell up due to getting a taste of shrimp or shrimp paste. And it has been THE SOUP order that has brought me down.  Let me explain.


One of my favorite cities in the United States is New Orleans. I love the vibe, the culture, the music and the food. However, there is shrimp and crab in nearly everything. Last restaurant I went to in New Orleans about 8 weeks ago, the waiter took a literal step back and exclaimed “whoa” when I alerted him to my shellfish allergy.   He looked a bit ashen. His fear led to one of the best meals I had on that trip in that everything I ordered was cooked in its own pan, oil and section of the kitchen. He talked to the chef throughout my meal and it was delicious. I topped it off with a wondrous bread pudding. Oh that is my weakness in the southern part of the US. I made it through this trip without having to use my epi-pen or take Benadryl. I was not so lucky my very first trip over 18 years ago. New Orleans is known for its gumbo and this I needed to try it. I asked the waiter if there was any shrimp in it and he told me in no uncertain terms that there was no shrimp. I ordered the chicken gumbo. Several spoonfuls in, my throat started to itch and my eyes started to water. My throat started to constrict and my eyes were getting puffy. I called the waiter over immediately and asked if there was any shrimp in it. He swore again that there was no shrimp. We went back and forth for a minute. Then eventually the fact that there was shrimp paste in the gumbo was brought forth. I learned a hard lesson there. I always now ask if there is shrimp, bits, flakes or paste in the meal.  I have done fairly well in New Orleans thereafter (I go about once a year for business).


When I went to Japan, I did my due diligence beforehand and learned to say “Watashi wa kai arerugī o motte iru” (I have a shellfish allergy).  I even had t written out. For the most part it was fairly easy to avoid shellfish.   Then the day before heading back home, we went to the fish market for breakfast as many Japanese do and sat a ramen noodle stall.  I didn’t order the soup but had a spoonful of it. Just a spoonful after the cook/owner assuring me there was no shellfish.  Just one spoonful was enough for my throat to start constricting. I found the nearest Starbucks (of which there are many there) and got an espresso shot to help open up the airways and then took two Benadryl. It took about three hours for me to get back to normal. No more ramen at noodle stalls at a fish market for me.


Besides my allergies to shellfish, I have severe allergy TO CAT dander. Just being near someone who lives with a cat gets me sneezing non-stop to the point where I need to take Benadryl. It is hard to avoid people that have cats. When I first meet a business partner at a meeting it is not as if I can ask them beforehand about their cat situation.  I was at once such meeting two years ago where I hugged hello a business colleague and spent the next three hours sneezing and crying (watery eyes).  She felt horribly and we had to sit about 10 feet apart. Such a reaction to a new business colleague is not the greatest way to start off a business relationship.


Oddly, on many of my travels I encounter a lot of stray cats that want to follow me about the town. I say hello and run away. Yet, many still follow me. In many towns in the Caribbean, there are stray dogs that act like I am the pied piper. I have learned to not be so afraid of them. Cats, however, scare me. Of course, me being the dork that I am goes around singing the Stray Cat Strut song and doing the dance while running from the cats. Just because I am allergic to cats does not mean I cannot have silly fun avoiding them. Occasionally there is a super cute cat and I stop and bend down to talk to it. Then I pay the price. For eventually the cat rubs itself against me and I gently push it back from me. Meaning, that I touch the cat. Then I stupidly touch my eye or my face and the sneeze attack ensues.  In Panama, there was quite a fierce cat that kept following us. I then decide to photograph the cat and he posed quite well.


cat staring me down

Despite knowing that I get extreme heat rashes in the burning sun, I like the feel of the sun on my skin. This past year, we have had a particularly brutal winter in New York causing a general sun yearning amongst the populace, myself included.    Thus, I went to Panama this past April. Oddly, the best way for me to beat back the heat rash is to stay fairly covered even in extreme humidity.   The first time I went to Hawaii (15 years ago), I was a sight on the beach.   There I was in a bathing suit with a wide-brimmed hat as well as a series of BEACH TOWELS under and over me. I was wrapped up like a burrito in my beach towels.  It actually felt ok. I would rush into the water for a while and then run back to the beach and just wrap myself to avoid getting a heat rash.  As time has gone by and I do more beach trips to satisfy the family’s vacation desire, I am having less and less of a need to wrap myself up. Although, I still get extreme rashes when I go to Puerto Rico which I must do often for both personal and business reasons.


The joys of travel cannot be overestimated. Traveling fills my body with much culinary joy and my brain with much needed growth.  I just have to keep in mind that there are just a few things that may make my skin and throat crawl.  It’s part of the adventure, I suppose.  As long as I have my epipen and Benadryl I can keep doing the stray cat strut dance around the world.






16 replies »

  1. Sorry to hear about your allergies. Glad to read that you don’t let that stop you and you find ways to cope! That shellfish allergy is scary!
    I can relate to living abroad and not minding the fact that people think I am from somewhere else (usually Canada).


    • I didn’t realize how dangerous shellfish allergy was until I was staring at myself in the mirror with swollen eyes. yikes. Yes, I have been asked at times if I was Canadian. A pretty good country to pretend to be from!


  2. It sucks when you have an allergy especially if it’s food based. I usually stay indoors during Spring. I love cats but I can’t interact with them because i get red eye and sneeze a lot.


  3. I am allergic to two of my cats. I must wash my hands after petting them, lest I scratch my eyes out! But I love them. More than shellfish, which I am not allergic to. I have too many allergies to list, but it’s only the bees that make me carry an epipen.


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