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Mistake Monday: The Pain in Spain

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In his bimonthly series, “Mistake Monday,” TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten invites readers to learn from his travel mistakes—his many, many travel mistakes. Or in this case, his pain, as well. (All photos are by the writer.)

Foot and Ibiza View
There are worse places to be injured.

Last summer, I booked a trip to Spain from my home in Los Angeles, with an outbound stopover in New York. After a couple days of walking around Manhattan and Brooklyn, my feet were aching. I didn’t think much of it, as I’m apt to walk more in New York in one afternoon than I do in a month in L.A.

Crossing the Atlantic was happily uneventful and the tour I’d booked through northern Spain (along with a few extra days at the end) was as nourishing for my art-loving soul as it was for my food-loving stomach. Yet each step closer to a Miro was a step closer to podiatric misery. I just couldn’t shake the ache.

Miro heals the soul but not the sole.
Miro heals my soul…but not my sole.

Madrid became Ma-dread. Pamplona became Pam-pain-a. By the time I got to Barcelona, I was too weary to even think of a bad pun. (In retrospect, perhaps Barcel-Oh-No?) Still, I soldiered on. While at home I’m happy to call in sick at the first sign of a sneeze, on the road I’m somehow resilient, determined, and even strong-headed.

With a couple days left to fill on my Spanish spree, I was eager to use my new prescription SCUBA mask for its initial dive. I booked a cheap Ryanair flight (is there any other kind?) to Ibiza and set myself up for a tank-aided dip in the Mediterranean. I figured that swimming would mean being off my feet for a spell, providing my barking dogs with some refreshing buoyancy.

Dive day arrived, and after getting suited up, riding the boat to the dive spot, and seeing clearly through a mask for the first time…my body was not having it. I could feel a disruption in my nervous system as soon as I was in the water; my breathing was labored and my skin felt suffocated by the wetsuit and agitated by the saltwater. At the divemaster‘s suggestion, I returned to the boat to relax and try again at the next spot.

That thing when everyone has a great time scuba diving...except you. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
That thing when everyone has a great time scuba diving…except you. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

I planted myself in a shady spot on the boat deck for 45 minutes and listened as my fellow divers returned with stories of fish, sharks, and treasure. Minutes later we were in another cove and I stood up to join them. I collapsed to the floor.

I crawled up to my seat and sat in confusion and concern, trying to process how my right foot was suddenly so sensitive that even drying it with a towel caused me to wince. I would not be getting back in the water.

With some help, I got back to shore where I had the driver stop next door to my hotel, where I’d seen signs in English for a medical clinic under a green cross. I willed myself through the door and set myself gently down in the waiting room.

Hello Nurse!
The nurse seemed more interested in the guy in the corner.

The nurse did some intake, checked my vitals, and called the doctor. Twenty-five minutes later, Dr. Ibiza pulled up on his racing motorcycle and I repeated my complaints to him as he stripped off his protective leather outerwear. He inspected my foot, slathered it with brown liquid, wrapped it with a thin bandage, and informed me I had an infection. (Apparently, my stubborn walking had led to a blister which had led to a cut which had led to a welcome party for Mediterranean Sea bacteria.) Moto-doctor suited back up, declined my request for crutches, and was back on his bike less than ten minutes after he’d arrived—now with 125 of my Euros ($136) in his account.

It took me about an hour to walk the three blocks to the pharmacy, where I filled my prescription for antibiotics and bought a protective boot, the strongest painkillers legally allowed in Spain, and in a stroke of MacGyver-worthy genius, a set of bright-orange water wings to place around my foot. I wanted to ensure proper cushioning for the four airports I’d have to schlep through to get home the next day— Ibiza, Barcelona, Frankfurt and Los Angeles. And all my flights were in coach.

The agony of the feet.
Something strange is afoot.

The lessons here are two-fold:

1. Travel is awesome but no trip abroad is worth a trip to the hospital. If I’d paid more attention to what my body was telling me, I could have easily used the travel insurance that was a required purchase for the tour—and which expired when the tour ended in Barcelona. Instead, I was out of pocket, out of luck, and out of the sea.

2. Accept your body’s limitations. I’m not a kid anymore. Sure, plenty of people hike their way through Europe but most of them are half my age. And as much as I’ll buy shoes for how they look and how little they cost, the time has come when I have to consider more than fashion and price. My well-being is worth more than what I can find for 40% off at Zappos.

I’ll travel again this summer, this time with orthotics lining my clunky-but-stable shoes. And while I’ll make plenty of new mistakes, I’ll learn from those in my past and do my best to have a memorable travel experience. (Is there any other kind?)

Ever hurt yourself while traveling? How did you handle the situation?