Explaining Diabetes whilst away – By The Cornflake Traveller


In this blog post I will tackle having to explain diabetes whilst away and re-tell one of the most harrowing experiences from my time on the road which taught me to always carry plenty of sugar.

Explaining diabetes to strangers can be complicated enough but when it’s to somebody that doesn’t speak very good English it can be quite an event, made much easier with props.

My explanation starts with emphasising that if they think I am acting strangely then they must give me sugar (I’ll let your imagination work out how to mime this). I then continue to compare controlling diabetes to a see-saw and having to keep the balance of sugar and insulin level. I say that if I need insulin then my brain will be ok and I can fix myself but if I need sugar it can make me act weird and I need something sweet. I always show my pupils the sugar I am carrying, which is cheap, portable and tends to prevent confusion i.e. diet fizzy drinks are not sweet but some people think they are, sugar is sweet no arguments. That is usually as much as I say unless people ask me for more details.

I always carry lots of sugar on me, including hidden sachets and packets of sweets. I wasn’t always that strict but in 2004 I was given a massive lesson about why it’s important to tell people I’m diabetic and to always carry ample sugar. This lesson occurred in Bolivia during a time when my insulin dosage was out of whack, I’d run out of sugar and no-one knew I was diabetic.

This occasion was so important to me that it features in the introduction to my book, below is an extract.

“Wednesday 11th February 2004

I didn’t sleep very well last night due to some really intense dreams so I just relaxed most of the day in a hammock then jumped on the 6pm bus to Santa Cruz. The journey was pleasant enough although I was asleep for the majority of it, I woke up when the bus arrived so I grabbed my bag and jumped in a hotel right next door to the bus station, in a day-dreamy kind of daze.

Then all of a sudden I am on the street, talking to a security guard dressed only in a pair of shorts; no shoes, no top, just shorts and I couldn’t remember how I got there. It took me a while to be able to think straight as I came round but my first thought was that I had been drugged on the bus and all my things had been stolen. The security guard (who I was trying to get information from) was trying to help me but there wasn’t that much he could do, I had about $3 in my pocket and my bus ticket and didn’t really know what to do, I couldn’t even remember what town I was in. A policeman came along and was useless, didn’t help and wasn’t at all interested.

The security guard found someone to sell me some flip-flops for a $1 then I flagged down a cab and explained to the driver that I really needed his help, obvious because this wasn’t the sort of place many tourists come too, let alone walk around half naked in the middle of the night. I persuaded him to accept the rest of the cash to take me to the bus station, which took about 15 minutes to drive about 20-25 blocks. I asked people at the station if they had seen me before or knew where my stuff was but nobody had seen me or my stuff before.

I was starting to panic a bit and starting to think what the hell would I do, I didn’t even know if there was a UK embassy in Bolivia but if there was it would be in La Paz, a 24 hour bus ride away and I had no clothes, no money, no insulin, well except my shorts and two flip flops, I had nothing. Since I had started to come around from my trance/coma state of mind probably 2 hours had passed while finding sugar and trying to working out what was going on.

I sat there in the bus station weighing up what I could do and trying to remember what happened to me. I figured I must have arrived in the town with my stuff, most probably at the bus station so thought that I would probably have checked into the nearest cheap hotel. I went to the hotel next to the bus station and asked the woman at reception if she had seen my stuff. She nonchalantly got up from her bed, opened the door to one of the rooms and there spread out all over the room was my bag and my stuff. Words don’t do justice to the amount of relief I felt at that time, I think I kissed the receptionist, and the taxi driver, who was still kindly trying to help me. I then ate some more sugar and passed out on the bed.
It was such a confusing experience, really messed with my head”

So as it turns out I was going hypo when I got off the bus but went straight to bed in a hotel room without realising. With no sugar in my room I must have woken up after a few hours of being low and walked straight out of the hotel in a delusional search for sugar. This is probably the occasion when having diabetes scared me the most but shouldn’t put anyone off travelling as I haven’t had many incidents like this and it’s great to look back on my moment as a Private detective hunting down my belongings. I would just make sure you carry a couple of different containers full of sugar and fill pockets with sweets so you have plenty of back-ups.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me, via Diabetes UK or directly to my twitter account or my ‘Travelling with Corn Flakes’ page on facebook (which has some of my favourite travel photos).

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To be honest, if I had seen you in that state – I would have been frightened of you. I think you should get a tattoo that says “T1 = Please give me sugar when I sound/look confused!”