Although she suffers from debilitating travel nausea, Anna Cullen is determined to see the world
Motion sickness may never actually kill me, but sometimes I feel like it might.
The nausea, the sweats, the trembling, the tears; I have suffered from this condition all my life, and it isn’t pretty. I’d hoped that it might improve as I get older and travel more, but sadly this has not been the case.
Take a recent trip to Bellagio in Italy. Last August, I decided to take some time off and travel around Europe alone. Three months and 12 countries later, I found myself in this magnificent village on Lake Como, with cobbled lanes, shops, restaurants and elegant buildings. It’s known as the ‘Pearl of Lake Como’ and is famous worldwide for its amazing villas overlooking the water.
But despite the town’s incredible beauty, the roads are very narrow and, in my opinion, bus drivers there are reckless. On my last day, I boarded one of those buses towards Como. It was crammed, so I was forced to sit backwards as we drove around sharp bends on the winding mountain roads. As well as this, there was no air conditioning onboard, so it was a recipe for disaster.
I began to sweat, tremble, and saliva started to build up in my mouth. I felt the colour drain from my face, but I somehow managed not to projectile vomit. After 50 minutes, I arrived at the train station. I got off the bus and was compelled to sit down for half an hour to recover. I still had to travel on two trains after this, as well as catch a flight back to Ireland. I hadn’t felt that unwell in a long time.
A gallivant in Finland the following November was no different. After returning to Ireland from Italy, I had decided that travelling wasn’t out of my system just yet, so I booked another solo trip to Rovaniemi.
When I arrived, I travelled with four strangers on a husky safari tour, something that had been on my bucket list for a long time. We were required to wear thermal suits as the temperatures outside were below freezing. The seven-seater van was small, and the heating was on full blast. As condensation covered the windows, I felt claustrophobic. After an hour and 20 minutes of tummy flips and sweating profusely, we reached our destination.
The rest of the group greeted the beautiful huskies on arrival. I got sick and tried not to faint in the snow.
Motion sickness is caused by repeated movements such as travelling by air, sea and road transportation, or by virtual simulator motion like video games. Basically, the inner ear sends different signals to your brain from those your eyes are seeing. The confusing messages then cause these symptoms I experience.
My mother first realised there was something ‘wrong’ when I was just six months old. She queried why I constantly got sick while travelling in a car, but rarely when I was at home. After a couple of trips to my GP, he diagnosed me with motion sickness.
From infancy to age 10, I vomited on every single trip I went on, regardless of the length of the journey. Whether it was 20 minutes or two hours, it didn’t matter.
I’ve had plenty of embarrassing moments throughout my 25 years on the planet. Like the time in third class when my teachers decided to bring us on a school tour.
The bus pulled up outside the school, and my classmates and I boarded. We were full of enthusiasm and excitement; this was our big day out. We weren’t long into our journey when I began to sweat and feel ghastly. I told one of the teachers and she ordered the driver to stop the bus. We pulled over, I got out, and puked my guts into the ditch. My friends looked on in shock as tears streamed down my face. I got back on the bus and hobbled towards my seat after delaying our tour by 40 minutes.
I was mortified.
I have similar memories from a car trip to Limerick with my aunt and uncle as a nine-year-old. Or travelling home from the UK on the ferry when I was six. Or flying home from Australia after visiting my older sister as a 23-year-old. (“Why, why, why?” I muttered to myself as I made my way down the aisle towards the lavatory.) Or the bitter smell after I had to get sick into my handbag on a bus from Dublin. I was 21.
So why do I continue to travel, despite the obvious difficulties involved?
The answer is simple: I love meeting new people, exploring new cities and experiencing different cultures.
In my opinion, the pros of travelling far outweigh the cons of travel sickness.
It’s important, too, to note that while I have not been able to eliminate motion sickness entirely, I have found ways to slightly reduce it.
A trip from Amsterdam to Paris by train last September was the first time in a long, long time that I did not get sick, for example. I put this down to the scenery, the train staff and the comfort onboard. It was bliss and increased my desire to continue travelling.
If I can travel to places via train, I will. For me, travelling on buses, planes and boats is the worst. Train journeys are relatively simple and, in my opinion, more comfortable. They have Wi-Fi, air conditioning, catering and cosy seats. You just turn up, get onboard, store your luggage and that’s it. You don’t need to worry about checking in bags or going through customs, so for me it’s stress-free.
Most parts of Europe have fantastic high-speed train networks. I travelled between the Netherlands, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland and Italy via train, and it was a very pleasurable experience.
From mountains to coastal vistas, the landscape changed right in front of my eyes as I travelled between each country. The train journey between Berlin and Prague was particularly good because part of the route winds along the River Elbe, and the scenery is very impressive. The Prague to Vienna train route is also very pretty and passes picturesque regions of the Czech Republic and Austria.
Travelling from Zurich to Como through the Alpine region of Switzerland was another highlight. The train car was panoramic, designed to take in the stunning landscape. The best scenery I came across was the long climb up to the north entrance of the 15km-long Gotthard Tunnel. When you come out of the tunnel, the line drops down through the Ticino region of Switzerland, along Lake Lugano — an experience I’ll never forget.
It might sound silly, but ginger biscuits and a fizzy drink are my essentials when travelling. Several studies have found that ginger can help reduce motion sickness, as certain chemical compounds found in the spice have a positive influence on the nervous system, stomach and intestines. A joint study in 2003 carried out by Taiwan’s National Yang-Ming University and the University of Michigan, for instance, saw researchers give volunteers with a history of motion sickness ginger before seating them in a rotating drum. They found that pre-treatment with ginger effectively reduced nausea.
Most of the remedies I find useful for motion sickness, however, are natural or environmental.
When I’m travelling as a car passenger, I look straight ahead, following the road, and leave a window open for some fresh air.
When I am the one driving the car, I don’t suffer from motion sickness. According to my research, this is because my brain is using its motor commands to control the car and can predict the motion.
Listening to music also helps to distract me on long journeys, particularly on planes.
When exploring a new city, I usually book walking tours rather than sightseeing buses. That way, you can still see the city — minus the sickness.
Another golden rule is not to travel when I’m hungover. As I get older, I find I am more susceptible to nausea the next day, even after just a few drinks. Motion sickness is bad enough without a hangover on top of it. I have sadly learned this the hard way!
When I was very young, my mother used to rub a drop of lavender oil behind my ears, but I’m convinced the overpowering smell of lavender made me more ill. I have also tried travel wristbands, which are supposed to stimulate an acupressure point, liquorice lozenges, and aromatherapy, but... no joy.
Aside from natural remedies, I have also tried many over-the-counter medicines for motion sickness, including antihistamines and patches (scopolamine). Unfortunately, these remedies have not worked for me, but perhaps they may work for someone else.
I have made peace with the fact that I will likely always suffer from motion sickness in some way, since I have tried all options available to prevent or treat symptoms. I refuse to let this condition deter me from travelling to unique destinations in Ireland and abroad.
All I can do is plan my trips in advance so that when the sickness lurks up on me, I am prepared to tackle it.
Motion sickness may never kill me, and what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
Read more of Anna Cullen’s work on annacullen.blog or follow her travels on Twitter at @annacullen19 or on TikTok at @anna_cullen