From Montañita to Baños, and the Art of Suffering
Montañita, September 1, 2016
I woke up around 5 PM, my entire body feeling like I had been beaten with a club. I had spent the last few hours sleeping on and off, in between waking and throwing all the covers off because of my high fever, then waking up again freezing to try and drag them back over myself. I let out a weakened shriek— my cabana was full of people. A moment later I realized the ‘people’ were just my open laptop screen with Netflix playing. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I knew this was a problem— hallucinations are never a good symptom of any sickness. I was .5 miles away from the main road where I could grab a taxi to the hospital, and I could barely sit up in bed. My fever was high, I registered in a distant way, it even hurt to move my eyes.
Facebook chimed— my friend Stephanie had just gotten back to town and wanted to know what I was up to. I reached one hand outside of my sleeping bag, attempting to respond single handedly so as little skin as possible would be exposed to the cold air. I told her how sick I was, and within 10 minutes she was outside my hostel in a cab, asking me what she could do, and we were soon speeding down the road to the hospital in the next town, Manglaralto, a quick 5 minutes away.
The hospital was a modest white concrete building in front of the beach, the sound of the waves a distant background noise. As soon as we entered the hospital a group of white-clad ladies directed me to one of the empty beds in the small room. A nurse came over to take my vitals, and told me they wanted to hook me up to a saline drip. Since the hospital is free, any additional expense or needed medication can be purchased from the pharmacy next door. They wrote me up a lab slip while Stephanie ran next door to buy me an IV, and the doctor tore the slip off a pad of paper and handed it to me. “El laboratorio es de dos esquinas hacia abajo desde el hospital.” The laboratory was next to the hospital, and the blood test would cost $5— there they would test me for Typhoid and Dengue fever.
* * *
Kosovo, June 2015
Snarling. Dogs barking in the distance. The sound of plastic crinkling outside. Something being dragged away, outside.
I woke up with a sharp intake of breath— listening. My body cocooned in my sleeping bag, I waited, my neck hurting from holding my head so still outside my sleeping bag.
I was wild camping in the back of a cabbage field in Kosovo. The pale light coming through my tent cover meant it was early morning, probably around 6. I had been biking through Kosovo the day before, a panorama of snow capped mountains in the distance while I cycled through a lush valley following the road through tiny villages and farms. It was getting dark, and the towns were so small there wasn’t any option but to find a good spot on the side of the road to sleep. As the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, I turned my bike down deeply rutted dirt road following a stream lined by small farms and sparse trees. The trees got thicker and the road narrower and wilder, and I stopped at the most inconspicuous spot I could find— the back of a cabbage field that backed up into a small copse of trees next to the river. I tucked my bike into the trees as best I could, and got out my tattered sleeping mat (which was essentially a thick piece of foam a Couchsurfer had given me in the South of France). I crouched on the sleeping pad, making dinner as dusk fell, waiting for darkness to set up camp.
When it was sufficiently dark I began the process of setting up camp, with the comforting feeling of regularity— doing something I had done hundreds of times before, making the small patch of earth in the back of a cabbage field home for the night. All of a sudden, flashlights swept across the copse of trees where I was now crouched, frozen. The road I thought had petered out into nothing turnout out to be a pedestrian thoroughfare in the evening for fisherman hanging out at a bridge I hadn’t noticed just across the road. I let out the breath I had been holding as the flashlight wielding group continued past.
I quietly unzipped my tent and crawled inside, and slept the deep sleep of a cyclist crossing countries, and woke up to the sound of barking dogs outside. There was something walking around the tent.
* * *
Montañita, September 1, 2016
The laboratory was a simple concrete room with a wooden bench sitting against one wall and a chair opposite, a small table with needles and cotton balls sitting next to it. A young boy cleaned my arm, and took the smoothest blood sample I’ve ever had taken. “Treinta minutos, y cinco dollars.” In 30 minutes I could go back and pick up my blood test, and it was $5.
We walked back to the hospital and they hooked me up to an IV via a 3″ needle into the top of my hand, and I sat for the next few hours with a bag of saline attached to my arm— the nurse coming back twice to give me an antibiotic. Lying on the bed for hours was punctuated by a bathroom run in which I held my saline bag in one hand and proceeded to get violently ill.
When I got back, Stephanie had gone to pick up the results of my test next door, and I pitifully tried to put on my jacket while attached to the IV. An older woman came over, told me to lie down so the saline drip would be faster, and tied my coat around me “como una bufanda!” she laughed (like a scarf).
Stephanie returned— my test results were negative. I had an infection, but it wasn’t Typhoid.
* * *
Kosovo, June 2015
The dogs were going wild in the distance, snarling and barking back and forth. I couldn’t see outside with the tent cover on, but I could hear something snorting and grunting just outside. Wild pigs? I had heard stories from other cyclists there were wolves in this region, and many stray dogs would form packs.
Snorting, shuffling, and then— the rustle of a plastic bag right in front of my tent. I slowly sat up, lowered myself to the floor of the tent, and delivered a swift punch through the thin wall of the tent where the creature was outside. A loud yelp emitted, and I heard it scamper away. Dogs, I thought.
I unzipped the front of the tent, and saw a dog running off to join two other dogs in the distance. I stretched, admiring the rows of cabbage stretching out before me, the misty clouds rolling over the top of mountains in the distance. The first rays of the sun glittered over the mountain, illuminating my tent. I quickly packed, and cycled back down the dirt road, like I had never been there at all.
* * *
Life is a series of risks— we never know when a serious illness might be Malaria or Typhoid, or when a group of wild dogs might be extremely aggressive and hungry. All we can do is take every precaution we can, never confuse our casual feelings with mindful deliberation, think critically about our decisions and the potential consequences, and when those days of suffering and hardship come, punch that wild dog in the face if necessary or have abuela help with the coat.
The best lessons are learned through hardship, through not knowing what lies around the bend in the road, through a journey not entirely planned and mapped out. The unknown is where we’re tested, where we’re forced to rely on others and ourselves, where we put ourselves in uncomfortable situations so we can come out the other side changed in some way, seeing the world illuminated in a new, pale light.
* * *
Montañita, September 8, 2016
Just a week after my visit to the hospital in Manglaralto, I decided to leave Montañita. Staying on the coast of Ecuador was a wonderful period in my life, concentrating on bettering my Spanish and surfing, meeting new people and exploring the beaches of Ecuador. Now, it felt right to leave, like my time there was over and I needed to move on. I messaged the caretaker of my cabana that I’d be leaving a few weeks early, bought a bus ticket to Guayaquil where I’d then grab the bus to Baños, and started frantically packing to leave the next morning.
* * *
I stepped of the bus from Montañita in Guayaquil, and grabbed my pack from underneath. I hauled it onto my back, and set about finding a bus to Baños. I stopped at 3 stations, each telling me they had direct buses then explaining a city I’d have to stop over at. All of a sudden three guys started shouting at me 20 feet away. “A Banos? A Banos! Cinco minutos!” They wrote a sign in sharpie, “Banos. Directo,” and started waving it around at me. I hurried over, and bought a ticket for a bus leaving in 5 minutes. I had just enough time to throw my pack under the bus and run to grab a hamburger, leaping onto the bus stairs as it was pulling away from the curb. Feeling like I had just won some prize, I found a window seat and celebrated— hamburger in one hand, bus ticket to Baños in the other. I was on my way. I didn’t know what I would find there, or where I would go next, but experience is the daughter of adventure and I had my ticket to ride all the way there, directly.