"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Monday, January 7, 2013

You Haven’t Really Been Deathly Ill...

…Until You’ve Been Deathly Ill on a Train in a Foreign Country

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The Bloggess's blog here.

I’m not sure if sharing this story makes me incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.   But I just finished reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by the brilliant bloggess, Jenny Lawson, and I have been inspired by her predilection for sharing too much.  I mean, she ratted out her own craziness and that of her family and got me to call her brilliant.  Of course, I don’t know how she feels now after millions of people read those stories.  Then again, she’s probably getting super rich, so I bet she feels pretty good.

But I digress. 

This is not about Jenny Lawson.  This is about me and one of the most humbling experiences of my life.  This is a story that I’ve been carrying around with me for years, and it’s time to get it out of my system.  (ß Not the best choice of words considering the subject matter.)

In the summer of 2001, I went on a sixteen-day tour of Peru.  The trip was amazing.  We hiked in the Amazon jungle, held baby sloths, explored Machu Picchu, participated in a curandera ceremony and much more.  Every single day was packed and we rarely stayed in the same place for more than a night.

[Oh yeah, I just remembered.  I already wrote about a different embarrassing experience in Peru.  You can read about that one here.  And just so you know, this one is WAY worse.]

One of the things I did not get to experience in Peru was the eating of the guinea pig.  No auto-correct happening here—you read that right.  One of our nights in the city of Cuzco was to be spent in the home of a local family where we were to eat a dinner consisting of some of the local fare, i.e. guinea pig.  In fact, we had already visited a home (just to see, not to dine) and I had seen live guinea pigs running around on the floor happily nibbling on alfalfa, as well as dead guinea pig carcasses—skinned—hanging up in the kitchen to dry. 

Guinea pigs alive and well... for now.

Above the guinea pigs-- a shrine containing
the skulls of the family's ancestors.

You may be thinking, She WANTED to eat guinea pig?!  Well, yeah.  See, I’d been getting ready for this trip for months and when I first heard about the eating of the rodent—(Are guinea pigs rodents?  I think for the purpose of this blog, they are.)—I was grossed out.  But then, everyone else that I told was grossed out too and eventually it turned around so that I ENJOYED grossing people out by telling them that I was going to eat guinea pig until I actually WAS excited to eat it.  (Moral:  Give me six months to get used to the idea and I’ll be excited to eat anything.)  My brother especially kept teasing me about it.  

One day he said, “You know what the worst part will be?” 

“What?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know.

He smirked.  “What if you like it?  Then what will you do when you get back to the states?  Go to PetSmart and ask, ‘How much for the fat one?’”

I laughed, but he kind of had a point.

Still, even with the possibility of torturing my future palate with an unattainable delicacy or of becoming that creepy person that gets banned from pet stores, I was still looking forward to the experience of trying guinea pig.  But I missed it.  And here’s why.

It’s not uncommon for people to get sick when they are traveling.  We’ve all heard of “Montezuma’s Revenge”.  Well, members of our tour group took turns coming down with what I called in my journal the “Peruvian Plague”.  Not everybody got it.  I was traveling with my friend Emily* from work, my friend Maggie who used to be my teacher, five of Maggie’s female high school students, one girl’s dad, and a couple of other women unrelated to us in any way.  As far as I know, none of the high school girls got sick, but I did and Emily did and the dad did and I think one other person did.  But—and I dare anyone to disagree—I had it the worst.

[*Emily and I had worked together for one year and we were becoming friends but still didn’t know each other well.  Then one day in the teacher’s lounge, I asked her out of the blue if she wanted to go on a trip to Peru with me and, without hesitation, she said yes.  I honestly have no idea why I asked an acquaintance to go to a foreign country with me, and I have no idea why she agreed.  But I am glad she did because we have been wonderful friends since.  Fishing for piranha with someone will bond you like that.]

Me standing proudly at
the Gate of the Sun
It was June 30th, halfway through our trip and our second day at the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.  I was on my own, having chosen to hike a different path than most of the group and because my roommate Emily was back at the hotel sick with the plague.  At 9:40AM that day, I sat down at the “Gate of the Sun” and wrote in my journal about how proud I was that I had made that climb by myself and how beautiful and peaceful it was there.  I also wrote, “I am really sorry Emily is so sick.  I can’t imagine how horrible she must feel being so ill and so far from home…  I wish she was here and I hope I don’t get sick as well.”  My next journal entry was written thirty-six hours later in shaky handwriting and starts with the simple, but powerful, statement, “Ugh.”  Because at that point, I no longer had to imagine how Emily felt.

The twisty bus road up to Machu Picchu.
Who WOULDN'T get sick on this?
By the time we left the ruins for the day, I was already feeling a bit queasy.  I tried to pretend it was only from the bus ride down the mountain, but as soon as we started eating our late lunch, I knew that something wasn’t right.  I didn’t even make it all the way through my meal before I had to run to the bathroom and throw up.

Now, at this point, the worst part was not the puking.  The puking took a solid third place behind the fact that I was a big baby and the Thing That Was About to Happen.  By “big baby” I mean that I cry when I throw up.  I’m not exactly sure why—it’s probably some sort of depression brought on by my sudden loss of control or something.  I don’t know; you can analyze me all you want.  All I know is that it upsets me.  And it scares me a little.  And it makes me want my mommy.  So when I came out of the bathroom and joined the group at the table, not only was I desperately in need of a breath mint, but I was also sobbing, which really throws a wet blanket over other people’s vacation adventures, when they have to console a weepy twenty-four-year-old woman who has just vomited.

But even the embarrassment of crying in front of coworkers and former teachers and high school girls was nothing compared to my anxiety over the Thing That Was About to Happen.  Because the Thing That Was About to Happen was this:  Immediately after I threw up, I had to go on a four-hour train ride back to Cuzco.

You know that feeling when you drink a bunch of alcohol really fast and then you wish you hadn’t done that but there’s nothing you can really do now (at least nothing you want to do) and so you just have to sit there knowing that soon the sensation of drunkenness and queasiness and room-spinning-ness is going to hit and you’re going to have to deal with it?  [Note to my parents:  I don’t actually know this feeling, I’ve just read a lot of books.]  Well, this was kind of like that.  I had just thrown up for the first time.  And I knew, based on the experiences of my travel-mates, that I was in the first ten minutes of a devilish twenty-four-hour illness, and I knew that the next four hours of that illness were going to be the worst, and I knew that I was going to be on a train for the duration of them.

If I hadn’t already been crying, this is the point when I would have started.

When I got on the train, I blubbered out my desperate need to sit near the bathroom.  (Thank GOD there was a bathroom!)  I was told that our seats were way up at the front of the train and that they weren’t sure we could switch.  Then I pushed past everyone into the bathroom, threw up some more, and then stood outside the door, unmoving, staring at the people in the seats around me until our tour guide—an extremely sweet woman named AnnaMaria—said something in Spanish to the two gentlemen in the seats just in front of the bathroom and they got up and left.  I can only assume the English translation was, “You guys have to move right now or this girl is going to throw up on you.  Or worse.”

Then the group went to their seats in the front of the train, AnnaMaria sat down next to me in the back, and thus proceeded possibly the worst four hours of my life.  I won’t bore you with every disgusting detail, but be forewarned, because I will tell you more than you probably want to know.

Things You Hope Will Never Happen To You But Which All Totally Happened To Me:

This is a mummy in a museum in Lima,
but it could just as well be a photo
of me on June 30, 2001, because
that's pretty much how I felt.
* Having the phrase “coming out of both ends simultaneously” apply to you while you are on a moving vehicle in a foreign country with no family members at your side.
* Being unable to swallow even a sip of water without vomiting (or worse) so that you become so dehydrated that you lose feeling in your hands and arms up to the elbow.
* Being so loopy from dehydration that you can’t even make it to the bathroom that is two feet away from you in time without soiling your underpants.
* Throwing away your soiled underpants in the trash can of a bathroom on a train in Peru.
* Opening your eyes to see several worried/angry/arguing faces leaning over you, all speaking in a foreign language.  Even in your looped-out state, you understand the words ‘stop’ and ‘train’ and ‘hospital’.
* Waking up to find a tall blond beautiful female is asking you questions in English.  You are told she is a Swedish doctor who was on the train.  She smiles at you a lot and says you’ll be fine.  You argue, saying maybe you do need to go to a hospital.  She shakes her head and says, in what you can tell is a voice meant to sound reassuring, “No, you do not want to go to a hospital.  They just don’t want an American to die on their train.”  Then she smiles again and you think, Huh. I don’t either.  We have that in common.

All of this is true (why I would make this up is beyond me—honestly I don’t even know why I’m telling it in the first place) although when I mention this story to people who were there (which I don’t do often because I don’t like them picturing me like that) their eyes tend to gloss over when I refer to the beautiful Swedish doctor and I always think, They just didn’t see her because they were in the front of the train, but secretly I kind of wonder if I made her up in my dehydration haze or if maybe she existed but she was actually an elderly Peruvian man with bad teeth.

I do not remember the end of the train ride, but I do remember climbing the two flights of stairs up to my room in the elevator-less Hotel Don Carlos in Cuzco, one small step at a time, being helped by Maggie and AnnaMaria.  I remember being given some magic South American elixir of life, which I was finally able to keep down and which made me feel ten times stronger and which was probably nothing more than the Spanish version of Pedialyte.  I remember the moment when I knew that the worst was over and fell into a coma-like sleep for several hours.  I remember a whole day of eating crackers and drinking clear liquids and watching reruns on TV from my bed while the rest of the group went on a day trip without me.  And I remember the realization that I was missing the eating of the guinea pig and how utterly disappointed I was about such a loss.  But in the end, I did fully recover from the Peruvian Plague, and even though I’m bummed that I didn’t get to eat guinea pig, I guess I am sort of grateful that I didn’t throw it up either.

While the rest of the group was eating guinea pig,
I found the strength to document my day by taking a
picture of the view out my hotel window.

For twelve years, I have been searching for a moral to this story, and I haven’t really found one yet.  Instead of learning from it, or growing from it, I generally just use it as a way to one-up other people’s stories.  “Oh yeah?  You got food poisoning from eating at China Palace?  Try nearly dying from the plague on a train in Peru.”  For the record, no one appreciates this.

I guess if I had to learn a lesson from this experience, it would be something cheesy like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  And I’m not even talking about the explosive vomiting and diarrhea.  (ß Dang, I tried to get through the whole blog without using that word, but there it is.)  No, I’m talking about humility.  The fact that I did not die of embarrassment on that train has made me a stronger and more confident person in other facets of my life.  I mean, after a near stranger has held a bag for you to retch into after your arms have become too weak to hold it yourself, you’re not going to have an anxiety attack about accidentally farting in yoga. 

You gotta have some perspective, people.


  1. Dare I say "good story" no. I'll say "well written" story. I didn't know you wanted to eat the guinie pig. Eww
    That really took me back to my drunken plane ride from Dallas to Tampa. Thank u taco cabana and drinking too much wine from penis straw. (too much info)
    Good times
    I don't remember you crying that time we played the list boys drinking game- after much puking. Oh but wait- you wouldn't know about that it must have just been something you read about. ;)

  2. LOL-- There was no actual puking after the Lost Boys game, just fear-of-puking. And I honestly think that had much more to do with the quantity of Doritos and cream cheese ingested and less to do with the amount of alcohol ingested.