Travelers Dysentery – Semester in Ecuador Part 4
It was bound to happen – the dreaded traveler’s dysentery. We had been warned. It wasn’t if, but when. Somewhere on our journey, something would infect us. It could be an innocent glass of water that was not purified, an unsuspecting ice cube, a freshly squeezed juice, expired mayonnaise (they serve it with French fries), spoiled seafood. Whatever the cause, we wouldn’t be able to prevent the days of stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting that awaited. My case of dystentery, of course, came at the most inopportune time – while we were hiking in Cajas National Park, over a mile and a half above sea level.
I was infected by the travel bug as a junior in college on a study abroad program to Ecuador. The adventure pushed me completely out of my comfort zone and caused me to challenge how and what I thought about the world. I grew up somewhat spoiled as an only child enjoying comforts that most twenty-ones year olds didn’t. Below are exerts from the journal I kept as my conventions were challenged and upturned. For the most part, these entries are raw and un-edited. That is on purpose to show the purity of the transformation I went through. The adventure took place during one of the most challenging times in Ecuador’s history as the country emerged from near civil war the year prior with the overthrow of their president and was soon adopting the US dollar as its official currency.
April 15, 2000
This has to be my worst day yet here in Ecuador. I am going to vote it the worst day I will have. I have traveler’s dysentery. On Thursday I felt something in my stomach but ignored it. The pains grew worse on Friday. After lunch, my stomach hurt so bad that I took some Pepto and a siesta. Neither helped. Like a fool, I still went out to a club that night for dancing and drinks. I would have stayed home, but it was our first Friday night in Cuenca. The school was welcoming us with a celebration, and I can’t pass up a good party. I only had a few drinks which I shouldn’t have had at all. Today I felt like my stomach was to explode when I woke up. I ignored it, ate, and went on the field trip to Cajas National Park.
Cajas is a vast cloud forest near Cuenca. It sits between 9,000 to 13,000 feet in elevation, well above the treeline. I was so looking forward to hiking there. I know, I know. That’s a strange sentiment from me. I actually wanted to go hiking. This trip is really changing me! But how many times would I have a chance to hike so high that I was above the trees? To hike where rivers started? To hike across the Continental Divide? Probably never again.
We arrived to a landscape that appeared arid and dry with speckled grass here and there. That’s pretty much all I saw. I threw up 15 minutes into our hike. My day was over. The group went on as they should, but one of the guides, Carlos, drove me back home. Why does this shit happen to me? I try to stay healthy and obey the rules always drinking only the boiled water and never eating street food. Why did I get sick? The group joked that I was hungover, but I wasn’t. I had maybe three drinks at the club. Our guides said it was probably dysentery aided with altitude sickness.
I was ashamed that I missed the rest of the hike as many endangered and endemic species live within Cajas. But I wasn’t the only one that missed out. Several others also got sick. As a positive note, at least I got my dysentery out of the way…