Perfectly constructed by God to allow us to function and stay alive, the human body is a tightly oiled machine. Despite constantly being amazed by God’s various creations, I had not previously acknowledged just how amazing our bodies actually are until mine stopped working.
If you have read my other stories you may know that I spent 6 weeks studying abroad in Guatemala last summer. You may also know that I had many adventures while in Central America…including almost dying. I have written several stories about Guatemala, roughly one for each week I spent there, and this is simply going to be is the next installment in the series. The setting occurs at the end of week three and the beginning of my quick decline. (Read the previous three stories first for the full effect).
Shortly after hiking up El Volcán de Santa María (and by shortly after I mean the second I reached the top) I began to feel churning in my stomach…and not the butterflies kind. The kind of churning where there may or not be tiny circus knife throwers in your intestines and they have either really bad aim or really good aim depending on if you think they are psychopaths or not. (Though aren’t all knife throwers some sort of psychotic? I digress). I basically had stabbing pains and an intense nausea that came over my whole being.
I attributed those feelings to the fact that I had just hiked a 12,000 foot tall volcano, but in the back of my mind I also entertained the idea that I had been experiencing what I deemed “traveler’s diarrhea” since my third day in Antigua and this may or not be connected (spoiler: it was).
I began to joke with the girls that I had amoebas. Hearing all of the locals talk about them, I figured that’s what had to be wrong with me. I would refer to myself as ‘we’ in conversation, careful to include the possible parasites in case they happened to get easily offended and decided to take me out on the spot.
I spent the next week going to Spanish school and feeling my body slowly deteriorate until I was a shell of who I once was. A shell that spent several nights that week crying on the bathroom floor, dry-heaving and worrying my host moms.
Thursday night I was at my worst (thus far), and told my host family I should probably see a doctor. They asked me if I was sure because I would probably get ripped off, and offered me some magical lemon tea. Rafael, the 90 year old grandpa of the house told me he would take me if I really felt terrible, and I told him I would wait and see if I felt better the next day.
Spoiler, the tea didn’t help and I found myself back in the bathroom later that evening. I managed to peel myself up off the concrete long enough to watch a lightning storm that would rival the events occurring in my stomach. And I made a decision.
As I sat amidst the storm, the rain disguising my tears as I watched lightening strike rapidly in succession I decided that no matter how violently my body was rejecting being in Guatemala I was not going to miss out on any experiences while I was there. Turns out the part of me that makes decisions and determines cost/benefit ratios was over-enthusiastic about this new mindset because were it functioning rationally I would not have agreed to go on the weeked trip the girls in my program were taking to Lake Atitlán.
Lake Atitlán, according to most sources online, is the most beautiful lake in the world. Lonely Planet Guide even calls it “the closest thing to Eden on Earth.” (So you can see why I went even though I felt like death if it were a person).
We took yet another shuttle, driving northwest until we arrived at Panajachel…where we realized a storm was coming. Which was perfect because the boat we would be taking across the lake for 45 minutes to get to our hostel looked like it was made out of styrofoam.
We boarded the boat and prepared ourselves for the rain as we traveled to San Pedro La Laguna, a town where we found a hostel for 7 dollars a night. (That may have been because you had to pay an arm and a leg to take a boat to get anywhere else on the lake, but the hostel had a hot tub so it was totally worth it).
The boat ride to get there was terrible to say the least. As my stomach was already doing somersaults, riding in a boat so flimsy I could feel each wave as we bumped over it heading deeper and deeper into a thunderstorm is probably not going to make the highlight reel of my best ideas.
Neither is me trying to take a panorama picture of the surrounding mountains while riding in a boat during the aforementioned conditions.
We somehow found ourselves travelling towards the eye of the storm instead of away from it, and our boat driver assured us that everything would be fine.
“Es solo un poco de lluvia” he shouted at us from the back of the boat. Which roughly translates to “these stupid white girls still have to pay me for this.”
(Okay, so that is not actually the translation, but that is what I imagined him to be saying as he shifted directions and the rain began to hit us in the eyeballs, travelling at speeds of probably at least 30 mph).
We arrived in San Pedro and opted for a tuk-tuk ride to our hostel instead of the 2 mile walk in a torrential downpour. Being that we did not budget for this transportation, we crammed all 5 of us into a 2 person tuk-tuk, (even though they are really not that expensive), and snaked our way through the alleys, catching glimpses of the buildings through the rain.
We arrived at our hostel a century later (and soaking wet), got settled in, waited for the rain to slow, then went to eat dinner at a local restaurant. At which I ate roughly 7 french fries. (Red flag number 325).
The next day we went to explore the surrounding pueblos, our first stop being San Juan, which we walked for hours in the blazing sun to get to (at least is wasn’t raining), and spent most of the day checking out the women’s textile co-ops the town is known for.
A young Maya woman at one of the co-ops gave us a demonstration of how they make their pieces, starting with picking the cotton and removing the seeds to pulling and spinning the cotton into thread, making dye out of plants and substances around the lake, dyeing the thread, then backstrap-weaving all of the colors together to make various clothing items, blankets, bags, and more.
I saw so many clothes in so many colors, and I’d like to blame all of the walking and the heat on making me weak, both in my physical body and in my resolve, because I spent way too much money, buying both knick-knacks and bigger pieces such as a scarf for my Nonna, a shawl/wrap for myself, and of course a hand-woven bag to keep all of my stuff in.
Not only was all of the work beautiful, but so was the town.
After San Juan we took a boat over to San Antonio Palopó, a small town that specialized in making ceramics. By the time we had explored San Antonio we were exhausted, so we headed back to San Pedro and hung out in the hot tub at out hostel, watching the sky change, and trying to avoid watching the locals bathe naked in the lake in front of us.
We ate dinner at the hostel. And by we I mean the other girls.
J: “You are not going to eat? You haven’t really eaten in days?”
Me: “The amoebas aren’t hungry.”
J: “You should really go see a doctor.”
Me: “You are probably right…”
The next day I got up for the sunrise, then we spent our last few hours exploring San Pedro, taking in the sights before we had to leave.
We took a boat back to Panajachel, admiring San Pedro as we left, noticing all of the colors that were previously obscured by the rain.
We arrived back at Panajachel only to wait for our shuttle which would then take us to spend the rest of our Sunday at Chichicastenango, a hub for tourism.
Unfortunately the town was also a hub for strong smells and sweaty crowds, leading me to navigate the isles holding back vomit and trying not to pass out. I passed on eating lunch, promising the girls that I would go to the hospital when we got back to Antigua, bought a couple souvenirs, and walked around in a daze until they told us it was time to leave.
We boarded the shuttle again, except this time it was overly-packed with people trying to return to Antigua and despite arriving first, I managed to end up in the back corner seat of the bus.
Let me tell you why this was the worst thing that could possibly happen.
- I get car sick in regular cars, let alone shuttle buses filled to the brim with people.
- I had been holding back vomit all day.
- I was seated next to a *very* nice professor from Montana but either him or someone close to him had the worst BO possibly ever.
- I was positive I had tiny creatures living inside of me and they were not excited about spending three hours in a shuttle driving through the ‘s’-shaped streets of Guatemala .
We headed out and I manage to make friendly small talk for the first hour for the trip. I learned about the professor and his children, talked about my life in Austin, and we told stories about our trips so far.
Suddenly a wave of nausea crashed over me. I put my head against the window and closed my eyes, trying to steady my breathing.
You should know something about me. I often get anxiety induced panic attacks that are so bad they sometimes cause me to throw up. They began the end of my sophomore year of high school when I started my first real job, intensified the first day of my junior year as I threw up in front of my hypochondriac of a teacher, and have continued throughout my whole college career.
So just imagine me sitting there… car-sick, sick-sick, and now panicking about possibly puking in the back of a moving van full of strangers.
I apparently went pale and looked so out of it that the professor discretely pulled out an empty tupperware container from his backpack and held it in his lap, waiting for me to lose it.
Professor: “Are you okay?”
Me: “Yes sir. I just get car sick… (And might be hosting an army of parasites. (Though I only thought this part)).
After 30 minutes of riding in agony, I knew it was time. This was going to happen.
I pulled out a plastic bag from my backpack and turned to the professor.
Me: “I am pretty sure I am going to throw up now.”
Professor: (calmly) “Okay.”
Professor: (less calmly) “DRIVER! La chica era VOMITAR. Ahora! Ella necesita PULL OVER NOW.
The spanish was broken but the message was clear. The whole bus turned back to look at me as I shoved my face in the plastic bag, willing myself to wait until we pulled over. I would not throw up in front of these people.
The bus driver seemed less concerned than my fellow passengers, explaining that there was traffic and he could not lose his spot on the road. I would have to wait for 5 miles until the next gas station.
I somehow managed to hold it in, the following minutes blurring by, when I felt the bus turn and come to a screeching halt. Everybody in the bus stood up and got on their seats, making room for me to run by.
The bus driver yelled something at me as I jumped off of the bus but I didn’t hear him. I was too focused on making it to a toilet and not embarrassing myself any more that I already had. I reached the building that housed the restrooms and ran around the side, searching for a door. It is there that I pieced together what the bus driver was trying to tell me.
Turns out gas station bathrooms in Guatemala are locked and guarded by armed military who possess both automatic firearms and the keys to the toilet.
The two men only halfway raised their guns when I came frantically running around their blind side. I suppose they quickly noted my panicked state…my bugging eyes, my hands covering my mouth, and probably my whiteness because they lowered their weapons, got the key without questions, and unlocked the restroom for me.
It is in that tiny outdoor Guatemalan restroom, as I listened the guards whispering no doubt about me, that I finally puked my guts out and became 100% sure that I was sick.
I thanked the guards as I left, their eyes refusing to make contact with mine. I took the walk of shame back to the bus, was ushered to the passenger seat by the driver, and rode the rest of the trip in silence, bracing myself as we reached the cobblestone streets of Antigua. We made it back to the home-stay and I definitely cried a little.
Then I went to the hospital. (Though that is a story for another time).
As I finish writing this I have realized that there is really no moral to this story, except maybe trust your body and don’t take trips to the lake if you are sick. Though I can’t really even say that wholeheartedly because it was totally worth it and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I mean, look at this view.