I call it, “living in my head” and am usually sequestered to this claustrophobically small space under one of the following conditions: my 12th consecutive hour in an office, my 4th cup of coffee in one hour, falling in love or severe physical illness. In this case, it’s the last.
I can feel my peripheral vision shrinking by the second and grab my head with both hands in a last attempt to salvage or stabilize a single awareness beyond my shaking body. But there’s no escape; I’m cornered. The contents of my stomach make threatening lurches up my esophagus. Flaming arrows pierce my upper abdomen by the dozen. An externally audible gurgling suggests my stomach has been hit and is sinking with speed. And my skin, fighting first with fire, and then retreating with crawls of chills, cries violently that this battle has only just begun. I set up camp next to the toilet, conflicted only by the question of whether to sit or kneel. In the trenches of the bathroom, I crouch through (what feels like) countless delirious hours of darkness before the sunrise sneaks an early ray of light through my window and I wake to the terrible but telltale clue confirming my condition: sulfur burps. For those lucky enough to not know them, sulfur burps are the notorious signature and unquestionable evidence that a body has been massacred by, none other than, the infamous Giardia parasite.
I walk out the door of my hotel but, still navigating the narrow hall of a body that’s turned all its attention inwards, am oblivious to the horizon expanding effect that fresh air, mountains, and sunrise usually have upon me. My world stops about five inches from my body and my mind resists any attempt to cross that frontline. So I bundle up, get on the bus that will take us to our trek start point, collapse into a seat, lean my head against the window and, unable to even look through the glass, catch only a withered, pale and pathetic reflection of my face before closing my eyes and falling asleep.
When I’m “living in my tiny little head,” everyone knows it as I am a sensitive little creature who is especially miserable when she is miserable. As well, since I spend a good amount of my breathing on showing my amusement, the absence of my laugh is louder than any condition of which I could complain. When we arrive at the clearing where our porters and lamas have gathered, I have to pick up my body parts along with my pack and urge them all to a comfortable stone on which I can collapse.
Javier, our acclaimed and ruggedly handsome guide, puts a tanned and tough hand on my shoulder and says, “Ah. Pobrecita. I’m glad you brought your antibiotics. As soon as we get to camp, we’ll unpack and you’ll start them.” I don’t like taking antibiotics, but there’s not a finger of resistance in me and I agree with a feeble nod.
One of the men from our trekking crew approaches me. He has rosy cheeks chapped with mountain air, little twinkles in each of his eyes like that of a cartoon character, and a smile so earnest and natural that I have no memory of him without it. He introduces himself as Enir, the Head Cook, and puts his hands together in the motions of concocting as he explains that what I need is an infusion of anis and apio to calm my stomach. I’m too tired to even raise an eyebrow at the ill-matched combination of licorice and celery, but manage a weak smile of appreciation.
When we finally reach out first campsite, I crawl into my tent, unpack my bag, pull out my emergency antibiotics and swallow them without hesitation. I then insert a fleece liner into my 0 degree sleeping bag, slip in, and, as advised by Javier, stuff my entire bag-encased lower body into the duffle bag as well. Finally, my chills are, if not absent, contained.
Having not eaten for 24 hours, I can actually feel the antibiotics clearing a path through my body. I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, but with the dropping of the atomic-antibiotic-bomb, the gurgling comes to a shuddering halt, and all is suddenly quite on the southern front.
Enir appears at my tent with a mug of steaming liquid and passes it through the A-frame of my door, “Apio y Anis; specialty of the house, just for you.”
I muster all that’s left of me to sit upright and accept the tea. I take a sip and sigh my appreciation and Enir is happy for my apparent approval of his home remedy.
A chronic classifier of the events that befall my life into what meaningful omens I can make of them, I have been struggling all day to sort out what conceivable purpose this terrible parasite could have that would pile up in advantages against the hole in which I’ve been buried.
I take a sip and ask, “Enir, what happens when people in the villages here are sick like me?”
He calmly answers, “Well. We have our own remedies, like apio tea, which we can use at first. And if things get really bad, we have to travel to town, which can sometimes take a few days. And there, it can be hard, because the people that live out here are not accustomed to the city, and can be taken advantage of. It’s good you have brought your pills and can take them. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
I will feel better tomorrow. It’s a luxury of my economic advantage (access to medicine, proper alimentation and care) and I know it. I also know that this 24-hour experiential lesson in the illnesses spread by waterborne diseases, such as the giardia parasite, is a demonstration of exactly the type of disease outbreaks that our service project has the aim of alleviating. Our primary project is to repair a reservoir and trench the piping that will allow the village of Quelqanqa access to clear, clean and potable water. And the timing of, and appreciations inspired by, my illness, do not escape me – as I hand back the empty mug, muster a weak smile, collapse back into my bag, and pass out.