Living the Dream (In the Fetal Position)

Today, I am not at work because I woke up feeling really run down and cruddy. Again. I’d guess I have a small fever, but have no thermometer to verify it. I haven’t felt like myself, physically, for two weeks now (ugh), and all the thoughts I don’t want to have are creeping in… Like how easy life is in NYC, how liberating it is to eat without worrying about microscopic amoebas infecting you, how much I LOVE and MISS summer — real summer — and weekends upstate by the pool, bike rides in Riverside Park, rows on the Harlem River with my teammates, tropical drinks on humid nights, flash thunderstorms from humidity-overload, sweaty walks around the Upper West Side mid-day, and wearing little shorts and pretty sandals day and night without feeling even slightly unsafe.

Being here just reminds me how much I love life in NYC so much. Life is so easy when I’m home. I wait all year for summer; I count down the days, the hours, the seconds until it arrives. But this year, I have to skip it. After a winter that was as UP as it was down, I needed my summer. I still need it. Last summer I felt cheated; it rained, it was cold, it began with me having it all and ended with me losing it all. But fall was perfection — truly wonderful. And here I am in Quito, in some vague confusing season that is freezing at times and hot like summer at other times. The clouds mean nothing here. One second it’s raining or on the verge of rain, the next second it is clear as can be. There is no order to it — no way of predicting the day. You just go out there into the streets of Quito, prepared for all the elements, and see what hits you by nightfall. Maybe that sums up my entire experience here.

I guess a rough patch is to be expected when you leave everything you know to take on an adventure in a foreign country, and end up hooked up to IVs in a hospital within weeks of arriving on a one-way ticket. Now, here’s the story…

Life from a hammock in Tumbaco. Ecuador.

Last week, I felt sick to my stomach… very sick, and often. But not from something I ate (or so I thought). It was really just uncomfortable, like something was definitely wrong but I couldn’t figure out what or why. I just assumed it was me getting used to the food/life here. I’ve traveled a lot, and sometimes the stomach has to make some adjustments.

The first three weeks I felt absolutely FINE. I ate anything and everything, and felt golden. But two Fridays ago, I went to a chifa (Ecuadorian/Peruvian Chinese food restaurant, if that makes sense). Then I went out that night, had a decent amount of beer, and woke up Saturday feeling really… yucky. I knew it wasn’t a hangover, because I didn’t drink THAT much, but I just assumed it would go away over the course of the morning/afternoon. I’ve gotten used to blaming everything on the altitude.

It didn’t go away. In fact, I felt much worse on Sunday. I still thought the nausea would eventually pass, but I began to get horrible stomach cramps that just got worse and worse. They’d come in waves — miserable waves. I’d be fine for an hour, and then I’d feel – for several minutes – like there was a small animal with sharp teeth crawling through my stomach and making a mess of things. (Oh the joys of travel…)

I’ll spare you details, but I will add that nothing wild and crazy was going on (yep, you lucked out this post!). All I can say is that I just felt sick in a way I never felt sick before, and the stomach cramps were getting worse. I even attempted the gym twice, thinking that maybe my body was out of wack because I hadn’t worked out regularly and I needed to eliminate the severe bloating I was experiencing. I felt like a sour-stomach blob, and I wanted to try everything and anything I could on my own before sucking it up and heading to an Ecuadorian doctor. I usually avoid medicine every chance I get.

The weekend arrived, and my roommate, Kari, and I were planning to go to Tumbaco, a town slightly outside of Quito where our two Austrian friends had so kindly invited us for a weekend escape. We were planning to watch the USA vs England World Cup game, eat some delicious food, and one of the women – Sonja – and I were going to go mountain biking while Kari and Dorit relaxed in the hammocks.

Tumbaco, Ecuador.

On the bus ride out to Tumbaco, I started realizing I was in really bad shape. I had woken up with my whole body aching. I definitely had a fever, and this “bug” so to speak was beginning to take over. Things were definitely getting worse, not better. I felt like I was carrying around triple my weight, and the stomach cramps were more severe, like someone was taking a hot poker and stabbing me with it. I knew I was sick, but without a doctor and knowing I was already on a bus out of the city, I had no choice but to tough it out.

Tumbaco was beautiful, but needless to say, I did not go mountain biking. I’d momentarily forget my stomach pain during the thrilling US vs England game, but then it would come back in painful jolts, and I’d smile and cheer while I silently thought about how I might need to either throw up or curl up in a fetal position and close my eyes. I kept getting cold sweats, and getting lightheaded. It was probably time to think about taking medicine, but I had nothin’.

I spent most of the weekend curled up in a hammock with golden retrievers coming up to me, giving me kisses. I hated making people worry, but everyone could pretty much tell that I probably had a parasite since it’s so “normal” here, kind of like an initiation into living in a developing country.

I dreaded night time, because I had been waking up every night in horrible pain from whatever was going on, sweating, and losing sleep. I couldn’t stop shivering, and I knew I had a fever. My body shook so much I was worried I’d chip a tooth! My blood seemed to be replaced by molasses, and every joint in my body hurt, like an extreme flu. They gave me a super warm sleeping bag and a hot water pouch to hug while I slept, but I just curled up as small as I could and still felt like I was in a bathtub full of ice. My body was stiff, my stomach was wildly cramping, and I was exhausted — from lack of sleep and from hurting. I had played it off like I was ok long enough, gone to work every day, tried to walk it off… but now I knew I wasn’t ok.

Tree flower. Tumbaco, Ecuador.

The next morning, we went to a beautiful and delicious brunch. I tried to enjoy it but I was definitely suffering. When it was time to leave Tumbaco, Kari and I had to take a rickey bus back to the city. This is when things got really bad. I felt nauseous, my stomach was in poor shape, and I was stuck on a crowded bus 10,000 feet up with a bag full of stuff, maneuvering sharp turns, rocky roads, and overall unplesant-ness given my state.

We finally got home, and I had four flights of stairs to get up before I could curl into a ball. I could barely walk. When I got up to the apartment, I began researching doctors in my Lonely Planet and on the Viva Guides website, but every doctor I called was closed at 5pm on a Sunday. I called again, asked friends if they had a doctor, asked Ecuadorians what they suggested, called their doctors… nothing.

Then, it happened. I broke down. I didn’t want my roommate to see me, but it was inevitable. After an hour of frustration, feeling like death, I just closed my eyes, curled up in a chair, and let the first tear of defeat roll down my cheek. Kari walked by to get something from the kitchen, saw me, took one look, and said, “OK, that’s it. Get up, we’re going to the hospital.” I knew she was right. I couldn’t be tough anymore. I needed help. She said “Get your ID, your credit card, bring some cash, and take something to drink… We’re going right now.” And so we went.

It took about ten minutes to find a cab. We took it to Hospital Metropolitano — the best hospital in the area. We walked straight into the emergency room, went up to the front desk, they looked at my face, and took me to a doctor right away. Even in the ER, when Kari would say, like a protective mom, “My friend is VERY sick and we need help now” I was tempted to say “well, I’m not that sick…” but, uh, I was. I just have a really high tolerance for pain, apparently, and apparently I’m not very good at gauging how badly I am doing. For example, when I dislocated my knee a couple years ago and went to the hospital, they asked me how much it hurt on a scale of 1 to 10. I knew I was in a LOT of pain, but figured it could hurt a lot more (hello, childbirth?!) So, I said “Umm, I think a seven… or maybe an eight? Oh, but I walked here and almost blacked out twice from on my way….” The doctor looked up from her clipboard and said “That’s a ten. If you almost black out from pain, that is a TEN.” I said ohhh, ok… “Then, a ten.” Got it.

In the ER, which was nicer than any ER I have ever been in (thank goodness), they brought me to a little curtained room. Kari stuck by me the whole time. I told her she could go if she wanted, but she said, “Honey, I’m not going anywhere. Nobody should be in a hospital in a foreign country alone.” And she stayed with me. She stayed with me while I changed into my white smock, and made me drink the apple-flavored Pedialyte  she made me buy on my way to the hospital.

Then, just what I feared: they told me they were going to need to do some blood work and hook me up to an IV for a few hours. When the stoic male nurse told me this, I broke down… Again. Yep. I’m tough. But, just understand, I hadn’t shed a tear in weeks and I had just let the waterworks go before we got there, so once I let them go, it’s hard to shut that shit off! Plus, this is my irrational fear: NEEDLES! I hate them! I have avoided an IV my entire life, and there I was, in a foreign hospital in a developing country, in a white smock, in a lot of pain, about to get hooked up for four hours to a bag of fluid. I felt defeated, and I was scared. But Kari, once again, was there for me: “You can do this Rachel, and it’s going to make you feel SO much better. I’m here for you if you want to cry like a fucking baby. I’m not going anywhere.”

I had no choice but to suck it up, give them my left arm, and face my silly fear of needles. After they took blood and put in the IV, with me covering my eyes and trying not to be a wimp, they left to do more testing. There I was, in a curtained room, with a bag of fluid dripping into my body, in Ecuador. Kari could see how freaked out I was by the IV, so she went over and covered it with my fleece so I wouldn’t have to see it. And that is where and how I was for four hours. Much to my surprise, I even had fun. Kari and I talked about all sorts of things to distract me. We laughed (a lot, actually), we tried to eavesdrop on other patients, we joked around, she messed with my bed and made it suddenly drop a few inches by accident (I was NOT happy about that!) and… I guess… it wasn’t so bad.

Then the doctor rushed in with my blood results. She said, “OK, there is something you need to know. One of the tests we did was to measure the PCR, which is basically a way of measuring the inflammation in your body. A normal, healthy amount is between 0.1 and 5. When someone is really sick, they usually measure at around 50. We got your results, and, well, you are at 135.1… You are really, really sick. That is off the charts.” I was shocked. I said “135.1? And normal is 0.1 to 5???” She said, “Yes… Your body is VERY inflamed. We’re going to need to keep you on the IV and do some more tests, but you probably have a bacterial infection, and you might also have a parasite…” (Mind you, this was all in Spanish…) Then she gave me a cup. OH yes, the cup. I think you know where this is going, so I will leave it at that.

I have to say, there was something satisfying about now having a number that could explain how I felt. 135.1 — off the charts. I wasn’t crazy. I was hurting. This pain was real: I was sick, and I tolerated way more than I should have. But finally, I was getting help.

Four and a half hours after entering the hospital, several blood tests, a bag full of IV fluid, a few tears, and a lot of laughs with Kari later, I was released. I had to go back for a follow-up the next day (at which point I found out that, not only had I gotten a bad bacterial infection from something I ate, but I was also the lucky host of an amoeba/parasite, which is probably the cutest of parasites but disheartening to know, nonetheless). I was told to get started on some medications, and fight this bug until its death. It’s on, Amoeba!

I didn’t make it to work Monday or Tuesday, but forced myself to go Wednseday. I also went Thursday, and felt like I was going to puke most of the day, but was revved up from the Argentina win, for which I got up (silly me) at 6am to go watch with my friends Mark (from Canada), Desiree (from Portland, OR), and Clemence (from Paris) in a plaza with pancakes and a cappuccino before work. Last night, Kari and I met up again with Dorit, Sonja, as well as their Chilean, Austrian, Puerto Rican, and Colombian friends at a very cool restaurant/bar/live music spot called Pobre Diable (where Anthony Bourdain met up with a musician on his No Reservations show in Ecuador). Deprived of real food for weeks, I got the best steak I’ve had yet, and then realized I had probably pushed myself too hard… again… and left early to get some rest.

I woke up this morning, sickish. Still. I just took my last dose of cipro, and I know that I have no choice but to REST today (and this weekend). I’m tired of feeling sick, of not being myself, of not getting to enjoy all that I came here for. It’s time to get better, and to get on with this adventure — for realz.

So that is what happened, in all its glory. I’m not particularly proud of breaking down in tears, or having to go to the hospital, or how long I waited to go to the hospital, but I had been strong long enough. Sometimes, you have to allow yourself to be weak and sick so that you can finally get better. Sometimes, you’ve just got to listen to your body when it talks over your ego.

Being sick in another country, far away from all the comforts of home, is not easy. I can’t get the comforts of home out of my head. Part of me would do anything to be back in NYC, where it feels safe and secure, where I can take care of myself the way I need to and want to. But I can’t tell you how grateful I am for new friends who are looking out for me, especially Kari, who was there for me the whole hospital visit and somehow even got me laughing as I lay there for four hours with not much covering me but a white sheet, and a needle going through my vein.

Monday was the one-month mark for my time here in Quito. While the last two weeks have been really tough, I’m hoping this just improves my street cred’ as a travel writer.

It’s funny (or not)… I came to Quito to live the dream, to pursue my passion, to have an adventure, to welcome any and all experiences that might come along with it. And within one month, I’ve ended up in the hospital. I don’t know what the universe is trying to tell me here, but I’ve got something to say back to it:

I might be missing home right now, and I might want nothing more than to go to chai with my best friends, to spend the weekends in the hot tub of my parent’s beautiful old farmhouse upstate eating the most amazing food and delicious salads (the number one thing I miss eating is SALAD – siiigh)…. But I’m here in Quito to experience all of this — the good and the bad. In my first month here, I’ve had to face my fear of needles, I’ve had to go number two in a cup (yeah, you heard me. What? It’s science!), and I’ve had to spend hours shivering in the fetal position, wondering what the heck is wrong with my body, hoping I can just get better and finally feel like I’m taking advantage of this opportunity the way I always dreamed I would…

But that was the first month. The second month begins… now.



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17 responses to “Living the Dream (In the Fetal Position)

  1. libby

    Hey Tavel, I am so glad you are okay and on the road to recovery! You should feel no shame about any of this. I would have broke down long before you did! You are one tough cookie. Rest up this weekend, we miss you here at the office! If you need anything just text or call me, even if it’s just a friend to visit and watch movies with 🙂

    • travelswithtavel

      Thank you soooo much Libby! I will probably take you up on that tomorrow 🙂 Hate to be missing so much work. UGH. But the priority is to get better right now so we can live it up in Quito!

  2. Emily

    man, we think we’re so much more evolved than those yucky bugs, but they can take us down! They can even take YOU down, warrior-girl-who-never-cries! I’m glad you got help – you have a good roomie down there! XO

  3. Emily

    we think we’re so much more evolved than those bugs, but they can still take us down! Even you – warrior-girl-who-never-cries! I’m glad you’re feeling better! xo

  4. Erin

    Rachel! So sorry to hear of your illness! I would agree that it adds to your streat cred- you’re badass now (can I write this one your blog?!). I remember your fear of needles from senior year dance class and our funny dance! Also, the test that you had was ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) not PCR- sorry the geneticist had to say something 🙂 Hope you are back on your feet having great adventures soon! NYC misses you, too!

    • travelswithtavel

      Thanks Erin! I think the PCR (preteina c reactiva) thing is a Spanish translation, but I have the results right here and that’s what it says! I’m sure you’re right though. Thank you so much for the message, for tuning in, and for making me think NYC might really miss me 🙂

  5. Katie

    It is all up from here! 🙂 We all have to pay to live the dream, whether it is a cute amoeba or $50,000 of music school debt. But its worth it, right!?! 🙂

  6. missy

    oh, tav…

    1) who doesn’t love golden retrievers giving kisses?
    2) gracias a dios for kari! ole, kari!
    3) while i know you miss all the comforts of home — especially with it being summer and all — let me just remind you of the feeling of “the grass is always greener on the other side…” if you were in new york city right now, you’d undoubtedly LOVE summer but at the same time be sitting at cafe con leche sipping a fruity drink (yum!) wondering why, oh why, you can’t be doing that in a foreign country. and you’d probably also be wondering why life can’t just hand you some lemonade — even if it comes with a side of, well, lemons. i guess what i’m trying to say is that you are a trooper… and many times it requires the lemons to be able to appreciate the lemonade. now that you’ve had the lemons, drink up my friend! and don’t forget to add some sugar. 🙂 just make sure to make enough for the two of you — you and your amoeba, por supuesto.

  7. Sarah Z

    Oh Tavel…as I said on fb, never a dull moment my friend. I’m so sorry for all your health trouble but glad you’re battling it out now. As for missing NYC – I completely understand and would be surprised if you didn’t. But what I want to say to that…remember the summers you spent in those cafes on the UWS – and as wonderful as they were, the grass looked a lot greener from there when dreaming of becoming a travel writer…and now you’re there! NYC summers will always be here, long after oppotunities like this have come and gone. And your city (and all of your friends who miss you so much) will be waiting with open arms.

  8. Nate

    RACHEL! I JUST READ YOUR BLOG POST AND MY EYES ARE WATERING! But that was actually just a coincidence. It happens to be raining here, on my face. And I’ve been chopping onions. And just had my eyes dilated. And… okay, I was tearing up because of your post, and the details, and how tough it must have been, and how you’ve been such a good older sister to me recently, and now I read this and I couldn’t do anything to help, much less knew anything of that was going on!

    (I hope you’re doing well now!)

    I have been reading your blog posts though, and think they’re great. You’re really good at describing how you felt! I started to feel it! And it felt TERRIBLE!!

    But anyway, good job toughing it out! This is such a GREAT experience for you, and you’re growing so much, and getting so many great new stories and great new friends (AT LAST!).

    Much love,
    P.S. I really enjoy your blog! It’s a great mid-day trip to take, and fun to read!

  9. Susana

    I’ve been trying to skype you, but you seem to be off line all the time, and I don’t know what that means…. whether you are all curled up in the fetal position, or out on the town drinking pisco sours and partying, and feeling better? Please let me know!

    Right now you are going through the harshest difficulties, both from the emotional and physical point of view, and that’s the stuff of adventure and travel in foreign lands: One can feel lonely, homesick, ill, unsettled… it feels terrible while you’re going through all the difficult times, but those bad moments make for great stories to tell later on, and reassure you that you can take it, that you can get through anything. Good things will come to you next; you’ll see.

    One thing you must make sure of is that you get the right kind of medical attention; please make sure of that, and don’t be tougher than you need to. Do you know what bacteria and or amoeba you are dealing with? Have you gone to another doctor, just to make sure that they are looking at your condition not just from the emergency room perspective, but also by a caring physician? I wish I could nurse you back to health, give you some ginger tea, some nice cookies, and lots of hugs. Here we are all concerned about you, and hope that your days begin to feel a little happier and more hopeful. Do you know what the prognosis is for your condition? That will be reassuring, and will make you feel more confident that this experience is just a passing cloud.

    The silver lining of this situation is that you must be doing something right: you have so many friends that are giving you support. I’m very impressed by all the love and encouragement you are getting from them all, Please give a special hug to Kari, who I wish I could thank personally for all her kindness.

    In the meantime, kiss your friendly amoeba good by! Send her away into the brown cloud where she belongs!

  10. sarah

    rachel!!! you poor thing. i had no idea how sick you were. hope you’re feeling better now…. you’re a tough traveler now, and what a story!

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