Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in Peru
I somehow managed to become deathly ill on my very last night in Peru. It was the dreaded "stomach thing" again. Everyone traveling here gets it at one point or another. I've had it twice in six weeks, as have all my voluntario housemates and people I've traveled with. Milt, who flew here to visit Machu Picchu with me, and to make sure I actually came home from Peru, got it a few days after he arrived, despite brushing his teeth with bottled water and following all the suggested food precautions. Generally this is nothing that a little imodium won't cure. But what hit me on this last night was the "stomach thing" with a vengeance. It came on swiftly, relentlessly and violently, con mucha fuerza. I spent my last night in Peru camped out on the bathroom floor in a hotel room in Cusco, memorizing every floor tile. By the next morning, I was so sick I could not stand up. The problem was, I had not one, but two flights to take that day, one from Cusco (the airport closest to Machu Picchu) to Lima, then later from Lima to the United States.
I crawled out of the bathroom, which I had locked myself in six hours earlier, and knew there was no way I was getting on a plane in this condition. I just couldn't imagine camping out in an airplane lavatory for eight hours, and certainly couldn't fathom what the turbulence would do to my stomach. I told Milt to go without me, that I would fly home sometime in the future when my stomach stopped hurting. When Milt realized I was totally serious about spending the rest of my life on that bathroom floor, he sprang into action. After all, part of his mission here in Peru was getting me home. He dressed me, packed my suitcase and ran to the nearest store to buy me the Peruvian facsimile of Gatorade. Meanwhile, the hotel sent someone up to my room to administer oxygen, which they made me breathe for 10 minutes. Then they tried to make me drink something, anything—coca tea, Gatorade, water—to help revive me, as at that point I was completely dehydrated. But to no avail. I could not even keep an imodium pill down.
All I wanted to do was to lay down on the cool bathroom floor again, next to my new best friend the toilet, but no one was having any of that. Milt practically carried me downstairs, and handed me three or four plastic bolsas, which he had thoughtfully confiscated from our hotel, for me to use as barf bags. Upon our arrival at the Cusco airport, no Spanish translations were necessary. The staff from LAN Peru Airlines took one look at me, promptly put me in a wheelchair and rushed over an oxygen tank for me. Then they wheeled me to the plane. OMG, was this really happening? Aren't I still too young to be pushed through a busy airport in a wheelchair with an oxygen mask over my face?
Despite their efficiency at keeping paying customers like me alive, LAN Airlines does have a track record of removing really sick people from flights before takeoff. Milt, having heard horror stories about this, kept propping up my limp-as-a-ragdoll body in my airplane seat after we pre-boarded (being in a wheelchair has its perks), and lifting up my lolling head, begging me to smile and look happy every time the flight attendants walked by my seat. I tried to tell him that if anything were to give away my true condition, it would be the unattractive pale green color of my skin, not whether I was smiling. But at that point, my words were coming out slurred, so I'm not sure if he understood. I made it through the 1 hour flight, clutching my barf bags for dear life. I spent my last afternoon in Lima sleeping in a dark hotel room until it was time to catch the next plane, not having enough energy to even go outside to give my beloved city of Lima a last look, or a proper goodbye.
I was still feeling shaky as we headed to the airport for our flight to the U.S. I slept for the entire eight hours home, something I have never done before. Milt kept checking to see if I was still breathing. I still couldn't look at food, even though I hadn't eaten in almost 36 hours. This isn't the method I would recommend for losing a quick 10 pounds overnight.
This was NOT, needless to say, how I wanted my last memory of Peru, the country I had fallen in love with, to be. No one wants to remember leaving anywhere in a wheelchair, with an oxygen mask on, in extreme pain, convinced she is going to die. I cannot allow myself to remember my goodbye to Peru like that. So, I will remember my farewell in a different way. Perhaps whatever brought on this illness the day I was to fly out of the country was telling me that it wasn’t time for me to leave Peru yet. Perhaps I was meant to stay longer. Perhaps I still had unfinished work to do here. I don't know. It's a nice thought. Whatever it was, I have made peace with it, and the less-than-perfect ending to my mission will in no way tarnish my feelings for this wonderful country, or my feelings of happiness and pride in making a small contribution to the community of Villa el Salvador during my short stay here. In the words of my seatmate who got sick in our tiny plane in Nasca, "It's all part of the experience."