The IV bag was still half-full of rehydration fluid when I started badgering the nurse to discharge me. “Por favor, estoy bien,” I said, with my best I’m-all-better-now smile. Two hours earlier, I’d been vomiting on the emergency room floor and begging for narcotics to relieve the bone-cracking pain in my skull and joints. Now, I couldn’t wait to get back to the Managua Best Western, with its AC and speedy internet connection.
Dengue fever! This was going to make a great story for my weblog!
For two summers in a row I traveled alone across southern Mexico and Central America. I couldn’t have done it without my blog, La Junkie, so called after a nickname I’d had as an exchange student in rural Argentina. The other students called me La Junkie. It took me, as a 17-year old non-IV drug user, months to figure out that they were saying “Yankee” in an Argentine accent. I set up La Junkie as a way to let my friends and extended family keep track of me without sending those obnoxious group emails. But it quickly took on a life of its own.
“An adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered,” said the English writer G.K. Chesterton, and I wholeheartedly agree. The question is how to rightly consider your inconveniences: your illnesses, pickpocketings, and 28-hour bus rides. For me, the weblog was a way to reframe experiences using the simple formula of hellacious = hilarious. A hotel robbery in which I lost my Discman, Dictaphone, $40, and my laptop computer with three weeks of unsent work on it became “a slapstick-style odyssey through the Mexican police bureaucracy.” On a terrifying border town hotel: “It wasn’t a flophouse, but let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m not afraid of cockroaches!”
In On the Psalms, C.S. Lewis wrote: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” Or, the pleasure is in the telling. We love to talk about what we love. We also love to talk about what we hate. Complaining: the appointed consummation of inconvenience.
I had a lot to complain about the summer I was in Nicaragua. I had just graduated from college and was researching for a travel guide, which was a great gig. I’d done it the summer before in Mexico and had had an amazing, “strong woman alone in the beautiful world” experience that almost had me dropping out of college to hitchhike down to Tierra del Fuego. But Nicaragua kind of sucked, though I didn’t want to admit it at the time. I got sick of traveling. Sick of staring out the window of bouncing buses on the way to somewhere else. Sick of sleeping in hammocks and on pallets and on the decks of cargo ships. Sick of flickering electricity and outhouses and fried fatback with mashed yucca. I got sick of my own company in dimly lit hotel rooms and sick of the company of others – noisy Israelis, amorous Nicas, Danish backpackers who wanted to debate American gun laws. Sick of the company of Paolo, the Italian ceramicist I’d met in Granada – sick of his voice and his chest hair and his fastidious way of folding his T-shirts, just as sick of him after ten days, I felt, as I would have been if we’d been married for ten years.
I checked my email and updated my blog constantly. To escape from and complain about the heat. To turn it all from a pain in the ass into an Adventure. With the weblog, I was simultaneously adventurer and quiet homebody. The process of turning experience into narrative made me think through my reader’s eyes: “Gee, Emily must be one tough cookie!” I would think, imagining my friends reading about my exploits on their laptops at a Cambridge Starbucks. With this tough cookie vision of myself firmly in place, I dealt with the unpleasantries of solo Third World travel with equanimity.
About five weeks into the trip, as far from civilization as it is possible to be in that country, I got really sick. I woke up one night in a thatched hut on the banks of the Rio San Juan and nudged Paolo awake.
“I’ve got malaria,” I said. Paolo frowned sagaciously and took my pulse at the wrist.
“You have a fever,” he said, in the Italo-Spanish we used to communicate. His inability to speak English was another thing that I was sick of. “Take an aspirin.” I crawled out from under the mosquito net and shuffled into the bathroom, where I curled up in the concrete shower stall, shaking and hugging my Traveler’s Medical Guide to my chest. I checked my symptoms: fever, shaking, nausea, sweating, weakness, headache. Oh, shit.
We waited for the panga boat to come back and take us upriver for two days. I lay in the hammock, chewing Tylenol and wrapping my head in cold towels, while Paolo wandered around, bare-chested and dripping wet from dips in the river. The Indian women who cooked and cleaned at the lodge made me tea from leaves and barks to help with the nausea. I looked at a waterlogged mystery novel I’d found, reading with one eye shut because my vision had gone double. Paolo brought me wet towels for my forehead and toddled off to search for turtles.
Rio San Juan. The Saint John River. The 200-mile long natural border between Southeast Nicaragua and Northeast Costa Rica. Described as a lush, tropical paradise, I had been moving it back on my itinerary ever since I heard that it was full of snakes. There were no phones in Rio San Juan, and only periodic electricity. The “ecolodge” I was staying at had some kind of radio system for communicating with the outside world. That was it. I kept thinking that the worst thing about all this was that I had no one to tell: “I feel like shit.” I wanted to call my mom. I wanted my blog.
Paolo, my companion, was 30, from a small town in the northern Italian province of Venezia. He was a virgin until he met me. When I marveled at this seeming impossibility he shrugged and said, “girls say I’m short, ugly, and poor.” I thought he was kind of cute, a little like Dominic Monaghan as a hobbit in Lord of the Rings. Since he still lived with his mother, he was able to save up enough money for a year-long trip through Central and South America.
When we met in Nicaragua he was only a few months in. Later, months after I’d returned home, he emailed me pictures he’d taken of sea lions in the Galapagos Islands. I imagined Paolo as an old man, still working in the ceramics factory. He’d reminisce about his trip around the world, sitting alone with a beer on the front porch of his house. The trip would have been the highlight of his life, the only exciting thing that ever happened to him. That’s my version, anyway.
On the third day, the panga came, and Paolo and I made the four-hour journey upriver to the nearest settlement, San Carlos. I dangled my hand off the side of the boat and anointed my hot forehead with cold brown river water.
The town of San Carlos will forever exist in my mental dictionary as an illustration of the word “godforsaken,” which Webster’s defines as: 1: Remote, desolate; 2: Neglected and miserable in appearance or circumstances. San Carlos is a collection of crumbling cement buildings, crisscrossed by mud roads, its air heavy with the stench of rotten fish from the docks. Everyone walks around in hip waders, carrying gutting knives and breathing rum fumes. It’s like the Old West, minus player pianos and colorful whores and the energy of Manifest Destiny.
It was one in the afternoon and there was no way out of San Carlos. The overnight cargo boat, the only means of escape, wasn’t coming until the next day. I didn’t think I could survive the wait. We dropped off our stuff in the town’s only hotel — several subdivided bedrooms above a storefront — and I went off to the clinic.
San Carlos is, incongruously, a sister city of Nuremberg, Germany. A sign above the clinic door said that it was funded by a German Catholic charity. That gave me a bit of hope, hope which was soon extinguished when the tiny, impossibly young-looking doctor told me to go across the street to the pharmacy and buy myself a syringe so the nurse could give me an injection. “You don’t have malaria,” he said. “But don’t take any aspirin, because you might have dengue fever, and aspirin could make you bleed.”
Just before dusk, the people of San Carlos disappeared into their houses and pulled the curtains shut, as if an air raid siren had gone off at a frequency I couldn’t hear. The town went cemetery silent. Then, as the sun sunk over the lake, the chayules came. Tiny green gnats, flying in thick clouds, crowding my eyes, my nose, my throat. I tried to cover my face, but they darted through my fingers and into my mouth and ears. The lights of the lamp posts were shrouded in bugs, buzzing around the lights like an electron cloud around an atom. The occasional car, sliding by like a ghost in the gloaming, would illuminate hundreds of thousands of insects in their headlights. Because the chayules are attracted to white light, all the light bulbs in San Carlos are dark red, giving the empty city a hellish scarlet glow.
Paolo and I sat in reddish darkness at a dockside bar, sipping Fanta Orange as we waited for nightfall. I sat with my knees hugged to my chest, shivering and rocking back and forth, trying not to cry. I’d heard that there was an airstrip outside of town with an occasional bush plane flight to Managua. “I’m getting on the plane,” I told Paolo. “I’m getting on that goddamn plane.”
Chayules die at dark, hellspawn with a two-hour lifespan. Their bodies littered the streets like dead leaves in a New England autumn. Then the electricity went out. At eight P.M. we retired to our narrow box of a room, hot as an oven and dusty with chayule corpses. The water in the hotel wasn’t working; the toilet in the hallway bathroom was overflowing. I lay on top of the filthy blanket on the narrow twin bed, wondering if my finger joints could literally burst. Paolo touched my back; I turned away and curled into a ball.
It’s a rule that when one bad thing happens, it’s bad. When two bad things happen, also bad. But three bad things: funny. I was well past a dozen bad things, and counting. But it wasn’t funny, because I had nobody to tell.
At five A.M. I woke Paolo and told him we were going to find the airstrip. I needed him to come with me. I was too weak to carry my backpack. I was sitting outside the airstrip’s office when it opened at seven.
“I need to fly to Managua,” I told the woman behind the desk, well-dressed and businesslike in the middle of this god-forsaken field of mud.
“The flight’s all full,” she told me. “Missionaries.”
“I am going to sit here and cry until I get on that plane,” I said. “If I don’t get on the plane I will sit here and cry all day.” An hour and a half and forty six dollars later I was strapped into a nine-seat Cessna for the flight over Lake Cocibolca. Paolo was on the ground, heading back to the dock to wait for the boat. I wanted to talk to the missionaries and tell them I felt like shit, describe it in great detail, but they were German.
I speak Spanish just fine. But I’m only really myself in English. After years of reading, writing, and studying, I have high expectations for being well understood. My vision of myself is not just what and who I am, it’s how I explain it to others. My blog helped me keep my style, and in doing that, keep myself. In Spanish I’m all substance, no style.
Luckily, in the emergency room of the Hospital Militar in Managua, there was no need for style.
“My head hurts worse than any pain I have ever felt,” I said, illustrating my point by vomiting on the floor. I must have been a strange sight; a lone gringa in sour, wrinkled clothes, crying. They took my blood and put me in a cot in the casualty ward. There was an accident victim in the cot next to me. I could see him through a gap in the curtain. He was unconscious and bleeding. “Javier,” the doctor kept shouting. “Wake up! Javier. Javier!”
A nurse came by and gave me a shot of something in the ass. “Emily, what are you doing traveling all alone?” she tsked. I wanted to tell her that I was traveling alone because I was a writer. A tough writer. In search of a great story. Instead, I fell asleep. When I woke up, I felt better for the first time in five days. I wanted a cigarette. But they wouldn’t let me leave until I’d taken a bag full of IV saline solution. I got up and walked around, toting the IV pole behind me. I made collect calls to the U.S. from the phone at the nurses’ station.
They discharged me at dusk, and I took a cab back to the Managua Best Western across from the airport. There, in the air conditioned sterility of the Business Center, I logged on to my blog, and became a fierce, traveling warrior woman again.
Back in Granada, the most touristed town in Nicaragua, I settled into a hostel. The next day I called my editor, Manuela, from an Enitel stand.
“One of the researchers in Costa Rica is done with her route and still wants to travel,” she said. “She could come up and finish your route for you.”
“Oh, that’s OK,” I said. “I can do it.” “Are you sure?” she asked. “You don’t want to just come home?”
“No,” I said. And I meant it. After a long blogging session and a night of bragging about my “adventure” to a bunch of British backpackers, I was a tough cookie once again. Tough cookies don’t come home ‘til the story is finished.