UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 04/2004
THE WILD DOGS OF NICARAGUA
Cholera. Malaria. Dengue Fever. Leishmaniasis. Hepatitis. Rabies. These are my greatest health risks in traveling to Nicaragua, according to the U.S. State Department’s Center for Disease Control. They don’t mention the most debilitating disease in the world, the one my friend Patty suffers from while watching her father wither under Alzheimer’s down there: loneliness. I can’t help him but I know I can cure her. Before leaving, I am vaccinated against Tetanus and Hepatitis A. If you don’t get bitten by a mosquito, you won’t get malaria says my cheerful preventative medicine pamphlet. My doctor starts me on Chloroquine Phosphate, anti-malaria medication, two weeks before my trip, just in case. It should be taken for six weeks total, including two following my return to the States. He also recommends Deet, a strong insect repellant found at the local Army-Navy surplus store. He gives me a handful of antibiotics in case of “traveler’s diarrhea,” a Diflucan for the yeast infection I know I’ll get if I have to take the antibiotics, and a stern “don’t drink the water” warning. Patty needs me. Plus there’s a possibility of seeing monkeys and jungles. Armed with modern medicine, I head to the heart of Central America.
Rain hammers the plane from el Salvador to Managua, so I keep my window closed and try not to think about it. My ears catch about every third word of the lively Spanish in the air. The pilot announces that we are close to Managua and I open my windowshade to the black outside. I can’t see past half-way down the wing. Thunder breaks in the distance. A few seconds later, lightning flashes, and for the briefest second I think I see miles of green tree-tops below. I try not to blink, waiting for more lightning to confirm what I think I’ve seen and at the same time a little nervous about the possibility of seeing a creature on the wing like that Twilight Zone episode. Lightning cracks the sky and there they are again, longer this time—an endless sea of bright green rainforest. My eyes stay glued to the dark. The flashes happen over and over, each time distracting me a little more from what now feels like our paper airplane ride through a hurricane. The elderly woman who has sat silently next to me since el Salvador sits up straight as we approach tiny city lights. She points to the window. “Mi casita blanca… aquel…” It’s something in Spanish about her house being down there. I conjure all of the college Spanish I know, just enough to say “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Spanish very well,” which revs her enough to tell me she’s ninety-three, and ask me where was I from, had I been to Nicaragua before, and could I help her fill out the customs paper we’d received a little earlier in the flight? She continues pointing to her little white house, down there somewhere among thousands of others, and I continue to pretend I’m trying to find it. The ride gets bumpy and everyone gets really quiet right before landing. Thunder and lightning come quicker and quicker while the wind challenges our pilot. He wins with a big bounce of the plane followed by a smooth landing and cheers and claps and yells of “Amen!” while making the sign of the cross. I breathe out. The old woman next to me makes her way down the stairs onto the tarmac right in front of me as an airline attendant holds a wheel chair for her and put his hands out to take her bags. I can’t quite catch what she says, but both offers are obviously snubbed as she angrily stomps on toward the airport.
It’s 11 pm and as soon as my face hits air, my neck-hairs curl and sweat forms in a pool in the center of my back. Under my breath I breathe “whew, it’s hot,” and a woman behind me says, “Get ready for the daytime, because this is NOTHING!” Patty is inside, waving at me maniacally from behind uzi-armed guards and a glass wall. After customs we hug and jump up and down while people in the airport stare. Her hair is long, black and shiny as always, and her skin is pale. Her big smile overwhelms her thinning but still beautiful face. The once-voluptuous figure is almost gone. She is dressed to the tee, as always, but the skinny legs sticking out from her patterned black dress make me cry, so I look away. She drives us back to her house aggressively, not stopping at red lights. She says when she first moved back, a policeman pulled her over and told her a woman shouldn’t drive a lone at night. She told him she has to sometimes because she’s taking care of her ailing father. “If you have to, then never stop anywhere,” he told her. “And think about buying a gun.” There are bandits who carjack and rob. The roads are rough, even in the main city of Managua, and most don’t have street signs or names. Leftovers from “the big earthquake” of 1972, the revolution in 1979, ten years of communism, the counterrevolution, and last year, Hurricane Mitch. Patty’s mailing address is literally directions: “4 meters west of the Department of Defense. White house. #4.Managua.”
White house number four is a white bungalow with iron bars over the windows and garage door. It’s long and narrow inside and smells like mothballs. She calls this “the little house”— they still own the big one she grew up in, but are renting it out to tenants since her dad got sick.
I have my own room with a bathroom that’s connected to Patty’s. Everything in the house is dark wood—the couch trim, my bed’s headboard, a hand-carved life-size statue of Poncho Villa in the dining room which scares me every time I walk in there. There’s a hallway in the center of the house with a long open rectangle cut in the roof, like a skylight with no plastic. There are iron bars over this, too. Rain comes right into the house here, watering the plants below and splashing the connecting room’s floors a little. Everything’s slightly damp, including the mattress and sheets. The hallway is a mini-jungle—gorgeous plants in every shade of green, some with giant tropical leaves, some dotted with purple and yellow flowers.
After we turn off the lights, a loud clucking comes from inside my room and all over the house. I yell to Patty, “What’s that noise?” She says, “It’s the lizards. They come out at night. Don’t worry—they won’t hurt you.” Lizards?! There had been no government warnings about lizards. I yell back, “I’m scared,” and she just giggles. I get up and run to turn on the light just in time to see a little white thing with red eyes scampering across the ceiling. Oh well, if they want to crawl into my mouth while I sleep, I figure there’s nothing I can do about it.
Every day starts with a cold shower, as there is no hot water in the house. Even though Patty’s family was better off than most before the war (they were doctors) she says even rich people don’t bother with buying hot water heaters. The shower actually feels good against the heat and humidity’s rise. Patty offers me cornflakes for breakfast, but the milk has to be boiled to get bacteria out of it, so I choose a safer bagel and guava jelly.
Instead of going to the bank to change my money into local currency, Patty takes me down some side streets where men stand all day changing dollars for Cordovas and vice-versa, right out of huge wads from their dirty jeans’ pockets. Their eyes scan the road from side to side and it all feels pretty shady but she swears this is the way to get the best exchange rate, and I have to believe her.
My first day is spent at Volcan Masaya. Estranjeros pay more than locals to get in to the National Park built around the volcano. But it turns out to be well worth the 40 cordovas (about $5.50). If something was too beautiful to be believed, like magazine covers or movie stars, I always said it had to be totally fake. Now I know I gave man too much credit. What’s in front of me here is real and beyond anything anyone could engineer with lighting or paint. The volcano’s giant gray elephant torso rises out of dense forests of oak, pine, cedar, balsam, mahogany, rosewood, wild rubber trees and violets. Blue blue sky and real white clouds are the backdrop to nature’s painting. The air is wet and there are at least one hundred of shades of green here. Hummingbirds flit by our heads. Patty and I stand at the edge of the volcano’s mouth, staring into the sulphuric steam oozing over us as wind whips our hair into one another’s faces. She smokes. We talk. I mostly listen, while trying to take a panoramic picture with my brain.
Later we take a rickety boatride around Las Isletas—365 little tiny volcanic islands, with a single little house on many of them—all in the middle of Lake Cocibola. Cocibola is also called Lake Nicaragua, and it houses what they think are the only freshwater sharks in the world, though I don’t see any. Some of the islands have just a few trees and twisted vines covering them. Small realtor signs on others prove that all of this won’t stay untouched forever. One has a plaque and a crumbling nineteenth century fort with part of a canon on it. A skinny gray monkey swings from a tree while we’re heading back. We drive to Granada, which is supposed to be one of the oldest colonies in Central America. The homes are pretty—most built in the 1800s. Some look like Civil War buildings from Gettysburg or Virginia, with machine-gun holes in their sides instead of cannon damage. We eat at a fancy old hotel, outdoors on the patio. My vegetarian diet and fear of the water in raw cheese limits the choices, but I still get very full on fried plantains, salty fried cheese, rice and beans (pinto gallo) and some tasty salsa-like stuff the locals call chilli.
Two boys wander up to us as we sip strong Margaritas like ladies of leisure. They have gum and handmade bracelets for sale. The waiter starts to shoo them away but Patty and I talk with them. I gave one boy the rest of my bottled water and Patty gave him her leftover food. The shirtless older boy looks about twelve. He tells us he’s sixteen. He is fascinated with my tattoo, and shows me his—a huge simple skull and crossbones on his upper arm. The younger boy, probably eight years old and darker brown, sees me using my antibacterial lotion and asks for some. I squeeze a drop onto his little hand and he rubs it up and down his arms, asking Patty, “Will this make me white, like her?” He has sores on his lips and Patty tells me these are burns from sniffing glue. She said they do that to keep from being hungry.
On the drive home we run into a protest march against the current president—who, according to the protestors, is just as corrupt as the last. It looks like a very serious parade. Most marchers wear black bandanas around the lower halves of their faces. Some wave the Nicaraguan flag. A few boys no more than ten years old carry hand-made guns at their sides. I add political demonstrations to my mental list of travel treacheries just as Patty says, “This is good. You use to not be allowed to protest or say anything against the government. This is progress.”
It rains hard as soon as we get home. I finally meet her dad. Until now I have only heard him on the other end of long-distance phonecalls, when Patty and I lived in Washington, DC. She’d argue in Spanish, refusing to take his money for school, opting to work two jobs and pay for college herself. Now she hugs and kisses him thousands of times and gets little response. She introduces me but he hardly knows I’m there. He is little and bald and wearing glasses, looking like a well-dressed Ghandi, stationed in his rocking chair in front of a television blaring “The Simpsons” with Spanish voice-over. Awards and degrees from around the world decorate the paneled room. One of the nurses who is with him at all times gives Patty an update on how he’s been while we were out. “He’s just had a physical and health-wise, he’s never been in better shape,” Patty says. “His heart is good, cholesterol low, blood pressure’s perfect.” But the Alzheimer’s has made the respected gynecologist a two-year-old, mentally. She tells me about the free clinics he started here in the seventies, and that he’s delivered over 500 babies. “Our house was always filled with flowers and chocolates, from grateful patients,” she says. When the rebels overthrew the government in ‘79, some looted and seized wealthy homes, killing anyone in their way. Patty and her mother and siblings fled to the U.S. and applied for political asylum. Her father refused to leave. The rebels skipped right over him, because of all he’d done for the community. “He’d treat poor people for free. Never turned anyone away,” she tells me. They don’t believe in old folks’ homes here—that’s why she came back. It’s too expensive for him to get care in the U.S. and she wants him to die in his own home. She is giving up a good job, a fiance, and maybe even her newly-won green card to be here. Now, at the age of 28, she has Power of Attorney and serves as executor of his estate. “He could easily live for another five years at the rate he’s going!” she laughs bitterly. I agree. She has hired a maid to cook all of his meals. She shops in the market for fresh fruit and vegetables for him every other day and nurses help with his care. She did everything alone at first but couldn’t handle changing his diapers and bathing him on top of all of the other responsibilities. I doubt I ever could, either. She hired people to take care of him while she went back to her job in Virginia for awhile, but they stole family heirlooms and he ended up with a mysterious fractured hip, so she decided she had to be here until the end, whenever that is. Santa Patricia.
The next two weeks are day-trips to the crowded public market, lunches in local restaurants and visits to Patty’s relatives. All of their houses are built low with a large square hole cut out of the living room ceilings, inviting the outside in, just like hers. Everyone has a rocking chair, even children have miniature ones. In one house we visit, eight rocking chairs are placed in a circle around the square floor of earth directly below the rain hole, and we all sit rocking. There’s no TV. We watch the rain and each other. Kids run around while the men joke about their fat bellies, and people walk in off the street directly to their kitchen to buy Nacatamales—these Nicaraguan tamales wrapped with giant green plantain leaves. They’re filled with pork but I wonder if I can just eat the leaf?
“Wash your windows? Wash you car? Pump your gas? Get you a Coke?” People sell things and offer services everyhwere, but no one begs or straight-up asks for money. On one of our drives out we’re stuck in traffic. A guy comes to my window holding a monkey, who is collared and chained to his hand. I rush to roll down the window but Patty says no—they have fleas—which, according to my handy-dandy HMO pamphlet, spread typhus and plague. Yes, plague, as in Black Death—something I thought people haven’t had to think about since its Medieval spread . I keep the window rolled up, staring into the animal’s bulging, innocent brown eyes. He blinks and we speed off.
We drive one hour north to Pochomil—a beautiful deserted white beach we can drive almost right up on. I swim and try eating rice and beans from a local merchant, but the beans taste like pork, so I don’t eat too much. Emaciated dogs gather around our little table near the beach, while two pre-teenaged kids bring matted ponies up to us, asking if we want rides. Patty jokes and shooes them away. I lay my beans in foil on the ground for the dogs and the hacienda owner comes out yelling while the kids laugh. “They don’t want you to feed the dogs.” Patty states the obvious. “They’re like rats here and people don’t want them around.” Yes, we are in the Third World. Why feed stray dogs when kids are hustling pony rides?
On the drive back I see Coca-Cola billboards painted on the sides of schools and some churches. My imaginary ad campaign: “Sugar and Spirituality: Taste Great Together!”
The public city buses here are old yellow American schoolbuses. I thought they were church buses because they all have pictures of the Virgin Mary taped onto the back, but Patty said that’s just something they do. I want to ride one but she says I’ll hate it. I see people squished against one another and some hanging out of the back holding on to the emergency bar and figure she’s probably right.
We stopped for a drink at a little store and after I paid for a bottle of soda, I got reprimanded for walking outside with it. They get money for returns, just like in the states, but you can either a) Drink the Coke in the store and give them the bottle back, or b) get it “to go,” which means it’s all poured into a plastic sandwich baggie, tied tightly around a straw, so you can still leave the bottle and are free to go. Have you seen soda in a clear baggie? Not so appealing, even on a hot-ass day like today.
Friday night we take a ferry over to Omotepe, two volcanoes that form an island. We’re going with Patty’s cousin Juan Carlos and a bunch of his friends from Rivas, a coastal town. No one speaks much English, so I quietly observe at first. They all pour rum-n-Cokes on the boat—even the ship’s captain—and things get louder. These twenty and thirty-somethings all have government jobs. They talk about their hope for Nicaragua’s improving tourism industry while our ferry creeps toward the two giant mossy peaks of the island. I think of the McDonald’s and Holiday Inn back in Managua and wonder if that is progress. This country’s endured rape and ruin by war and nature. Will it survive capitalism?
We hit land just as night takes over. We grab our backpacks and pile into the bed of a waiting pick-up truck for a fast, bumpy ride through town—all of us screaming and yelling with every bounce on the rock road. My fingers hurt from holding on so hard and my butt leaves the seat with each pothole. People step outside of their storefronts, waving and screaming back. I could fly from this truck and no one would notice. Patty’s smile is the biggest I’ve ever seen it and even though I’m scared, I don’t want it to end. For these minutes hanging on, in the back of this truck, everyone inside and out is celebrating for no reason. The reason is just life.
Our hotel looks simple and deserted by American standards, but we throw our stuff in our room, then step to an outdoor patio area where a three-piece band strikes up and the group of ten of us starts dancing and drinking. Instant party. We’re the party! People dance in a Conga-like line, holding on to each other’s hips and wiggling to the music. Rum loosens my inhibitions and I actually dance twice, in spite of myself. Douglas, the red-faced 60-year-old drunk hotel owner serenades me on acoustic all night with silly campesino songs everyone else seems to know. His granddaughter—a skinny nine-year-old, tends bar until about 4 a.m. We get to talking and it turns out Douglas use to live in Maryland, where I’m from. Poquito world. He loved it there. How could someone love Maryland after growing up here? Maybe Maryland looked like this a long time ago. Different plants and animals, but wild beauty and green green green everywhere.
One guy who joins the party later can’t say my name so I am now known as “Charo.” I thought everyone would hate Americans here but so far everyone really wants to talk, practice their English, and make sure I’m having a good time. The Charo guy is half Nica, half American, and he keeps mentioning Somoza (the last president) and talking about revolucions to come. No one else wants to talk politics tonight, and I feel too ignorant to comment one way or another. Patty dances like she use to in the clubs in D.C. Passionately. Effortlessly. She runs on adrenaline, for hours and hours, until everyone else needs a rest. No matter that she is the only one left. Her tight American blue-jeans are sweat-drenched. Her hair is in a bun. Black strands of hair plaster her face. Her yellow blouse clings to her in wet patches. With closed eyes and a smile, she keeps time with her body back and forth, holding her hands out like she can touch the beat.
Next morning we’re woken up at 6:30 by Juan Carlos with a bang on the door and “the ferry’s leaving in fifteen minutes!” Pissed and tired, we all pile back into the truck for a somber ride back to the boat. From the port, Juan Carlos brings us to his grandmother’s house in Rivas and she fixes breakfast for everyone. I eat black beans and fried plantains and a teeny piece of cheese. She wonders why I don’t eat the eggs or lecheria—this weird curdled milk mixture—and I feel bad so I mix them around my plate to look eaten. I listen as everyone talks and vow to resume Spanish classes.
We finally leave, moseying back to Managua back along the coast, dodging amber floppy-eared cows, people on rusty bicycles, lean brown bodies walking shirtless and shoeless in the pouring rain. I am in love with the cows. They’re different from the ones we see in the States. They’re huge, as in tall, and skinny like the cows in India, with giant dewey eyes and black nostrils like coffee cups. Their hair is short and they come in black, warm browns and beiges. I want to pet one but Patty warns they can be mean. They wander everywhere, and all traffic stops if one or two happen to be in the road. No honking. People just talk and eat and wait casually, Nica-style, until they wander out of the way. I ask how can they just roam like this and Patty says they belong to farmers who own land on either side of the roads—that the farmers are not far off—but I never see anyone and wonder how they don’t get stolen. Then again, it might be kind of hard to convince a cow to go anywhere. On the way back to the city I hang my hand out the car window the whole way, hoping so hard to touch one, but I don’t.
This morning I see a dog standing on three legs near Patty’s house. One of his paws is raised, like he’s hurt. He looks like a too-small, too-thin spotted brown greyhound. He’s just standing in one place on a street corner by himself, eyes glazed over, body shaking, and balancing on the three legs. Rabies is a viral disease transmitted by the bite of an infected animal. Dog bites are the most common source says my pamphlet. If rabies vaccine has been given before departure, fewer injections will be needed after a suspect bite. Even with my good health insurance and modern American medicine, I don’t want to risk it.
Patty tells me she has some business to do today. We’re going to visit one of her dad’s clinics. He was one of four on its board of directors, and now she sits in his place. She puts on a red power-suit, gold earrings, make-up and black high-heels before we go. When we get there, an armed security guard greets her and opens all of the doors for us. The building is old but a man in overalls is slapping a fresh coat of green paint on the hallways as we walk. We enter the doctors’ offices and the three men immediately stand, buttoning their jackets, tightening their ties, greeting Patty with cheek-kisses. They kiss my hand upon introductions and I muster a “Mucho gusto conocerte.” After niceties, Patty’s voice grows sharp and she brings them back to part of the hallway to point out a dried blood spot on the floor. They apologize and one makes a phonecall, bringing a janitor with mop-in-hand within minutes. This is the woman I remember.
In the afternoon we watch movies with Patty’s dad. “Nothing violent” she says. “That stuff upsets him.” He stares at the TV and raises his hands in front of him once, putting his fingertips together and moving them slightly. I ask what he’s doing, and Patty asks him, and he turns to me in what seems like a moment of clarity and says “Soy doctor!” proudly. “He’s a doctor,” Patty shrugs, matter-of-factly. He stitches the air this way for a few seconds then settles back into his haze and lowers his arms. She says he’s never done that before.
I see that same dog outside later, in the same exact spot, doing the same exact thing. On his last legs, literally.
In the evening I am hypnotized by watching rain pour off of giant plants I don’t know the names of in the hallway. Despite the heat, Patty wears pajama pants and wool socks to protect herself from mosquitos. I slather on my Deet and Patty aims the fan at my face so bugs won’t get me. Lizards cluck me to sleep.
This morning we drove north to Leon. A tourist brochure made it look ancient and elegant, but when we got there it was just old and run down. It was Patty’s first time there, too. Ruben Dario is buried here. He has a poem that says something about this land “trembling with hurricanes and trembling with love.”
Some buildings haven FSLN graffitied on them in red and black (for Frente Sandinista Liberacion Nacional: National Liberation Sandinista Front, in English). More war leftovers. The insides of the churches here look better than everything else, and the outsides are decaying elegance. The doors are all wide open so you can see the masses going on. I snap a few pics of old cathedrals, but we don’t get out of the car.
Back home we take showers and Patty says her maid will be there soon to make me some good vegetarian beans. I guess I pictured a traditional French maid’s outfit, so when a chubby woman not much older than me shows up wearing an oversized “Masta P” t-shirt, holding the hand of her five-year-old, I’m surprised. I guess rap is big in Central America, too? (Or maybe someone gave her the shirt and she has no idea what it means?) Anyway, her name is Claudia and she makes me beans cooked in water and garlic and more fried plantains. I am becoming a human plantain. We saw a vegetarian restaurant nearby and I’m eager to go see what they have. I don’t know how they stay in business—the idea of vegetarianism is laughable here. People laugh when Patty tells them what I am, so I asked her not to tell them anymore. Obviously choosing what to eat in a country where there’s not enough to eat is a luxury. Jungle animals are tolerated and even protected, but the idea of pets isn’t too popular. I’ve seen a few people with parrots on their porches and at gas stations, but the dogs run wild here. Homeless. Ownerless. Scavenging for anything. Surprised if you pay attention or try to pet them. The other night with Patty’s dad we watced an American made-for-TV movie. The little girl in the movie was giving her dog a funeral in the family’s backyard. She was crying, and so was the mother. When Patty’s father’s nurses walked in on this, they asked us what was happening in the movie and “who died?” When Patty says it was the family dog, both women crack up laughing. “Who would cry over a dog? What is wrong with these Americans?” they asked. Even Patty’s dad gave a lone little giggle, though I’m not sure he knew why. She tried explaining how pets are pretty common in American households, but they shake their heads while changing sheets and fluffing pillows.
It’s Friday night and we are going to watch Lennox Lewis fight Evander Holyfield in Vegas via Pay-Per-View at a friend of Juan Carlos’. We drive through night rain down pothole-filled dirt roads, passing forests of banana trees and fields of sugar cane. The windshield wipers are working overtime and it looks like we’re heading nowhere. Finally we pull up to a huge iron gate, flanked by guards holding machine guns, each standing with a giant German Shepherd. Juan Carlos talks to them a few seconds and they open the gates. Patty spins tires getting her little car up over the muddy entrance hill. The driveway opens into a big yard, like a clearing in the jungle with a nice one-story ranch-style home in the center. Ten of us gather on their big porch, around a gigantic television broadcasting the fight. People eat tortilla chips and salsa and American potato chips all night, while drinking, talking and stopping occasionally to yell at the TV. At least ten armed guards stand at every corner of the property throughout the party. Their Shepherds are the only domesticated-looking dogs I see on this whole trip. They’re clean and fluffy. Healthy-looking. But they don’t look friendly, just like the guards.
Seems like the people with money here all have government jobs, like the owner of this house, who works for the Department of Tourism and owns the Chinese restaurant Juan works at. He says food delivery is the hot new thing in Managua now. His wife is a gracious hostess in heavy make-up and bleached blond hair. Their kids are in bed, she tells me. She doesn’t speak English very well but a guy who does wants to talk all night about anything and everything he can think of. I don’t know who won the fight.
Patty and I have to say good-bye. I squeeze her little body tight, not knowing when I’ll see her again. She says she’ll come to California. I say I’ll email her and send letters. Our cheeks are slick with each other’s tears.
Just before my plane ride home I notice my arms are slightly sunburned. The jet is full of people in matching blue polo shirts—Baptist missionairies—the only Americans I’ve seen in awhile. One sits down next to me. About an hour into the ride I realize my sunburn is actually a rash that’s quickly making its way over my entire body. I am hot and cold, hot and cold, over and over again. “Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” the man next to me asks in a heavy southern accent. “Uh, no,” I say, wiping my sweaty forehead with a napkin. The Christians on the opposite side of the plane are singing now. “Do you go to church?” he asks. I lean my burning head against the cool window and close my eyes. “No. I’m kind of sick right now, so I’m sorry…I’m going to go to sleep now,” I whisper. He presses on. “Were you raised in any religion?” Why isn’t he praying for me or something, I wonder. “Catholic,” I say. He fidgets, planning his next line. “Yeah, a lot of people get disgruntled with the Catholic religion…” he starts. “When, exactly, did you stop going to church?” I didn’t drink the water, taste any ceviche, touch the monkeys, pet the dogs, swim with sharks, or get shot while in Nicaragua. Now I’m dying of malaria and this man won’t shut up. “I need to sleep now,” I mumble, slipping in and out of consciousness. I dream of NorteAmericana, land of good plumbing and clean hospitals.
My local Urgent Care gives me ibuprofen to bring the fever down and topical cream for the rash. Doctors run every test available to find out what I have. They’re going to get to the bottom of this, they promise. “Did you drink anything strange? Swim anywhere dirty? Eat raw fish?” they ask me. No no no, I assure them. I was careful. I was good, I swear. A half-inch bump has appeared behind my right ear. It’s growing by the hour. They throw around the word ‘quarantine.’ I am dirty. Infected. Dangerous. In three days, the fever is gone but the rash is worse. The bump is still there. The third doctor I see suggests I stop the anti-malaria meds. The rash disappears immediately. The lump shrinks. They say I had an adverse reaction. The small print on the bottle says: “Headache, loss of appetite, diarrhea, upset stomach, skin rash or itching and hair loss can occur in certain individuals. Seeing light flashes and streaks, blurred vision, reading or seeing difficulties (words disappear, seeing half an object, misty or foggy vision), difficulty hearing, ringing in ears, muscle weakness, and any fever should be investigated. Call your doctor immediately.” Betrayed by my big bad superpower’s pharmacology, betrayed by my body, and betrayed by modern man’s medical establishment, eventually I find comfort in chocolate ice cream, and the relief in knowing that I don’t have malaria or the plague. Still, pieces of Nicaragua stay stuck in my heart, for good.
Shawna Kenney is the author of the award-winning memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix. She has written for Juxtapoz, Transworld Skateboarding, Surfer Girl, Yogi Times, Alternative Press, The Underground Guide to Los Angeles and Herbivore Magazine, among others. Kenney's latest work appears in respective anthologies Pills, Thrills, Chills and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person (Alyson Books), and Without a Net: The Female Perspective of Growing Up Working Class (Seal Press). See Shawna's website at: www.shawnakenney.com.
© 2004-2012 Underground Voices