[For those of you who are either not signed up to receive email updates or who somehow missed the last two emails, I have posted copies of them below. The first email, from September, explained that we were coming home for good medical care and the second, from October, was an update on my health progress. If you like, you can scroll down below this post to get caught up.]
Having been home for a month, it feels strange to look back on my travel journal and attempt to write this blog. It has taken me the entire month to accomplish what, at times, felt like a hopeless endeavor…getting well. But I have learned a lot in the process and have gained some interesting insights about comfort zones.
The bug that had plagued me since Peru turned out to be pseudomonas pneumonia, a hard to kill bacteria. The doctors were puzzled because it is an infection that usually jumps on board patients who have been hospitalized for long periods of time. Nonetheless, the culture came back positive for this bad actor and, after six courses of oral antibiotics, I finally had to have a PICC line put in. A PICC line is a tiny plastic tube that is inserted into a major vein (mine was put into my upper/inner arm). The tube runs from the insertion point all the way to the heart. This port gives intravenous access for what are called infusions of antibiotics. And yes, it not only hurt going in (it was not supposed to), but it really gave me the creeps. After all my poor body had been through, having this foreign object in me was hard to bear.
I gave myself the infusions twice a day for four days, but the PICC line never stopped hurting. An ultrasound eventually found dangerous blood clots, and the PICC line had to be removed. I was relieved on one hand to be rid of the invasive contraption, but also terrified that the infection had not been fully eradicated.
Thankfully, the four days of IV antibiotics were enough, and the infection did not reemerge. But it was a physically and emotionally trying time. Lingering symptoms made it feel that the pseudomonas was still lurking, and it took many more doctors’ visits, CT scans and lab tests to confirm that it was only residual inflammation in my lung lining and sinuses.
One of the benefits of having naturally large personal comfort zones is that Ned and I are not only able to embark on adventurous journeys, but we thrive on them. I never thought about it before, but reflecting now on our journey, I realize that when we are on the road, we are constantly on the hunt for the most basic human needs…food, water and shelter. We do carry a few days worth of supplies, and Charlotte is, herself, our shelter, but finding good stores and camping spots is a constant challenge. The experience is immensely different from being home where we take our simple comforts for granted. While some people would be uncomfortable at best and terrified at worst to live like this, Ned and I consider it all part of the adventure and take it in stride.
As the weeks went on, however, and the illness progressed, my comfort zone began to shrink. It was neither fun nor exciting not knowing where we would camp at night, and far from being exhilarating, the extreme elevations and cold temperatures now meant severe chest pain and inability to breathe. By the time we made it through the arduous flight home from Santiago, I had a comfort zone about the size of my bedroom. I have never been more grateful to be home in the beautiful United States where our lives are easy and convenient (and the toilets have seats!).
Our home became my haven and except for doctors’ visits, I did not want to leave it. Unlike my normal state, I felt fragile and afraid, as if the tiniest cold draft would cause yet another relapse. But here is where I have gained valuable perspective…comfort zones and the way we think about them, like most everything else in life, are a matter of perspective. I am ashamed now to admit to being a bit judgmental towards others who are uncomfortable venturing beyond their safe zones. Individual experiences and temperaments influence how we see the world and we each determine the size and shape of our comfort zones depending on our own circumstances. There is no right or wrong. That being said, I do believe that, in some cases, pushing ourselves beyond what we think we can endure can reap incredible gains in self confidence and worth, but it has to be a personal decision. My own shrinking comfort zone has taught me just how inappropriate it is to judge another’s. The decision to stretch or not to stretch is private and personal.
I know it’s been a long time since our last post, but I deliberately put off writing this blog until I felt hale and hearty again. Yesterday I celebrated wellness with a blissful three hour solo hike/run on the mountain, and it was heaven. My muscles felt weak and slow, but my lungs were clear and painless, and it was a great victory over illness. A month ago, having battled ill health for so long, the thought of setting out again in early December to continue our journey was frightening. Today, my perspective is totally different, and I’m eager to get back on the road.
My experience with Lyme disease has taught me not only to be patient with myself, but also that we can always endure more than we think we can. There were countless times in the last two months when I thought, “I can’t take any more!” But there I was, soldiering on. Of course, I was never alone. The love of Ned, family and friends and the infinite kindness of doctors, nurses, and support staff saw me through each difficult day. Many thanks to all of you!
And now, let’s get back to our story…
September 9, 2014
The drop from Arequipa (Peru’s second largest city), at 7,500ft elevation, to sea level was mercifully rapid. While 7,500ft was better than 15,000ft, with asthma and pneumonia, I was still struggling to breathe and was praying that sea level would be better. I was on another course of antibiotics from the clinic in Arequipa, but they did not seem to be working.
The scenery became more beautiful as the world’s driest desert unfolded before us, but, sleeping in the back of Charlotte, I once again missed most of it. With Ned still not feeling well and my fever hovering around 101° we found ourselves merely surviving, unable to savor or even appreciate our surroundings. The black cloud was still with us.
Sea level brought not only a bit of relief for my breathing, but sunshine too!
I was dreading an arduous border crossing into Chile and popped Tylenol to help endure it. Thankfully, it turned out to be relatively painless, and the hour and a half passed in a fog of semi awareness.
Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Andes Mountains on the east, Chile’s geography is quite unique. While merely 217 miles at its widest point, Chile is 2,670 miles long, reaching down through Patagonia toward the Antarctic Circle.
Our drive from Arequipa (shown on map) and through the Chilean border brought us to the northern coastal town of Arica where we got yet another hotel room. It was incredibly frustrating to be surrounded by gorgeous desert and not only being cooped up in a hotel, but paying for it too! However, still choking, coughing and feverish, I was happily accepting any comforts I could find.
After Charlotte’s alternator bracket repairs in Cusco, she was back to running well. Her only ailment was that thousands of miles of rough dirt roads were causing the feet of the roof rack to break through her rain gutters. It was a bit disconcerting, wondering if the whole roof rack would abandon its post and fly off somewhere along the way, but it would have to wait until Santiago. It would be a big welding job, and in Santiago we had friends with shops where Ned could do the repair.
From Arica we set our sights on the town of Copiapó. As we had thought, Chile was a lot more developed than any other country we had visited, so I had high expectations for good medical care in Copiapó. Also, from there it would be a quick flight to Santiago where I knew there was an excellent private hospital if needed.
This was the most incredible stretch of the Pan American Highway yet. Ned made 400 of the 700 miles to Copiapó, and we never saw so much as a blade of grass or even a single town. For desert rats like Ned and me it was sheer bliss. We love the stark beauty and wide open vistas of arid climates and this was the ultimate.
Along the way we were delighted to see the Mano de Desierto (Hand of the Desert), an iconic concrete sculpture grandly poking out of the sand beside the Pan Am.
Most of the towns in Northern Chile are situated along the coast, so we dipped west off of the Pan Am to get some dinner in Antofagasta just after dark. It turned out to be a mistake. The seedy city was full of bars and casinos and was singularly devoid of decent looking restaurants. I was still miserably choking and coughing, and we settled on the speed and convenience of McDonald’s in sheer desperation. We left the city as quickly as possible, and, back on the Pan Am, Ned was able to find this funny hidey hole where we could camp, unseen from the highway. The night passed peacefully, and I woke feeling a little better.
With my fever lower, I was able to sit up front with Ned, have a nice conversation and enjoy the wonderful scenery of the Atacama Desert.
The great Atacama is the driest place in the world, with some weather stations having never received any rainfall. It is also the oldest desert. Most areas have experienced “extreme hyper aridity” for at least 3 million years and some as many as 200 million years.
The terrain of the Atacama is reminiscent of Mars, not only visually, but scientifically too. Research on the lifeless soil has assisted in space exploration, while filmmakers have enjoyed the unlimited Mars-like landscape as sets for their sci-fi movies.
We finished our mad dash to Copiapó the next day and stayed for five days. The medical clinic was clean and modern, and the doctor there gave me another course of antibiotics that she insisted would work.
Following is an excerpt from my travel journal: “Clinica Atacama way more civilized! Modern, clean, efficient. Unfortunately urgent care full of very sick miserable babies. At one point, waiting to get chest X-ray and blood work, had two screaming, in pain babies in the room and I ended up crying too. This is just too much. How much more can I handle? I’ve been very sick for a month. Have not worked out or enjoyed myself, have lived in fear of being this sick far from home, and I’m so tired if it all. This is where I could give it all up and go home. Somewhere I have to find the strength to keep fighting. I need my spirit back not just my health.”
Copiapó was a cute desert/mining town, but we didn’t get to see much of it. The doctor had ordered bed rest for me, so I only ventured as far as the hotel restaurant. Ned, on the other hand, spent his time doctoring Charlotte. Not only did her brakes need changing, but also, as he predicted in the last blog, the monster reinforced alternator bracket caused one of the two puny 8mm mounting studs to sheer off in the engine case. Ned had to drill the whole mess out, and then tap the hole for a 10mm bolt. He was also elected to restock our food and water.
In general we found Chile to be relatively modern, but just as expensive as the United States.
Crossing the border, there were two things that changed dramatically. First of all, the time jumped two hours ahead, which meant that it didn’t get light until 8:00am and dinner was eaten around 8:00 or 9:00. The second and most wonderful phenomenon was that the food became miraculously delicious! After months of dreary Colombian and Ecuadorian food, we found our meals in Chile to be diverse and tasty.
We left Copiapó and drove into the desert where we wandered around and camped for four days. The temperatures were perfect, and the air was dry and crystal clean. The Atacama had been high on the “places most excited to visit” list, and we were thrilled to be there. Surely this was where I could get finally well.
Mining is the greatest economic asset of a desert, and here in the Atacama, copper and nitrates are the most common minerals extracted.
How to make a new mountain.
One of our goals was to visit the famous San Jose mine where, in 2010, 33 miners were trapped and dramatically rescued after 70 days. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived, and were hoping for a mine tour. We found, instead, that the mine had been turned into a giant museum commemorating the rescue, and no tours were available that day. The place was deserted, and the lone caretaker said we were free to wander around on our own. Oh goodie. In my feeble condition, I had been hoping for the golf cart tour!
We did explore a bit, but I was so weak and breathless that Ned had to continually stop for me to catch up. Among the museum displays were these giant victory photos of some of the miners as they were brought out of the mine.
The rescue effort included not only locating the miners, but also boring a tube 2,300 feet deep through solid rock. This was the capsule that was built to retrieve the miners one at a time. That had to be an incredible feeling; to be lifted to freedom in that capsule after being trapped for 70 days. Look closely…Ned’s in there!
This is the carved reproduction of the first note written on a scrap of paper by the miners once they had finally been located. A small bore had been drilled first to pass food, water and communication. The note says: “We 33 are fine in our refuge.”
After visiting the San Jose mine, we drove several miles completely off of any roads, settling into this fantastic camping spot.
You can see here that Ned was definitely feeling better, and having been the one to stock up our food supplies, had giant burgers on the menu.
I got out of bed long enough to munch down a burger patty while Ned attacked his masterpiece. He then took an exhilarating hike to work it off. Climbing to the top of a giant dune, he got to run back down the sandy slope barefoot like a little kid. I crawled back to bed in Charlotte, green with envy. Ned returned just before dark, exclaiming, “I feel alive!” Yes, definitely jealous.
We meandered south for the next couple of days, and signs of life began appearing. Huge swaths of purple splashed across the hillsides turned out, upon closer inspection, to be beautiful fields of flowers.
One of our contacts in Santiago was a man named Sebastian, who was friend of a friend. We had yet to meet him in person, but he had already been incredibly helpful to us. Sebastian had told us via email to visit some friends of his who owned a beach resort in the north called Basecamp. This remote sand track leading to Basecamp looked promising.
We were not disappointed. José and Marcela were warm and gracious, laying out a gorgeous lunch of barbecued beef and lots of yummy fixings. Their little resort is the perfect remote beach getaway place, sporting luxury dome tents, camping spots and a kitchen. We enjoyed a leisurely afternoon chatting with our new friends, but opted to continue pushing south rather than stay the night. My fever had subsided, but I was still having difficulty breathing. The hospital in Santiago was looking like our next big hope.
The antibiotics, while not working 100%, were at least keeping the fever down, and I was able to continue putting one foot ahead of the other. We passed the next couple of days in solitude, enjoying beautiful scenery and camping in gorgeous spots.
Nice place to check on a few things.
Our meandering eventually brought us to the town of Huasco where we needed to get fuel.
Coincidentally, it was Chile’s Independence Day, and we watched as people and horses lined up for a big parade. Oddly, when we looked back on our photos we noticed that there were not many big smiles.
We eventually stumbled upon this cool pageant being performed in the town square.
It appeared as if the history of Chile was being played out, and it was fun to see in spite of not feeling well.
Leaving Huasco, we could see that garbage is a universal problem.
From Huasco, we decided to take another dirt road south. Being sick makes the risk of remote roads a bit higher, but we had been enjoying the desert so much we were not quite ready for the Pan Am. This whole area reminded us a lot of Baja.
Small mining claims dotted the hillsides, and all of the dwellings looked liked this – ramshackle and poor.
Sebastian had suggested that we visit the Valle de Elqui, which is a lush, river valley known for growing the grapes used to make Pisco. Pisco is a brandy-like liquor and is widely enjoyed in Peru and Chile in a drink called a Pisco Sour.
The Valle de Elqui runs east/west, inland from the city of La Serena
We stopped to explore the tiny but touristy (mostly Chileans and European backpackers) town of Pisco Elqui.
Dinner in Pisco Elqui was delicious and included a sampling of Pisco…straight…just to see how it tasted. It was not delicious. We had the bartender turn it into a Pisco Sour and it went down just fine floating in a tasty sweet and sour mix.
Continuing south, we found ourselves on yet another dirt road. We kept saying that we needed to spare poor Charlotte for the arduous roads through Patagonia and Bolivia, but we just can’t seem to stop seeking the roads less traveled.
The landscape became lusher, but the mining communities were just as rough.
On September 20, we cruised right in to Santiago. Surprisingly, there was no traffic and no navigation fights. The only bad thing was the horrendous smog. Santiago is in a gorgeous setting surrounded by snow capped mountains but you can’t see them! We drove right to Hotel Acacias de Vitacura, and were instantly charmed. Sebastian had made the reservation for us and it was perfect – a balcony overlooking a lush garden, a fridge, and HEAT again for the first time in the whole trip. The room was done all in white with a white carpet and we cringed knowing we (dirt bags) would trash it!
I had finished my last course of antibiotics two days before and was already struggling with another relapse. I pulled out a business card José (from Basecamp) had given me and began to experience the true kindness of Santiagans. José’s brother was a doctor at the Clinica Las Condes, the very hospital I had found on Google, and José had given me his cell phone number. I hesitated to call on a Saturday night, but I was beginning to feel desperate.
Dr. Bravo could not have been nicer. Far from being annoyed by my call, he was expecting it. José had filled him in previously, and he was ready to set me up with a specialist. I was to call him back on Monday morning at 8:00am. I was close to a melt down at this point, but had high hopes of the specialist being able to cure me.
By Monday I was feeling even worse, but Dr. Bravo came through. In spite of it being the Monday after a long holiday week, he was able to get me in to an Infectious Disease doctor at 1:00pm. Ned had arranged to work on Charlotte’s roof rack and replace the worn out upper A-arm bushings and upper ball joints at a friend of Sebastian’s, so I took a taxi to the clinic (which was serendipitously only a mile away).
I waited less than five minutes to see the doctor, who came to greet me personally. Dr. Blamey then proceeded to listen, in detail, to all that had happened since the illness began in August. He also asked pertinent questions, gave me an exam and patiently spent an entire hour with me. In the end, he said I still had a raging sinus infection and prescribed another antibiotic, a steroid nasal spray and an expectorant. As I departed, Dr. Blamey gave me a big, warm hug.
Interestingly, when I arrived at the clinic, I had noticed a lot of hugging going on between doctors and staff and I experienced a moment of uneasiness at first. After all, here in the United States, we are well tuned in to the potential pitfalls of sexual harassment. But here in Santiago, Chile I found it heartwarming, and my hug from Dr. Blamey was a welcomed comfort.
Dr. Blamey had also set me up to see an ear, nose throat doctor who was equally as patient and kind. Unfortunately, he said I was battling allergies as well and prescribed four more drugs, on top of the three I was already on, one of which was oral steroids. I have for years, chosen alternative, natural medicine over traditional pharmaceutical medicine, even for Lyme disease, and the thought of taking seven drugs was horrifying. Ned and I had a long hard discussion, weighing the option of “drugging up” and continuing on or flying home. It was a hard decision, but once made, home sounded like paradise.
We discovered a big indoor mall near our hotel and spent a couple of hours enjoying modern comforts and escaping Santiago’s damp, smoggy air. We were even entertained by the parking garage (have we been in the sticks too long?). The red lights indicate that the stall is occupied, while the green says it is available so you don’t have to drive up and down the aisles looking for a spot. Wow, who thought of that?
We finally got to meet our new friends, Sebastian and Luz, who were introduced to us through friends in the jeeping world. We had a wonderful meal at their beautiful home, realizing instantly that we were kindred spirits. We are looking forward to spending more time with them when we return in December.
Sebastian, ever helpful, introduced us to a friend of his who provided this cozy, temporary home for Charlotte. See you in December, Charlotte!
Catch up with us again in December when we return to take on Bolivia, Patagonia, Argentina and the very tip of the continent…Ushuaia…this time brimming with health and energy!