Most people go on holidays to lie on the beach in, say, Jamaica, and totally relax. They usually try to avoid coming home sick, or injured, or both. The following is an edited version of an e-mail that I wrote to my parents and siblings recounting the events of an arduous, but fascinating experience.
Five years ago we decided to visit Peru and Bolivia for a month, with the three kids in tow, of course. We would do the Macchu Picchu hike, but before that we were talked into doing a four day hike in the Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and which reaches an elevation of 17 000 ft. After arising at 2:30 a.m. in the city of Arequippa we rode a bus for five hours, continually ascending and only stopping for such things as viewing the condors and to give release to our steadily-increasing nausea. Finally the bus made its final stop and we were met by our guide Marcel. I had been fortunate so far, and I was convinced that altitude sickness was something that only happened to wimps.
Hours later we completed our last ascent of the day, an intensely steep climb that my pounding head allowed me to finish only because I knew that we would soon be flopping down. The village we had reached was Marcel’s birthplace, a small cluster of huts, some places being only a kitchen and woodstove, and a few others that contained beds and slits in the walls that passed for windows. There was another hut that was a small toilet, site of a future disaster, whose flush didn’t seem to be totally working. I thought that I’d lie down for awhile to see if my headache would subside while Marcel and his mother prepared supper. Neither event materialized. The pounding in my head and the queasiness in my stomach only upped their ante, and apparently Marcel’s mother was nowhere to be found. “She’s a little late and she locked the door to the kitchen,” Marcel informed us as time dragged on and not even the mush we had been served for lunch was appearing . My wife Brenda wasn’t buying any of it. “What – they lock their doors during the day in this tiny mountain hamlet of three families and we don’t even do that in downtown Ottawa?” she wondered incredulously. “He’s just saying that as an excuse so he doesn’t have to make supper and we’ll just go to bed.” I had given up on supper anyway; I was way too miserable to even think of eating. Meanwhile, I heard voices coming from the outdoor table a few metres from our hut; we had been joined by one other hiking group comprised of a young Swiss couple and an American exchange student who had spent the past semester in a school in Chile. I wished that they would all shut up. We had of course forgotten our Ibuprofen in our hotel room back in Arequippa and our guide’s antidote of sniffing dried mountain herbs wasn’t having rapid enough results by my impatient North American standards. Brenda suddenly appeared by my bed with a cup of coca tea. I was unimpressed. “I can’t sit up and drink that crap,” I complained. “See if that Swiss couple has any headache tablets. I heard the woman say that she’s a doctor.” Luckily, as it turned out, she did, and I eventually fell into a fitful sleep.
I had to make a couple of trips to the malfunctioning outhouse during the night, and the next morning at early light I emerged out of the hut and barely missed stepping into a pile of shit.
“Who crapped out here?” I demanded of my family, not really caring if they were still sleeping or not.
“That was Rachelle,” volunteered my son Adam. “I saw her doing it in the middle of the night.”
Much to my surprise, Rachelle didn’t even go through the motions of denying it. “I had diarrhea and I was afraid of walking too far in the dark,” was her defense. I just sighed and made my way to the outhouse, where I found a new case of crap all over the floor. Diarrhea, we had discovered, was a particularly hazardous by-product of altitude sickness. I beat it back to the hut, indignant as only one who had been stepping in it all morning could be.
“What happened in the outhouse?” I was a little angrier this time. “It probably wasn’t that Swiss doctor.”
This time Liam fessed up. “I had diarrhea and I couldn’t make it all the way in,” he admitted. It would be a problem for Liam all through this particular mountain trek, as the altitude wreaked havoc on his bowels, leading his brother Adam to ask him, “Why are you always crapping yourself ?” I returned to the outhouse to do the clean-up myself, only to find Marcel the guide’s mother already cheerfully at the job. Perhaps she faced this problem routinely. At any rate, I was feeling better, thanked her profusely and then headed up to the table where pancakes were already being served. But first I washed my hands thoroughly at the cold water tap. I only hoped that she would do the same.
This diarrhea seems to be very contagious.