I have never been so happy to see a Mariner's game on television. M's verses the A's, but the teams weren't so important. What was important is that we were together, safe and comfortable. Hours before when we tried to settle down for the afternoon siesta, Willie was too agitated to sleep. He hadn't slept much the night before and had been uncharacteristically sluggish on the ride up the steep canyon between Bucaramanga and San Gil. For the first time in memory, I played the cheerleader, waiting for him to catch up with me every couple of kilometers.
Unable to sleep and growing constriction in his chest, we left our hotel and found a couple of computers with internet access at the florist shop around the corner. While I read some emails and looked at news headlines, Willie read about chloroquine overdosing and he grew pale. Shaking, white with a thin glisten of sweat he said he wanted to get to a doctor... fast. Helping him out the door, and back to our hotel, we asked Oscar--out hotel clerk extraordinaire-- for help. We explained to him that Willie thought he had malarial fever in Bucaramanga and was self-medicating. He was now clearly not well and needed medical attention. Willie feared he had over-medicated, which in this case could be very serious.
Oscar didn't hesitate a moment. He called another staff member to cover for him and he escorted us to the local clinic. Willie, by this time, was unstable and clearly shaken. For him, the walk was a long green mile, for Oscar and me it was about 6 minutes until we entered the clinic reception. Oscar explained Willie's condition to the reception and after a brief questioning about international health insurance (which we don't have since we barely have domestic health insurance) and a deposit of 100 thousand pesos, we were let into the hall waiting for the examining doctor. Second in line, Willie sat, barely able to speak. That ten minutes or so was an eternity and only once inside the examination room could Willie look at me and say that he didn't want to die. Shaken to his core, I could only hold him and tell him I loved him and that he was getting help in time. I believed with all my heart that Willie was going to be fine and could only hope my confidence could give him comfort.
We told the doctor about the fevers and showed him the malarial drugs and antibiotics Willie was taking. We told him that two week prior to the fever, we had visited Los Llanos (the savanna plains of Venezuela) on a 4 day jeep tour ... the most likely place to come in contact with malarial mosquitos. When we explained the bicycle ride the day before, there was a look that spoke volumes. Malaria parasites multiply in the liver and then affect red blood cells, robbing them of oxygen. After a quick blood pressure check and few other simple tests, Willie was lead to the "Sala do Observation" and laid down on one of the 4 beds in the main hall. A kid with a broken arm waiting to be wrapped looked on and winced as the I.V. needle was inserted into his hand. Scared and nervous the first hour, his pale color and weakened body drew looks of concern from a mother sitting in the chair across from me. Only stroking his hair and holding his hand seemed to comfort him a bit.
Another hour past, other patients came and went. With growing calm and better looking skin tone, Willie took in interest in the dripping bag. Slowly drip, drip, dripping into him. Couldn't it go faster? Is it going down at all? Is that bubble in the line getting in the way? The nurse assured us it was dripping as it should. Patience. Another hour and the bag was near empty. Willie, was ready to sit up -- ready to walk outside and away from his nightmare. I got the nurses attention again as the empty IV started to bleed backward into the line. Take it out and let us go. But no. She brought another bag, per doctor's orders. Another bag, meant another few hours and Willie finally slept. I read my notebook and re-lived each day of the journey. Forced myself to remember places and people where details were sketchy in order to stay awake as night closed in.
At last, the second bag was nearing empty. By then all the other patience had been released or moved to other rooms. I saw the nurse leave for the night, not really sure if we would be staying for another round. At last a young doctor arrived with results from Willie's blood test. From what we could understand, the test couldn't show if Willie had malaria since it only registers when active. The doctor seemed to indicate that the medication Willie took was correct for one of the 4 types of malaria, and without a blood test while the parasite was active, he couldn't confirm malaria or the treatment. There were concerns though with some levels in his blood, so the doctor released Willie with instructions to stop of medication and to return to the clinic in one week for another blood test. The final bill ... 135,000 pesos, or $70.
It was a pleasant, cool night by the time we left the clinic. We talked the short distance back to the hotel, where Oscar the day clerk and given the night clerk the details to look after us. Secure in our tidy room with fan and television, we flipped on the TV and found the Mariner's game. The M's won that evening, and so did we.
San Gil cast it's spell on us and we decided we had found a place to stay awhile. It's an easy place to linger and we were ready for a vacation instead of an adventure. Each day we visited what we think is Colombia's most beautiful and well-used town squares. The 350 year old trees gave ample shade for reading books, sipping tinto coffees from strolling vendors, and enjoying a shaved ice with sweet mora (blackberry) syrup and a squeeze of lime. Locals shared a bench, couples strolled by, children played and we soaked it all in.
Oscar at the hotel proved to be helpful beyond medical emergencies. He showed us to perfect breakfast and lunch spots, then a place for a spa-treatment massage and haircut. Next he pointed me to the best optical shop in town where I splurged on two new pair of glasses. Every day he sends us to new places and suggests day trips and sights to see.
We celebrated Willie growing stronger and breathing easier by riding to a picture-perfect 300 year old village on the high plateau 22kms from town. It was sheer pleasure to ride free of baggage and return the end of the day to our room and balcony overlooking red tiled roofs of San Gil.
Mostly we just hung out and found ourselves happy as puppies to just be together. Our top floor balcony was the perfect place for a nightly cocktail and it was high time to enjoy a Scotch for a change from cool beer or rum. Daily I went back to the same avocado street vender for perfect avocados to make a salad with tomatoes and lime and spicy salsa. By the time we left, she was giving me more avocados than we could eat ... but somehow we managed.
We lingered in San Gil until the next exam at the clinic, and one week later, all levels were normal again.
By now, we are enjoying playing tourist instead of adventure cyclists. We're healthy, well rested, a few pounds lighter and a few hairs grayer, and we're ready to come home.
Thanks for coming along for the ride.