Choose your poison – altitude sickness, a stomach bug or a hemorrhoid.
I’d have taken the bug, I need to lose some weight anyway. What did you pick?
I’ll bet no one chose the hemorrhoid. Unfortunately, life offers few choices when it comes to getting sick in Bolivia and I ended up having all three ailments attack me while I was exploring the Bolivian desert very recently.
Everyone has a travel sickness story, and while at the time being ill on holiday is one of the worst things that can happen to you outside of war and bad romance, the best cure is to simply laugh about it.
So in that spirit allow me to share with you the horror of the triple-threat attack I endured in Bolivia’s boonies.
Carmen and I flew in to Bolivia’s capital La Paz via a flight from Miami, a city very much at sea level. La Paz, however, sits at the lofty height of 3,650m and is considered to the world’s highest capital city.
The air is thin and cold and preys on the lungs and circulatory systems of newbies like an office psycho trying to recruit new friends to their ‘cause’.
I immediately felt light headed and at the barest suggestion of exercise I was panting like a fat kid on sports day.
‘It’ll pass soon,’ I told myself. We had three days to acclimatise and took it easy, just walking around and seeing things and relaxing.
I thought I was over it until the headaches came.
Imagine a circular saw lodged directly into the cleft between the left and right hemisphere of your brain. Now pulse the saw a few times until the blade is at a slow and steady rotation.
That’s an altitude sickness headache and no matter how many paracetamol, Tylenol or other painkillers you take the saw still rotates just a little.
Travelling with altitude sickness
So with the headache still very much in mind, Carmen and I booked a bus ticket to the remote Bolivian town of Uyuni which is a hub for tours of the famous Salt Flats.
We left at 8pm at night and didn’t get in to Uyuni until 9am the next day after enduring a very bumpy ride on a cold bus with windows that don’t open. Uyuni is even higher than La Paz and when I stepped off the oxygen-starved bus my head was screaming.
We found a cheap hostel and spent the rest of the day shopping around for a three day and two night tour of the Salt Flats and the deserts beyond.
We booked the cheapest we could find then found a place for dinner that served pizza.
That was a mistake.
I went to bed that night in a cold sweat feeling as though my hands were like two balloons (thanks Pink Floyd) and my stomach was growling and churning as though it contained the Atlantic.
At around 2am the waves broke and I rushed to the loo to open the gates of hell.
It was just the beginning.
The next morning I noticed a severe pain in my bum.
Now before you titter too much, let me tell you everyone has hemorrhoids, just like opinions and assholes.
You have one right now, it is a part of your bowel. But it can get inflamed and when that happens people mistakenly say they ‘have a hemorrhoid.’ Except you’ve always had one, you just never noticed before.
Believe me, you will notice it if it becomes inflamed.
Buggered if I know how it came to be, maybe my backpack was too heavy and I busted a gut lifting it or maybe the pizza ejection was a bit too violent.
Whatever the cause I was now a wreck from head to bum.
My temples ached and became even more painful when my stomach demanded to be emptied which in turn pressed the pain button down below. It was a vicious cycle of discomfort that according to Wikipedia and Google could only be cured with bed rest and time.
Unfortunately I was now due to hop on board a Landcruiser 4×4 for a three day tour of some of the remotest country on the planet.
Inside the cramped Toyota we met our fellow travelers. Jaap Peter and Sander from the Netherlands, two of the tallest and friendliest fellas I’ve ever met, and Juliana and Sara from Colombia, two very beautiful girls from Colombia.
It was a great group and we got along like a house on fire.
The Salt Flats and the desert were absolutely amazing but I think I’ll leave the proper description of them to Carmen.
I was fairly light headed the whole time so my perception of this place was a little more hallucinogenic.
I’ve always wanted to be like Jim Morrison and The Doors and drop LSD in the desert so I suppose I had a version of that.
But like any stoner story it is better left unsaid.
Back to being sick in Bolivia!
It got worse on the first night of the trip when we slept in a weird dormitory in the middle of nowhere.
I confessed two parts of my illness (guess which one I kept private?!) to the group who were very sympathetic.
Juliana immediately offered me every cure for altitude sickness under the sun from her well-stocked medical kit while Jaap Peter regaled us with a story of his own poor stomach, referring to its expulsions as ‘an attack’.
That became our catch phrase.
Experiencing ‘an attack’
I went to bed feeling very under the weather and woke up in the middle of the night to have ‘an attack’.
This time from both ends.
The next day I felt a little better but that only lasted until the afternoon when our driver took us on a wild ride across the rocky dunes.
The scenery is spectacular. Huge, soaring mountains rise up from absolutely flat ground that stretches for untold miles. Your sense of perspective is totally shot; the colours and reflections disguise the sky and the horizon and you feel like an ant under a glass dome.
My eyes drank in the view, but my head, stomach and bum were all stirring up a horrible witches brew.
Double bubble, toil and trouble, cauldron boil and cauldron bubble…
Second night of being sick in Bolivia
There is a terrible moment when every ill person has to decide whether it’s a fart or diarrhea.
The choice is made even harder when you’re cowering beneath a sparsely blanketed bed while it’s minus temperatures outside and you really don’t want to get up. But I found myself in this exact situation on the second night, in a biblical style dormitory Carmen and I were sharing with all the others.
I decided caution was the best policy, so I braved the chill.
I didn’t have a torch or a head lamp but it didn’t matter. There were light switches (powered by truck batteries) and the girls who ran the godforsaken place had left candles burning at intervals down the corridor and in the lavatories. I felt my way out of the room and into the hallway and found the light switch.
I tried another.
The candles were all out too.
My bowels were on fire though so I had no choice but to pick my way down a pitch black corridor into the abyss of the bathroom and do my business blindfolded. At least I could follow my nose…
We got up at 4.30 am on the final day so we could see the sun rise blood red over the desert and visit the steam geysers and hot springs that are fed by the volcanoes dotting the area.
I have never felt better than when I stripped down to my shorts and paddled in to the super heated pool of water looking out over the flat expanse of the Bolivian desert.
It was heaven, and washed away my sins.
After that relaxing morning we dropped the girls off in Chile then made our way back to Uyuni.
A ring of fire
A few days later Carmen and I returned to La Paz and caught up with Jaap Peter and Sander again. We all went out for dinner at an Indian Restaurant to celebrate Carmen’s birthday and were joined by new friends Zara and Henry from London.
My headaches were gone and my stomach was settled.
Only the lousy hemorrhoid remained but I had a cream to take care of it so it wasn’t playing on my mind much. We ordered a huge feast of curries, samosas, bhajis, naan breads and chutneys and washed it all down with wine and beer.
The party favour of the night was a challenge curry, a Vindaloo made with the spiciest, hottest chilies in South America and if you finished it you got a t-shirt.
We all tried a very small sample and my god it was hot.
Just a bite burned your lips, tongue and teeth and set us all sweating and riding the chilli train for minutes at a time.
It was great fun but when I shifted in my seat I remembered my hemorrhoid.
Then I remembered what goes in must come out…