I sat in the back seat of the Toyota four-wheel drive. We were at an air station, a necessary part of road travel in Bolivia. With all the different elevations, there is no single tire pressure that works everywhere. If you’re heading toward lower ground, you need to add air so you don’t lose traction driving on tires that are half flat. If you’re heading higher, you need to have air taken out so the tires don’t blow out.
Steve, the driver and organizer of our trip, made arrangements with the kids who worked the valves and air pumps. A couple of American dollars for a tip bought you a serious level of professionalism.
Off in the distance, smaller children played in a puddle of gray water fed by a pipe from a nearby chemical plant.
I watched all this while taking swigs from a plastic canteen filled with what had to be the vilest-tasting liquid known to man. It was a liter of boiled water mixed with a packet of rehydration salts and I was expected to drink it all.
The diarrhea that had stricken me was my own damn fault. It came from good intentions trumping common sense.
Three days earlier, I was at an orphanage in Cochabamba. I shook the hand of a small child in the infirmary. The kid didn’t look too happy. Considering he was both sick and an orphan, I didn’t expect him to. Still, I wanted to try to cheer him up. My Spanish wasn’t very good so I made funny faces at him and hoped that would do the trick.
The kid gave me a puzzled look as I stared back at him with my fingers in the corner of my mouth. Some of those fingers were used to shake his hands just moments ago. His germs were now my germs.
Two days later, the diarrhea hit me.
My traveling companions and I had spent most of that day going from Cochabamba to La Paz and arrived in the late afternoon. You don’t drive on Bolivian highways at night, that is not unless you want to end up as one of those crosses that seemed to adorn every curve and intersection we passed.
Local motorists, worried about getting rear ended, made it a habit of building a pile of rocks on the road behind them when they stopped to change a tire. When they were done, they drove off, leaving the pile there.
This was just one of the surprises limiting your driving to broad daylight would help you avoid.
So we arrived safely in the capitol, got some cheap accommodations, and went out for a bite to eat. At this point, I wasn’t feeling too bad, just a little nauseous.
That night was a different matter. For once in my life, I’ll spare you readers the disgusting details. Suffice it to say I spent less time in my dormitory bed than I did on the toilet down the hall.
So by the time we made it to the air station on the way out of town, I was gulping down the foul-tasting water so I wouldn’t shit myself to death. The road ahead would take us high into the Andes. I had no idea what we would find there.. Would there be charming villages full of charming and quaint Quechua folk? Or would we encounter cannibal plane-crash survivors? Or perhaps we’d find Shangri-la? (I know, I know, wrong continent.) As sick as I felt, I was absolutely elated. My immediate future was one big glorious question mark.
These days, I go on much smaller excursions. My looming horizons are not the snow-topped peaks of the Andes. They are the windmill-topped foothills of Livermore.
Don’t get me wrong. I like my life these days pretty well. It just that there’s that bit of Don Quixote that still lives inside me. I want that great adventure in my life. Realistically, I’ll have to wait on that but I won’t do that for too long. I can see the clock ticking on the wall.