Mystery Illness

Blogging is narcissistic, but it’s important to recognize the limits of chocolate as a means of medication.

When I returned to Peru in January after having spent ten days in the US for the holidays, it suddenly occurred to me that I had eighteen weeks left on my contract in Trujillo. And after previously having spent weeks distressed over the limited amount of time I seemed to have left in the magical country – inefficient, unequal, ethnically homogenous, yet full of life; true, gritty, spontaneous, meaningful life – I suddenly felt overwhelmed. Eighteen weeks suddenly seemed a cold, lonely eternity, and every honk of the incessant Peruvian car horn made me all the more anxious. And so I decided to self-medicate with chocolate. I popped open a bag of dark chocolates with almonds that my thoughtful sister gave me to sweeten the remainder of my stay, and counted out eighteen – one for each week. I dropped them one-by-one aptly into an empty vitamin bottle, determined to eat just one on every remaining Friday while south of the equator.


But only about two days after devising this plan, I started to feel at ease again. Peru started to feel once again like home, the cockroaches stopped bothering me so much, the smog of the city became tolerable – negligible really. But I ate my first chocolate on January 10th anyway. I almost crumpled the wrapper without reading the cheesy message printed inside because I’m kind of tired of Dove suggesting I smile more or follow my heart, but at the last minute, I paused to read the wisdom of the tinfoil, which said, not so inconsequentially, “Happiness is in the heart, not in the circumstances.”


On the sixth Friday of eighteen, I found myself strangely emotional. As someone who fears routine and sometimes seeks change for the simple sake of change, I ironically started to fear the inevitable date that would cause me to lose what I had in Peru. Things I can’t even really pin down. Some sort of half-hatched egg of a relationship and an ever-evolving yet never complete command of a language, culture and city. I listened to “La vuelta al mundo” and held back tears by means of self-suffocation, holding my breath, saying out loud, “Three whole months! Chill out!” And it worked. But I still felt panicked. Like what awaits me back in the U.S.? Some kind of tranquility that I don’t want. Because tranquility feels stagnant. And stagnant scares me.

And then when I got to this point, imagefour chocolatey Fridays left, I went to work with a headache. When I returned home, it persisted, so I took a nap, which unintentionally lasted three hours, and would have lasted longer had my new roommate not slammed the front door unnecessarily in her typical fashion, slowly awakening me. I stumbled zombie-like into the living room and announced to V, my beetle-conquering roommate, that I wasn’t feeling so well, and toppled back into bed, inexplicably exhausted.

That happened on a Saturday. I don’t remember much of the following Sunday because I slept through most of it. I remember waking up at an odd hour and trying to prepare oatmeal, when the room started spinning, and I was overcome by nausea. Sleeping had not cured me of my overwhelming exhaustion, and I felt incredibly weak, so I went back to bed, oatmeal ingredients left out in the open. I was awoken hours later by an intense heat boiling throughout my body, followed by sharp leg pains. I took Tylenol and slept more. I woke up again later because I now felt the discomfort of a cold dampness on my skin. Sweat dripped down my chest and under my nose. It matted my hair. V convinced me to go to the hospital, so I went, (after showering of course – V agreed) thinking I had some sort of flu.

The doctors were confused. “Por qué te has mojado?” Why have you wet yourself? they asked me.

“No, I’m sweating,” I explained, my T-shirt clinging to my skin.

They told me to come back the next day so I could see another doctor. I had no way of knowing that this suggestion was the start of a pattern that would persist for the next week and a half.

Following my first hospital visit, I continued to have daily fevers and shooting pain in my legs, hips and back. Doctors would look at me without hiding their confusion, take my blood, remain confused and send me home, often telling me to come back the next day, or referring me to other doctors. Their only recommendations were sleep and Tylenol.

I saw more doctors in a week than I had seen in my life. I saw one so old he needed a magnifying glass to read my temperature on his thermometer, and another so swarmed with patients that he hardly acknowledged me at all. The most memorable doctor was blind. Once, as I exited his office defeated when he, like the others, sent me home without answers, I felt his heavy hand on my shoulder. I continued to walk out the door and he shuffled close behind. It turned out I was unknowingly guiding him out of the room.

And then suddenly, I was on a boat. It was a small boat, and I think I may have been paddling. The sun was warm and I had friends sitting near me, though I’m not sure who they were exactly. But it was nice and I felt pain-free and relieved. Then all of a sudden I heard a fierce, rapid thundering noise drumming into my ears, like that insufferable pounding you hear when you’re driving on the freeway and leave the back window down. And the next thing I knew, my eyes were fluttering open and I was surrounded by strangers in white coats in an unfamiliar, gray room. I gasped for air, looked at each stranger in the face, panicked, trying to figure out where I was, when finally I saw V, desperate and worried by my side. And then I remembered. I was at hospital #2 with doctor #3 who ignored my request to lie down when I said I was weak and dizzy. It turns out I had fainted (the boat was a dream…) and had been convulsing and babbling in English much to the confusion (yes, more confusion) of the negligent doctor and his entourage of interns. V said she nearly cried and prayed – something she is not known to do – and could only recognize the word, “Help!” in my string of exasperated English. I think I may have given her post-traumatic stress disorder. And still, the doctors had no answers.

Over the course of that week, I saw seven doctors, gave my blood eight times, (one time yielding hand-written results on a scrap of paper) and did a sonogram to examine my internal organs. But the pattern continued. The doctors kept sending me home saying everything was normal. They didn’t know why I had so many fevers. One suggested I see a psychologist. (I intended to storm off when he said this, but my energy only permitted me to stand up slowly and hobble away.)

Finally, when I had resolved that I would probably never know what was wrong with me, an epidemiologist cracked the code. He barely examined me, just asked a chain of rapid-fire questions like a detective, and responded, satisfied, with words like, “Perfecto!” and “Excelente!” when my responses corresponded with his suspicions. I was glad he was asking the right questions, but also secretly had the urge to slap him. There was nothing excelente or perfecto about my fevers and pain. But fortunately his inquisition led to more blood tests and then to the blind doctor who ultimately confirmed the epidemiologists’ divination about my diagnosis.

I’ll just keep it simple and say I contracted a virus, one that is common in developing countries and completely treatable. The Peruvian doctors, however, insisted that the only treatment was one month of bed-rest and the consumption of honey and quince, a Latin American fruit. My sister, a doctor, did not agree with honey or fruit as a proper treatment, and my mother was losing a lot of sleep. Furthermore, I only had one month left in Peru and didn’t want to spend it in bed, in spite of my insatiable exhaustion. They also recommended I not eat chocolate, which completely ruined the chocolate Friday project. I went back to the blind doctor one last time for more blood tests, and when the results showed that I had only gotten worse, I decided it was time to go home. Stagnant or not, you can’t beat proper medical attention. He called out, “Come back Tuesday!” as I left, to which I responded, “Sí! Claro que sí!” knowing full well that my next doctor’s appointment would be in the U.S.

So here I am. And much healthier. I can barely tell I was ever sick, actually. And now I am hoping this turn of events doesn’t indicate an end to adventure, merely a resting point until the next one comes along. You can throw your anchor down, but pull it up again, right?

And besides unintentionally gaining knowledge about developing-world illnesses and conquering my fear of needles, I learned how important it is to have good friends. V has been my closest friend in Peru for months, and I therefore had the confidence to share my symptoms with her, rely on her to accompany me to the slew of doctors I visited, allow her to force-feed me when the sight of food made my stomach turn, and unleash my emotional distress on her (not just during my time of illness, I should say). She must have missed a week of work to take countless taxi rides with me to various hospitals, and to hold my squeamish hand when the indifferent nurses pricked my arms, wrist and hand to draw my blood. Only I can fully understand how important her support was to me while the mystery of my illness slowly unraveled, and as a result, I know I will gladly provide the same support to her or any of my friends if ever necessary. Good friends are hard to come by, but their value is beyond words.




Blogging is narcissistic yet satisfying like a sunset in a dirty window.

Luciérnaga is a nice word. Especially if you pop the accent right on the “e” where it belongs. Then the “naga” part falls out of your mouth on your last whiff of air. Luciérnaga. If you just say the “naga” part, it sounds even mystical. I’m getting carried away, but if you picture a geographically ambiguous man decked out in tribal gear of your imagination shaking a stick around and saying, “Naga! Naga!”, the mystical part becomes more understandable, right? Luciérnaga. It means firefly.

I really don’t know much about fireflies because prior to coming to Peru, I had only seen them once as a child. This momentus event took place years ago while celebrating my dad’s birthday with his side of the family in New York. I barely remember any of it. To be honest, I barely remember the fireflies, only that I saw them and that they blew my little-girl mind. Flying lights. Like miniature, slow-motion shooting stars, close enough that I could touch them, though I’m sure I didn’t dare.

A young English volunteer tipped me off about their existence here in Peru. She discovered them as a semi-happy ending to a scary story in which she and her boyfriend were deliberately driven off course by their taxi driver, robbed and abandoned in the Trujillan ruins of Chan Chan late one night. As she recounted the details of the story to me, complete with the imagery of a gun held to her neck and blows dealt to her boyfriend, I remained mostly speechless, shaking my head, not really knowing what to say. And then she said, “It was really beautiful afterward though,” and went on to explain that as she and her basically blind boyfriend (they broke his glasses) maneuvered their way through the ruins in the dark, they found themselves surrounded by fireflies, luciérnagas. It’s fun to think that maybe the little bugs were sympathizing with them. Or guiding them through the darkness to safety.

This prompted me to want to see the luciérnagas myself, though not by the same means as my friend, of course. I think they must be a little more Biggie than Tupac because I never see them in California. So I added them to my Peru to-do list.

Then the other night I found myself unwillingly jogging through an impoverished community outside the city center. It was not an ideal run. I was upset because my running companion was charging up a dusty hill, while I was trying to keep up but was so winded I could hear myself gasping for air. I felt weak.

Then came the stray dogs. I used to love dogs. In Peru, I hate them. A small part of me feels sorry when I see them limp or scratch their impossibly itchy skin, but a much bigger part of me panics and thinks, “If you come near me I will counter-attack!” when they approach me on the street. Sometimes I release my fear by saying mean things to them, but I make sure to do so in English so they won’t understand. It’s not their fault, after all.

On this particular night, through my panic and frustration, I noticed a stunning view of the city creeping up behind me as I pushed myself up the hill: yellow lights in wobbly rows with the backdrop of a pink sunset. But I was scared of the barking dogs and frustrated by my perceived weakness, which only led to more frustration because I used to love running, and maybe I still do, but it doesn’t provide me with the same serenity I once reaped from the sound of my shoes slapping against the California coast. So I chose to look away from the lights.

I should have reminded myself that I often end up pleasantly surprised or humbled after a run in Peru. Like the time I tripped on a rock and came tumbling down into the dirt and split my knee open. It wouldn’t stop bleeding, so I approached a small home on a dirt road and asked for a napkin. The next thing I knew, I was inside the home, sitting on a plastic chair while a man cleaned me up with alcohol and his wife assembled a make-shift bandage for me with cotton and masking tape.


Their two small boys looked on while I wept. The man tried to reassure me saying, “The alcohol burns, doesn’t it?” I tried to explain through my tears that that’s not why I was crying, but he just looked at me curiously, quickly patched me up and returned to his lunch. Peruvians love lunch.

On the night of the hill, after lots of complaining and shouting childish insults at the dogs, (“You’re ugly! I hate you!”) I descended back into the steel-colored city scowling. Lucky for me, my running companion tried to cheer me up by asking if I would like to try to find the luciérnagas I was after. It was a generous gesture considering my bad attitude, so of course I agreed. I gripped his hand as we made our way through a completely dark field rendering some kind of unidentifiable crop. And we didn’t see anything. I mean literally nothing because it was so dark. And for some reason the darkness made me want to whisper the way you do when a baby is sleeping. “Piensas que alguien nos va a matar?” (Do you think someone is going to kill us?) I whispered. I was ignored.

And then suddenly, a small spark in some tall grass flashing on and off slowly like a pulse. And then more. And then one floating through the darkness like a chip off a light bulb, only fluttering slowly as though made of paper. It was so silent.

We squatted by a small channel of water that runs toward the ocean to get a closer look, when suddenly I noticed the reflection of the moon, orange and perfectly round, rippled in the water.

And that’s kind of how my time here has been. Sometimes frustrating and painful. Sometimes surprising and beautiful. Sometimes both at the same time like a sunset reflected in a dirty window. And I know there is a lesson to be taken from all this, I’m just not sure exactly what. But I hope that through the periodic challenges and frustrations that undoubtedly await me (because they await us all, right?) I will continue to seek out luciérnagas and other small sources of relief.