Monday, November 29, 2010

My Run-In with Infectious Disease

Last week, my time in the Peace Corps was nearly cut short by a Leishmania scare.

It was two weeks ago that I spied a small, insect bite-looking mark on my neck. Thinking not much of it, I let it be. But the mark started to grow. In 4 days, it had turned into a red, circular scaly spot about the size of a nickel. It didn’t itch or hurt; I could barely tell it was there, so I really wasn’t too concerned.

But after another half of a week, it wasn’t looking any better so I decided to call someone. The Peace Corps sent me to the clinic in town, which is my least favorite spot. There’s no obvious order to the patients waiting there, which is probably why they can’t give you an approximate waiting time and appointments are nonexistent. Even if you’re half dead you might have to wait 2 hours before someone even acknowledges that you’re there. I feel like, if the Peace Corps calls ahead for me, I should be guaranteed a visit when I get there, but nope. So I waited about an hour and a half to see the Doc.

When I finally get in there, he takes a look. ‘Hmm,’ he says, ‘this looks weird. Have you been travelling lately?’ I said I’d been to Yamaranguila (20 mins away), Copan and El Salvador (a month ago). ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it looks like it could possibly be Leishmania, but I’m not sure. They don’t have it here in La Esperanza, but it’s endemic in El Salvador.’ But I was there a month ago, I protest, how could it just show up now? ‘I don’t know, he says, I’m not a dermatologist, but this could be something that ends your Peace Corps service…’

What!? I shriek over and over in my head. What do you mean? I ask as calmly as possible. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘they don’t really have Leishmania in the U.S., you’ve probably never heard of it. But it could be serious. We know about it here, we could give you some medicine to take back to the U.S. with you. You don’t live anywhere near Tulane do you?’ No, I respond. ‘Well, that’s where they treat it in the U.S.’ That was it. He suggested I see a real dermatologist in Teguz as soon as possible.

I ran home, collapsed into Nolan’s arms in tears and explained what the doctor had said. Nolan wasn’t the least bit convinced. ‘That makes no sense,’ he said. ‘How could they send you back to the U.S. if they can treat it here? And why would they only send you to Tulane? I think the U.S. has a better medical system than Honduras. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ Agreeing that he was probably right, I still quickly scheduled an appointment with the dermatologist the next day in Teguz.

The portly dermatologist took a look, scanned me with a UV light and declared it eczema, a simple allergic reaction to something. He assured me it was nothing serious at all, and that I should be fine in a week. But that wasn’t good enough for the Peace Corps. They still wanted me to get a skin test to check for Leishmania. The PCMO texted me on Thanksgiving Day to let me know the test was negative and as she said ‘we can breathe tranquilo.’ That was probably the one thing I was most thankful for this holiday. Now, the spot is almost gone and I am left wondering how I ever believed for a second that the doctor in La Esperanza could have been correct. It doesn’t instill me with a lot of confidence to go back…

But the incident taught me 2 lessons:

1) 1) Don’t trust crazy small town doctors who think the only place to treat something is Tulane.

2) 2) Take advantage of every second you have in your service, you never know when it might end.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Gracias en Gracias

What better place to celebrate Thanksgiving (Dia de Gracias) than in Gracias, Lempira, a town about 2 hours away in the next department.

This was probably the only chance in our lives to celebrate a major U.S. Holiday in a town of the same name. After all, it’s unlikely you’d ever be somewhere called Christmas or Easter on that exact day.

Gracias cityscape

Hanging out at the Spanish fort

One of the churches of Gracias

Thanksgiving seems to me one of those holidays that becomes more important when you don’t have the opportunity to participate. In the U.S., it’s an event you look forward to with excitement (mostly for gorging yourself) but at the same times perhaps a little dread, will Aunt So and So be there and insist on talking my ear off, will your step-mom be able to act sane after three bottles of Chardonnay…etc etc. I have to admit that Thanksgiving was never my favorite holiday or the most anticipated.

Then all the sudden, you’re living in Honduras and haven’t seen your family in 9 months and at the mere mention of November, you are already planning the details of a big gringo get-together to celebrate. Perhaps it’s that we look for any excuse to get out of site, speak English and drink uncontrollably, but it’s also that longing for a sense of something familiar, something American that marks this time of year.

And so we found ourselves among good friends and new volunteers, along with a few random gringos who just showed up, sharing a Thanksgiving feast together to remind us of home. It may have been one of the finest Thanksgivings I’ve attended, we really did it right. Two 9 lb turkeys, one stuffed and oven baked, the other deep fried in 5 gallons of oil in a huge cauldron heated over a wood burning fire – that was a feat. Real mashed potatoes, homemade macaroni and cheese, delicious red cabbage, classic green bean casserole, and of course my family’s famous sausage stuffing (it was a hit Mom). We topped it off with pumpkin and pecan pie, chocolate cake and cinnamon rolls, followed by rousing and controversial games of beer pong, Peace Corps Jeopardy and Celebrity.

This is how you fry a turkey, Peace Corps style

A real Thanksgiving meal

Peace Corps Jeopardy

Things we are thankful for:

Things you should be thankful for that you probably take for granted:

Each other

Being able to easily get together with friends and family for the holidays without having to take cramped, 4 hour bus rides


The fact that candles are primarily used for ambiance and romance, not much needed light


Constant hot water infinitely adjustable with separate knobs

Ceramic water filter in a bucket

Potable tap water that you don’t have to worry about accidentally swallowing in the shower

Dial-up speed internet in our house

Broadband speed internet on your cell phone

People who throw water on the street to keep the dust down

Paved, dust free streets that don’t contribute to constant sinus infections

Tarps and the kindness of strangers

The fact that riding in a pickup doesn’t mean sitting in the bed with a tarp over your head to stay dry from the rain

Finding a bottle of sage for my stuffing

Having mega-grocery stores which carry every item known to man, most likely within a 5 minute drive from your house

Not having Leishmania (another story for later)

Not having to worry about insects that carry chronic, monster, tropical diseases that can only be treated at Tulane

The aforementioned tarp in pickup truck scenario

But what we are most thankful for is having the opportunity to live in another country and experience the culture, constantly meeting new people, not only from Honduras, but from all over the world, and sometimes even a bunch of guys from the University of Michigan (there was a group that joined our Thanksgiving dinner who started a microfinance organization down here). We complain a lot often about all the failings of Honduras, but we are incredibly happy to be here. There is no way you can really understand how fortunate we are in the US until you live someplace like Honduras for a few months.

We hung out with this friendly baby gecko during lunch

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some new pics

Us at the waterfall in Yamaranguila (a town about 30 minutes away), the waterfall just kind of appears out of nowhere

Gravestones decorated for Day of the Dead (Nov 1st)
with the town of Yamaranguila behind

Harrison (lives in Yamaranguila) on his b-day, clearly enjoying his caramel cake (which Nicki slaved 4 hours to make)

Nolan and Harrison

Harrison's b-day, hanging out by the bonfire with our torch (paint thinner on an old t-shirt wrapped around a stick)

Jose the firebreather

Holding the torch makes you feel so powerful...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Highlights from Halloween

We spent last weekend in Copan Ruinas for the infamous annual Peace Corps Halloween Party. While we didn't have a chance to visit the ruins, we did have a great time with our friends and ate a lot of delicious food! Check out our pics!

Nolan on the zipline

Nicki on the zipline

Hiking across the river from Copan (you can kind of see the town in the background)

Sexiest Costume Winners - The Lady Gagas

Carrie and Sean - Adam and Eve

Our favorite costume that didn't win - Jose as Mario Kart

Best Costume Winners - 4 Honduran National Beers

Us - Lenca Couple (traditional group in our area) You can't see Nicki's rubber boots or Nolan's swaddled baby on his back - those really make the costume

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Adventure of the Bus Mishaps: Our Trip to El Salvador: Part 4

When we last saw Nicki and Nolan, they were stuck in a strange San Salvadoran neighborhood, with no idea how to find their next bus.

Dripping with sweat, we searched in vain for anyone who could give us a straight answer about where the bus terminal was. At last, we decided to stop wasting time and hail a taxi. At $4 for the ride, it was 10 times more expensive than the bus, but we didn’t have time to waste. In no time we were at the terminal and on our next bus, a super especial with huge seats and air conditioning. It was the most expensive bus we’d take our whole trip, $5 each for just 2 hours, but it was comfy. We were treated to some music videos, greasy men singing upbeat Latin ballads with shots of half-naked dancing women spliced in, as well as some vendors selling freshly grilled meat that they sold off huge skewers like at Fogo de Chao. San Miguel, our spot to change buses, was nothing special, a hot, dirty, noisy bus terminal/market with annoying women grabbing our arms to buy stuff and no pupusas. We were forced to settle on Pollo Campero for lunch, again the most popular spot in town.

We got the last two seats on the bus up through the mountains to Perquin. The bus trip takes 3 hours, not because it’s far, it was only 60 km, but because the mountains are so steep that the cumbersome bus can only go 20 kph. It was a horrible ride, stuck between a guy who wouldn’t get his butt cheek off my seat and a woman who apparently thought it was a great idea to bring a gigantic birthday cake and box of fried chicken home on her lap for a 3 hour bus ride. I hope it was a special party. If the roads had been dirt, we may not have made it. But we did.

Perquin is a refreshingly cool, small mountain village, just minutes from the border with Honduras. In 2 minutes after getting off the bus, we had walked through the entire town, all 10 blocks of it, and gotten a recommendation about a place to stay. Our hostel was a few rooms, each with about 5 beds, circling the dining room of a popular restaurant. Back to bucket flushing and bathing, we felt like we were in training again. Our first night, we took a quick stroll around town, watched the sun set over the endless mountains, and found some quick pupusas before retiring to our rooms. While studying our guide book in bed, we were startled by something falling from the ceiling, a gecko fighting a scorpion! Scorpions were the last thing we expected to find, but there it was, small but lively. We grabbed a broom from the waitress at the restaurant and moved all the beds around to find it. We finally swept it out, then shooed the gecko away as well. After that, we switched to sleeping on the bottom of the bunk bed rather than in the uncovered one.

Hills of Perquin

The next day we woke up late and had a quick breakfast at the hotel before heading to our main attraction of the day, the Civil War museum. Here’s a bit of background. The 1930’s through the 1970’s saw widespread poverty and oppression engulf El Salvador due to overpopulation, high unemployment and government fraud. Conflict between the left and right wings of government erupted in 1980 after the assassination of an outspoken liberal archbishop, and from 1980 to 1992, El Salvador was engaged in a bitter civil war which claimed over 70,000 lives. The war is still very fresh in people’s minds. The liberal resistance group, a revolutionary army called the FMLN (Frente Marti para la Liberacion Nacional – named after the founder of the Central American Socialist Party, Farabundo Marti) was based in Perquin where they ran a radio station that spread news about the liberal forces. Throughout the war, fighting took place in and around Perquin and the museum was a testament to the bravery and strategy of the FMLN and its allies.

A few things were really outstanding. They had a variety of homemade bombs the FMLN used that were made from wood, wire or plastic since metal was almost impossible to come by unless it was captured from the army. They also used radios or walky talkies that worked by sending signals through barbed wire. There were interesting 1980’s aid posters from all over the world, especially Germany, that called for support for the FMLN. The radio station, Radio Venceremos, (we will overcome) was still partially intact with old equipment including a recording studio lined with egg cartons. They also had the exploded bits of a helicopter, brought down in a sting-operation orchestrated by Radio Venceremos. All this in addition to hundreds of photos and news clippings about the war. Our guide, Jose, was a war veteran who led us though the museum, explaining to us the intricacies of the war. He explained how the war turned families against each other, and how crafty and strategic the FMLN had to be to win battles with less funding, materials and people. We were so happy we could speak and understand Spanish to hear his story.

Radio Venceremos - Voz Oficial del FMLN

Jose, our guide

After the museum we took a quick hike up Cerro Perquin, a small hill overlooking the town, pockmarked with craters where bombs had hit and zigzagging trenches where the rebels fought. The view on all sides was endless blue-ish green mountains. In the afternoon, we headed a little out of town to the fanciest hotel, the Perkin Lenca, where we had an awesome lunch of grilled steak on a beautiful patio overlooking the valley. If the hotel itself hadn’t been so expensive, we might have stayed there, but the food itself was worth the short hike from town. It being the last day of our vacation, we relaxed the afternoon away. We saw a pretty awful four piece band playing in the central park, had some ice cream, chatted with an abuela who owned an artisan shop, watched some kids play volleyball, listened in on some high-powered evangelical church ceremonies taking place, tried to determine where the bus left in the morning (we decided to trust the police), then lounged in some hammocks to watch a funny (we assume Mexican) movie at our hostel about an orphan boy getting stuck in a cave. While lounging, we met a Dominican Bachata singer driving a Mustang who was passing through Perquin on the way to another gig. He thought Nolan was Italian (what a compliment) and he said he plays frequently in Honduras, so we might look him up.

Cerro de Perquin

Lunch at the Perkin Lenca

Our beautiful silence was interrupted by a group of 15 gringos who barged into the hostel (maybe the only one in town so who can blame them) in their short shorts, graphic tees and flip flops. We assumed they were college freshman since they were unchaperoned, and we wondered to ourselves if we had ever acted so annoying when we were that age… probably. We overheard one girl saying she thought all the countries in Central America hated Honduras – we took particular offense to that. We decided the best thing was to be the only gringos in town, mostly because the other gringos made us look bad. At least we dressed well, could speak Spanish and didn’t leave trash everywhere.

We tried to do a ‘pupusa hop’ for dinner, sampling the local fare from a few places, but it was Sunday night and most places were closed up. We settled for a quick pupusa in the park, and then headed back to our hostel for a few more. Despite doing hardly anything all day, we were exhausted, probably the rest of our trip finally catching up with us, so we turned in early.

Pupusa dinner

But oh our trip couldn’t be complete with one last bus fiasco or two. It turns out that the only unpaved road in El Salvador is the one that goes from Perquin to Honduras. It was just our luck that it had rained overnight, turning the road into mud. If the bus had been a little busito it might not have been that bad, but this was a huge bus, a busote, casi un avion said the guy we asked in town, and driving up steep hills in mud with no chains was not what it was designed for. Things were going okay for the first half. We were making good time through the little towns north of Perquin and were only briefly stopped at a Salvadoran military check point where all the men had to get off the bus to have their ID’s checked (kind of scary). When we got to the Honduran border, things got ridiculous. First of all, the border is in disputed territory so El Salvador doesn’t have a border post, only Honduras does. But when we arrived, not a single person boarded the bus to check our ID’s or passports, no one instructed us to get off to go through immigration and the only noticeable activity was a guy selling ice cream cones on the bus. Oh Honduras, we said in unison. The bus ayudante got off to fill up some bottles of water that he had been continually pouring into the engine on the way up. In less than 5 minutes we were off, feeling lucky that we have residency cards that prevent us from having any trouble anyway.

The road, which while unpaved in El Salvador was still fairly well maintained, turned into something like a motocross course on the Honduran side. The bus was getting stuck every few feet, skidding all over the road wildly from one side to the other, barely able to keep traction. At one point, we were stuck for 45 minutes while a team of helpful Honduran who appeared out of nowhere tried to dig, push, pull and tug our way out of mud pit. We thought we might never make it home, our supposedly 3 hour ride turning into a 5 hour fiasco. By the end, our ayudante and driver were both caked in mud and drenched in sweat, they earned every cent of their bus fare that day.

We had to change buses one last time in Marcala, about two hours from home. Before we did, we found a small cafĂ© to have a good ol’ baleada. It felt good to be back in Honduras again.

Back at home, Nicki and Nolan are able to catch up on some much needed rest to recharge for their next adventure, Halloween…