Plague in Peru

Note: This is part of a series entitled, The Worst Ever. I have found that, after all my travels, many of my most cherished memories came in times what, in the moment, seemed to be the height of misery. These memories make up some of the best stories I’ve ever told. The Worst Ever is an effort to collect people’s greatest stories of misery. These are the best of the worst of times.

The first installment comes from Nick, a 19 year old college student.


      A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was a high schooler from the Midwest who traveled to the far off land of Peru, seeking adventures unknown. This ambitious, awkward, and slightly dimwitted young man is me… I mean was me… Well I’m still awkward and ambitious but hopefully a little less dimwitted. Regardless, my immune system is probably stronger.

What’s that? You think this is a story of some glorious case of food poisoning (and by glorious I’m referring to the brilliant murals painted by continuous upchuck and ass-blasts)? I can only say I wish it was. The sweet, sickly warmness accompanying Montezuma’s Revenge would have been a comfort, nay, a blessing to receive. No, this is the story, of how I contracted, survived, and nearly lost every piece of clothing I had from the Plague… I think.

Now, to add slightly more perspective to this tale, I must tell you that this was a mission trip, with all the fun, love, and hugs that generally accompany it. We did good work, though, in addition to sitting around a bonfire singing “kumbaya.” Also, this was my second year traveling with this particular organization, having gone to Panama the preceding summer. On that trip, I got to know the organization CEO pretty well. Let’s just say, for being the head of a glorified travel agency, he knew how to have one hell of a good time. For example, when we got to Peru (I went with him in the advance team), we “borrowed” the golf cart that had been set aside for the older, less able-bodied head of ministry who would be joining us in a few days time. With the golf cart fully loaded with Mike (the organization leader) at the wheel and me along with six other individuals hanging on for dear life—and no, this golf cart was no larger than the typical two seater—we promptly decided to take a joyride down two flights of outdoor stars. After quickly getting to the bottom, we started the laborious task of pushing the golf-cart back up the stairs—while Mike remained at the wheel, gunning it, and yelling “Vamanos!” at the top of his lungs… and Mike was no small person. Anyway, this was pretty much where the fun peaked in Peru, though was the lowest point of overall excitement. Three days later, the real “fun” started.

We spent a day at the coast, sightseeing, getting stuck in traffic, getting stuck in more traffic, and watching some birds, seals, and the like at a wildlife refuge, which, admittedly, was a lot of fun (I know I said there would be no more fun but, hey, we were in Peru). We got back to the compound we were staying at just in time for a dinner of soggy egg soup—their version of scrambled eggs. During this dinner, I had the opportunity to sit next to a rather attractive girl, let’s call her Emily. I had started developing a crush on Emily for the past couple of days, and now she was showing me her pictures from the day, whilst I casually had my arm around her shoulders so I could lean in close to see the camera screen. (I am fully away something like this is benign, insignificant, and underexciting; but, to 15 year old, awkward me, this was the best day ever). This was the best day ever until deep within my bowels, a dark, primal, unearthly, and slightly juicy rumble quaked through my body. As someone who has experienced the horrors that generally follow this, I knew that I had precisely 30 minutes to get to the bathroom or get my undies dry-cleaned. But there was no way in hell (actual hell or the one percolating in my stomach) I was going to leave Emily, nevermind the fact we still had 3,000 pictures left. So I sat there, the earthquakes increasing, the chills slowly encroaching… the pressure, building ever higher.

Though dinner continued for 45 more minutes, 15 after my anticipated rupture time, I had managed to keep my intestinal dragon from breathing its fire. One may think I ran to the bathroom—I could barely manage to shuffle. I managed a painful, though nearly graceful butt-clenching, penguin-walking, stomach-holding shuffle all the way back to my humble abode. I had made it. The bathroom was just inside, elevated on a platform no more than a foot or so above the ground. I was victorious. My confidence led me to stride in and start to leap onto the platform. This was my mistake. Mid-leap, legs spread like an eagle… I sneezed… In that split second, the pressure was too much. The volcano blew its top and all the fury of hell boiled over… and into my shorts. I had opened pandora’s box—the evil had been released and could no longer be contained.

Waterfall in Peru

After this episode had subsided and I manage to clean myself, my floor, and, yes, even my walls, I took the shorts and underwear I probably should have burned to the hotel laundry service. I gave them my articles, wrapped in layer after layer of Walmart shopping bags, absolutely humiliated, and, after having to reassure the attendants I was okay, they had the nerve to charge me a 50% hazard fee. Humiliation, plus one.

This general condition continued for a couple of days. I wrote it off as the Montezuma’s revenge we had mentioned earlier. After all, I was using tap water to brush my teeth—a supposed “no-no.” But that is when I started going downhill. We were about 10 days into our 30 day trip when the cough began. At first, I wasn’t worried. We all get colds right? Especially after I had been having the bend-n-sprays for almost a week. Without fail though, the cough got worse. Eventually, two weeks into the trip, I completely fell apart.

At this two week mark, we were switching cities from Lima to Cuzco. Many people were worried about Cuzco because of altitude sickness—I was worried about the audible fluid in my lungs the morning I woke up to get on the flight. First, if you have ever had liquid in your lungs, you know it feels like being stabbed. Second, I woke up to this because I couldn’t really breathe that well. Finally, when I said audible, I meant it. When I sat up to catch my breath, you could hear the fluid drain to the bottom. It sounded like the pre-squirt stomach rumbles—it wasn’t. Anyway, I was worried but there was nothing I could do except wheeze my way to the bus where I promptly collapsed and passed out.

      From this point forward, I had no energy. People often say they have no energy, but this is false. The moment I got off the plane in Cuzco, the combination of not being able to breathe, plus the lack of high-altitude oxygen made me so fatigued I strained to carry my backpack. Thankfully (?), I plateaued at this level for a couple of days. I was able to shuffle around, do the basic work that was required of me, and generally function on my own. My cough was getting worse and it was harder and harder to breathe, but I would take that any day over what happened next.

Now at nearly 20 days—two days before we were to leave Cuzco—I woke up with tiny tender blackish bruises. They weren’t large, painful, or plentiful enough to raise new suspicions, but they were certainly there. Additionally, another new symptom presented—chills. No matter how many blankets and coats I wore, I kept getting colder. At one point, I was drinking over a dozen cups of tea a day just to keep from shivering unconscious. This is why I was very pleased that we were going to leave for the balmy, warm Amazon rainforest. How wrong I was.

When we left Cuzco for the airport, I could no longer carry my backpack or walk on my own. I had to sit every few minutes to keep from passing out. I was completely helpless. One symptom that had not become apparent because of the high and dry climate of Cuzco was the ear infections. The pressure had kept my ears relatively stable and dry. However, the moment we touched down in Iquitos, I realized my ears were full. Full of what, I do not want to know. But I could not hear and I definitely could not balance. Also, we found out upon arrival that it was the coldest this section of the Amazon had been in almost 75 years. So the chills were there to stay. When we arrived at our residence in the Amazon, an hour and a half boat ride from the nearest civilization, I stumbled into my room—cutting myself on the doorframe—and passed out into bed.

I became increasingly sicker for the next couple of days. The cut I got from the door didn’t scab, it molded. The little black bruises puffed up. Some burst and oozed horrific black and bloody liquid. All the while, my cough got progressively worse. This is when the blood started.

You know when someone dies in the movie and the screen cuts away to a shot of their lifeless face resting on the ground with blood coming from their mouth and nose? That was me. I began bleeding out of every place I have—bloody diarhea, bloody piss, bloody snot, and bloody coughs. The coughs were the worst, the taste of blood being distributed into your mouth, unable to get rid of it no matter what you drank (eating was out of the question at this point). My lungs were full of fluid too, to the point where I could take a quarter breath if I was lucky. Without eating, I became so weak that, for a 36 hour period, I couldn’t move. Once, I was able to roll to the shower to relieve myself, but besides that, I literally just laid on a cot on the ground, oozing blood and mucus. For those 36 hours, I truly and honestly thought I would die in the Amazon.

You may ask why the organization didn’t do anything for me and the truth is this was my fault. I did not tell them what was going on. I simply said I had the stomach flu and I couldn’t go out. This of course was a lie by it kept people from bothering me. The doctor on hand gave me two pills and ear drops. They didn’t help. In no way though do I blame the organization—the fault is entirely mine that I did not relay my symptoms or request help.

Nevertheless, though some miraculous turn of events, the bleeding stopped. I was able to drink and eat a little and the diarrhea stopped. I wouldn’t say I had regained my strength by any means, but the fact I was able to stand up, go to the bathroom, and change my clothes made me feel like superman. During the final two days in the Amazon, I was able to go out with the group, fish for piranhas, and I even went swimming in the river (a poor choice that almost led to me drowning but that’s another story).

When we finally left, I was still coughing like a maniac and still was unable to hear properly, but I was recovering. The next two months back home were filled with explaining the black boil scars to people and coughing so much people still thought I was dying. To this day, if I go into a sauna I will begin to cough (a problem I never had before). I still have a couple scars from the black boils that popped, though they are slowly fading. Nevertheless, I have made a full recovery.

People ask me if I’m serious when I tell them I have had the Plague. I tell them I don’t know because I really do not know. The symptoms fit, though the mortality rate puts me in the ~20% of survivors who do not receive proper treatment. They also fit certain types of blood poisoning. But I like the story.

I also get asked if I wouldn’t have gone on the trip if I had known I would become so ill. I thought about this for a while and, sadly, I think I still would have gone. Though I would never have gotten sick, the other experiences I had on the trip would be missing from my life. Also, I know there are many opportunities I have had since, solely because I went on this trip. The point is, you have to take the bad with the good and, sometimes, it can get pretty bad. No matter what though, your experiences shape you and, occasionally, they leave you with a damn good story.

                                                                                                                                          – Nick

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