The trip to Argentina started well enough. We left early in the morning for LAX, parked in Lot B (section F8), and got to our flight on time. The plane left a modest hour and a half late, leaving us plenty of time to get our bags and check in for the next flight in Miami (different airline, different ticket). I was totally unprepared for this trip- I had just gotten back from a conference in Hawaii four days earlier, and I had left the planning totally in the hands of my dad and stepmother, who go to South America frequently and know the area well. I had barely even skimmed to CDC’s South America section before leaving, and all I knew about the town we were headed for (Tilcara) was that Google Maps can’t find it.
Our flight left Miami for Buenos Aires 5 hours late, the first of many delays that Aerolineas Argenina had in store for us. This is how excited I was to hang out at the airport all night.
And then on the flight, we were surrounded by screaming babies, my favorite thing in the world. One of them actually threw a dirty diaper at us and hit Carol in the head. So, after a sleepless night, we made it to the hotel in BA, took a quick nap, and went exploring. Our hotel in BA was nice- the Art Hotel- just the right balance of enough character without being sketchy. We spent two days in BA, and it was nice because Dad and Carol knew all the interesting places to go so we kind of skipped the usual tourist routine. We went to all the artsy neighborhoods and open-air markets, and went to a festival in Matadero with cool cowboy games, authentic music and dancing, and tasty food. All local tourists, no gringos in sight besides us.
Next, we flew to Salta, which is in northern Argentina (near Bolivia). Again, delayed flight by several hours, partly because the Aerolineas crew didn’t bother to show up on time. But, we made it to Salta, to a taxi to the hotel (which actually used to be a convent, and had been converted into a hotel). Salta seems like one of those towns that hasn’t changed much in the past many years, besides some (mostly local) tourism. It seems smaller than half a million people, and it has a nice square full of friendly, fat stray dogs. One of them really took a liking to Toberer- their eyes met in the park and the dog ran straight up to him (ignoring the rest of us) and stayed by his side all the way to dinner- it was at least a half hour walk. Then he sat outside the restaurant for two hours while we ate and followed us most of the rest of the way home. We tried to take a picture, but it was hard to get him to sit still for long enough.
The next day, we drove to Tilcara, about four hours north into the mountains. Tilcara, a small town of about 5000 people, is a UNESCO world heritage site, but not a very well known tourist destination outside of Argentina. It looks and feels like you would expect a remote third-world latin american town to look- it seems very isolated from the outside world, technology, and urban life. Most people have small parcels of land with livestock, get their water from a 1950’s aqueduct coming down from the river, and live in small adobes. Again, there are dogs everywhere, but they live in that grey area between feral and tame, where they guard their territory, herd livestock, and are mostly friendly to people, but eat mostly trash and scraps and certainly are not allowed indoors.
Tilcara’s atmoshpere as an old, historic town is accentuated by the geography- it’s in a deep valley surrounded by steep mountains, with little plant life besides enomous cacti. It’s also surrounded by Inca ruins, which are eerily deserted.
That said, we stayed in a very nice hotel run by a very colorful man known as “The Frenchman.” El Francés is actually from Tunisia, but has lived all over the world before settling in Tilcara with his llamas. He charges $30/night for individual cabanas with incredible views (see below) and breakfast incuded because, in his opinion, mo’ money, mo’ problems.
We spent a few days at Frenchy’s acclimating (~8,500 ft), doing day hikes and horseback rides, exploring the area and eating good food. Mostly meat. In Argentina, it’s basically impossible to eat even a single meal without meat. One night for dinner, I had beef wrapped in ham, and that’s pretty typical. Even on the plane, they served ham flavored crackers. At one point we were at the store looking for crackers and reading the ingredients and we couldn’t find any without either beef fat or pork fat as one of the ingredients. I’m not vegetarian or anything, but compared to my usual diet of meat once a week or so, this was a bit much. But, the meat was exceptionally good quality, and the animals definitely lived the good life before they became food.
Friday morning, we got up early to start an overnight hike to a town over the ridge from Tilcara that’s only accesible on foot. We had a guide and some donkeys to carry our stuff (bottled water, coolers of meat, etc- it was very luxurious). We started at about 8,000 ft, drove up for a while until the road ended, and then hiked up to a pass at about 12,500 ft. We saw lots of animals along the way, including livestock and the people and dogs herding it, wild donkeys, and guanacos.
Probably at around 12,000 ft, I started to feel a little dizzy and headache-y, but I knew we would be descending soon so I ignored it. What I didn’t take into account was that there would be a long plateau at the top before the descent to the village, so by early afternoon when we were starting to descend, I was feeling pretty awful from the altitude. Pablo, the guide, kept suggesting I drink coca tea to help with the altitude sickness. Coca tea is pretty tasty but I’m not so sure it has any medicinal value besides encouraging you to drink more water. Anyway, I felt like my head was going to explode, but Pablo assured me that nothing bad can happen because of altitude sickness (yeah, right).
We finally arrived at the village around 6PM, shortly before dark, after about 12mi of hiking, with about 3,000 ft of elevation gain and 2,500 ft of elevation loss, ending at about 10,000 ft. I was feeling well enough by the time we got there to drink some hot water and eat a few crackers, then I went to bed while everyone else ate barbecued meat and more barbecued meat.
The village was pretty interesting- it was small (four buildings, two families) with a hiker’s hut that we could sleep in. They got their water from the river and their electricity from solar panels that the goverment provides to people off the grid for fairly cheap. Of course, they have to carry them in on donkeys, like everything else. The juxtaposition of advanced technology with poverty and traditional living was a recurring theme throughout this trip- we asked Pablo if they have topo maps of the trail and he responded that no, they don’t, but everyone just uses Google Earth to see the trail. Similarly, in Tilcara, all the kids are being raised in really traditional subsistence farming families, and most of them have no TV, computer, etc, but they spend their free time playing video games in the local internet cafes. These people are using solar panels and compact flourescent lighbulbs, which most of us don’t even use here, but they still broadcast public messages to each other over the local radio station because they don’t have phones and carry in all their supplies- 12 miles each way- on donkeys.
That night in the village, I dreamed that I was back home in Santa Barbara. In my dream, I remembered hiking back, but not traveling the rest of the way home. I was aware that I must have gone through the driving, 3 flights, and more driving, but somehow I didn’t remember any of it. If only that were how the trip actually ended.
The next morning, my symptoms had reduced to a mild headache, and we set off again around dawn. The hike back was a little easier than the way over, since we started higher and the plateau around the top of the pass was actually slightly downhill this way. We stopped to give some coca leaves to Pachamama and admire the many animal bones and skeletons around the trail. Since we all knew the way home, Toberer and I both went a little faster on the way back, leaving my parents with the guide. Toberer ended up hiking all the way back to Tilcara-an extra hour or so of hiking- and met us there. Pablo joked that he wanted to hire him as a sherpa. That night, spirits were high as we had barbecued meat for dinner at Frenchy’s. We discussed the hike, and remarked that given the hygiene, it would be amazing if we didn’t all get giardia.
Around 5AM, I awoke the the sound of projectile fluids being sprayed across the bathroom. Toberer finally returned to bed and informed me that his (very substantial) dinner was gone, and then went to sleep. About once an hour from then on, this act was repeated. That night, I dreamed he was giving birth to a litter of baby rats.
In the morning and throughout the day, he coninued to lose fluids at a rate I did not think possible for a human, and he got weaker and weaker. We tried to give him water, gatorade, bread, nausea pills, diarrhea pills, antibiotics, but he couldn’t keep any of it down long enough to do him any good. At one point, he asked me where I parked at LAX, and I said I didn’t remember but I had it written down. He remembered. F8, he said. That was dumb. Why would we park in “fate”?, he asked. What did we expect? In the early afternoon, his muscles started cramping. At this point, he was excreting mainly mucous and sometimes couldn’t make it out of bed to do so. When I went to the CDC website in town that afternoon to try to figure out what he had, his symptoms matched those of cholera perfectly. Frenchy recommended coca tea.
We probably should have taken him to the hospital at this point, but in my mind I was imagining him lying in a dirty bed with infected needles being stuck in him by some guy who also doubles as an auto mechanic. Let me just mention here that I have been to the hospital in France (for a broken foot), and the doctor ignored the empty-besides-me emergency room for two hours while he ate his lunch, then made fun of me for being American, then told me I would only need surgery if I was a professional athlete (two surgeries later, here I am still having problems!), then didn’t splint my foot because it was “too swollen,” then gave me blood thinners that made me puke throughout the whole plane ride home. So, I tend to avoid hospitals outside the US.
We cancelled our plans to drive to Salta that afternoon and stayed at Frenchy’s another night. But we knew that the next day, we would have to leave to catch our flight home. By early evening Toberer was keeping pills and diluted gatorade down for maybe a half hour, which must have been enough to do him some good, because he threw up for the last time around 2:30 AM. The other end, however, remained active, but by the morning he was doing well enough to get in the car for Salta. With his black hoodie on and his emaciated face, he looked like the grim reaper.
My dad and Carol said goodbye to us at the Salta airport, and we got on the plane hoping for an uneventful journey home, ending with a trip to a nice, comfortable US hospital. One where they don’t prescribe coca tea. But that’s not what Pachamama had in store for us. Again, the Aerolineas flight took off a few hours late, and then we had to go through Jujuy (half an hour’s drive north- it doesn’t make any sense). When we landed in Jujuy the plane almost tipped over. This pilot was not inspiring confidence. We took off again for Buenos Aires, and a few hours later were circling the airport. The pilot made an announcement in Spanish that I could barely hear, let alone understand. The lady next to me- alternately saying rosaries and swearing- explained it to me in slower Spanish. We were circling the airport because BA was having its first snowstorm in 80 years, and we were having trouble getting clearance for landing. If we didn’t get clearance in the next half hour, we were going to land at another airport which was a four hour drive from BA. We could see fat snowflakes whizzing by the wings. I should also mention that the air traffic control tower had recently been struck by lightning and was out of commision.
Finally, it was announced that we would land in BA, and everyone cheered except the lady next to me, who looked frightened. After the fastest, roughest landing in my memory, everyone clapped and we skidded to a halt. Inside the airport, we searched for soup, the only thing of substance Toberer could dream of keeping down. Bread, crackers, anything solid was too dry for his parched mouth. All we could find was an orange that was still in my pack from the hike, so he choked that down. Then he pooped it out more or less intact. We got our bags, got a taxi, and drove through the snow to the other BA airport, where our next flight would leave for Miami at 11PM.
When we checked in, we were warned in imperfect English that our flight was set to leave 45 min late. No problem, given the weather. What he meant, or tried, to say was that the flight was delayed until 2AM. We checked our bags, went through security, and waited. I watched over Toberer as he slept on the airport floor. The monitor showed that all the other airlines had canceled all their flights that night, presumably because of the snowstorm. I tried to wake Toberer and tell him I was going to find our gate and make sure our flight was still leaving, but he barely had the energy to open his eyes. Our gate, it turned out, was about a mile away, in a smoking terminal, and freezing cold. The gate attendent wasn’t sure why I was worried about our flight not leaving. It continued to snow.
As Toberer slept on the floor, and I tried to find food (everything was closed), they delayed the flight another hour. This is how it starts, I thought. Hour by hour, they cancel our flight but make us stay in the airport so they don’t have to get us a hotel room. Toberer continued to sleep on the floor, with frequent bathroom stops, and I coninued to worry about whether he would make it home or die here in the airport. Around 3AM, we headed over to the gate, a mile away in the cold smoking terminal. It was slow, since Toberer walked like a 100-year-old man on top of Everest with no oxygen, and looked like the grim reaper.
We got there, found him a seat, and waited. No announcements, no change on the monitor, but no boarding either. I could barely stay awake- I hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since the hike, but I knew that if I slept we would miss our flight, or someone would steal our wallets, or something, so I paced. Around 4AM, an elderly lady sitting next to Toberer fell over. Airline personnel came over, elevated her feet, spoke to each other in Spanish, and checked her vitals. Eventually, she was taken away in a wheelchair. Then, we boarded. They took away Toberer’s remaining gatorade, leaving him with only on water bottle that he had hidden in an outside pocket of his backpack for the nine hour (if we’re lucky) flight. They didn’t even look in my bag. At this point, I am thinking that maybe I should start believing in God and figure out what I did wrong.
I immediately fell asleep on the plane. When I woke up a few hours later, Toberer informed me that we had sat on the runway for an hour and a half before taking off, and also that they hadn’t brought him anything to drink. I tracked down some flight attendants- they were standing around chatting- and got two small glasses of water, which he very slowly drank, knowing that excessive thirst leads to drinking too fast leads to losing all the fluid you’ve worked so hard to obtain. Slowly, though, he was getting better. He was still net negative for calorie and fluid intake, but he was nearing zero.
We landed in Miami around 2PM, having missed our 8AM flight home by hours. At customs, the sniffing dog chose my bag because it smelled like fruit, so we had to go through the extra long customs line. Still, we were happy to be back in America. We could leave the airport at any time and go to the hospital. They sold Gatorade. I had ice cream for dinner, and Toberer had half a banana and some Gatorade. It was the best thing to happen in days. All along the hallway from the international terminal to the main airport, there were ads for hospitals and health care.
We finally made it out of customs and an American Airlines employee told us where to go to get our flight re-booked. Slowly, with many rest stops, we made it to an American ticket desk. They told us we were in the wrong place and sent us to another. Then they told us to go to another. Finally, we were in the right place. I found a place for Toberer to sit and got in line. By the time we got to the front of the line, it was 5PM, and we got on a 6:40 flight standby. At this point, we found a wheelchair for Toberer to take us to the gate, and he again got to sleep on the floor while we waited, as that flight was also delayed. Finally, they called a few standby passengers, but not us. I talked to the gate agent and got us confirmed on a flight the next day, since we really could not stay in that airport any longer, even though there were more flights that evening.
We left to find a hotel for the night. The first ten or so that I called were booked, then a few had space but couldn’t make reservations or guarantee they would still have rooms when we got there. Finally, La Quinta inn promised us a room, and we went upstairs to wait for the shuttle. Half an hour later, it hadn’t shown up, and we got a cab. Let me just mention at this point my impressions of Miami. It is barely a step up from the third world. The people are trashy, it’s hot as hell and smoky, and Spanish is still the first language. It was not home.
We checked in, got a room, and opened the door. It was occupied. I kicked the wall, then went back down to get another room. The guy at the desk said, “well, the computer says clean and empty.” As if that helps. Then he gave us a smoking room, which we slept in anyway. We ordered Chinese delivery, since they were the only place still open at 10PM that had soup. We ate MSG soup and went to bed. First full night of sleep in I don’t remember how many days. Toberer didn’t have to get up and go to the bathroom- I was ecstatic.
The next morning, we showed up in time for our 11AM flight, and Toberer mentioned that as long as we didn’t get stuck on the runway he would be OK. Of course, we got stuck on the runway. We had a clear view of the engine being taken apart out of our window. As they put it back together, we caught sight of some black smoke. The control tower was on fire. At this point, we could only laugh. The captain came on and assured us that everything was OK, it wasn’t our control tower that was on fire. It looked like a forest fire. We backed away from the gate in haste, too quickly for the flight attendants to do their final check, and were up in the air along with four helicopters observing the fire.
As we came in over LAX, Toberer and I were almost giddy with excitement. I have never been so happy to see LA before. “See that? That’s what civilization looks like!” I said. The suburban sprawl, the backed-up freeways, and the smog all just looked like home. Even at this point, I didn’t really believe we would land. Something had to go wrong, right? But we did land, we got our bags, and we pulled out of spot F8 at 5PM, just in time for rush hour traffic.