Being a Peace Corps Volunteer means getting sick. No matter the strength of your stomach, illness will strike early—at the least, and I mean the very least, you’ll have traveler’s. It’s your body’s way of announcing that you’re into a new gut biome and an in-country delicacy has brought a batch of local bacteria to roost. Traveler’s Diarrhea is mandatory and the slate of gastrointestinals explodes from there.
Mexico has what even Mexicans call Moctezuma’s Revenge, a catch-all for waterborne stomach ailments. We’re told that the source isn’t inadequate water treatment, as you might expect, but improperly sealed pipes that let in ground germs. Depending on where you live and how you get your water, it might be totally safe or liable to give you an amoeba infestation—hard to detect and dangerous—or giardia—usually from drawing your water downhill of someone else’s latrine, identifiable by crystal clear water jetting from where it oughtn’t. My potables seem safe here, so far, but anyone near standing bodies of the stuff is at risk for worms and other, larger gut parasites.
The Mega down in the city has a whole aisle for anti-parasitics, so I assume one or two volunteers have had to tangle with them. Beyond the named afflictions, all of us are familiar with the two-day bouts of crippling chorro that come and go like cramped and unwelcome ghosts in the night.
Like China, when I lived there, in Mexico they advise you to wash your vegetables in an iodine solution, both to clear off residual pest- and herbicides and whatever E. coli or friend might cling to them from husbandry runoff or direct application of manure. I don’t wash my vegetables at home, but only because I cook the hell out of all of them. I did, however, have an incident.
Last July, I went to a workshop in the city with my counterpart, the contents of which were the subject of another post. He picked the hotel because he’d loved the food last time he stayed there. You can see where this is going. It must have been the novelty of it, because the bland and boiled breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets were as far from the fresh made-to-order Mexican staples that everyone serves here in Jalpan as possible. The last morning of the workshop, right before I got on my bus back, I ate breakfast. Most of it was powdered eggs and soggy chilaquiles, but I also had a strawberry. One strawberry.
They warn us about strawberries. They’re ground-growing, correspondingly prone to being covered in the more malicious bacteria. Their pores and textured surface tend to hide that bacteria during whatever cleaning process—if any—harvesters use. I’d avoided the little red bastards whenever I’d seen them in the market in town. That morning I went for it, figuring that the hotel had done its due diligence. It was a fucking terrible strawberry. Hard, bitter, under-ripe, and I was already cursing myself as I gnawed at it.
I felt good as I got on the bus, though; I’d just asked a girl out at the station. I’ve gotten carsick one time in my life—while trying to play a German-to-Chinese-to-English Smurfs knock-off on a GameBoy Pocket while we careened up to the Great Wall in a shady taxi above Beijing—so when I started feeling queasy past Pinal de Amoles, an hour from home, I knew something was terribly amiss. I like walking back to my house from the bus station after trips. It’s a long way, mostly uphill for forty-five minutes, but it helps to kind of center me back in Jalpan. That day, I took an overpriced taxi right out of the station and groaned my address to a suddenly-dubious cabbie.
Anyone who’s had too much in college knows that you can head these things off. Steel yourself, get it over with in a preemptive purge, brush your teeth, pass right out.
I started that afternoon sitting in my bathroom with a cake pan on my lap and ended it eight hours later sitting in a cake pan on my terrace. By that time I was only spewing from the front of me, but things were touch and go for a while.
I broke up my time outside with interludes on my bed, Friends playing on a screen that I found too difficult to watch, laying on my back in terror as the pain and cramps mounted to explosive crescendos every half-hour or so. I thought I’d gotten to be an old hand with the foodborne, but I’d never had real poisoning. The hours I spent sobbing and retching water and bile onto the concrete of my balcony were easily the worst and most humbling of my life. Forget the man in the foxhole with a gun. Give me somebody who can’t breath for minutes on end because of the riot in his insides and I’ll give you someone gasping to their Creator.
Which brings me to the scary obverse of every hilarious Peace Corps shit-my-pants story. However slight, we sometimes find ourselves in danger out here. I knew I was supposed to call our staff doctor after a certain period of sustained vomiting, but my phone was dead, and in the moment, the thought of trying to find my charger, let alone the trip to the crumbling, just-approved medical center in town, put the whole endeavor out of the question. Volunteers have, no shit, died from this kind of thing.
We’re some of the luckier ones here in Mexico, as far as disease. The program populates a tight belt of states in the middle of the Republic, and we’re realistically never more than a few hours away from help, even if the Peace Corps has to send us a car from headquarters. Malaria’s not a problem for us, even as tropical as we are, and while we have one hemorrhagic fever, dengue (which is only up here where I live), the government sprays for mosquitoes all through the wet season, and we had not one case in town last year. Which is bully, because anti-malarials and some of the other prophylactics in use elsewhere are heavy drugs, some of which have true-to-live psychosis-inducing side-effects.
I’m not looking to fearmonger even among my paltry readership. They take good care of us. But I’m trying to fashion a kind of window into the psyche that we develop here. I think all of us have had one of the moments like I did on the terrace, the ones that make you look at your medical kit and your folder of prohibitions in a more appreciative light. It fades into the background in your day to day, but from then on, the little stomach twinges, unexpected headaches, off-color movements, you start to watch it all.