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Horrors: Guatemala

Dying to Get Home

October 18, 1998|DEBRA KAUFMAN | Kaufman is a Venice-based writer who covers the entertainment industry

It's every traveler's nightmare: to fall seriously ill far from home. It's not one that my friend Rochelle Winters and I dwelled on when planning our nine-day trip to Guatemala last December. Armed with good guidebooks, decent Spanish and common sense, we managed to cut a swath from the jungles of Tikal to Mayan villages in the western highlands with nary a bus or boat missed. Now we were in the airport, on the way home to L.A., feeling that our wonderful experience in Guatemala was a good omen for the new year. It was Jan. 1, 1998, and the serendipity that had blessed us was about to be sorely tested.

We had celebrated New Year's Eve in the colonial city of Antigua, at the excellent table of the Meson Panza Verde, where we shared a beautifully appointed room off the small hotel's tranquil courtyard. The next morning we wandered the cobblestoned streets, taking in the vine-covered ruins amid the colorful red-tiled buildings.

An hour before the taxi came to take us to the airport, Rochelle lost her lunch. We assumed it was something she ate. She would feel better. She didn't. On the hourlong ride from Antigua to Guatemala City's airport, she continued to throw up, each time feeling briefly better before succumbing again. We still assumed it was some errant bug, perhaps in the morning's granola or orange juice.

At the airport we paid our last quetzales to the taxi driver and dragged our luggage into the terminal--where Rochelle promptly collapsed on the floor.

No problem. I filled out our immigration forms, checked us in and got our seat assignments. Rochelle had struggled to her feet, and concerned Guatemalans had gathered around us. A representative of Aviateca, the Guatemalan airline we were flying, offered an office where Rochelle could rest quietly until our flight was called. Once inside, lying on the floor, her head against the luggage, she grew sicker and sicker. As worried Aviateca employees eyed us warily, she whispered to me, "I'll pull it together to board the plane."

Denial is a wonderful mechanism for navigating life, but not, unfortunately, for boarding airplanes. It was becoming obvious to everybody but us that my friend was in no condition to board the plane, which was leaving in less than two hours. In fact, she was getting worse almost by the minute. She had a fever, but her legs were so icy they were nearly blue, and they were beginning to cramp. An Aviateca employee called the airport doctor. We waited, my friend now moaning in pain from the excruciating cramps in her legs. Slowly it was dawning on me that this had nothing to do with anything she had eaten. This could be serious.

I've traveled all over the world and had a number of, shall we say, interesting adventures. There was the time I was in a motorcycle accident on a small island in Greece, which landed me in a primitive hospital where the woman in the bed next to me put amulets on my bandaged, stitched head and chanted folk medicine magic. I was in Egypt with my 16-year-old brother when war broke out and troops were marching through the streets and the airport was closed indefinitely. Somehow, I'd bungled my way through it all--and on my own steam.

Maybe it's age (I was in my 20s then). Maybe it was the fact that my friend's lips were turning blue and she was becoming incoherent. I did what every American citizen has the right to do: I called the Marines.

Actually, I called the U.S. Embassy. It was closed--remember, this was New Year's Day. But there was an emergency number, and I called that. When a Marine answered the phone, I nearly wept with relief. After first determining that my sick friend was an American citizen, he asked for my phone number and said he'd call us back. By then, the Aviateca employees had found out that the airport doctor wasn't there--again, the holiday--but they'd called what they said was the equivalent of 911 in Guatemala.

An eternity later, two emergency medical technicians entered the office, carrying a black bag and exhaling the vapors of what had obviously been a celebratory day. I tried to be nonjudgmental, but Rochelle had smelled the alcohol and was, if possible, even less of a happy camper. One of the men opened the black bag and pulled out its sole content, a battered stethoscope. He borrowed a watch to take her pulse. Then came the diagnosis of--I kid you not--mental depression.

Despite the fanciful diagnosis, they decided that the leg pains warranted a trip to the hospital. They lifted my friend onto a stretcher, and I slung both our day packs over my shoulder and bade farewell to the Aviateca folks--and to all our luggage, in a heap on the office floor.

On the outside, it looked like a regular ambulance, painted white and red, with flashing lights. Inside, it was a dirty, empty panel truck with a spare tire. The EMTs placed the stretcher and my friend on the cold, filthy floor, and I crouched beside her, helping one of the men to massage her legs. And we waited.

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