‘I’ve had cholera. You?’

I’ve read Love in the Time of Cholera twice. It’s among my favorite books.

The first time was in the early winter of 1992, when I lived in a small one-room cabin in the woods near Athens, Ohio. At the time I was preparing for a road trip three friends and I were about to take, driving my friend Bob O’s 1975 International Harvester Scout from southern Ohio to Nicaragua. When he bought it for two hundred dollars six months before our late June departure date, it was barely running.

That winter also included research into and writing about a new cholera pandemic that began early the previous year in Peru and which was gradually creeping its way north towards Central America.

By June we were prepared with fully recharged immune systems. We had several booster shots, drank polio juice dispensed from the university clinic, and took our anti-malarials. On the road we were extremely careful with what we ate. We drank and brushed our teeth with only bottled water.

During a seven-hour wait on the border between El Salvador and Honduras, Breyer was the first to get sick. Nausea, some vomiting, diarrhea. I was the first to make fun of her.

It hit me the next afternoon as we were approaching San Marcos de Colon, a Honduran town just eleven kilometers from the Nicaraguan border. We were running late, the border closed at five, so we were forced to spend the night. I could barely walk. Bob O dragged me a few blocks to a small privately operated clinic run by a young Brazilian doctor who, as it happened, was extensively involved in Honduras’ national anti-cholera campaign. And she wasn’t amused. I don’t recall her precise words, but they went something like this:

“I’ve been working my ass off to keep cholera out of this town and you greasy gringos bring it here.”

Cholera causes heavy and quick dehydration. It’s easily cured, but if not treated quickly, it can and does kill. It’s the worst form of diarrhea imaginable, unrelenting. The dizziness is profound, and I’ve never felt that parched or helpless.

We were quarantined for the next thirty-six hours, the first twenty of which where fairly unpleasant. The doctor immediately began treating us as if we had the bacteria swimming inside us, but we still had to provide samples which would be sent to the health institute’s main lab in the capital Tegucigalpa.

We were laying on brand new cholera beds, the kind with pre-cut holes designed to fit virtually any ass size, when she handed us small glass containers. They reminded me of baby food jars. “Here,” she said.

When you’ve lost all control of that bodily function, capturing your own spouting fountain of cholera juice in a recycled baby food jar isn’t easy. It’s also a mess. I really don’t wish it upon anyone. Not even George W. Bush.

The results came back positive 24 hours later.

We were also advised to not, under any circumstances, tell anyone that we contracted cholera – not in Honduras, not in Nicaragua. The campaigns were effective, the doctor told us, but they’ve also spread considerable fear. People would flood the clinics demanding medicines. Terrified mobs could form to run us out of town.

“This has happened,” she said.

Near Teustepe, Nicaragua. What struck me here was that I’d seen very similar scenes in rural Appalachia.

During our unintended stay, we met Mary, a Texan who was born-again a dozen years earlier and who had been coming to San Marcos for the past nine years to help with the clinic.

“I heard there were some sick communists in town,” she said, after storming into our room to introduce herself. I wasn’t feeling particularly talkative.

“Who are you and what the fuck are you doing here?” was all I could manage.

She smiled. “Every American who passes through here is a communist. But that’s okay. Jesus will forgive you.”

I wanted to tell her that Jesus was a communist but I was too distracted with positioning myself just right over the hole in the bed.

Over the next few days she rambled on about lots of things, among them, that a capful of Clorox bleach can cure just about everything. Her anti-communist rants were particularly amusing.

“Seventy percent of Mexico is communist,” she said. “Most of Guatemala and El Salvador, half of Honduras.”

For the rest of the summer we called her The Church Lady. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on one thing, but I did grow to like her. We had conversations fun enough to make my vomiting and diarrhea slightly less unbearable. She later inspired haiku. I jotted quite a few of them into my notebooks. Here’s one:

Says she – “I was blessed
Jesus set me up real good
With cheap real estate”

With lots of time to kill, we tracked down the root of our affliction to a small roadside restaurant in the mountains just south of Guatemala City. Breyer and I each had a salad which was obviously washed in contaminated water. Bob O and Jeannine did not.

~~

Aside:

Bob O’s car got us there, but it never left Nicaragua. He decided to sell it to a friend, Pedro, a former contra squad leader who would later become mayor of Teustepe, our sister city.

One afternoon, Pedro and some friends drove into the countryside for what I think was to be a hunting trip. Along the way a spark ignited and the car, loaded with guns and ammo, exploded. No one was hurt.

I traveled overland on my way back north that summer –the other three chose to fly– selecting slightly different routes. Hoping to at least partly avoid the mass confusion, delays and bribes inherent in each border crossing, I chose a less-traveled one from Nicaragua back into Honduras via Esteli and Ocotal.

I got up early, hopped on a pre-dawn bus, and was first in line when the Nicaraguans opened their side of the border at 8 a.m. Soon after waving good bye, I walked the four hundred or so meters to the Honduran gate, which wouldn’t be open until 9. So I spent an hour, with no shade, sitting on the thick line you see separating countries on maps.

~~

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  1. Wow, cholera sounds like a truly horrific experience. Definitely gonna put that on my “not to do” list. But it sounds like you’ve had some awesome adventures, and the A to Z challenge is a fun way to share them.

    Best of luck with the challenge,
    Jocelyn

  2. Have always had a striking interest in disease…again, from afar…have read a bunch and worked with it for years, some types anyway…always compelling stories from those who lived closer to it. Thank you again.

  3. I liked you story, not the part that you got cholera but it was interesting and it happened back in 92…Nice of you not to wish it even upon George Bush 😉
    What happened second time you read “Love in time of Cholera”…hopefully you had love that time ;)?

  4. I like the comment before mine, by Elena 🙂 Anyway, sounds like you’ve had some very interesting experiences! Will have to come back here soon to read more!

  5. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read is called “Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs…She Thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whorehouse”. There is a scene in the book where his crew all get sick and go on a horrifying plane ride to medical assistance. I highly recommend it. Your story reminded me of that anecdote.

    1. Hi Edysmar, thanks so much for stopping by. I always find at least some work assignments in an area I want to visit before going there, or, if I’m working for clients where location isn’t that important, I’ll sometimes go spend some time somewhere else and work from there, generally to areas where the cost of living is considerably lower than in the US or western Europe.

  6. OMG! I am reading through your old posts. This one was particularly memorable. I think Ron had Cholera last year. It was a toss up between Cholera and E-Coli, but both are bad news. We’re not sure if it was from unpasteurized milk that our neighbor gave him from her cow Princesa, or because he didn’t wash the mangoes before eating them. What an adventurous life you lead, Bob. Now, I have to go read more of your earlier posts. 🙂

  7. Interesting article. Of all the vaccines , anticholera made me the sickest, feeling like the flu for three days when I had to get travel preps done. First time in 1972 before traveling to South America, second time in Santos Brazil in 1975 during that years epidemic, final time in 1981 in Japan when planning travel through SE Asia, West Asia, and maybe Africa. In 1985 in Zürich, they said it was easier to cure Cholera rather than run the allergy risks of the serum. So I was extra careful in Sri Lanka and elsewhere avoiding unboiled water, eating well, and getting enough sleep. Cheers

    1. That is interesting, partly why I skipped the anti-cholera. Besides the side effects, most sources I found said it offered a false sense of security with just about 60% effectiveness. The cure, as you mention, was fairly quick.

  8. HI Bob, I think I read this before, but i just read it again. I never really knew exactly what cholera was. now i do. its extraordinary – but not suprising – that its easier to cure it than risk the side effects of the vaccine. Well, that’s a committed journalist for you – you go in country to write about the cholera epidemic and you end up catching it.

  9. I love the way you write and I never stopped until I finished this story. I also experienced diarrhea accompanied by vomiting. It’s one of the worst sickness but it’s not cholera it’s acute gastroenteritis.

  10. The country I live in advocates inoculation against these as our water supply does get contaminated due to poor infrastructure and human negligence and apathy. My maternal grandfather died from cholera and my mother suffered it as a child. Even with inoculation, this disease will be rampant each year during the dry seasons between March and July and little children and the old or sick are always affected. Our government downplays it but as a healthcare worker I see the statistics. My country is also steeped in a lot of urban legend and taboos so children are taught not to eat watermelons during cholera season as the cholera “worms” are living in them. This and other such “rules” help keep the disease controlled. But when we saw influx of immigrant workers from countries that had no inoculation , the disease would become an epidemic again and new strategy had to be thought out. Thanks for sharing your article that this is also experienced in other corners of the world. Your post title caught my attention – Love in the time of cholera – one of my favorites too.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your insights. For some reason Malaysia isn’t a country I’d typically associate with cholera, but obviously I’m wrong.

  11. Thanks for the post. I had a similar experience in Nagarjuna Konda in India while taking pictures for an archeologist. When I got back to my GP he said that based on the fever and the Rx they gave me for the horse syringe they stuck in my thigh; that it was probably Typhoid rather than Cholera. Not that it made a huge difference. You’re a brave man writing about this. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone either. Ever. I’m really impressed by your work!! Take care. Ciao!

    (ps sorry if this is a duplicate, can’t tell if the first one posted)

  12. Wow love your writing! Sounds like you have some great stories and experiences behind you (okay maybe not this one). Cholera sounds absolutely horrible 🙁 Those beds! Wow. Glad you grew to like The Church Lady 🙂 x

  13. This was so interesting to read even though I can’t imagine how you felt during that time. It must have been horrible. I find it interesting because of the travelling, the border closing, and that Church Lady. I think I would have sympathies for her as well.It was funny that you couldn’t tell anyone as if it was your fault, it wasn’t, and I don’t understand how they wouldn’t understand if you’re treated. You didn’t spread the cholera, you caught it on time.

  14. Interesting article… interesting point of view! My English is not perfect – sorry…I wish I could write more.
    Btw. The experience sounds absolutely horrible.

  15. Yuck! I’m so sorry you had to deal with this but I am crying laughing over the Bush comment. I do think I would wish it on 45, though …

  16. Love in the Time of Cholera is one of my fav books of all time. Though I’m not completely sure I ever understood it really. Must read it again now that I am an adult ;).

    I’ve never had cholera and based on your experience, I never hope to get it. The closest I came was dengue fever which was bad but… not THAT bad. Especially since I wasn’t invaded by an anti-communist paranoid during my illness.

    Sounds like you’ve had some crazy adventures and I love your storytelling style.

    Jane M

  17. What a story! We’ve had adventures, but nothing like that. Cholera scares the tar out of me, because of how torturous and vicious it can be. I’m glad you were able to be seen and treated quickly. Also, can we talk about how ambitious that road trip was?! 🙂

  18. I’ve had cholera, yes. It was during my volunteer to one if the African countries. I just don’t know precisely where. I was treated but being sick in a foreign country made me madseverally. I hate being sick. And yes, cholera is that deadly I don’t wish it for my ex. I’m glad you survived to write this and this to the many who couldn’t make t.

  19. You are certainly a great story teller, Bob. I find it hard to believe that I was riveted by suffering brought on by Cholera. You turned an awful experience into an almost amusing anecdote. Mustn’t take life too seriously. Thanks.

  20. I never had cholera but upon reading your post, I know it doesn’t sound very pleasant experience to have. But when I and my ex boyfriend were traveling together in Georgetown, Malaysia, I had food poisoned and it was my first time so we had no choice but to cancel the trip to an island in Bangkok the next day. Still, some bad experiences we have had can turn into an unforgettable ones. And saying goodbye to one place means saying hello to a more exciting new one on the way!

  21. Yikes, I’m so sorry to hear that you caught Cholera – doesn’t sound fun in the slightest! 36 hours quarantine sounds intense, but I guess when you’re in an area where it spreads like an epidemic, you cant take any chances. The salad will get you every time! It’s so hard in these areas, because you can be as careful as you possibly could be, but it’s very easy to forget that things like salad are washed in local water, or by ordering a soft drink and putting ice in it. Hope it doesn’t happen to you again! Safe travels.

  22. The Brazilian doctor was right to be upset with you. It gets serious when a cholera outbreak happens and its easy to start. Look at the fact that the UN workers brought cholera back to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake and then denied they were the ones to bring it.

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