Our Mad Sad Sweet Year Abroad
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”, as John Lennon once famously put it. We find it an apt quote with which to summarize our 2014, as life suddenly erupted and, like a swirling force of nature, decided to shred our plans to tiny pieces made of ashes.
The new year began in Guatemala, in the small town of Panajachel. Guatemala had been only the fourth country in our trek towards the south of the American continent and the windswept precipice at Tierra del Fuego. We had so far been granted a glorious glimpse into a few of the most magnificent landscapes in our extraordinary world: the old quarters of Montréal, the bewildering majesty of the Grand Canyon, the sinuous seascape along the Big Sur, the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán, the Pacific coast and the lush highlands of eastern Mexico, the volcanic beauty surrounding the villages around Lake Atitlán.
Nonetheless, our journey had not been without incident. During October 2013, while visiting the lovely town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, I had been rushed to the hospital, shaking like a maniac, in what was later deemed a massive kidney infection due to severe dehydration. According to the Mexican doctors, this was most likely related to the presence of Giardia in my system, which had been sucking my mojo for at least two frustratingly undiagnosed years. Following a short stint at the hospital, we were left to resume our daily affairs, hoping to move southwards as soon as my body could stomach the trip.
Having extended our stay in the Mexican state of Chiapas, we found time to discover more of the remarkable culture enhancing every aspect of life in San Cristóbal and environs. By chance, we also encountered and quickly befriended one of our favorite travel bloggers, Wes Nations, or Johnny Vagabond as he was known to many. We shared travel tales, drank some wine, stumbled into each other along Calle Real de Guadalupe, promised to meet again somewhere in the world when he later left to Asia.
In November, still shaken by the effects of my illness but in higher spirits, we moved to Guatemala, where we greeted 2014.
Come January, we found ourselves walking the cobblestone streets of Antigua Guatemala, by the shadow of the Volcán de Agua. I had lost a bit of weight and was still having stomach issues, but none of it prevented us from celebrating my birthday with a climb of the Pacaya volcano nearby. Although I had managed to grow one year older in style, walking atop volcanic rock, my body felt increasingly fragile and emaciated. The rumblings heard atop Pacaya mirrored my own, a sign of imminent storm.
Still, onwards we went. Hoping to visit Belize, of which we only knew Caye Caulker, we traveled to Livingston, on the Atlantic shores of Guatemala, a colorful Garifuna enclave seemingly lost between sea and jungle. It’s a fascinating place, scarred by slavery, smelling of dried fish and engine oil. As we explored its small streets and tasted some of the best pizza we’ve had the pleasure to try, our minds began to ponder our next move. First Belize, then Honduras, or maybe even Mexico once more – the future was open.
Suddenly, I felt worse. Much worse, actually. My entire belly became a nexus of pinpricks and short-breathed agony, forcing us to return to Antigua Guatemala, where we could be closer to doctors and the sprawling madness of Guatemala City, if the necessity to get on a plane quickly arose.
Reacquainted with Antigua’s dilapidated splendor, we promptly resumed our search for a doctor or a miracle, whichever came first. Having secured the services of a charming Guatemalan doctor, and already planning on staying put for a while, we rented an apartment in one of the gated communities of Antigua, away from the town centre and its vibrant bustle. More than anything, we wanted peace and a proper diagnosis, hopefully followed by a recovery of some sort.
Alas, in what would become a recurring theme throughout 2014, things only got worse…
Shortly after visiting the doctor and getting some pills to battle whatever epic showdown was happening along my digestive system, my body began to signal an impending collapse. We returned to the doctor, who upon seeing my pathetic frame, clinging to Elle’s shoulders like an ancient mariner who hadn’t set foot on land in decades, wisely decided it was time to send me to the hospital. Something was seriously amiss, and nobody had been able to figure it out yet.
As soon as we arrived at the hospital, the shaking I had first experienced in Mexico returned. Convulsing with increasing intensity, I was put on a stretcher, held down so I wouldn’t fall to the floor, given IV drips and told everything would be alright, as Elle held my hand and bravely tried not to burst in tears.
More doctors arrived, more tests were ordered, more squalor tinged my face. I was moved to a small darkened room, to wait and rest. We ended up staying for one week, as my body refused to process food and obstinately remained an enigma unto itself. It was obvious something was wrong, but nobody could come up with a name for it. Without a name, all was darkness and tentative steps into (or out of) the light.
Slowly my body began to heal, finally becoming able to process nutrients through the usual channels and not through the drip drip drip of an IV line. One luscious morning I was discharged, to meet and greet the sun and the volcanoes and to recover at home, aided by enough medication to cover an entire village.
Three days later I was back at the hospital, shaking with such exquisite violence even the doctors looked distraught.
We had reached the end of the line. The precipice was no longer at Tierra del Fuego, but right there, in front of us, full of sound and furious tremors. For what seemed like a long time, as doctors and nurses scrambled to stick tubes and syringes into my arms, I felt defeated, deflated, nearly deceased.
In the first two days I lost a third of my body weight. As my digestive system came to a sudden halt, most of the muscle accrued during 35 years on this earth vanished from my bones. My thighs became as thick as my arms, my arms as thick as my wrists, my wrists as thick as autumn fog. Motionless I lay for hours on end, no distance left to run.
Constantly by my side, Elle saw me dwindle, my cheeks stubbornly sunken.
Eventually I was given an endoscopy and a colonoscopy, which confirmed a ravaged digestive system: chronic gastritis, chronic colitis, hiatal hernia. The culprit of all this destruction remained elusive, but suspects included a mutated virus, some bacteria like Helicobacter pylori, some antibiotic treatment three years previous, when the first symptoms erupted, bad luck, or an act of God, smiting the clueless atheist.
I had been sick for so long, and so many treatments had gone through my veins, that it was impossible to gauge what had happened several years, or even months, before. Still no name could be assigned to my condition, only its consequences, so I reluctantly feel into the bottomless IBS pit, IBS meaning “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” and being a polite umbrella title for a plethora of conditions which mostly fall under the less technical IHNC acronym, meaning “I Have No Clue”.
We stayed another week at the hospital, befriending doctors, nurses and nutritionists. My digestive system needed a reboot, so all hands were on deck. Slowly I regained a modicum of strength, if not muscle. The minutes dragged along to the familiar sounds of the daily hospital shuffle and “Friends” reruns.
When I finally set foot outside the hospital, frail and broken, the blue sky seemed like a foreign concept, or a lost artefact hidden under the earth for centuries on end. Although the sun shone with an unparalleled radiance, crossing the hospital door into the street felt like stepping into the other side of a waterfall.
For a long time afterwards I was unable to gather my thoughts in a reasonably coherent manner. From my hospital stay only one rambling, feverish account remains. Those tortuous notes came bursting from my fingers like an hallucination, filling the computer screen with ethereal visions from the disinfected corridors I roamed, one hand dragging the metal pole where the IV drip stood, the other resting on Elle’s slender shoulders.
Back home, the road to recovery began to take shape. I was given so much medication we had to create a calendar. My days revolved around pills and tentative forays into regular eating.
The first few weeks were painful and hesitant. The toll had been not only physical but also mental. I found myself lethargic, lost, lugubrious. My being had always been tinted by melancholy (I am a child of the Mediterranean, after all), continuously kept in check by a staunch sense of humor (I am a child of Monty Python, after all), but my downward spiral brought forth the two-headed monster of fear and dissonance.
My body the stranger, I thought as I looked at my arms, like twigs sprouting from a dead tree.
The world I inhabited whirled to the hollow hum of a persistent rumble. My mind had become thoroughly convinced disintegration was inevitable – not if, but when.
Still the days and nights dragged on…
In March, amidst the wreckage, finally a glimmer of hope. Elle (valiant, beautiful Elle) found some spare time between playing the nurse and the girlfriend and managed to get a job in one of the many boutique hotels lining Antigua’s colonial corners. The timing was perfect, since we had lost half of our savings in hospital and pharmacy bills and were in dire need of funds (we had travel insurance, but I fell in the “pre-existing condition” category, so no moneys for the homies).
While Elle began a new career under the auspices of three volcanoes (Agua, Fuego, Acatenango, like a long-lost mantra), I tried to regain some semblance of strength. Initially, a 5-minute walk wold leave me breathless, drenched in sweat, trembling at the knees. My daily strolls hardly ever left the high walls of our gated exile. The need to be close to our door was paramount.
Of those days I remember mostly sun and silence. I let Lunaguava languish, unable to organize my thoughts and becoming wary of even the slightest attempt to write a complete sentence.
During those hours without Elle, I turned to the volcano for solace and thew. The Volcán de Agua, looming magnanimous over Antigua Guatemala, shone with the earthy vigor I was sorely lacking. It became my rock, my pillar, my slumbering god and soundless friend. I would stumble out of our house every day, walk past the expensive faux-colonial houses where Guatemalan maids beat white linens under a domestic spell, greet the first security guard with a whispered “Buenos días”, turn right toward the other gated communities within the high walls and the exit, stop halfway by the trees and the grass, where Agua first appeared fully, usually naked in the morning, gathering clouds as the day progressed. By the trees and the grass I stood idly under the sun, for as many minutes as I could, smiling at the Volcán de Agua, its triangular shape a reservoir of all my might, all my dreams and second-chances. The Guatemalan maids and dog-walkers crossing my spot must have thought me a foolish gringo, grinning through a hunched stomach into the green distance. I said “Buenos días” and remained still, lost in the giant’s embrace. In the evenings, Elle would accompany me to the grass and trees, where we would gaze at the shadowed contours of the volcano and point at the constellation of fireflies seemingly sprouting from branches swaying in the night breeze.
By the end of March, acknowledging our lives would be tied to Antigua for the foreseeable future, we moved out of the gated community and their dollars and into the true vibrancy of Guatemala and its quetzales. We got a small place by the Church of San Francisco, where the chicken buses heading to the capital would honk and the cries of “Guate, Guate, Guate!” would be heard throughout the day. From our new secluded haven we would brave the coming months, aided by the generosity and laughter of our Three Guatemalan Graces: Doña Amanda, Angelina and Patty. They took us in, pampered us with affection, knocked on our little green gate to see if anything was needed. We felt part of their family, and welcomed their kindness with open arms.
April was a good month. I finally gained a bit of weight and felt my body heal on a steadier basis. My daily strolls stretched longer, expanding enough for me to witness the patterned colors and religious fervor adorning Holy Week in Antigua. Encouraged by incense fumes and multicolored sawdust, our future bloomed brighter.
Across the Atlantic, by the canals of Amsterdam, our adopted home of many years, the news were much less pleasant. William, one of our dearest friends and a man for whom the expression “larger-than-life” would be more than appropriate, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer early in the year, and the initial optimism had given way to an increasingly unnerving sense of hopelessness. Every email we received signaled a further descent into the senseless fissure of the disease. We felt selfish and reckless for leaving him, and dreadful for not being able to return when he needed us most.
Although not as worrisome and life-threatening, other friends were coming to terms with life’s many twists and turns. This time, it entailed the end of a marriage, one I had attended some years ago by the Danube, and which had always seemed impervious to even the most violent of storms. Their impending divorce, although not even remotely acrimonious, signified the end of a significant chapter in all our lives.
Our world seemed to be unravelling, any hint of control being continuously crushed by life’s cruel randomness.
Back in Antigua, in what would become a tiresome pattern for the remainder of the year, my recovery came crashing down. The weight I had gained in April was lost in a painful, gasping weekend, with nothing to show for a whole month except shit, sweat and tears. The chance of a return to the hospital gained momentum, leaving us weary of the passing of time. We wanted the clocks to stop, only to resume when my body could withstand more than a few days of unencumbered breath.
Again, more than the physical side of my illness, it was the mental toll that left us despondent. As soon as we would envision the light at the end of the tunnel, the walls would collapse – without warning, for no reason we could understand – and leave us stranded in darkness.
By mid-May I was back on the ascending side of the curve. I would greet Elle every day as she left work and we would walk past Central Park, the yellow clock tower, the ruins of cathedrals, to the market’s bustle or La Bodegona or, more often than not, the pharmacy, to renew prescriptions and check my weight, which remained stubbornly low.
Antigua Guatemala had gained the languorous quality of home. We knew its streets, we spoke to its people, we gazed at its volcanoes, we roamed through its markets smelling of papaya, headless chickens and avocados. We glimpsed at arriving backpackers and remembered our old ways, when everything was open. They looked alien to us, all disheveled hair and tattoos over tanned forearms.
Still, the desire to wander lingered. Soon we could resume our journey, we thought, maybe do a small detour through Amsterdam and hug William and all our friends waiting for good news, then hop on back to Central America and float on southwards.
As we gave ourselves the luxury of devising plans, more mundane matters came into the foreground. Since I had been a mess of plastic tubes and stool samples for the past several months, Elle had not been able to take care of her own health. She needed a checkup, accompanied by a gynecological exam she had been used to perform on a yearly basis ever since a uterine cyst was discovered during her teen years. Sensing a parting of the clouds, she procured a gynecologist in order to resume her scheduled exams. We eventually encountered a burly middle-aged man with a stethoscope, keenly professional but unashamed of a deliciously macabre sense of humor. Our kind of doctor, we agreed.
As soon as the exam was performed and biopsies were sent to the lab, we resumed our daily duties. Elle to work and foreign tourists, I to get reacquainted with a body I could barely recognize, profoundly mercurial and prone to temper tantrums.
A couple of weeks went by and still no word from the gynecologist. Following the madness of our lives so far, we grew increasingly apprehensive. One day the phone finally rang. Results were in. Our presence was needed. We went.
What came next was a blur of wringing hands and strangely familiar words:
It was the first time we heard the word cancer inside a doctor’s office.
It was the first time we heard the word cancer directed at us.
It was the first time we heard the word cancer scream in our ears.
It was the first time we saw the word cancer dance in front of our eyes.
It was the first time we saw the word cancer linger in the air between us, like a deadly neon sign blinking during a rainstorm.
As I heard the doctor utter that terrible word, my mind began to perform a farcical play of its own: “maybe cancer in Spanish means bubbles or rainbows or kittens,” I thought. “Yes, Elle has kittens and rainbows – that sounds perfectly reasonable. But why is the doctor talking about removing the rainbow? We like rainbows; we love kittens; bubbles are fun! But really, doctor, tell us, why so serious?”
As the doctor enumerated the good news wrapped around the bad news (the cancer was microscopic, Elle was in good physical condition, blah blah blah), we remained silent. Surgery was suggested, to either excise the cancerous lump of flesh or remove the entire uterus and the malignant cells with it. We were asked about children – hypothetical babies, hinging on the oppressive nature of time, of which we didn’t have much to spare. A decision was to be made (excision or extirpation), the sooner the better. Whatever the selection, Elle would have to go under the proverbial knife.
On both sides of the Atlantic, rogue cells were wreaking havoc on the bodies of those I loved. For long minutes at a time, I felt the skeletal tapping of Death at the door, ravenous.
Left to our own devices, we discussed our options, not only about how or how much but also about where. A return to either Amsterdam or the old Portuguese lair which saw us grow was considered. Many other things were considered and carefully weighed, many hours were spent discussing pros and cons and what ifs and why nots, until we eventually arrived at a resolution: Elle’s uterus would stay in Antigua Guatemala.
Two factors weighed heavily on our decision: I was too weak to travel and we trusted our doctor. He was nothing but experienced in cervical cancer, it being the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in Guatemala. We went through the details of the hysterectomy with him and came up with a date for the operation: the 4th of July.
June came and went. We held on to each other and tried to dispel the worries of those living far way. We understood their feelings of helplessness, their remoteness, but our decision was made and we truly believed it had been the right one. We had gone through much together; we would battle this one out as well, and would come out winning.
Elle’s surgery was a personal nightmare of mine. No matter how much comfort is derived from a doctor’s professionalism and skill, the sight of a loved one lying on a stretcher on the way to an operating room is difficult to stomach. As Elle had felt helpless before, as she saw me shake under the spell of an unknown phantasm, so did I sit anxious now, watching her go with a smile on her face, dressed in a white gown. My own illness had become secondary, a mere nuisance to be overcome with patience and the proper diet and medication. This was the real thing.
I waited in the darkened corridors, trying to discern any hint of a successful outcome from the rushing nurses going to and fro. They smiled, I smiled back, having learned nothing new. Meanwhile, I became the bridge between two continents, being assigned the role of messenger between a hospital in Guatemala and a family in Portugal. As luck would have it, I had only good tidings to bear.
The surgery was perfectly executed and Elle left the operating table with a beating heart, albeit with one less organ accounted for in her body and drugged out of her mind. The next hours were spent in a haze of painkillers and nonsensical conversations, as we readjusted to a new reality and the dwindling power of an epidural. Elle had now joined the ranks of cancer survivors around the world. She was in a lot of pain, she was restless, she wanted to sleep, she was alive.
During the whole month of July, Guatemala endured a relentless heatwave. Crops withered, folk complained, we selfishly basked under the sun. It was fantastic weather for Elle’s recovery. The heat, fierce on the streets of Antigua, wasn’t too oppressive at home, where her muscles could relax and the healing process could continue unrestricted by cold and gloomy skies. A shining sun does wonders to the spirit, as we gratefully learned.
Elle’s diagnosis, surgery and recovery meant she could no longer work. Her days mirrored mine only a few months before: rest, nourishment, more rest.
As soon as Elle could walk more than a few meters, we resumed our daily strolls through Antigua. The town’s ruins seemed constantly awash in yellow. Everything smelled sweet. We looked like an old couple, shuffling slowly under the beaming sun. The Volcán de Agua, my reliable friend, continued its vow of silence, whereas the Volcán de Fuego sprouted ash and plumes of smoke on a regular basis. Water and Fire, marking time, surrounding the cobblestones where we slogged around.
It rained in August.
Nothing much happened outside our routine. Walk, rest, eat, walk some more, rest some more. My own body had been tottering along, slim yet stable. Increasingly, our worries lay elsewhere, across the big blue Atlantic pond.
By September our friend Williams’s struggle with cancer had attained a desperate quality. None of the revolving treatments had worked so far, and he found himself progressively frail. We were still too tired to fully grasp what was happening. Or maybe we didn’t want to understand; maybe we couldn’t muster the strength to accept he was dying. This was William, after all – a force of nature if there ever was one. Surely we would see him again. He had been the last person we hugged when we left Amsterdam in May 2013; he had been our favorite present every cosy Christmas we had spent together. We thought of him every single day.
William died on the 3rd of October 2014. I have already written a small insight into the life of our friend and how he touched everyone he met. I am still unable to add anything to that story, except that he left a gaping hole in our hearts which will never close.
Back in Antigua, we cried and made sorry attempts at moving past the maelstrom. Something essential had shifted, and the ground felt precarious. Elle continued to recover at a somewhat steady pace, whereas I was back on the ramshackle wagon. There were good days and not-so-good days, the reason for such difference remaining frustratingly elusive. My body simply refused to gain back the weight it had lost. I had become a cadaverous shadow of my former self.
We tried other doctors, renowned gastroenterologists in Guatemala City who would listen to our story and order more exams, more blood, more urine, and prescribe the usual duo of antibiotics and probiotics, or some other concoction they saw fit. I had turned into a lab rat.
November brought the end. Elle picked some bug, got a fever and easily saw it through after a couple of days. Immediately afterwards it was my turn, but my body reacted very differently: it ached and convulsed and struggled to vanquish whatever it was lurking inside it. I deteriorated visibly and rapidly. In a matter of hours a decision was made: we would return to Portugal as fast as we could. There was no point in waiting for a miracle anymore. I would have to seek help from our doctor again and beg him to give me something which would let me travel, no matter how fragile I had become and no matter how stupidly soon it was for Elle to be on a plane.
Following a strong dose of steroids and a vitamin B12 shot, we said goodbye to our new Guatemalan family and flew to Portugal, where our old families awaited.
After a long day of multiple flights, we landed safely in the old country by the sea. I hadn’t been to Portugal in 11 years.
The first few days in Portugal were practical affairs, with the need to procure a new doctor taking precedence over anything else. Luckily, and to my surprise, my old childhood doctor, a man who had seen me grow and who knew my entrails better than any other person alive, was still practicing medicine in northern Portugal.
We paid him a visit.
Just by entering his office my mind grew calmer. He listened to our by now exceedingly long story, he slowly read the myriad exams I had done in Guatemala, he touched my sore belly, he eventually established a medium-term treatment plan and firmly shook my hand. I hadn’t felt so good in over a year.
When asked what foods I should eat or avoid (a concern which had made me deeply distrustful of food over the whole year), he merely raised his eyes over his glasses and replied in his low ragged voice: “Eat everything.”
Finally full of confidence, I began the treatment and the “diet”. I turned into an insatiable beast. My body welcomed the foods it had developed with, gaining weight at incredible speed. I no longer worried over the potability of water and the contamination of lettuce, as in Guatemala. The rediscovered sense of security brought me peace of mind, which in turn made my body less prone to wild mood swings. I still didn’t recognize my own body, but at least it seemed to recognize what it was receiving, and was apparently content. The road to recovery came into view unimpeded.
Even if our year had begun to unravel in more favorable terms, the world kept spinning its sometimes ruthless yarn. As November came to a close, we learned that Wes Nations, whom we had befriended in Mexico, had died from a sudden illness, surrounded by his family at home. We would never witness his Texan charm again.
December brought babies and Christmas lights. There were new members in the family, new faces to see and appreciate under the mistletoe. We crisscrossed the country, catching up with old friends and reconnecting with a country we hadn’t experienced in quite a while. It had remained the same, only different. Childhood smells came rushing back as we wandered the streets of Aveiro or Porto. It was soothingly melancholic, at least at first, until the weight of a country broken under the weight of austerity measures began to be overbearing.
We saw 2014 off as we had greeted it: just the two of us, watching fireworks in the distance. We were finally saying goodbye to the madness, the sadness and the sweetness of our year abroad. We were tired but hopeful – most importantly, alive.
It had been a strange year.
It’s very likely we will be leaving Portugal soon. We are Portuguese by birth and appreciate the quirks bestowed upon us by our culture, but the country has become increasingly unkind to its own people. The social toll of the economic crisis can be seen everywhere. We are in dire need of hope, but Portugal offers none, at least to us and many like us.
We will stay in Europe, either in Amsterdam or in some other place that doesn’t mind putting up with two resilient ragamuffins. Elle has continued to make a steady progress, currently almost feeling like her old self again. Of her battle with cancer, she has only a nifty scar to show. Yours truly is much better, trying to readjust to a medicated life. I have gained all my weight back and am stronger by the day. The future is still a question mark, but at least I might be able to put the last word in.
Although our long-term journey through the Americas is temporarily adjourned, our wanderlust is still unrestrained. Travel is in our nature. We don’t know when we’ll able to gallivant more than a weekend at a time again, but for the moment we are happy to let time unwind at its own sweet pace.
Even after all the pain and heartbreak we endured since we left Amsterdam, we remain unwavering in our decision to roam the earth unfettered by anything more than essential possessions, unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed. We saw splendid beauty, we twisted our tongues and ears trying to make sense of Mayan languages, we ate the most delicious avocados in the world, we climbed pyramids and volcanoes, we surfed the waves and strode the sand.
Most of all we hold the memory of the leap we took, back in May 2013, when we left the comfort of home and for a brief luminous moment had nothing but our backpacks over our shoulders, reaching our future with both hands, beaming confidence and recklessly free…
That memory, that bright moment in time which will linger like stardust over our eyelids until they finally close, makes it all worth it.