Lost In The Yucatan – Again…

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For me and the Spousal Equivalent, it has become a tradition that on our annual visit to the Yucatan, Mexico, we take road trips. It is just as much a tradition that on at least one of these road trips (okay, okay, on nearly all of them) we get next-to-hopelessly lost.

Getting lost is unavoidable in the Yucatan, although we don’t much like it and try not to do it. For the past five years’ of trips to Mexico, John has been an excellent and thoroughly-prepared navigator. He has used his purchased-specially-from-a-geographical-society map of the Yucatan, his printed-up-back-at-home satellite maps, his internet research skills, and his strong resolve that he is going the right way (which, fortunately, he usually is) to make sure we (eventually) get where we want to go. My job has been to drive, and yes, to have the occasional meltdown over the directions. Being sent the wrong way up a narrow one-way street on market day, straight into the path of an oncoming parade of bicycles, tuktuks, street dogs, and gun-toting Federales in gigantic black-and-silver Jeeps, has made me sometimes raise my voice above ladylike levels. There is one town that we regularly pass through (called Xchatu’kunkzchin, or similar), which John calls “the town where you screamed at me.” Which could actually be what Xchatu’kunkzchin means in Mayan.

Fortunately, most of the time, we manage to stay pretty cool when we’re lost. We have had to, because it’s a just-you-and-me-kid situation. We can’t really ask for directions, because we don’t speak Spanish, despite making efforts at lessons and Duolingo. We blame our aged memories: it took us two years to memorize the words for “right” and “left” in Spanish, and then to our distress we learned (the hard way) that the words for “right” and “straight ahead” only differ by one vowel. That “hard way” took us off-course by fifty klicks that time, and there was no one to correct us. Until this year. This year, it was just us – and the Google Lady.

After years of Luddite-ism, this year we decided to give Google Maps a try. John was at first a bit reluctant to believe the voice we christened the “Google Lady” could navigate better than he could. I was myself not much more confident, and was pleased to see that John still had his dossier of maps and printouts. Shortly after arriving, on our first road trip, we gave the Google Lady a formal try-out. She scored four stars out of five, and would have done perfectly except for at the last minute telling us to turn left onto a road where there was no actual road. But that happens with the paper maps as well, so we decided she’d done well.

Let me interject here with a bit about Mexican roads in the Yucatan. The word “road” here can mean any number of things. At one end of the spectrum are the new highways – modern polished thoroughfares, bearing well-marked signage and clear lane delineations. At the other end, there are the pitted one-lane limestone tracks – often shown on a map as the only way to reach one’s destination – which start off as barely-driveable and eventually dwindle into little more than a rutted footpath. In between those two road standards there are many, many different roads: everything from beach roads (soft sand tracks occasionally flooded with lake-sized puddles), pueblo roads (lazy semi-paved pathways peppered with sleeping dogs, teetering cyclists, and ambling locals) and run-of-the-mill two-lane highways (which may or may not bear the same identification number as the road shown on your map, and whose potholes keep the many, many Mexican tire stores in business). On top of the roads themselves, there are esoterica such as the lack of signage, the unmarked one-way streets, the topes, the potholes, the dogs, the kids on motorcycles, the potholes, the pickup trucks on verge of collapse (overflowing with commuting labourers who are all standing up in the rear), the old men on bicycles, and the potholes. Add to that occasional surprises like gun-toting random police checks and occasional informal toll collections (where locals at the outskirts of a town string a rope across the road to stop traffic, then shake a tin can at drivers, asking for a donation “por la puebla”). And the city streets? Don’t even go there. Literally. Don’t go there. Stay in the country, where there are fewer things trying to crush your rent-a-car between a dump truck and a city bus.

So we were justifiably concerned that the Google Lady might have trouble navigating all these nuances. Still, we started using her services, on this year’s crop of exploratory “adventures.” She got us to Sisal (where we saw the birds and the spectacular beach), and to Paraiso (where we went horseback riding and rented a donkey cart), and to the Cenotes Santa Barbara (where we swam in not one but three of the amazing subterranean lakes that pepper the Yucatan). Did she get us to those destinations without a hitch? Well, no. She was a little…erratic. Sometimes she lost us. Sometimes she stopped talking to us. Sometimes, she flat-out lied, apparently thinking it was cute to tell us we were in Europe. We were happiest when the little red arrow on the phone screen would proceed confidently along the blue line of whatever road we were alleged to be on. But then she would abandon us, and the heartbreak would begin. “Come back, Google Lady!” we would cry. And then we’d get out the paper map, and struggle our way back into signal range. It was a little nervewracking.

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We decided, therefore, that for our next road trip, we would take a straightforward tour along the Convent Route. The Yucatan has a number of “rutas” that are guide-book recommended, for trips through cenote country, or archeological zones, or trips to areas filled with grutas (caves) or bird sanctuaries. The Convent Route looked very simple, promising a fascinating ecclesiastical/historical adventure. We would drive to the starting point – a village with an “ornate” church and an operating henequen plantation in a restored hacienda – and then proceed through seven more towns. Particularly charming-sounding was the village of Telchaquillo, where we would see an “austere” 16th-century church built on a Mayan ruin (those are actually pretty common), and an underground cenote, right in the town square. It sounded great, and easy to do. We figured we could do the whole thing and be back by dinnertime. If we didn’t get lost, that is.

Well, the best-laid plans of mice and men aft gang a-Google, and within forty minutes of leaving Chuburna, the Google Maps lady had stopped being our best friend. John and I stopped conversing pleasantly about the scenery and started swearing at the Google Lady. But she seemed confident, and – foolishly – we trusted her, even in the face of our experience. We knew we should stay on the Pereferico until the Cancun exit. We knew that. But she said, “in 400 meters, take the exit to Y’ulbegitzinlost,” and like idiots, we took it.cancun

An hour later, along roads that clearly hadn’t seen traffic (or a maintenance crew) in decades, we finally arrived at the first stop: the puebla that featured the henequin-plantation-restored-hacienda. You would think that the Google Lady could get us from the outskirts of a town that housed maybe five hundred people, to the gates of an enormous tourist-trap hacienda. But no: it was at the town limits that the Google Lady completely lost her mind. She took us left, right, right, left again, and then told us to drive through a soccer pitch. Did I drive through the soccer pitch? You bet your ass I did. Three little goats grazing near the goalposts watched us pass, no doubt thinking, “Google maps again.”

The henequen plantation/hacienda was far more expensive than we’d anticipated, but we paid it and went anyway. It was a beautiful site and an interesting tour, but it was three hours long, and involved the sort of thing we don’t do in the Yucatan very often: a large group of tourists (Mexicans, Canadians, Yanks, Aussies, Quebecois, and one very cheerful German) being herded along a fixed path while a guide gives a bilingual talk. By the time we got out of there, it was early afternoon. There was no longer any chance of doing the whole route. We decided to head straight to the next town – Telchaquillo – of the austere chapel and the in-town cenote. Then we could go from there on perhaps two more church visits on the route, and still be home for supper. Piece of cake.

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So we started off down the road by which we’d come, turning on the phone to summon the Google Lady. The Google Lady, though, had disappeared. She’d been there on the way in, but now – on the selfsame road – she was gone. We put the phone down, and John pulled out his map. We could kinda-sorta see where we might possibly be.

“Which way?” I asked John, when we reached the turnoff for the main road.

“Damned if I know,” he replied. Then, having flipped an imaginary coin, he said, “Turn left.”

We should have turned right. Hell, we should have turned around. The Google Lady had brought us into town via a series of backroads that she might have considered the most direct route. But if we’d gone the other way, we’d have been on the nice clean tidy highway, and got to Telchaquillo in ten minutes. Instead, we arrived there in an hour’s time, having driven miles out of our way. At least it was interesting (as getting lost in the Yucatan usually is): we drove through several villages, two of which were located on ruined haciendas, their derelict smokestacks looming overhead; we saw many traditional Yucatan-style thatched-roof houses and even more brightly-painted cinderblock-and-plaster two-room houses. We passed two large and enticing churches, clearly exactly what we wanted to see, but they were closed. So we kept driving, occasionally checking to see if the Google Lady was back. She would check in long enough to tell us that in her opinion, we should turn left at Marseilles. So we would turn her off again.haciendaruins

We drove, through miles of dry sparse Yucatan landscape, flat and rubble-strewn, largely treeless. We met a cow and took its picture. It ran away through a small garbage dump (those are everywhere in Mexico) and disappeared into the bushes. Then finally, we emerged onto a highway – an actual marked highway – and there overhead was a large and official sign declaring that Telchaquillo was at the next retorno. John and I high-fived each other and celebrated with a slurp of Coca Light. The Google Lady came online and sneered. “Told you so,” she said.cowinroad

The Google Lady supervised us into the remote village of Telchaquillo, where – inexplicably – there was a strong signal. There was absolutely no way to get lost in that little puebla, but she gave it the old college try, telling us to turn left and right and right and left and stop and back up and do the hokey-pokey. We ignored her. It was a town of a thatchwork of maybe ten calles, and the austere chapel and the town square took only minutes to find. Sadly, the church was closed, and the town looked deserted. The town playing field, beside the shuttered church, housed the tents and trucks of a travelling circus called, incredibly “Circus Norman.” The tiny town square was treed and there was a circular stone wall, obviously the mouth to the cenote. But by that point, it was after 2 p.m., and we needed something to eat. We pulled over at the town’s only enterprise, a tiny tienda that sported a cardboard sign with the word “comidas” hand-printed on it. “Comidas” means meals. Basically, this tiny, grubby, windowless, Mexican corner store was offering meals.

We parked in front of the tienda to consider this. This could be dangerous. One of the rules about Mexico is that you never eat food from roadside stands. But this wasn’t exactly a roadside stand. And besides, we were very hungry. Maybe we would go in and see what they had.

Just then, a face appeared in my driver’s side window: a little old Mayan lady, cheerful and largely toothless, asking me God-knows-what. “Comida?” I asked, and triggered a dance of gesticulating and welcome. Yes, of course, comidas! Get out of the car, she motioned, and come on in. I will feed you.

Okay, so this wasn’t turning out as planned. We were in a mostly-empty village in the height of the afternoon, and the thing we’d come to see was closed. We were about to eat lunch at a the rural Mexican equivalent of the seediest variety store you might ever wish to avoid. But we went in, where I hoped to see a menu behind the counter. No such luck. There was no actual food source visible beyond the rows of ancient bags of potato chips strung from a leaning metal display, and a styrofoam cooler with the word tortillas magic-markered onto its side. yucatangrandma

But weren’t we in Mexico to have adventures? Hadn’t that hacienda tour been an over-priced tourist-trap antiseptic anti-adventure? Hadn’t we said, when we left it, that the hacienda had been about as far from an authentic Mexican experience as we’d ever had? Didn’t we just love authentic Yucatan experiences? And who were we to turn down an authentic Yucatan meal, just because of the high risk of food poisoning?

While the woman disappeared into the back, I tried to figure out what we could order. But there was no menu – no indication at all of what was offered as the alleged comidas. The “restaurant” comprised a stone counter that bisected the tiny store, and a single rickety tin table, its tabletop Coca-cola logo covered in crawling flies. Our hostess then emerged from the back of the restaurant, and I got a better look at her. She was maybe seventy, and dressed in the traditional rural Yucatan embroidered pinafore over a white lace-trimmed skirt. She spoke a combination of Spanish and Mayan, and the three of us fell into trying to communicate, a process that – for some reason – we all found hysterically funny. Whenever we achieved understanding, we would all cheer like someone had scored a goal in a really important game. When talks collapsed, we all assumed expressions of true sorrow. It was more fun than we’d had all day.

I managed to explain that we were very hungry, that we would like a comida, and that we had been lost for hours. “Perdidos,” said John, and I echoed it. “Perdidos por horas!” She grinned and agreed that it was very sad to be lost. At least, that’s what we hope she said. She might have been commenting on how stupid we were. Didn’t we have Google Maps?

We had come for comidas, so she set about preparing whatever that might be. But first, she said, she must make things clean! As we and a local dog watched, she sprayed the table with blue liquid from a spray-bottle, and wiped it down thoroughly. Then she brought us two Coca Lites and made us sit down. From behind the counter, she produced a Tupperware of what appeared to be meat: clearly-not-refrigerated, cooked, meat. Pork, she told us. “Pork?” I asked John. John nodded. “Okay, pork,” he said. So we told her, “Si, gracias,” and the meal began.

She was so proud of this meat. She popped it in the microwave, and served it to us on the two paper plates, without cutlery, and with a pile of cold tortillas. She watched us as we ate, with our fingers. I tasted a piece and yes, it was actually good. It might have been roiling in toxins, but it was at least tasty. John and I rolled the meat up in the tortillas while our chef brought another dish – a communal plate of some sort of tortilla-and-refried beans pie – and tried to get us to eat what I think was a jalapeno pepper. I asked her what it was; she tried to explain. I told her that in English, it was a pepper. She made multiple, giggling, merry attempts to say pepper. I don’t think explosive fricatives are part of the Mayan tongue, because making a hard p sound was next-to-impossible for her. But she was nothing if not game. She stood beside our table, watching us eat, and blowing hard blasts of air through her lips. Pah! Pah! Pah-par! The very word made her double over laughing.

We explained we were from Canada. She told us that in Mayan, the word for shoes is canada. She might have been messing with us. I haven’t looked it up because it was too adorable, to have her pointing at our shoes and saying, “Canada! Canada!”

We had a blast with this lady. She had no upper teeth and only half-a-dozen lower teeth, My phone was dead – Google Maps sucks juice as well as other things – and so we were without our translate function, not that it can translate from English into Mayan-Yucatan Spanish. Still, soon, we were all killing ourselves laughing. Every now and then we all successfully communicated something, such as when she did the inevitable older-woman thing and asked whether I had children. I knew how to answer this common question: I told her I had two sons , and that they were twins. I augmented the description by holding up two fingers and saying dos ninos, and then making a rounded pregnancy-like gesture over my midsection. At which point, our hostess roared, squatted a little, and mimicked giving birth. John actually applauded that performance.

Even backwaters have cellphones, and when her cell went off and she stepped away to answer it, I could hear her talking about us (I caught the word tourista). But we were talking about her, or at least, about her food. Yes, that pork – which, thank heavens, she had microwaved to a temperature I hoped would kill the botulism – was delicious, as was the strange tortilla-and-refried beans cake. As we ate, cautiously, with our fingers, we discussed how suicidal we were being. John assured me his doctor had given him enough food-poisoning antibiotic for two people. “We’re going to die horribly,” I said, eating another fingerfull of whatever-it-was. If it was death, at least it was tasty.

Our hostess returned with a bowl of brown liquid that we think might have been soup. Maybe it was the local dish – mole – but nevertheless, we declined politely. This lead to a discussion of the word “enough,” which she tried gamely to pronounce. It turns out that the f fricative is even more amusing than the p, if you are a Yucatan grandma.comidas

“Enough,” I said.

“Ah-nuh!” she replied.

“Eee-nufffff,” I repeated. “EEE-nuFFFFF!”

“EEE-nuFFFF!” she cried, blowing a massive amount of air over her lower lips, past the remainders of her teeth. “EEE-nuFFFFFFF!”

A small crowd of young boys who had gathered (along with two dogs) were delighted, but too shy to try saying enough themselves. She demonstrated the word to the boys, who were her nietos, and then went back again to the rear of the store, returning with three breathtaking pieces of Yucatan women’s smocks, with hand-done cross-stitch embroidery all over the yoke and hem. I remember trying to do cross-stitch from Girl Guides, and I can tell you, it’s not easy. This was breathtaking work. She pulled me to my feet, and slid the tunic over my clothes (shorts and tee), a procedure that had us both doubled over laughing, because I was twice her height, although not much more roly-poly. We self-declared as gordas and hugged each other and John took pictures of me in the smocks. But then, when I asked, she said they were three thousand pesos. I couldn’t begin to afford that, and she was not interested in bargaining. Without showing any feelings of insult she took the garments away.grandmaandme

At last, I indicated to John that we should get back on the road. I wanted to at least see the little village cenote, being as we had seen exactly zero churches on our church tour. But asking for the bill turned out to be a further comedy routine. While the half-a-dozen boys looked on, the grandmother added up the cost of two small paper plates of pork and half-a-dozen tortillas – and two Coca Lites – and a bag of some kind of fruit that she insisted we take – to be 240 pesos (about twenty bucks). Twenty bucks is a lot of money in the Yucatan, but we were okay with it. Besides, we didn’t have enough language to argue, and the process of drawing the bill was chaotic, involving her struggling to add up a few penned items on a napkin, while the kids crowded in to watch John take out his wallet.

John removed a 500-peso note, just as our hostess observed the Canadian bills in the wallet, and pointed to them with delight. John commented on them, saying they were money from Canada. She found this intriguing, and asked to see one of the bills. There followed a farce wherein I took a five-dollar bill out of John’s wallet, and gave it to her, and she wanted to keep it as a souvenir (communicated by gestures), and I demurred (because it was five bucks and didn’t we have a loonie somewhere instead?), and she cradled the five dollar bill to her embroidered yoke, and John gave her the 500 pesos, and she gave the five dollars back, and the 500 pesos vanished.

She stood there expectantly, despite having been just given twice what we owed. At least, we thought we’d given it to her. We weren’t sure we’d had anymore…she was standing there so innocently and expectantly, while the kids tried to see the rest of John’s money. Grandma wasn’t offering any change, and she didn’t have pockets, so where did that 500-peso note go? Surely, she couldn’t have just taken it.

So we ended up giving her another 240 pesos, because we were confused, and there were so many children, and several dogs, and Canadian money. After that, she decided to pat John’s knee, then recoiled in mock horror at how hairy it was. “Lobo!” she shrieked, before quieting down enough to write the number “150” on the napkin and hold it out to us with a look of expectancy.

“No mas!” I said. She gestured to the squad of well-fed and happy children and pretended to cry from the pain of looking at her poor starving grandchildren. I put my hands on my hips and gave her the universal look of don’t-push-it-sister. She cracked up again, threw her arms around me, and then pulled my face down to kiss me on the cheek.

So we left her, followed by the dogs, and ambled the twenty meters to the town’s cenote. A man with a cranial deformity let us in the stone wall’s iron gates for ten pesos, and we descended into the earth, down the stone steps, to a tiny clear pool some fifty feet down. The hole in the earth’s crust above us showed the blue of the sky and the crisp bright green of the trees, and we could hear birds above the echoing voices of the kids who were playing in the water. It was as close to magic as one could ever imagine.cenoteintowntowncenote

When we got back in the car, we discovered I’d left it unlocked. Everything inside was still there. We asked the Google Lady to take us home. And, to our surprise, she did. She took us straight out to Highway 184, one of those polished thoroughfares. And yes, we were home by dinner. And no, we did not get lost.

Now we are sitting quietly at our perfectly-named casita rental (Casa Preciosa, in Chuburna) as the night settles in, and the dogs in our beach village bark into the darkness. Somebody somewhere is burning palm leaves. Crazily, a rooster is crowing, having confused dawn and dusk. The Google Lady has gone to bed, plotting her next acts of mayhem.

And somewhere, miles away, in a little village with an austere church, and a circus called Norman, and an underground swimming pool, a little old lady is still laughing.

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Spare me the snake oil, please

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Very, very cranky blog follows. On a topic on which I usually keep my mouth shut.

I just had a smart, informed, loving friend post an anti-vaccination video on Facebook, which popped up on my wall, where I could not unsee it. I normally ignore these things. But this one upset me. It related a story of a family who went to another country – one that is rife with communicable diseases – without vaccinating their children, because they believe in “natural remedies” (yes, so do all the people in that disease-riddled country). Luckily, the children returned safe. Which is being touted as evidence in support of the anti-vaxx nonsense spouted in the video. By someone of whom I now cannot help but think less.

Please, people, if you want to share about anti-vaccinations, or “bananas cure cancer and Big Pharma’s hiding it!”, or any of that stuff, there’s a new setting option where you can share with everyone BUT your friends who know better than this stuff.  Like me. You can’t imagine how much respect I lose for you when you share this stuff. I don’t want to unfriend you. Everyone is entitled to their own clutchings at false hope. They’re entitled to believe their own brand of illogical health nonsense spouted by snake-oil-salesmen on sites that are the equivalent of the fraudsters that used to go from town to town selling bottles of “miracle cures” to the gullible public. (At least, of course, until they got run out of town on a rail, and also got largely put out of business by, oh, legitimate/tested/proven sources of medicine).

Oh, crap, now I’ve got going. Darn. I really did want to just ignore this. But I can’t. You want anecdotes? I’ve got ’em – in addition to actual bona fide studies (but for now, let’s just use anecdotes). My first cousins and my friends who predated the Salk vaccine, and contracted polio, versus my cousins and friends who post-date it and…wow, there are none in the latter group. My mother who nearly died from the measles, and her friends who DID die, versus dying parents now (very rare, but becoming more common in districts where people believe in land-of-woo remedies and don’t vaccinate). The death records in my genealogical searches – “death by whooping cough” “typhoid” “diphtheria” – versus the causes of death nowadays (when is the last time your friend lost her baby to scarlet fever – or smallpox?) The number of rabid dogs on the streets of India, where they do not vaccinate, versus the number of rabid dogs we have here (even though dogs get bitten by rabid wild animals every year in North America, fortunately, they’re vaccinated – it’s the first thing the health authorities ask when there’s a dog bite incident:  “was it vaccinated?”)

All these anti-vaxx sites are SELLING something. Look who creates them and funds them, and you’ll dig down to someone who’s got some snake oil remedy for sale. Talk about the greed of the mythical “Big Pharma” – as if pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t make a good deal of money from the patenting and sale of remedies (from any source) that actually work and which won’t kill the patient.  As if they don’t investigate and test “alternative medicine” – of course they do! They don’t sell them because they almost always DON’T WORK. If something DOES work, then yippee! the researcher/developer gets to patent and sell it. They OWN it.

But it’s not just about the money involved in successful development of medicines. Not only is there big bucks in that, but do you REALLY think that people who run pharmaceutical companies – the scientists – the executives – the doctors – are part of some “conspiracy” to hide working medicine? That they go home at night and chortle over all the people they hurt that day, hiding medicines? Why would they do that? Like, THINK about it. There’s no money in hiding “it”. There’s no benefit to them personally – if there is a cure or a preventative for something, then they are humans, they have families too, they would benefit from it. If “alternatives” work – alternatives, like, oh, willow bark – then eventually they become mainstream (viz. aspirin).

Being careful about what you put in your system and using “home remedies” on your sunburn is one thing. Believing everything that gets shilled on the internet because you think there’s “something strange” about vaccines or that “scientists are hiding the cure for x or y or z” is just foolishness. And NO I’m not going to get into a discussion of this with all the people who are going to shriek indignantly and post more echo-chamber pseudo-science to pitch me their conspiracy theories. I’ve heard all this crap before, and I’m always shocked when I see intelligent people buying into it and spreading it. There’s a lot of us who are just smiling, nodding, and rolling our eyes when our conspiracy-theory friends post another “EATING BAT POO WILL CLEANSE YOUR LIVER!” article, and praying we don’t see the day when smallpox comes back.

Buy all the banana oil you want, but don’t think for a moment that you’re helping humanity or participating in something that’s not 100% crap. Please, when you’re about to “share” about your miracle cure or your conspiracy theory, take an extra second and make your audience “friends, except Diane.” Because when I see stuff like this come up, it DOES make me sick.

And there’s an easy cure for that: keep it to yourself. Thanks.

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Happy Accident

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It was one of those accidents that is over in a flash. One moment everything is fine, and then – poof! – everything is not. You’re flat on your back, or you’re through the windshield, or you’re lying in a ditch. Cars crash, buildings collapse, ice gives way, horses buck. Accidents happen – very, very fast.

Three days ago, I had one of those accidents. I was riding – going hell-bent-for-leather down a forest path – when my horse broke into a fast gallop. He kind of bolted, actually. Bad horse. But I wasn’t scared or anything. I asked him to slow down – reined him firmly but gently, sat down in the saddle, said “ho”, all the quiet calming stuff you do to signal a horse to take it easy – and he said no. He said no by throwing his ass and back in the air and flicking me off like I was a fly.

One moment: everything was fine. Next moment: everything was not.

I’ve been told many times by many doctors that I should not be riding. I have been diagnosed with severe osteoporosis, and words like “fragile” and “brittle” have been applied regularly to me by various bone specialists, for the last decade or more. My current specialist tells me that I have “extreme risk of fracture” in my back, hips, and wrists. About five years ago, she took a back x-ray to establish a baseline, and discovered that I had three compression fractures in my spine. She freaked. “Were you in a car accident?” she said, before putting me on a ferociously aggressive bone-building parathyroid replacement, that I had to inject daily (and which cost about two grand a month). She also took a bone scan, to determine the age of the breaks (compression fractures can happen to anyone, and very often painlessly). The bone scan revealed that the fractures were very old. But that made no difference to her assessment. As far as my bones are concerned, I’m pretty much made of glass.

Of course I was supposed to give up riding. Riding is a risky sport. Horses are not machines, and even the gentlest and most well-trained creature will do crazy out-of-the-blue without-warning stuff. Even the stuff they do with warning can land you on your ass, your head, your neck, your back. Get a group of lifetime riders together, and they’ll talk about the pins in their hips, the breaks in their legs, the cracks in their ribs. They’ve been thrown, squashed, bitten, and kicked. Part of being crazy about horses is…well, being crazy.

I’m lucky. I haven’t – or, rather, hadn’t – had a real accident in decades. Actually, compared to this one, I’ve never had a serious accident at all. I fell off my last horse about seven or eight years ago when he shied from a dead standstill, having been suddenly terrified by something completely harmless and stationary (I think it was a fern). I landed uninjured. Before that, I guess it was the time I went over my horse’s head when we jumped a little cross-bar jump, and the time before that it was when my fat little Appy tripped and did a complete somersault (fortunately throwing me clear of her tumbling body). I fell off a lot when I was a teenager, too, and doing crazy-ass risky things. But in terms of horseback crack-ups, I’ve been lucky: very, very lucky. I’ve simply never had one: no pins, no breaks, no concussions. Lucky.

So maybe I had forgotten just how dangerous riding can be. I’d recently had to give up my beloved part-board horse of nearly ten years, when his owner moved, and had found a new place to ride. I’d only ridden there four times, on a good-tempered fellow who is part of a herd the barn’s owner rents out to part-boarders and day-riders. The trails are excellent – broad and sandy – and the horses seemed lovely. I thought I’d found a pretty good spot.

But last Thursday when I went up there to ride (with my friend Monika), we were both given horses we’d never ridden before. We also were told we had to ride in the group with the owner, ostensibly to be safe. The leader of the ride was a big strapping young man I’ll call Ahmed, who rides a gigantic Thoroughbred/warmblood cross named Commander. I’d been out with Ahmed once before, and had spent most of the ride at the canter, because Ahmed loves speed. I think he was a Bedouin in an earlier life – he and his horse are all go-go-go.

Now, to my embarrassment, I was actually happy when I saw that Ahmed was leading. Like a lot of riders, I love to canter. The horse I was riding – who was a stranger to me – had a lovely canter. Once we got started, I discovered he was responsive and responsible, and had a nice, easy-to-sit canter. I thought, what a nice animal. Whenever we slowed down to walk for a while, I told Monika how much I liked the horse: how obedient he was, how smooth his transitions were, and other horsie things. Then Ahmed would take off again and so would the rest of us, off through the forest at a good clip, like we were all invincible.

What was I thinking?

I can tell you that, easily. I was thinking how happy I was. I was thinking how wonderful it felt. I was thinking about how much I love to ride. I was thinking all these good things. And then, in an instant, I was on the ground, swearing and yelling and in pain, thinking this is really BAD.

It was bad, but it could have been so much worse. I didn’t know it yet, but I had a broken shoulder blade, as well as various crushed/bruised/torn rib-and-arm-and-shoulder tissues. Monika was beside me in seconds, and with her help I got to my feet. She made a sling out of my light jacket. She made sure I didn’t pass out when I stood up. And fortunately, I could walk. Other than the upper left quadrant of my body, everything worked. There were no cuts, and my helmet had protected my head. We walked a mile back to the barn, with Monika leading the horses, and the barn owner riding alongside giving me heck for my poor riding skills (my reins were too loose, she said), which had caused the accident. She also told me about how Ahmed had had a wreck the year before, when Commander had thrown him, and how he’d spent two weeks in the hospital and now was held together with pins. But I didn’t really care about her scolding or about Ahmed’s horse-accident story. Me and my blown-glass, low-density bones were (mostly) in one piece. I was alive. I wasn’t a quadriplegic. So yeah, I was grateful.

Grateful is what I’m still feeling, a few days post-accident. It’s Thanksgiving Sunday, and boy am I thankful. Since that horse gave me a lesson in humility (and safety), I’ve been astounded and humbled by the rising-up of helpers and friends and family. Starting with Monika, who walked me back to the barn, drove me to the hospital, carried my bags, pep-talked me when I was giving in to the pain, it’s been an ongoing shower of people and things to be grateful for. Then the nurse in triage, who was so understanding. My husband, who showed up and sat beside the stretcher while I lay there in a neck brace with my shoulder and arm and ribcage feeling worse by the second (shock wearing off, I guess). The doctors and nurses; the painkillers; the x-ray machine. The texts from my kids. All of that.

Then, when I got home, the level of help just plain-out exploded. My husband turned out to be a closet Florence Nightingale. My neighbours brought Thanksgiving dinner, dog-walks, soup, entertainment. One friend rode a bus for an hour to come walk my little dog. My sister-in-law showed up with flowers and to tell me that her mother thinks I’m crazy to be riding horses at my age (well, yeah, I am). A woman friend from childhood whom I see maybe once a year drove for miles to bring me a weird inflatable ice-water cooling jacket that fits over your shoulder (it also works on my boob, which feels half-ripped from my chest wall). Another friend from music circle brought a special cooling jacket that treats torn rotator cuffs. I’ve had phone calls, company, food, and advice; my little dog has been walked by multiple people he’s never met (all of whom he barks at ungraciously). I’ve had two full days of serious pain and limited mobility, but this morning – day three – I can say that yes, there’s a little improvement. It’s definitely not as bad as it was yesterday. I am going to get better. Hallelujah!

I’m missing Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws, but that’s okay. I’m thankful enough. I am thankful to be alive. I am thankful that today, if I’m careful, I can use my left arm from the elbow down, and type. I am thankful to Joe, who just left with the dog for his walk. I am thankful to Monika, who took so much time on Thursday to make me safe and get me home. I am thankful to John, who is waiting on me hand and foot. I am thankful to Andrea and Roy for the contraptions. I am thankful to Terry for the company and the dog treats and dog walks; to Melanie for coming all that way on the TTC to take the dog to the lake and to bring soup and to sit with me and talk theatre. I am thankful to Jason and Alexis and their family for the dog walks, the company, and the shared roast beef dinner. I am thankful to Carmen and those flowers on the mantel. I’m thankful for my sons and sister and Mom. I am thankful for all the good wishes and all the offers of help. More than once I’ve felt myself choking up over all of the generosity of the people around me. Except I can’t actually cry because my ribs are too sore.

I’m even thankful that I was thrown from that horse, and not just because it was a reminder to be more careful. It has brought home to me that my life is full of wonders and joys and gifts that extend beyond a foolhardy gallop through the woods. And for that – and for all the gifts this Thanksgiving – I am very, very grateful.

Paddling up denial…

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“Unusual weather we’re having,” the Cowardly Lion says to Dorothy, when snow falls on them on the way to Emerald City. I was thinking of that line in the old film today while swimming – yes, swimming – in our small lake in Highlands East, Ontario, Canada. Swimming in late September in this neck of the woods usually involves either a dare, alcohol, or a desperate need to rinse off after intense labour (often all three). It also helps if the weather has provided one of those lovely spells of autumn warmth known (apologies to the indigenous nations) as “Indian” Summer. Those three- or four-day periods occur after the season has clearly shifted from summer to fall, and Canadians have begun hauling out the autumn clothing and hooting about how amazing the colours are this year. But even then, they don’t usually swim.

Well, this summer – now this fall, the equinox having passed a few days ago – was definitely unusual. Actually, it was wretched. I have never known in my 58-almost-59 years on this planet such a disgusting summer, weather-wise. We Canadians don’t like our summers messed with. Depending which part of the country we live in, we can get anywhere from four weeks to four months of actual summer. The best we can hope for is something that starts in lateish May and extends to maybe – maybe – mid-September. We all expect – indeed, demand – a certain amount of heat, blue skies, green trees, and bitching about the humidity. We feel we are entitled to a clear and defined period of actual summer because, well, we’re Canadian. And Canadians have Canadian winters. Which – as pretty as they might be, and as good for skiiers and players of ice hockey – generally suck.

This past summer broke all the rules, at least in southern Ontario (an area, for global readers, about the size of England). It arrived late, carrying buckets of rain; it parked itself in a cloudy spot and stayed there. I’m fortunate enough to have a cottage – a cabin in the woods by the above-mentioned small lake – and normally the woodstove isn’t needed from maybe first week of June to shortly after Labour Day (first Monday in September). Not this year. At multiple times of all four precious months of our too-short summer, we had a fire burning, to keep warm and ward off the damp. Not once did we experience more than two days in the high 20’s Celsius, and the swimming season – which usually starts by first week of June, with a jump into still-chilly water – didn’t start in earnest until July. It was over (we thought) by late August. Little kids (who are known to be crazy) went in as usual, but we adults wrapped ourselves in multiple layers of towels and sat scowling on the dock, going in once in a while because dammit, it’s summer. We’d dive in, shriek, and get right back out again. Then we’d go sit by the fire.

We tuned anxiously into long-range forecasts, looking for the traditional heat waves which give us an opportunity to complain about how hot it is, instead of what we complain about for the rest of the year, which is how cold it is. Instead, the reports repeatedly offered only rain and more rain, and even lower temperatures. Knowing long-range forecasts were usually about as accurate as reading chicken entrails, we would head up north from the city anyway, tuning into the local station (Moose FM), hoping to hear something better. But it got so we could predict the predictions. “Mostly cloudy with sunny periods, high of 22, low overnight of 10, fifty-percent chance of rain,” was the usual prognostication. But often, it was “Rain all day, high of 18, chance of afternoon thunderstorms.” When one prediction was for a low that night of 4 degrees – close to freezing – we were astounded. This was in July!

The growing season was three weeks behind, and in many areas, the spring water levels never receded. For the first time ever, I saw lakeside cottages on other lakes that had been dammed off by the owners with a protective wall of sandbags. The local businesses – especially the ice-cream parlour – suffered, as people didn’t bother coming “up north” to their cottages, or going camping and hiking in Algonquin. The dirt roads turned to mush, and trees fell as their root balls were compromised by the damp. On Labour Day weekend, the traditional hoot-and-holler send-off-to-summer weekend, it pissed cold rain. No one said, “What a great summer – I can’t believe it’s over already!” Instead, we all muttered: summer? What summer?

So imagine our shock and delight when shortly after Labour Day, when all the kids had gone back to school, and everyone’s summer mindset (and vacations) had ended, that The Heat finally arrived. Most of us had already pulled in our swim rafts, since by late August swimming had become unpleasant (except for those crazy little kids, who emerged from the water blue-lipped and shivering, proclaiming I wanna go back in!) It was another surreal weather pattern that I had never seen in my life in Ontario. Everyone went from bedraggled, damp, and disappointed to celebrating this extraordinary meteorological gift. As I write this, I sit tanned and glowing, having had more than two solid weeks of increasingly hot temperatures. Two weeks ago, we hit the mid-20s and sunny; it increased steadily until yesterday, when it hit 30. Today it is supposed to go to 31, with blazing sunshine and low, pleasant, wind. And swimming? The lake has warmed up again. I spent yesterday evening floating around a glass-calm lake, basking in the warm water and the warmer air, as the sun’s bright fireball slid behind the wall of dense forest that rings the lake. And that was after spending a full day’s canoeing to a sandbar and beach on Grace Lake, where everybody and their sister had showed up with picnics, inflatable toys, and ecstatic children. And all anyone could say was, “Isn’t this incredible? Have you ever seen anything like it?”

Well, no, we haven’t. And we know this is coming to an abrupt end. The Moose advises that this is the last day of this surreal period of otherworldly warmth. Tomorrow, the daytime high is predicted to be 16, with a low at night of 5. By the weekend, it’s raining, 12, and close to freezing at night. Which is what one expects from the weather here, in southeastern Canada.

Yes, it’s been a joyous two weeks: a reprieve after all hope had been abandoned, and we were expecting to have to close up the cabin early this year. But it’s also been somewhat disturbing, this weather misbehaviour. We keep thinking: this is not normal. While we were sitting on white hot sand beside glittering water that rivals the Caribbean’s, the real Caribbean was being crushed by three unprecedentedly-huge hurricanes in a row. While folks in our village general store were buying two-scoop ice creams and marvelling at the unusual weather, the Atlantic hurricane season had wiped out Puerto Rico, Dominica, Barbuda, and many other island countries and territories. When we finally got an internet signal and looked at the news, it was horrifying. The leaders of these flattened countries are saying that rebuilding may well be impossible. They are saying they may have to abandon their countries.

For years we have been hearing about “climate refugees,” and how people will have to flee drowned-out and destroyed areas, in the way they flee wars. Meanwhile, the government of the United States pulls out of the Climate Accord and promises to invest in more coal (perhaps they will also put their money into the cotton gin and rotary-dial telephones). Canada’s record isn’t spotless, either: despite our self-image of being greenies, we have a poor international reputation on environmental protection (not to mention the international embarrassment of the oil sands).

We tell ourselves we know what to expect from the weather. We kid ourselves that everything is all right. Yes, there are terrible hurricanes; yes, it’s been a bad year for that. But here? We’re fine. It was a strange cold summer, yes, but look at this incredible gift: going-on three weeks of steaming hot weather. The trees have dumped their leaves without turning their usual magnificent colours; the ducks are hanging around in the bays instead of flocking together to migrate; the mosquitoes have had another hatching. But really, it’s nothing to worry about. This isn’t climate change – not here, not yet. Everything’s fine. It’s just a little…unusual.

 

A Different Kind of Travel Bug

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If there’s one thing that makes you wish for teleportation powers – the ability to tap your ruby shoes and just be home – it’s getting sick while on holiday. I don’t remember whether I worried about such things when I was young and travelling. Not that I travelled that much: mostly, my vacations were just a couple of weeks of remote, canoe-in camping in Algonquin Park. Even then, I remember my mother being alarmed about how far I’d be from medical care, “if something goes wrong.” Pfft, I’d say, I’ll be fine. Although there was that one time I got food poisoning while camping on a remote island, two days’ ride from civilization. I remember being rolled up in a ball on the pine needles, in the looming Canadian dark, too sick to stand up. All I could think was, how am I going to get home?

            Now that I’m une femme d’un certain age (that means “old lady”), getting sick or injured on holiday is no longer a remote or even unlikely possibility. Not that I’m in bad health: hell, no, I’m a lucky camper (so to speak) when it comes to my health. My septuagenarian Type-1 diabetic husband, on the other hand, is an ambulatory pharmacy – a bearer of vials, syringes, and an endless supply of pills – all to control and treat various conditions. He’s not an invalid – far from it – but if he were to get sick on holiday, it could be life-threatening. Understandably, he’s very careful.

So, because the travel gods enjoy a good joke, the person who consistently gets sick travelling is me. Five years ago, I went to Mozambique (without him, to go riding on their legendary beaches), and promptly wrenched my back galloping down said beach at a speed best described as suicidal (is “but everybody was doing it!” a good enough excuse, Mom?) Three years ago I had a throat infection on Isla Mujeres, in an area where there seemed to be neither pharmacy or ice. Two years ago in Holbox – a remote Mexican island (what is it with me and islands?) – I succumbed to a local, mosquito-borne fever that laid me flat for 36 hours, with no other symptoms than a bone-shaking fever. But my husband, the walking pharmacopeia? He might ask for a Tums after a spicy meal. I’m the one that catches all the bugs.

This year was the kicker. We regularly vacation in a Yucatan fishing village and beach area outside of Progreso, Mexico. There’s a large community of aging ex-pats here – Yanks and Canucks and the occasional Brit – but generally-speaking, it’s sort of a combination of Wasaga Beach in the 60’s and a Newfoundland outport, except it’s Mexican. It’s also a five-hour plane ride from home. And when I got sick this year, home was the only place I wanted to go.

The bug that took me down was a 24-hour stomach flu that had been bouncing around the ex-pat community during the weeks before my hubby and I arrived. It took a while for it to locate me, but when it did, it made up for lost time. I woke at 4 a.m. thinking that I’d had too much sun. My skin felt hot, and my joints were aching. Then I thought: I hope I’m not getting that bug.

I not only got that bug, but that bug got me, and with a vengeance. About an hour after I woke up feeling hot and achy, I was punched in the lower gut by the workings of the virus as it blew its way through my intestines. I made it to the can all right, but had to crawl back out, because my stomach itself was now joining the party, cramping so hard that I doubled over. About that time, the nausea hit. I lay down onto the cold tile floor, making a sound that might – in a stretch – have been recognizable as human.

“Get me a pot!” I gasped at my hubby, who realized that this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill case of Montezuma’s Revenge. He hurried to get a pot while I clambered onto a chair, and bent my torso over my thighs, arms wrapped around my treacherous belly. He put the pot on the floor in front of me. I don’t remember whether I said thanks, or anything much beyond that. Because, for only the second time in my life, I fainted.

I pitched forward when I passed out, right on my face, onto the hard tile floor. I was out for about a minute, and when I woke up, I realized I was not only on the floor, in my barf, and my blood (I’d cut my lip), and my poop (sorry, Dear Reader, but I was sick), but that I was not at home. I didn’t really even know where I was, or who was shaking my arm and saying, Di, Di! All I knew was that I was not home, and I wanted to be home. Now.

            Then I saw the blood, and of course thought I was dying. My husband, who is a retired lawyer and not trained to be Florence Nightingale, displayed formidable nursing cajones. “Shower,” I whimpered, and he helped me crawl there, where I sat weeping in the stall, warm water pouring over me, clutching the pot on my lap. The whole horrible wake-up-in-my-own-mess moment had been rendered even more dreadful by the fact that I was buck naked. And my poor, dignified, drama-avoiding husband had to deal with that.

            That was the crisis point. We called a friend to drive us to the local doctor, about three miles away, “in town.” My hubby and our buddy walked me into the clinic, two guys escorting this whimpering, weaving, large-size woman like two tugboats. The clinic was a one-room bungalow with a shell-dirt parking lot, and its waiting room was a collection of plastic lawn chairs on a shaded front porch. The clinic’s door opened straight into the doctor’s examining room and office, and his examination table was under a large, open, curtained window, overlooking the patio. When he examined me, he had to keep holding back the curtain as it blew inward in the breeze.

The doctor was very good. Through a combination of broken English, broken Spanish, and Google Translate, we got the symptomology across to him. He gave me a thorough check-up, and a stop-the-barfing needle. I was given an anti-diarrhea prescription, flora restorer, a bottle of Pedialyte, and instructions to go to bed at once. No problem with that: bed was all I wanted. I even thought I might be improving.

I wasn’t. By the time we got back to the hotel, the bug brought out the big guns. This bug didn’t just make you barf and poop. This bug hurt, and so did my head and mouth from the crack on the noggin. I lay in bed groaning and yelling at my poor husband for breathing too loudly. As for the anti-vomiting injection, I still produced one more spectacular gout of bizarrely-coloured bile. Then – unable to read or sleep – I passed the time posting shots of my facial contusions to Facebook. Eventually I fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until 4 a.m. the following morning.

At which point, twenty-four hours later, I was fine. You could have set a clock by that bug’s lifespan.

I took it easy for a couple more days, hanging around the hotel and its little beach. I couldn’t eat anything (truly a rare experience for me), but that was okay. And I no longer wanted to go home. I wanted to get on with my holiday – go swimming and fishing and the local 20-peso Zumba class at Le Triton.

But the experience did change one thing about my future travel plans. My husband and I retired so that we could – among other things – travel. We’ve thought about exotic destinations, and far-away ones. Every year, we think about an alternative to our familiar Mexican spot, and wonder about some eco-lodge in the south seas. We’ve considered the Galapagos and discussed Africa. And every year, for some reason or another, we’ve ended up back in our Mexican Wasaga Beach.

This illness, though, has dampened my urge to be wildly adventurous. Yes, the world is an amazing place, and there are things I still want to see. Venice, maybe, and New Zealand. But when I woke up on a tile floor in Mexico and thought I’d vomited blood, it meant a lot to be only a few miles from a doctor, and to have a friend nearby to help. What if I’d been at an eco-lodge in the Costa Rican jungle? What if I’d been on a cruise to the South Pole? I was sick, I was scared, and I was far from home. At least I was not alone.

Now I’m back in Canada, where of course there are lots of flu bugs capable of doing exactly what that Mexican bug did to me. Still, for the time being at least, I seem resolved to reduce my travel expectations. For the last couple of years, my husband and I have been muttering about doing something more bucket-list-like, and more adventurous. Now, we both feel that being that sick, that far away from home, was adventure enough.

Although I did dive off that two-storey diving platform into that cenote a few days later. Hmm. Maybe I’m not quite done with the adventure after all.20170228_062927