¡El Gringo Va a Morir!

It was the last race I ever ran.

I had only been at my site for a few months when I decided to enter a 10K in Cuenca, Ecuador. In retrospect, it was a huge mistake. I hadn’t trained since college; my New Orleans lungs were still ill-equipped to extract oxygen from the thin mountain air; and my flatlander muscles could hardly summit a curb less clamber up steep cobblestone mountain roads. Nonetheless, I was, well, Peace Corps confident. Like so many new volunteers, I had set my sights on saving the world; so surely, a piddling Andean road race would be nothing more than an effortless (and triumphant) walk in the park.   

It wasn’t.

From the get-go, an endless stream of barrel-chested descendants of Atawalpa and Pizzaro blew by me as though I were plodding on a treadmill. Battling cramps, altitude sickness and, more painful still, humiliation, I wearily soldiered on. When I finally approached the finish line, (I’d prefer not to divulge my time) there were only two other non-contenders left in the running, an old man wearing rubber boots and a little girl without shoes. In an all-out “sprint” for the final 20 meters, I just barely managed to pull ahead of the barefooted child. Unfortunately, the old man, obviously inspired by the raucous cheering from his great grandchildren, clipped me at the already well-trodden tape.

With my deflated ego in tow, I endured the hour and a half bus ride and the forty-five minute walk back to my site thinking, “Surely, this will be the worst experience of my entire Peace Corps career?”

It wasn’t.

The next morning I woke up in a sea of sweat. My lungs, two waterlogged Nerf footballs, struggled to absorb even the smallest droplets of air. I had a fever of one hundred and five and my body felt as though it had been run over by every Ecuadorian who had passed me the day before. On top of the shame from Saturday’s drubbing and besides the ever-present and occasionally brutal giardia, I now had pneumonia, and without immediate medical attention, would most likely die.

Lucky for me it was Sunday, el día del mercado, and my landlord, a renowned curandero or shaman was in town and stopped by for a quick visit. “El joven Leonardito*,” he said, “You look muy mal. Que pasó?” Delirious, I couldn’t manage even a syllable in Spanish, English or Quechua. “No hay problema,” he said, “I’ll make you feel better muy rapido.” He then beat me about the head with a severed sloth paw, spit trago or South American moonshine in my face, said a short prayer to Saint Joseph, and then gave me a rusted cup of lukewarm herbal tea (spiked with trago no less). “You’ll be mejor in a couple of hours,” he assured me as he shut the door and headed off to the market.

I wasn’t.

When I finally came to the stark realization that the curandero’s “cure” had failed, I dragged myself from the grass-filled futon, toweled off and began the slow, serpentine stagger into town. Along the way, I passed, (or I should say, “they passed me”) a number of campesinos.  “¡Que borracho Leonardito!” they said and cheered. “How drunk you are. Good for you!”  

No, estoy infermo,” I slurred in protest.

“Right?” they countered sarcastically. “We’ll have to discuss this over cervezas in town. Vámonos!”

When I stumbled into Jima, the principal of the elementary school, who knew I didn’t drink, or at least not at that hour, immediately recognized the severity of my condition. She took me into her office and had me lie down on a long white plastic table. “Señor Dunbar,” she announced, “I have good news and bad.” Starting with the latter, she said, “The doctor did not come this week; but you are in luck, the curandero is here.” Already treading water, my heart sank.

“I’m pretty sure I’m gonna need modern medicine?” I suggested. “How about El Veterinario?”

“I believe he’s in Zhamar vaccinating alpaca. I’ll send one of my students to retrieve him PRONTO.”

Shivering, sweating and gasping for breath on the cold Formica, I vaguely made out an announcement over the church loudspeaker, “Ven a ver, el gringo va a morir! Come see the Gringo die!” Even in my delirium, I found it a bit disconcerting.

Much later than “pronto,” the vet finally appeared.  By then, I had become the town’s most popular market-side attraction and the room was packed with pedestrian rubberneckers. The vet herded them away and started digging around in his saddlebag. He pulled out a huge thermometer obviously designed for a part of a large animal’s anatomy I didn’t possess. After causing me to grimace and tear up, he told me the first of two things I already knew: “You are very sick Señor Dunbar and if you do not receive treatment I am afraid you will die.” He then took out a jug of penicillin and a syringe with a needle the size of a chopstick and told me the second: “This may hurt.”

It did!

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, my scream could be heard in all twelve towns of the parroquia. It’s also worth pointing out that several English curse words are well understood in even the most far-flung parts of the non-English speaking world.

Soon after the shot heard round the Equator, my fever miraculously broke. The vet left and the crowd, a bit disappointed, dispersed. About a half an hour later though, my temperature began to rise again and the principal called for the priest.

Father Meyer, a large German with an insatiable appetite for roasted guinea pig and Scottish whiskey, burst into the room and bellowed, “Señor Dunbar, I am here to give you your Last Rites!”

Remembering the priest had the only car in town, I countered, “How about a ride to the hospital instead?”

Bouncing down the road to Cuenca in the back of Father Meyer’s dusty Mercedes Benz SUV, I thought to myself, “If I survive, surely my Cuerpo de Paseo will improve?”

It did. A lot.

Happy birthday Peace Corps and thanks for the memories! I’m glad I lived to have had them.  

* Most Ecuadorians had trouble pronouncing my first name, so I went by Leonardo in honor of my favorite Renaissance man. The “ito” had to do with my slight stature.  Note: In some parts of Latin America “gringo” is considered a derogatory term. This was not the case in Ecuador. (We were also known affectionately as “Meesters.”)



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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.