Thursday, June 28, 2012

In which I get chloroquine poisoning

Now that the farmers had left, there was more room at the hostel and we’d graduated to better quarters. Jeff went out in search of entertainment and I fell asleep early after taking the 500 mg of the chloroquine I’d been prescribed to prevent malaria. The next morning, I got up early for a tour of a nearby canyon. I took another 500 mg of chloroquine, as the Chilean pharmacist had told me.

It wasn’t until my tour van was too far out of town to turn back that I started to feel sick. The driver was waving his cigarette in my face and chattering away merrily in Spanish to the three Italians and the one Japanese (none of whom spoke Spanish) sitting behind me. The right side of my head went numb. I couldn’t focus and when I tried, I became dizzy and nauseated. My skin was clammy and I felt weak.. I asked the driver if he minded not smoking. He did have the window cracked open, he replied indignantly.

We left the paved road and jolted onto a dirt road. I felt worse. Our frequent stops to see rock formations didn’t help. The driver was quite concerned that we see the many forms visible in the rocks, waving his cigarette in the direction of yet more boulders as he explained helpfully, “That’s the rock that looks like a ship.” Or a rabbit. Or a frog. (And just in case you were really not with it, there were signs near the road telling you the same thing.) The old Argentine couple, the three Italians and the Japanese clambered dutifully out of the van each time to capture the Kodak moments of piles of rocks in the desert while I leaned my forehead against the dash and tried to keep from vomiting.

I suffered this way until late afternoon when we returned to Salta. I had to pay for my room so went downstairs to talk to the dueño. He decided this was a good time to show me his registration notebooks of all the travelers who had stayed at his hostel over the past ten years. Each name, nationality, and passport number was noted in his flowing, careful script. Each time he came across an American, he would ask if I knew the person. I tried to explain politely that I wasn’t feeling well. His wife ran into the room. “Are you sick?” she asked (somewhat hopefully, I thought).

I explained that I had taken the chloroquine and that it had left me feeling ill. The wife said, “You need to rest!”

I agreed and tried to leave, but the dueño launched into a speech about how it was important to take chloroquine and how when he was working construction in his youth that he wouldn’t give his men their paychecks until they had taken their weekly chloroquine pills. “Sometimes,” he said, “they would put the pills under their tongues and only pretend to swallow them! But I learned to make them swallow them for real!” I wondered how he made them swallow but didn’t want to encourage conversation.

Well, I was having to take two pills a day, I told him.

“Two tablets a day!” he exclaimed. “But you only should take one tablet a week!”

But that’s what the pharmacist had told me, I replied. He said I should take 1000 milligrams a day for four days.

“But if you take that much, you’ll get sick!” he said.

“You need to rest!” exclaimed the wife again.

“Yes,” he agreed. “You need to rest!” Then he launched into another discourse about how the Chilean pharmacist had no idea what he was talking about and did they even have malaria in Chile? I started to edge away and he started to speak more loudly. His wife jumped in every now and then to agree with him and to interject an admonishment that what I needed now was to rest. I finally just leaned against the wall and laid my head back in surrender.