© Copyright 2020 by Maggie Dickmann
The best solution to go home was to take a train that overshot my destination by 70 kilometers, then wait around for a few hours and catch the final shared ride back to my hometown. The journey home was now looking like a five-hour peregrination, but hey! Itís an adventure! As I settled into my seat, I noticed the couple across the aisle had the same model of phone as me. I asked if they had a charger I could borrow for the duration of the one-hour trip and they were kind enough to oblige. This small gesture did wonders for me. Safe in the knowledge that my mobile wouldnít die, I was able to relax. I thought about all the traveling Iíd done over the past fifteen years and how often things did not go according to plan. Despite what we might post on social media, traveling can be arduous. I canít count the number of foreign countries where Iíve broken down in tears from stress, frustration, or pure exhaustion. However, for every difficult, scary, or otherwise negative experience Iíve had on the road, I can think of ten positive ones. As my phone charged, I smiled to myself and thought about the thing all these ďbadĒ experiences had in common: I was never really alone; someone else, often a friendly stranger, was always there to help me out.
When I was eighteen years old, I signed up to be an exchange student in Spain. I would live with a host family, go to the local public high school, and immerse myself in Spanish culture. I had not traveled much, so this was a big life change for me. The family I was placed with had three children around my age. For reasons that remain a mystery to this day, despite my best efforts, the children did not like me. As soon as we got home from our respective schools every day (they attended the private high school), they would all go straight to their rooms and slam the doors. They changed the password on the family computer so I couldnít access it. They hid the remote control to the TV and would play keep-away with the phone. They didnít try to engage with me at all except to tease or bully. Sometimes the daughter invited me out with her friends, but Iím pretty sure it was only at her motherís insistence.
One morning, after about a month of this misery, my host mother informed me that I had to leave and find somewhere else to live. The children had lied and said I hit them, and now the mother didnít feel safe having me in her home. It was ludicrous! At this point I understood Spanish well enough to comprehend the gravity of the situation, but I didnít possess the words to defend myself. I felt like I was underwater and could only bear silent witness to what was unraveling on the surface. For a full minute I was a fish bobbing for air, just opening and closing my mouth, as the reality of it all washed over me. All I could muster was, ď°Que no! °Que no!Ē
I skipped class and went straight to the study abroad agency. The support I got was a joke. The representative, Raquel, phoned my host mother and convinced her to let me stay for one more night. Great. ďWhat am I going to do? Where am I supposed to go?Ē I asked her. My housing was the agencyís responsibility after all. Raquel merely shrugged her shoulders. I felt myself slipping back underwater, but I knew that if I was to avoid sleeping under a bridge, then Iíd have to fix this for myself.
I was scared but determined when I left Raquelís office. I went to school and begged almost every one of my classmates to let me stay with them for a day, a week, anything. I was desperate. My friend Maca said I could probably stay with her family. At lunch, we went to her fatherís office and she explained the situation. He said of course I could stay with them until a permanent solution could be found. I moved in the next day.
I was immediately treated like family. Within two days, I felt more comfortable and welcomed than I ever did in the past home. Maca and her sister Miriam included me in everything. My host father told me bad jokes and even prepared a Thanksgiving meal! They were interested in me and my culture and loved sharing theirs with me. Eventually, the agency called to say they had found a family ďwilling to host me.Ē Macaís father said I was no trouble at all, and considering he already had two teenage daughters, what was one more? I cried when it was time to go back to the States; they had become my second family. Now, thirteen years later, I canít imagine life without them. They opened up their home and their hearts to me and Iíll be eternally grateful.
By the time I traveled to India I was no longer a doe-eyed teenager worried about my host family. I was a seasoned globetrotter and with a solid understanding of how the world worked. Iíd been dealt a few blows and always prevailed, one way or another. I knew India would be trying, but I was ready for it. How hard could it be, really? India laughed in my face. If I were to write a book about my time there, it would be called: How India Will Challenge Everything You Thought You Knew. It is like no place I had ever been before or since. Itís one big amazing, awful, dirty, magical culture shock. Itís overwhelming and itís incredible. If vacationing at a resort in Cancun, Mexico is akin to dipping oneís toe in the pool of adventure, then traveling to India is jumping out of a plane straight into a shark-infested ocean with no parachute and also no life preserver.
I arrived in Calcutta early in the morning and took a taxi straight to the Sisters of Charity monastery, where I would be volunteering for the next month. I connected with the Sisters, grabbed a bite to eat, and laid down for a nap. The next thing I knew, I was stumbling to the bathroom because the Devil himself was suddenly clawing his way up and out of my abdomen. Not only was he determined to exorcise himself, but he was taking everything inside me with him. I projectile vomited with the force of a firehose and collapsed on the floor. Before fainting, I had the fleeting feeling of being pleased at how clean the tile was, as it was where I would be spending the next hours or days of my life. The next three days were a blur. I dipped in and out of consciousness, coming to long enough only to retch. My stomach had long since emptied, but demon spirits must have remained, for it continued to spasm and repel bile. The temperature in Calcutta was 40įC (104įF), yet I couldnít stop shivering. I appreciated how cool the marble floor felt against my cheek.
Some time during my fevered delirium, I heard a soft knock on my bedroom door. How did I get to my bed? I wondered. It took all of my energy to groan in response. A woman in her mid-sixties entered. She sat on the edge of my bed and told me in Italian that she was a nurse and heard I was ill. Luckily, Italian is close enough to Spanish that we were able to communicate-- not that I was in any condition for chit-chat. The woman gently put her hand to my forehead and informed me (unnecessarily) that I had a febbre. I donít remember the womanís name-- I donít think if I ever knew it-- but that day she was my angel. Slowly, she helped me rehydrate and regain my strength. She gave me small bits of fruit and used a cool washcloth to bring down my fever. I remember thinking that all I wanted in that moment was my mom. As if she had read my thoughts, the woman hugged me and said she was sorry my actual mother could not be with me right now, but she hoped she was a suitable stand-in. She was. I was infinitely grateful for this kind soul.
When my fever finally broke hours or days later, I ventured out of my room to search for the Italian woman. She had left earlier that morning. Although I was sad that I could never properly thank her, I was heartened by the genuine care and benevolence she had shown me. I was once again reminded of human goodness, compassion. I knew that no matter what happened, I would be okay. I could survive and Iíd never be truly alone; there would always be people to offer a warm hug or a cool washcloth. What I didnít know is how soon I would encounter that next amiable, helpful stranger.
I only went to Nepal to renew my Indian visa. Itís funny, because even though India welcomed me with a kick in the stomach instead of open arms, I somehow fell in love with the country. The month in Calcutta had flown by and there was still so much of the country I wanted to see! Regrettably, these pesky things called immigration laws got in my way. So, I traveled north to Nepal to get my paperwork in order. Is there a feeling that is stronger than love? Because that is what I felt the moment I set foot in Nepal. It was like India Lite; it had all the beauty and the same rich culture as India, but it was calmer, cleaner, nicer. I wanted to experience everything this gem of a country had to offer, namely trekking.
Nepal has a great number of trekking opportunities, and the one that caught my eye was the twelve day Annapurna circuit. True, just six weeks prior, my stomach had been turned inside out by some ungodly nature and Iíd questioned if I would live to tell the tale, but the past is the past! I had recovered! I was feeling strong! Sometimes, the line that separates optimism from stupidity is so thin that we canít tell which is which. This was one of those times. I should have waited to take on this challenge until I was healthier and in better shape...until I had better shoes. Unfortunately, I was stubborn and impatient.
By the end of the first day, blisters were already forming on my poor feet. Stupidly, I plowed on. By day seven, they had grown to an obscene size and ceased being blisters at all, they were just open sores. I trudged onward still. It was by no small miracle that I managed to avoid infection. By day ten, the pain was too intense to walk. I took one, two steps and crumpled to the floor. I cried five times by 9:00AM that day. I felt like such a failure; I could not go on. The kicker was I could not go back, either. Due to how far I had already pushed myself and how deep into the Himalayas I was, it was more complicated to go back than forward. I was stuck between a beautiful mountain rock and some other gorgeous hard place.
I swallowed my pride and hobbled over to speak to a man about a horse. Yes, that could be arranged, he told me, but the horse could only go up the mountain, I would have to walk (stumble) down on my own because it was too steep for the horse. As I literally had no other choice, I gritted my teeth and agreed. At some point between mounting the horse and starting my stagger down from the peak, I succumbed to altitude sickness. Maybe it was because of the rapid ascent on horseback; maybe my body had used all its energy to fight off infection in my feet; or maybe it was sheer bad luck. Regardless, I became very sick.
I felt like I had been hit in the head with a sledgehammer. The pain from my migraine was nauseating. As I zig-zagged disoriented down the mountainside, I had to keep pausing to dry heave. I blacked out a couple of times. I was delusional. The snow was blinding and I couldnít see straight. Thankfully, miraculously, two other trekkers had noticed my erratic behavior and they stepped up to help. Aisling gave me her sunglasses to ease the glare and Kaisa carried my pack. Together, these two wonder women guided me safely to the camp at the bottom of the mountain. Kaisa asked around and found a doctor who gave me some Diamox, a pill to counter the effects of altitude sickness. Aisling hired a Nepalese man to drive me on his motorbike to the nearest doctorís office.
The village doctor didnít speak English. He listened to my heart and lungs, took my blood pressure and temperature, and said a lot of things I couldnít comprehend, either from the sickness or language barrier. Likely both. The only word I understood was ďhemoglobin,Ē and he kept saying it over and over. I left the office with a paper sack full of colored pills. (He did make sure I understood when and how frequently to take them.) The worst of the altitude sickness had already subsided, so I was coherent when the Nepalese man then drove me to a local inn. I slept deeply.
I met Aisling and Kaisa in the village the next day. My saviors gave me their contact details so we could get in touch when we were all back in Pokhara. It took a couple weeks for me to fully recover because in addition to the altitude sickness and my battered feet, Iíd suffered a fever blister outbreak, an eczema eruption, and my face was badly wind and sun burned. By the time I was whole again, my Indian visa had processed and I felt ready to return. What a pleasant surprise when I ran into Kaisa and Aisling at the bus depot, also headed to India!
The three of us traveled India together for several weeks. It was magnificent. It was also frustrating, exhausting, and stressful. Of course we faced hardships, but true to form, those ďbadĒ experiences were always made better by good people. In all my years of traveling and living abroad, Iíve learned to put my faith in humanity. Maybe a good Samaritan (Italian) will nurse me back to health or maybe a fellow passenger will lend me a phone charger. Things will undoubtedly go awry from time to time, but I take solace in the knowledge that they will always turn out okay in the end, just maybe not how I had intended or imagined.
Bio: Though originally from Washington State, Maggie
Dickmann has lived and traveled all over the world. She currently
resides in Spain with her cat, Ms. Biscuits. Maggie loves traveling,
eating local cuisines, reading, and watching movies with
Maggie Dickmann is an amateur author who writes nonfiction and recently, fiction. She has contributed to small online travel blogs, such as Pink Pangea. Though she enjoys writing fiction, none of her stories have yet been published.