It seems that my posts have all been about trauma and sickness lately. This is probably because I'm about to start a new challenge and I need survivor stories to bolster me and send me forward. Here's one of my favorites, the one about the purple foot.
Earlier this month I wrote about my summer in Costa Rica. One of the many stories which arose from this trip is the one I’ve told to friends and relatives countless times, so many times in fact that when I start the tale I sometimes catch a brief rolling of the eyes and almost, telepathically, perceive an “oh God, here we go with the staph-infection story again.” Rarely deterred, I launch in, and appropriately embellish where embellishment is needed and appropriately pause where dramatic effect might illicit the most sympathy and awe. When telling the story it’s best to look forward or up, but not directly at the face of the recipient, who might erode the illusion of total engrossment through a poorly concealed yawn or a snore disguised as a snort or chortle.
So let’s try it in writing for once. This way, the reader might react in anyway they please, possibly reading three convoluted sentences before surfing off to see how the US is doing in underwater synchronised kayaking in Beijing. Also it means that I can have it all down on paper for once, and at Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday for captive audiences) I’ll just whip this version out and read it as documented proof of the suffering I endured at the hands of tropical trench-foot.
There was a sado-masochistic ritual our troupe took part in during that summer in Costa Rica. This ritual was a required forced-march through the interior of the country. The criteria for this hike was not written in stone, but roughly the trek had to be three days to a week long, could not involve luxury hotels or anything labeled first-class, second-class, third-class or slightly bareable-class, and had to be with a small group, preferably people who would start to get on your nerves in, say, the first half-hour of the first day of hiking. The final, non-negotiable stipulation was when you returned you had to be covered in your body-weight with black Costa Rican mud.
My group consisted of three people. Eric, who was a bicycle courier in D.C., K. who I’ve written about before in this post, and myself, a self-proclaimed leader who felt leading was all about just walking ahead of the other two . At the time, a magazine reporter was at our camp doing a story on our work, and within the article there is a picture of the three of us starting out on the trek looking like seasoned hikers on a mission from God. We just looked that way for the camera’s benefit, we would of all much rather have been sitting on the beach reading novels and eating coconuts.
The first day gave us an idea of what we were in for. The hiking was hard. The entire day was spent trekking along a narrow beach which offered no solid surface on which to walk. At the end of the beach hike we were required to cross a river-mouth with a rushing current and rumored alligators swimming upstream. I literally had to carry K. across on my shoulders because, if not, she would have been swept out to sea. But beds and hot food awaited us on the other side, and soon our moods improved. The day had put a strain on my interdependence with K. who had trouble keeping up on the beach walk. We had three more days of this to go, and I wondered how she would do in the mud of the rain forest on days much longer than this one. It turns out that it was probably her that needed to be worried about me.
The second day had us debating on whether we should stay at the camp for the next four days and just “say” we went on the trek. But the camp, which was an eco-tourism station, charged for each night you stayed, and by that point I had used most of my funds on beer and, well, beer. Besides, we definitely could handle whatever was to come next. We’d had a good night’s sleep and were relatively buoyant by the time we set off that morning.
This day was equally as hard as the first but for different reasons. The trail followed the river into the interior of the Osa Peninsula, and the river, while shallow, had to be traversed literally dozens of times. The river-bed consisted of shaley sand and the traverses had us slogging through the water from shoal-to-shoal. We spent the entire afternoon doing this, and it was then I started to notice a slight scrape on the fourth toe of my right foot. I say “notice” because it was part of a series of uncomfortable maladies I identified on my body that day. Sunburn, muscle-ache, fatigue, and insect-bites all added to my discomfort, so the scrape from a piece of grit lodged between my toe and toe-nail was just a part of a long inventory of complaints. At the time I thought little of it.
It wasn’t until that night when I awoke to a persistent throbbing from my foot that I realized there might be a problem. I spent the rest of the night in a fitful sleep, my toe becoming the center of my dreams, shouting out for urgent attention, becoming a grotesque character who sent shock waves through my restless unconscious. When I awoke I wondered how I would walk that day, but a few tender steps had me believing I could go on. I alerted the others to the problem, but not knowing how bad it was myself, I had no way of gauging how urgent I should make the issue. Besides, abandoning the trek was nearly impossible, we were nowhere near any form of transportation and even if we had been, this would cost money which, as we know, had gone mostly for beer. I decided to see how it went, at this time there as no swelling to speak of and the pain was relegated to my toe only, my foot was still able to take the weight of my body. The toe, I was sure, would get better.
But this was Costa Rica. A small cut could become infected within a matter of hours in the humidity. One of the words we used often in the camp was “festering.” Infection was such a problem that once our the entire camp came down with conjunctivitis within a week. It was probably not the best idea to take a “wait-and-see” stance at this point, not in this climate, but there was really no other choice.
But pain makes you go looking for other choices when there are none I found out. The next day was the mud-day from hell. With every step we sank up to mid-calf in a thick brownie-batter of crud. The pain didn’t really start until mid-morning, and I remember reading a passage from “Sometimes a Great Notion” to my half-interested trekking partners in order to ease the monotony of the walk. But as soon as we hit the real mud, all I could think of was the pain which bulleted up my spine every time I sucked my foot up from the mire. By this time I was trailing far behind the others and it was my turn to shout “wait!” By the afternoon I had fashioned a crutch for myself and fancied myself a rebel retreating from Richmond. The pain was beginning to make me frantic and delirious.
(end part one)