The whole second half of our Spanish journey hadn’t gone exactly as planned, so why was I surprised to wake up to a smiling physician about to inject me in the butt with a huge hypodermic needle?
After all, only days before I’d barely escaped spending time in the company of Franco’s civil guards. You remember, the ones with those shiny tricorne hats? The guard at the border control from Morocco mistook a lump in my overcoat for a smuggled block of hashish. He tapped my coat pocket impatiently with his riding crop, and relished his first drug bust of the morning. But when I withdrew an innocuous little German-Spanish dictionary and gave him a cheerful smile, his look showed such disappointment and malice that I hurried on through customs, expecting any moment to be called back for who-knows-what kind of interrogation. Franco’s men weren’t all that forgiving.
And the next morning, just before sunrise, when I can’t face the disgusting condition of the men’s toilet in our cheap Algeciras hotel, I sneak into the empty ladies’ facility, only to be trapped when an early-rising señora knocks impatiently on the locked door.
So I do what any clever traveler would do. I respond in my finest Spanish falsetto. “Un momento, por favor!”
Faking a woman’s voice proves a big mistake. The new arrival doesn’t leave her post.
I might have escaped through the small window, but the three-story drop to the ground below discourages such an obvious solution, so I decide to wait her out. But she offers me no chance for making an exit with some shred of dignity intact. She knocks again, more impatiently than ever.
Another woman soon joins her in line. And then another. In fact, a congress of angry women has now gathered at the door, taking turns calling out, first voicing their concern at what is keeping me so long locked in the tiny chamber, and finally expressing displeasure at this rude “woman” hogging the floor’s single facility.
Gathering up my courage to face certain embarrassment, I burst forth and without a single glance to either side race through the gauntlet of furious woman as a crescendo of angry voices batters my back with Spanish insults. Happily my knowledge of the language is far too limited to grasp the verbal barbs slung my way, but I get the message.
So with my traveling buddy Mike laughing all the while, I slink out of the hotel as quickly as possible, and we make our way to the lovely Atlantic town of Cadiz.
You’d love Cadiz, so go see it at your next opportunity: brilliant white-washed buildings cascading to the sea, warm friendly citizens, laughing children kicking soccer balls around the narrow streets or playing toreador and bull. And a brilliant blue ocean splashing at the city’s feet.
The hotel is a notch or two up the “luxury” scale from the previous night, and the restaurant is filled with happy diners and inviting. We both choose the special—pork chops in rich brown gravy, and they taste great. But then, having devoured pretty much the entire thing, I see the last vestiges of very pink, very raw pork clinging to the bone. Mike checks out what remains of his entrée, only to find the same thing. We have just consumed raw pork. Aarrgh.
With visions of trichinosis wrestling with our minds, we wander the evening streets of Cadiz, pondering our fate. Remember, this was back in the days before one simply grabbed the smart phone to instantly access medical data, so we were forced to rely on our own recollections of just how the parasitic roundworm was going to be our undoing.
We pass a recently killed rat in the middle of the street, hapless victim of some passing vehicle I’m sure, but to us in the moment a sign from the gods that we are soon to be dead as rats, as well.
Once back in our room, Mike excuses himself and returns minutes later to confess he’s forced himself to throw up the treacherous meal. I recognize his wisdom and try to do the same, but for some reason I can’t get my fingers and my throat to cooperate, and despite a valiant effort I can not disgorge the pink pork. My fate is sealed. The clock is ticking.
(Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why the hell didn’t he call a doctor? Well, as grad students traveling on five dollars each a day, I hadn’t wanted to spend my meager funds on medical help. I was young and strong, and budget-conscious.)
Now the next stop on our journey is the royal Alcazar palace in Seville, an Andalusian masterpiece of 12th-century Moorish architecture. The Alcazar is resplendent with stunning rooms, lush gardens and splashing water basins and fountains. After a day of sight-seeing and a nice walk through the olive groves surrounding the city, we take in a flamenco show and drink a bit too much sangria, then find our way back to the hotel. Once back in my room, I realize I have no bottled water to brush my teeth, so I go downstairs to the desk and ask about the tap water.
“Of course it’s safe to drink,” assures the desk clerk, “I’ve drunk it all my life!”
The next morning we board an express train to pass many hours crossing the great plains of Spain. And then it hits: The clamminess. The fever. The churning. The nausea. Oh my god, I’m dying of trichinosis!
While kilometer after kilometer of sun-drenched Spain races by, good buddy and Spanish-fluent Mike goes the length of the train in search of a doctor. He returns with a very large, brightly-colored capsule in hand, and comforts me with having found a physician to treat my ills.
“What’s that?” I mumble in distress, “It looks like it would choke a horse.”
“It’ll work just the same,” Mike assures me, admitting that it is indeed a veterinarian who has offered pharmaceutical relief.
Nevertheless, his fine work is wasted on me. I can’t keep the damn thing down.
And then we’re on the stunning Costa del Sol, where long beaches and high-rise hotels embrace the azure waters of the Mediterranean. I’m feeling better for a few hours, then once again the malady lays me low. And while Mike is out enjoying the calamari and wine, the sandy beaches, perhaps the charm of Benidorm co-eds in bikinis, I cower in feverish misery in our hotel room.
Until Mike returns to find me passed out alongside the bathtub.
The hotel doctor is called. He charges five bucks. He shoots me full of antibiotic. And comes back later in the day when I am feeling somewhat better to hand me a bottle of prescription pills and assure me that I have a waterborne bug, not trichinosis. You’re not dying, he says, at least not yet.
He was right.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon