Chronicles of Chikunbaylor

On Friday, October 23rd I went to the clinic. I usually shy away from white walls and doctors, but I had back pain so severe the previous weekend that it hurt to stand up straight. I had a fever and was profusely sweating in class, even more than I usually do just standing still in B’quilla heat. I had a full body rash for a few days that I originally though was an allergic reaction (sigh, if only…). I had even passed out in the English lab as I waited for my students to show up to class, which they, uhm, didn’t…thankfully #SENA. Something was wrong, so there I was, falling asleep in the waiting room of a clinic. I was called two hours later.

The doctor took one look at me, asked me about my symptoms, and immediately told me I had Chikungunya. Definitivamente tiene Chikungunya. My heart sank as she listed off what I needed to do: take Acetaminophen, rest and drink lots of fluids. And then, I left. I felt crushed. This was the mosquito virus they warned us about on the coast, the one that can affect you for…ever. And all I could do was lay in bed and frame my “incapacitated” days around six hour pill-popping intervals.

I slumped up the stairs to my apartment exhausted to find my roommate jokingly calling me “Chikunbaylor.” I had to hand it to him; it was clever. My sense of humor wasn’t what it usually was, but it was pretty damn funny even if tears were welling up in my eyes.

And then it dawned on me: They didn’t give me a blood test. Commence Chikunbaylor running around to several clinics to demand a blood test. I had to know for sure, especially when I could have recurring muscle and joint pain. I tired myself out going from clinic to Nueva EPS (Colombian national insurance) office to another Nueva EPS office to attempt to make a doctor’s appointment to no avail. I gave up on the national insurance route and decided to give my international insurance a go. I paid out of pocket for a ‘gunya blood test that cost more than my monthly rent. I was in the do-I-have-it-or-not phase waiting for the test results. And it crossed my mind that there was the possibility that it wasn’t Chikungunya, and that I had only paid for a Chikungunya blood test.

I learned a whole damn lot throughout this clinical process. For starters, plan for a day at the clinic — you know, bring food and entertainment. In hindsight, I should’ve been given a blood test during my first clinic visit even if my exhausted, rash-covered self had to wait longer. Apparently, I either had to be hospitalized or make an external medical appointment to get a blood test (another sigh). Acetaminophen can only do so much. My students laughed at me when I told them I got the ‘gunya — they thought that was last year’s disease.

I returned to classes after my blood test. I survived Monday to Wednesday despite waking up with intense back pain on Wednesday morning. Wednesday night, I was in so much pain that tears were streaming down my face. I was covered in as many blankets, well sheets, that I had, shivering cold in 85-degree Caribbean weather. Thankfully — again, #SENA — my Thursday classes were cancelled due to teacher training. I stayed in bed all day, soaking my sheets in sweat without any desire to eat. (TMI?). When Friday morning came, my fever had gone down and I was moving around. Pain was still evident, but I felt a hell of a lot better than I did the previous day.

I felt unsure about my health, especially after a second wave of pain much more intense than the first round. On Friday, November 13th (opportune date, right?), I logged on to my online clinic portal to read that my results were negative: I didn’t have Chikungunya. What?! What the hell do I have then?! My roommate rescinded my Chikunbaylor nickname, of course, and told me I’d get better. I began dialing my mom to express the new medical wall I had hit and to ask what I should do next. No answer. That’s weird. Well, I popped more pain pills and packed my bag for Cartagena’s Fiestas de Independencia with much positive reinforcement from my roommate.

Breathing in deep, laughing and sneezing sparked instant, specifically-located pain in my lower back, and I made it to Cartagena feeling less than my outgoing, positive self. My roommate and I were meeting our friends at our usual gelato shop, naturally. We were sampling flavors and trying to make the oh-so-hard decision when I noticed that my mom was literally walking up to me in Cartagena. A crying, bent over in pain, but very, very happy Chikunbaylor. Man, I had absolutely no idea. And then my mom showed me a photo on her phone, asking if I had seen it. It was a globe sitting on a desk with a post-it note in my cousin Lisa’s handwriting. It said “Out of Office: November 13th-17th.” I repeated the words out of office slowly, looked up at my mom asking about Lisa, and turned to see Lisa in the flesh in Colombia. Man, I couldn’t handle it. I was practically hyperventilating, taking short breaths to lessen the pain, and literally freaking out. I was in shock, and it was such a relief to see them.

So, what did we do? Well, first we got gelato…duh! Then, we went to the clinic to get more tests done. I couldn’t avoid the pain anymore, especially in front of my own mother y’know. I didn’t take my mom and cousin to a regular Colombian clinic to spare them that authentic experience. Instead, I paid out of pocket to get a blood test for Zika and Dengue as well as a check up. The doctor gave me a prescription for antibiotics, pain pills and vitamins, but I had to return tomorrow morning when the lab was open for blood tests. The clinic escapade continued on Saturday as I was poked in several spots to draw blood. We walked the beach in Bocagrande waiting for the results, and I was again relieved that my mom and cousin were so positive and willing to endure this health roller coaster with me in Cartagena.

I found out that I had Dengue, a different mosquito virus with basically the same symptoms as Chikungunya sans the lifelong agony. Finally, a freaking answer! It was reassuring to finally get an answer after about a month of Chikungunya/Dengue insanity. I’m feeling a lot better, and seeing my mom and my cousin had everything to do with that (plus, you know, the pain pills). They completed the Dengue Tour — as Lisa appropriately named it— of the Caribbean coast of Colombia and actually enjoyed it. We were together, I had my appetite back, and, I mean, there’s nothing like seeing your momma when you’ve been the sickest you’ve ever been in your life, no less in a foreign country. And you best believe she brought even more mosquito repellent for good measure.


“I want your life.”

I’ve been thinking about this reaction a bit, the “I-want-your-life” reaction I get when I catch up with people from home or post pictures on social media. Quite honestly, my response is emotionally charged. I’ve thought about it until my mind is spinning; I have much to say, yet I still come back around to a simple answer. I firmly believe that we lead our own lives, forge our own paths and determine our proverbial next steps in our distinct, separate journeys. Simply put: If you want to do something, do it. 

It is your life. You perceive your own barriers. This is my life. I looked ahead to my future and decided to do what I wanted. I was determined to go abroad again. I applied to a program, and I went. You make your own way. Se hace camino al andar. 

Jealousy shouldn’t play a role in it. To be jealous of another’s life is to make the assumption that theirs is better, even easier. Each person has their own story, their own unique journey loaded with ups and downs that you might not have the slightest clue about. To say you want my life is to say you want it all: the overwhelming moments of sadness along with those bursting with happiness.

Yes, I upload pictures along the way. I enjoy documenting my time here in Colombia. Some day I’d like to look back to see what I saw and read what I was thinking—good, bad and everything in between. I save the tough moments for my journal, the raw emotions I feel every day. In any given moment I could be feeling lonely or content or out-of-this-world happy.

For the ones who tell me they want my life, I wonder if they’d still feel that way if they saw my everyday life. Living and working abroad isn’t as shiny and picturesque as you think. It consists of routine-esque things and everything (well, almost everything) I’d do back in Jersey, too. I have a work commute. I pay rent. I take the bus every day in sweaty humidity. I wake up mosquito-bitten. I run errands. I cook. I clean.

I have those days just like everyone else. I cry. I sleep late. I have mood swings. I have that f*cking Monday feeling and that TGIF feeling, too. I siesta. I linger in bed. I watch Netflix and eat junk food. I miss my momma. I miss my dad so much it hurts sometimes. I spend hours on FaceTime with my humans around the world. I feel sad I’m not there. I get homesick. I crave home-y comforts. I tear up thinking about who I’d want next to me to share this experience.

I think that we assume others’ lives can be better. We mindlessly scroll through their visuals they post online and we think, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” The thing is, you can. Your time is more valuable than wishing and hoping for things you’ve always wanted. Your dreams are worth more than continuing to place them far in the unreachable future. Your life is now. Choose to live it.

Living in the Caribbean: Sun, Sweat and Siesta

As droplets of sweat drip down my back within five minutes of riding the bus, I wonder how people could ever live in a place this hot, with this much humidity. And then I think: Oh yeah, I live here. 

I teach English in Barranquilla. I still shake my head in disbelief upon uttering this truthful sentence even after eight months. It should have sunken in by now, right? Nope. Not quite. It is still very much surreal despite having already reached the halfway point. Why? Because the passage of time here is very skewed. It defies seasons and climate change, the stuff I’m used to back in good ‘ol Jersey.

You wake up in August and wonder how in the world six months have gone by without you actually realizing it. Leaves don’t change. It doesn’t become colder. There is no OMG-can’t-wait-for-pumpkin-spiced lattes-in-fall. There’s pretty much just wet or dry season. Even when the infamous arroyos rush through the city blessing us with mugginess and, quite honestly, complete shock, the humidity snatches up the rain rapidly. There is essentially one climate: summer. A year of summer, as my roommate so aptly calls our time here.

I still don’t think I’ve become accustomed to the heat; I think I’ve just accepted that I will be sweating all day, every day. Even minutes after I shower. Especially when I’m cooking. Just, you know, all the time.

Sunshine is happiness, though. I’m lucky enough to wake up not having to check the weather. Living this close to the equator means pretty consistent, cloudless rays of joy.

And sweat is acceptance. I’m crazy enough to workout in my room where I’ve sweat more than I’ve ever sweat in my life despite positioning my fan directly in front of me.

Thus, siestas are a coping mechanism. This heat sure is tiring. Apart from stripping down upon entering my apartment, taking afternoon naps with my fan has become a regular occurrence.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love Barranquilla. It has become my home after only eight months in all its sizzling glory. But when they tell you it’s hot, they sincerely are not kidding. It is balls hot. Barranquilla balls hot.

That Feeling of Being Content

I popped the last piece of pizza in my mouth, darting my eyes between Nina and her two remaining personal slices. She was too busy leaned back in her chair, happily smiling into the world. When asked if she was going to finish her dinner, she readily said: “I’m just content, you know?” 

Our coordinator planned a team boat trip to islands around Cartagena earlier this month (major shout out to the Juan and only Carina!). Teachers from Barranquilla, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Armenia came together to boat, beach, bond and celebrate birthdays on the Caribbean coast.

On Friday, fellow B/quilla teacher Zack laid out our weekend before us: “Arrive tonight. Survive tomorrow. And live to see Sunday.” I’m proud to say that we succeeded. We arrived Friday. We survived Saturday. And we were alive on Sunday.

It was one of those weekends you day dream about well into the following week. According to Nathan, this weekend was an extrovert’s dream. I’d have to say I’d agree. Throw together twenty travel-minded, damn fun humans; put on some reggaeton jams; toss in some, okay, lots of cerveza, rum and tequila; and, finally, sit back and watch the beautiful chaos ensue. It’s the kind of beautiful chaos that makes you appreciate every minor decision and sequence of events that got you to this exact moment. The kind that pushes mattresses together in the living room to have a pre-boat trip slumber party. The kind that gets the perfect combination of tequila, salt and lime to take hilariously awkward body shots. The kind that belts out a slightly buzzed, yet angelic sounding rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to end an already perfect day.

Highly charged moments like these create cinematic, watching-yourself-in-slow-motion scenes. You pause, rewind, and replay them to make them last a little longer. In actuality, you can’t replay them. They happened as beautifully as they did and they will stay like that, catalogued in your mind’s filing cabinet under Unforgettable.

These moments are yours for whenever you need reminding. When your alarm buzzes at 5:30am to get to class. When you’re dripping sweat and sticking to the leather bus seat. When you’re pulling teeth with the only half of the class that actually showed up. Your determination is slightly undermined. Your positivity is waning. Your energy is exhausted. But you’ve got Cartagena on your mind and you’re instantly brought back to the boat aptly named Le Triky. It’s tricky, I know…feeling like you’re floating through the following days that pale in comparison to the previous island-hopping adventure. Maybe it’s that just remembering suffices to jolt us back alive, to bring us back to the present. Past moments awaken our present ones. They have the ability to provide you with that extra sliver of inspiration to keep on. Pretty cool how Cartagena does that for me. I’ll continue listening to our boat trip tunes, dancing around my apartment with a smile widened across my face. Ask me how I feel. I’ll say: “I’m just content, you know?

I think that’s the goal. To be content. It’s a wistful feeling. It looks like hopping the back of a moto taxi, wind blowing wisps of hair over my eyes. It feels like buoyancy on the beaches of Playa Blanca, floating my legs to the surface while listening to my slow, deep breaths. It tastes like Gelateria Tramonti’s genuine Italian gelato flavor, Tropical Tramonti, tickling my ice cream-lover taste buds. It sounds like the chit chat of our giant teacher sleepover, giggling at every playful, sarcastic blow. It smells like fresh-out-of-the-oven arequipe donuts, combining the rich sweetness of caramel and the starchy goodness of baked bread.

It comes and goes, yet makes a lasting impression on your senses. Sparked by stimulating any one of the five, these moments can be called to the forefront of your mind in an instant. I think that’s the beauty of how our memory is tied to sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. You’re reminded, you remember and you replay. And they can be recalled for days, months, even years to come. It’s only been about two weeks since I partied on a boat off of Cartagena with fellow crazies, and my mind is still wrapped up in the crystal blue waters, the dance beats, the endless noms, the constant laughter, and the perfect, yet simple response that embraces everything I’ve been feeling about Colombia: “I’m just content, you know?”