An Early Christmas Gift Almost Killed Me, by Sandy Semerad #christmasgifts


    “We’re going to Ecuador and Peru,” daughter Rene announced.
     I was overwhelmed when she told me. The timing was bad. The company I’d been working for was bought out by a larger company. I had to convince them to rehire me.
     Before we left on our trip, I was rehired, but scarcely had the time to get the shots and meds required when one visits two third world countries. At least my passport was up-to-date.
     My traveling companions included: Rene, her daughter Cody (my eleven-year-old granddaughter), Rene’s bestie Dia and Dia’s daughter Michelle.
     Rene rattled off our itinerary. We’d be going to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu, but no easy way to get there, she said.
     Three days after we left Florida, we arrived in Santa Cruz, Ecuador. All five of us slept in the same room, and it wasn’t long before the toilet clogged.
     None of us saw the tiny sign in Spanish telling us not to put paper in the commode. We were supposed to throw it in the trash instead. Rene speaks Spanish, but the sign was almost invisible to the naked eye.
     Rene and Dia discovered the blocked toilet after they’d taken their Ambien. Their doctors had prescribed the Ambien in case they had difficulty sleeping on our trip. I don’t require a sleep aid and was peacefully dreaming when Rene poked me. “You’ll have to pee in the shower, Mama. The toilet is stopped up. We’ve tried to plunge it, but it’s still clogged.”
     As her Ambien took effect, Rene began to act silly. I’d seen scary reports about Ambien. Some people have had terrible reactions after taking it. They do crazy things, like driving a car while asleep.
     Rene started playing with the ringtones on her cellphone. “Isn’t that beautiful?”
     “No, it’s loud and annoying,” I said.
     “It is not. It’s beautiful and colorful.”
     “Let’s go to sleep and try to solve our problems,” Dia repeated three times.
     Rene, who never overeats, became ravenous. She stuffed her mouth with every snack she could find.
     I watched with trepidation. What if she’s still hungry after she eats the Pringles, crackers and candy? And what if she walks out into the night looking for more food?
     “You need to lie down,” I told her.
     “I’ll sleep like a baby soon,” she said, between chews.
     “I’m going to take a video of you,” I said.
     “I’m told I’m very funny.”
     After what seemed like an eternity, she did go to sleep, but sleep evaded me then, and with the toilet clogged, I began searching for another one.
      I looked everywhere, even in the hotel’s basement, which had been roped off. I was clearly trespassing when I slipped under the barrier.
     I turned the knob on the first door I saw.
     It was unlocked.
     I eased the door open.
    A toilet sat in the back of a small room, no bigger than a closet. I tried to lock the door for privacy before squatting on the pot, but I was unable to secure it. I had an image of getting busted with my pants down.
    Unlike the upcoming adventures of our trip, I escaped unharmed. If I’d been able to see into the future, I would have stayed in Santa Cruz despite the clogged toilet. All in all, Santa Cruz was a lovely town with exotic birds, sea lions, giant turtles, good restaurants and shops.
     Since I had no warning of the tribulations to come, I boarded the boat to Isla Isabella with a smile. At first we enjoyed exploring the lava rocks on Isabella. We saw exotic birds, penguins, iguanas and white tail sharks.
     As we watched the sharks swimming in a canal, the guide cautioned, “Don’t wake them.”
     For Dia, a photographer, this was paradise, until she lost her balance and fell. The lava rocks sliced her shin to the bone. Our guide dressed her leg wound to stop the profuse bleeding, but it was not a permanent fix.
     We’d all planned to go snorkeling after the rock tour, but Dia opted out. A wise decision, I thought.
     After seeing the sharks in the canal, we didn’t want to entice them with fresh blood.
     Cody announced she was jumping in regardless. Nothing would deter her from the snorkeling experience.
     I plunged into the frigid Pacific with her.
     The guide told us not to worry about the sharks. “They usually prefer the warm canal.”
     I prayed he was right.
     As we swam through the ocean, Cody and I found ourselves caught in a fierce current. We thrashed our arms and kicked our flippers, trying to swim out. One of the guys in our group kicked me in the face in his battle to free himself.
     The guide yelled, “Stay away from the stingray.”
     As soon as Cody and I were able to rise above the ocean’s surface, she said, “I’m tired.” I was exhausted. So we swam back to the boat.
     Once on dry land, Dia’s leg looked red and infected. She needed medical attention pronto. A doctor at the hospital stitched up her wound and prescribed antibiotics. No charge. (Healthcare in Ecuador is free.)
     The next day, we went hiking up Sierra Negra,elevation 4,890 feet. Sierra Negra is a large and active volcano.
     I wish I’d worn hiking boots, not sandals. (I must have been thinking of that Bible verse: “For forty years I led you through the wilderness, yet your clothes and sandals did not wear out.”)
     In the beginning of our hike, we walked through the rain forest, where it never stops drizzling.
     “I can do this,” I told myself. I exercise daily with Jane Fonda’s Prime Time workout. I’ve walked all over Chicago and San Francisco with daughter Andrea. (Andrea probably would have enjoyed this hike, I thought. She’d walked all over Panama last summer.)
     Hours into the climb, I began to question my sanity as the terrain became higher and hotter. The rocks cut my feet. I started walking like an aging Galapagos penguin.
    “This is worse than giving birth,” I complained.
     We were given no time to rest and sightsee. Only thirty minutes for lunch.
     When I sat to catch my breath, the guide yelled, “Up, up. Don’t stop.”
     “How long have you been a guide here?” I asked him.
    “Fifteen years. I do this every day.”
     “Have you ever had anyone to quit or faint or die?”
     “No,” he said.
     “This is tough,” one of the hikers said. “I’m sure he’s had someone to quit, turn around and go back. I think it’s wrong of him to rush us along like this.”
     After hours and hours of trudging nonstop, we finally saw the volcano’s rim in the distance. “How much longer,” I asked the guide.
     “Twenty minutes,” he replied.
      It looked like a vertical climb to the rim–much too dangerous. No bars, no restrains. Easy to fall in and die.
     My feet were burning. My whole body ached. My head was swirling from the heat and volcanic gases. Not much bottled water left.
     Dia and Michelle had already started back down, but not Rene and Cody. They were determined to hike to the rim.
     I bid them farewell, then looked for a trail marker to lead me out. I kept searching, but couldn’t find a sign. On a rocky terrain, it’s difficult to detect a path.
     I got horribly lost.
     I stepped on a sticker bush. My feet and legs stung like fire.
     I spotted a spider and thought it may have bitten me.
     I couldn’t see anyone from where I stood, no guide, no hikers, no Rene, no Cody. I hoisted myself up on a giant rock to get a better view.
     I spied specks in the distance. I thought I might be hallucinating.
    Then I saw blonde and red hair.
     I yelled as loud as my dry lungs were capable of, but Rene and Cody didn’t respond.  
     I ran toward them. My adrenalin and desperation had imbued me with renewed strength.
     Rene finally turned in my direction. “What happened to you, Mama?”
     “Don’t ask. I think I need a hip replacement.”
     “Stretch and you’ll be fine.”
     No sympathy.
     Every muscle and joint in my body cried out in pain. I don’t know how I endured the hike back.
     A couple of days later, I felt better and could walk without aching, but in Cusco, Peru, Rene suffered. She threw up several times. The coca tea and leaves–natural remedies used to treat altitude sickness–didn’t work for her. Someone brought out an oxygen tank. She inhaled the oxygen, but it provided only temporary relief. BC Powder—an old Southern remedy for aches and pains–was the only thing that helped, she said.

     I’d been given a prescription for the high altitude, but the pills made me pee excessively, and I stopped taking them. (I’ve read it’s better to take it easy for a couple of days and avoid anything strenuous in order to adjust to high elevations, but when you’re seeing two third world countries in sixteen days with an action-packed schedule, resting and relaxing are impossible).

My nose bled, but it wasn’t severe enough to keep me from enjoying the spectacular vistas of Machu Picchu–the “sacred landscape” of the Inca. It sits on top of a mountain, encircled by the Urubamba River.

     Machu Picchu is in the southern hemisphere, 13.164 degrees south of the equator, 50 miles northwest of Cusco and about 7,970 feet above mean sea level. It’s one of the most important archaeological sites in South America.
     After visiting Machu Picchu, we took a long train ride. A taxi driver picked us up from the train and drove us back to our hotel in Cusco.
     After a night and day there, we began the long journey back home. We had an eleven-hour layover in Ecuador, but Rene didn’t mind. She was happy to be rid of her altitude sickness.
      “I could have died on that hike to Sierra Negra,” I told her.
     “My hands were so swollen,” she said. They looked like a giant’s.” She showed me the IPhone pictures of her hands and the volcano’s rim. “Isn’t that amazing?”
     “You and Cody could have fallen in,” I said. “There were no restrains.”
     “But we survived,” she said.
    “This early Christmas gift almost killed me,” I said. “I feel lucky to be alive. I’m going kiss the ground when I get back home.”
Now that I’m here, there’s no place on earth I’d rather be than at home celebrating the Christmas season. Here’s wishing you the happiest of  holidays, and if you’re traveling, be safe.

     After working as a newspaper reporter, broadcaster and columnist for many years, Sandy Semerad decided to try her hand at writing novels. Her first novel, Mardi Gravestone has been republished as SEX, LOVE AND MURDER. She wrote her second mystery HURRICANE HOUSE after a hurricane ripped through her community. Her third book, romantic thriller A MESSAGE IN THE ROSES, is loosely based on a murder trial she covered as a newspaper reporter in Atlanta. All books have received five star reviews. Semerad is originally from a small town in Alabama, but now lives in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida with husband Larry, their spoiled Shih Tzu P-Nut and wayward cat Miss Kitty. She has two daughters and a granddaughter.