Sicked in Nebaj – Guatemala, Central America

I arrived in Nebaj from Xela, via Huehuetenango. On dusty, unpaved roads, the bus wound up the mountains, then down into the valley where Nebaj sits. I had heard many stories of violence in those parts; the oldest of which dated back to the 70’s and 80’s during the war. Nebaj and its surrounding areas were some of the most devastated. There were still people finding their way back to their homes after having fled for safety in Mexico some 20 years prior. The most recent of which two weeks ago, when a girl I had met in Antigua had her backpack and her money stolen by a group of men with machetes positioned near a popular waterfall. I was undeterred.

The bus rolled in as the sun was going down. The only people out, near the bus station were drunks – as many lying face down in the unpaved streets as were stumbling about, soon to be lying face down. Empty bottles of Quetzalteca, the local firewater, littered the streets, stray dogs nosed into people's pockets as they lay motionless. It seemed peaceful, though.

After a few days traveling, I found a place to stay and didn’t leave it. I was given a large dorm room with 10 beds, but I was told it was a single. I had my choice of beds, in other words. I was able to stretch out as much as I wanted. The bathroom was communal. When I left the room to go to it, I saw, walking out of the hotel, a French couple I had met in Xela. I supposed they were staying where I was. They had been nice. We did some hiking together, along with a larger group. I was almost disappointed that I wasn’t the only backpacker in the entire town, but if the others were them, I was able to deal with it.

I woke up to sunshine and the thin mountain air. A quick walk through town took me to the end of it, and re-assured me that Nebaj was composed of more than the drunkards I had seen the previous evening. On the steps of the church in the main plaza, teenagers sat in their school uniforms fighting, playing and drinking soda. The shopkeepers poured buckets of water onto the street outside their doors to sweep away the dust. Little girls in their maroon and yellow local indigenous outfits giggled and put their hands over their mouths as I passed. Their mothers behind them, smiled at me – either as a more mature version of the girls, or to have me share and delight in the universal cuteness of children. It was clear I was an anomaly.

Eventually I found a café; a tourist café to be sure. There were a bunch of cafes around; ones that sold Nescafe and beer and typical meals on rickety wooden tables. But this café had tables – of thick, polished wood, plants, flyers for language schools throughout Guatemala, board games and travel books on bookshelves, waiters who wore the same outfit and a menu that included fruit salads and pancakes. I ordered a proper coffee, sat at one of the tables with a travel guide, reading about what to do in and around Nebaj. It was the type of café that if there is one, it is an oasis, but if there are five, the town is too touristy.

There were two other foreigners in the café, they sat at the bar, talking in Spanish with the waiters. One of the flyers was for a Spanish school located upstairs from the café. I figured they were students. When I was able to get the attention of the waiter, I thought talking to him wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I needed some Spanish practice; he might know what is in and around Nebaj, just as well as the guidebook. He told me the prices of the Spanish courses, that all the volunteer positions were currently taken. If I were only around for a couple of days, I might find the market interesting. It was Sunday, market day. When I was done with my coffee, he pointed me in the right direction.

The woman, the "good" dog and the after effects
The market was a confluence of tin pots, machetes, rotted meats, woven shirts, screaming babies and vendors, and barking dogs underneath a blue tarp constructed so that there would be plenty of head room for any Guatemalan, but I had to duck. I walked through and noted what was pretty. I wasn’t planning on buying anything. It was definitely not a tourist market, which made it more interesting, but I only had six minutes to look around. I left feeling I had done something good with my day, I could nap and then find out more about the hikes from the café. Right outside of the market, however, I was accosted by a woman.

“Buy something,” she said. She was a good looking indigenous lady in traditional dress, carrying a baby fastened to her back by a colorful, woven shawl. In her arms, she carried other such shawls, scarves, whatever she could carry.

“No, thanks.” I answered without stopping to look.

“Just look. There are very pretty things here.” She was following me, with baby and bundle, keeping up step for step.

“I don’t want to buy.”

“Just look. I am poor, but I need to feed my baby.” She swung around to show me her baby. “If you buy anything, buy from me. I can’t even afford a stall at the market.”

It was a convincing argument and I appreciated her honesty and entrepreneurship. I began to leaf through the things she was holding in her arms, but she told me that perhaps I would be more comfortable looking in her office.

Her office was a doorway with a single plank wooden bench. Onto this bench, she emptied that which was in her arms. While I sifted through that pile, she brought a garbage bag full of more things.

“I have many beautiful things.”

It was clear to me this was her pile of clothing she wanted to get rid of. The woven items were dirty and stained. There were mesh baseball caps that seemed like they were made in the mid-eighties.

“I don’t really want anything.” I said, “I’m just looking.”

Once I said that, she began taking items out of her garbage bag and displaying them for me, saying “See, beautiful.” None of them were beautiful. I stood there and gave uninspired shakes of the head. It soon occurred to me that I was shopping.

Before long she had emptied out her entire bag, nothing had peaked my interest. Yet, I knew I had to buy something. I was slightly angry with this woman who had made me feel guilty, then fooled me into buying from her. Nothing was worth more than $4.00. I chose a shawl at random. I had no use for it, but the colors were pretty, it would need a washing, but it was authentic. As I was holding it, the woman told me that it could be used as a shawl, a scarf, or even a hammock. I asked the price and she said, “$12.00”

“Twelve dollars? No. That’s too much. Stop joking.”

“A lot of work went into this, $12.00.”

“I won’t pay more than $5.00.” I felt duped, but here I was offering $5.00. I was beginning to dislike her.

“It took me two months to make that. I won’t sell it for less than $11.00.”

We went back and forth, her doing a better job than me, until I got her down to $9.00. I still had one more trick.

“I will pay $9.00 for this if you have me over for dinner tonight.”

She mulled it over for a second and looked at my face, gauging to see if I was serious. She saw I was, she agreed and gave me her address. She told me to be there by 4:00. I walked away feeling triumphant and fortunate to have the opportunity for an authentic highland dinner. I was also a resourceful traveler – getting to know the culture while getting a good bargain. My nap was restful.

When I woke up, it was 3:55, but I was dressed and under the distinct impression that my dinner would not call for me to be immaculate in any way. Her house was only a few minutes from where I was staying. I was on time. There was a front yard, and behind, a gate held together by barbed wire. It was a mud yard, populated by chickens, a rooster and a sleeping pig. I didn’t know her name to scream out, there was no buzzer and nothing to knock on, so I let myself in through the gate, then closed it carefully to not let any of the animals free.

As I walked through the front yard, the woman came out of the house. She must have seen me coming in. She greeted me and was about to invite me inside when I felt a strange pinch on the back of my leg. I wondered if I had been shot, so I looked behind me. All I saw was a dog, the size and coloring of a Jack Russell terrier, bounding over the fence, running out into the street to play with all the other dogs. I looked back to the woman, she didn’t appear bothered. Her face was expressionless.

“Did the dog bite you?”

“Yes!” As of yet, the bite didn’t hurt, but I was certainly expecting the dog to be reprimanded.

“Don’t worry, he isn’t a bad dog.” In Guatemalan highland Spanish, the translation for stray dog is, "bad dog", so when she told me he wasn’t a bad dog, I was confused.

“Yes, he is a bad dog. He bit me!”

She explained that the dog belonged to her, so he wasn’t a "bad dog". I figured there was a translation problem here. How could she be so sure?

“Are you bleeding?” the woman asked.

I showed her my leg. She didn’t even offer to help me dress the wound. She just stood, trying to explain to me that the dog was a good dog. Suddenly it dawned on me. Maybe this whole thing was a conspiracy. She might have contracted the dog to bite me so that I would feel uncomfortable, leave, and she wouldn’t have to follow through with her end of the bargain.

“My leg is fine, but I’m a little hungry.”

The woman seemed surprised, but she led me into her house, sat me down at a wooden table with splinters poking out every which way, in a room seemingly designated for gardening tools.

The woman returned to the room with a glass of orange juice, Tang. I was expecting her to come with some ice, some bandaids, or a bandage, even water. Blood was now pouring down my leg and collecting in my shoe. My leg was becoming stiffer and stiffer, I winced in pain. “Excuse me, but do you have anything to put on the cut?”

She returned with a bowl of soup, a basket of tortillas, and some tortilla dough. She put the soup and basket in front of me and then put the tortilla dough on my cuts. “Let the blood soak into the dough. Before you leave, return the bloody dough to me. I will feed it to the dog. If the dog eats it, it means you will be cured.” I didn’t ask her what it meant if the dog didn’t eat it.

“It is an ancient Mayan tradition.”

At this point I began to feel anxious. With all due respect to the Mayan dog-bite medicinal knowledge, I wasn’t absolutely confident that whether or not I got rabies would depend on the dog's drinking my blood or not. Nonetheless, the dough was cooling and soothing to my cuts.

With my leg feeling temporarily better, I concentrated on eating. The soup was a meat broth in a large bowl with chunks of cilantro, potato, a half-cob of corn, and a large hunk of chewy meat that I saved for last. It was a hearty soup, I dipped the tortillas into the soup and ate them. When I finished, the woman asked if I enjoyed it, did I want seconds. I did, but I needed to take care of the bite.

I removed the dough which had served as an absorber, but it had also left scraps that had stuck on my leg. The woman brought a bowl of hot water, then I left and thought about what harm I would do to the dog if I found it.

At the bottom of the hill from the woman's house was a pharmacy. I went in and asked for a bottle of peroxide. I showed the lady the holes in my leg.

“What happened?”

“I was bitten by a dog.”

“Was it a bad dog?”

“No, it was a good dog.” I couldn’t believe I was saying that. “But it hurts.”

She gave me the peroxide and I applied it. The sting felt good – progress. The bandaids I bought were useless against the force of the current of my blood flow, so I asked the pharmacist if there was a doctor in the town. “There is a hospital up the hill off the main road. It’s a fifteen-minute walk."

The road to the hospital was the same unpaved road the bus rode in on. The sides of the road were lined with stray dogs. I was wary of them, I worried they could smell both my blood and my fear, the combination surely resulting in an attack. I kept my distance, walked in the middle of the road, so when cars came, I was right there for them to blow dust on.

I reached the hospital safely, the doctor wasn’t in. I was told to wait in the front porch, the waiting room. Soon, a man with a wispy mustache, wearing a Metallica T-shirt pulled up on a motorcycle. He walked in, put on a white jacket, and called me in. I told myself that yes, he was a legitimate doctor, and showed him my leg. He cleaned it and told me to wash it with soap and water every now and again. He gave me a gauze pad and some tape. I was expecting more – a tetanus shot, quarantine, an operation. My "developed-world-paranoia" was speaking, but I also knew soap wasn't effective for a dog bite.

“Special soap?”


“Regular soap?”

“Yes.” And he reached into the sink and pulled out a used bar of soap to show me what he meant. I could only hope that his lax attitude meant that he had seen the dog eating the bloody tortilla dough while making his way up to the hospital.

Epilogue 1
By the time I limped back down to the hotel, it was getting dark, I was beginning to recover from having seen all the dogs along the road. In the twilight, I thought I saw greedy saliva dripping from their fangs. Hoping only to go to sleep and wake up without rabies, I ran into the French couple I had known in Xela. They were slightly worried about my leg, noticing that I had saturated some 10 or 15 napkins during our conversation. They suggested we go back to the hotel. The girl’s father was a pharmacist and had insisted she travel with a mega-kit of pharmaceuticals. She dressed my cuts, and gave me a painkiller. By the time she was done, I was feeling so good and grateful, I agreed to go hiking with them the next day.

Throughout the night, my leg stiffened considerably. During the hike, though, the leg felt better. Motion was good for it. When we returned to Nebaj, I went to the internet shop to research the effects of rabies. I was feeling progressively worse, my throat hurt, my voice was fading. Sure enough, listed as one of the first signs of the onset of rabies, was a sore throat. Also, the bites were supposed to become red and swollen, which they hadn’t. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances.

The next morning, I boarded the earliest bus leaving town, headed for Antigua. I figured Antigua, with its proximity to Guatemala City, would have a decent hospital. Like most buildings in Central America, the front of the hospital was a façade. Once you entered, there was a large courtyard surrounded by walkways underneath an arcade. People sat in chairs, some with hacking coughs, a few were disabled. One person was pressing his face against the glass, not moving. Another lay face down on the floor. I began to lose faith in my Antigua theory.

I asked for the dog-bite ward, I was directed into another section. It had its own room and a waiting area. Women were crying and bleeding – from their noses, ears, into their napkins when they coughed. I was not the only person who had been bitten by a dog. When my name was called, the doctor looked at me and laughed, telling me that I was in the tuberculosis ward.

I was unwilling to spend another minute in this place. I rationalized – rabies was no longer a death sentence. Louis Pasteur had invented its cure. If I did get it, I would be ok. Later that evening, with my voice reduced to a raspy whisper, I met two German women who were leaving the next morning for Lago Atitlan to see a concert being put on in protest of the American invasion of Iraq. I went with them.

Epilogue 2
A couple of weeks later, my voice had returned, but I had developed a hacking cough followed by fluorescent colored phlegm. After the concert, I decided that what I needed was some beach time. The salt water would be good for my cuts, the heat would be good for my sickness – whatever it was. I went to the Caribbean. I was fairly certain that I didn’t have rabies because the cuts were never infected.

I left the coast and went to a hotel that provided personal kayaks because the only way to leave the premises was via the river which it was right next to. One day, I took one of the kayaks to explore some of the tributaries. Deep inside one of them, I found a large tent. Under the tent was a camp of American doctors whose mission it was to provide free tetanus shots for everybody in the community. They allowed me to get one after hearing my story even though it wouldn't prevent disease after so many weeks. I was aware of that, but I was having too much fun to be specific.

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