How NOT to Have Dengue Fever
We arrived in Mompiche a week after the newly elected mayor was murdered. One could say it was a sign of bad things to come.
As I sat on the Trans Esmeraldas bus, weaving up through the Andes mountains with my stomach churning, head spinning, a child vomiting next to me, and toilet water sloshing over the floor where my backpack lay on our way to Quito from a three-month stint on the Ecuadorian coast, I reached an all-time low. So low I was ready to buy a plane ticket home, curl up in a ball on my parents’ cushy lazy-boy couch, and swear off traveling forever.
But of course that thought was overpowered by the ever-present hint of optimism I hold when shit hits the fan and I trudged on in the hope that eventually I would wake up from this God-awful nightmare and the light would shine at the end of the long, dark tunnel I was passing through.
Sure, people have been through worse and I’m not writing this to whine about my situation—but seriously–sometimes life hands you lemons and you just have to squeeze them into a long, juicy blog post for all to read so you can toss the rinds and be done with them forever. No sugar necessary.
Let’s rewind a few weeks.
Do you want to know the real reason we moved to Ecuador?
I mean, there were several factors that played into the decision, but I’m talking about what inspired us to choose this small, less-cultured country rather than its more popular neighbours.
We wanted to learn how to surf. When we went about researching all the surfing beaches on the western coast of South America we found this video:
Pretty cool, right?
There isn’t much information out there about Mompiche, the small surfing town where this was shot, so we decided we’d start our trip down in Montañita and Olón instead and eventually make our way up there. In other words, we didn’t know if we could get internet.
Upon further investigation, we found the Secret Garden eco house. No walls, no fridge, no running water, but internet to our heart’s content. We were skeptical, yes, but after careful thought and several back and forth emails with the owner, Roni, our desire for fast internet and surfable waves outweighed our doubts and we went.
It wasn’t that bad when we got there. I’d slept outside and done compost toilets before and could deal with it. The lack of refrigeration was a hassle because you had to cook each meal when you wanted to eat it—no leftovers or batch-cooking. Also, the possums would come steal fruit in the night and any half-used vegetable would be rotten within a day. The worst was cooking at night because the flies would die in the lights above and land in your food or dish water.
Another annoyance was the village noises throughout the night. There were dogs howling, chickens crowing, roosters roosting, birds chirping, neighbours yelling, music blasting, and rain pounding the tin roof 5 feet from our heads at any given hour of the evening, particularly around 4-5am.
But I digress. The REAL issue we had was the mosquitos. With no walls or sheltered spaces, we were constantly in a swarm of thirsty blood-suckers. Roni and others in town repeated that it was low season for mosquitos, “you should see January, this is nothing!”, they would say—as Rory gets up from a 5-minute hammock session to find a cluster of fifteen or so bites on his butt (he was wearing copious amounts of deet). It got to the point where we were each wearing pants, wool socks and hoodies (covered in deet) in 30 degree heat just to protect ourselves. All the restaurants and bars in town are open-air as well so there was literally no escape.
Not to mention we were catching rain water which was dispersed in buckets throughout the house. There were these little wormy things in all the pales of water which we later found out were mosquito larvae—we were living in a breeding ground for mosquitos, no wonder we were being eaten alive.
After two weeks when we had to journey to Manta to apply for a new visa so we could stay longer in Ecuador, we welcomed the trip and the thought of a mosquito-free hotel room.
When our three-day trip got extended because our visas weren’t ready, it wasn’t so bad because we were able to work in our hotel room and get ourselves back on track.
Five days after arriving, Rory fell ill. The next day, I awoke writhing in pain. My head was burning hot, I had a headache so severe it hurt to open my eyes, and my body just felt tired and sore. Rory thought it might be legionnaires disease from the air-conditioning unit so we melted into the bed baring the midday heat, incapacitated.
I spoke with Roni to update her on our visa situation and told her our symptoms. She insisted it was dengue fever, told us there was a current outbreak in Mompiche since we’d left, and advised that we get to a hospital immediately. She would know, she had it twice before, near dying on her second bout.
I jotted down our symptoms in Spanish and we slumped ourselves into a taxi and were off to the nearest hospital. We handed over our little paper along with ideas of what we thought we might have (we still hadn’t ruled out the air-conditioner).
I don’t know why we were surprised but literally nobody spoke English. They tested our blood and left us to rest for a while before telling us to go back to the hospital in five days and sending us on our way with a prescription for acetaminophen and antibiotics for a potential stomach bug.
So there we were, stuck in the dodgy side of Manta, where there are no restaurants or good shops, fighting this horrible fever without access to any comforts. We had to wait a few more days for our visas to be ready, in which time Rory almost completely recovered and my symptoms worsened horrendously.
We boarded a bus to make our way back to Mompiche to retrieve our things we had left there. Our “direct” bus to Pedernales took the long detour through the highlands to San Vicente rather than the new route to the bridge connecting Bahia and San Vicente, adding a good 3-hours to our journey. It also happened to be the rush hour bus, jam-packing the aisles with people. I was left with the fattest lady I’ve seen in Ecuador purposely bumping her blubbery belly into my face—with my major stomach upset I was having, I was about ready to spew. She laughed with her friends as I covered my nose to distract from the stench she kept farting.
Five hours into the journey we got off the bus as we were passing Canoa. We still had at least double that in travel time left to get to Mompiche, there was no way I could make it there that day.
As we were waiting curb-side for the bus to pass through town I looked down at my hands to find my palms bright red and covered in a strange rash. My face also had a purplish hue that Rory thought was bruises.
We arrived back in Mompiche late the next afternoon with me feeling worse due to the self-inflicted dehydration from sitting on buses for two long days without access to a bathroom. My bowels were literally bursting and we realized upon arrival that the bathroom in the house had been locked from the inside because Roni was away in Quito, leaving us no access to it.
There were fish bones and rice scattered around the floor from the cats. They went wild clawing at our backpacks.
We walked up to the loft to find our bed covered in a thick green layer of mould. We opened up our locked wooden valuables box to find our camera case, lens, tablet and other valuables covered in more mould. Birds had shat on my clothes that were left hanging on the bamboo bed frame.
Immediately we started packing our bags, there was no way we could stay there.
Still dying for the bathroom, I headed to the Mud House to see if they had a room available while Rory finished packing our things up. We went there because we knew and liked the owners and the food in their restaurant.
But when I told them what happened and that we needed a place to stay they got freaked out. They said that we couldn’t stay there because the dengue outbreak was confined to the beach area and they were at the back of the village. They failed to acknowledge that we were living at the back of the village and had contracted dengue.
I was on the verge of tears, my stomach causing severe pains and the need to lay down with nowhere to go overwhelming me. I couldn’t believe they would actually turn me away like that. I was helpless.
A local lady offered us a bed in her house, which we eventually refused wanting the comfort of an indoor, mosquito-free space. We checked in to another hotel nearby, and I finally laid down.
At this point I felt so bad I thought I was going into dengue hemorrhagic fever. My eyes were blinded by the sharp pain in my head, my heart was beating out of my chest, I was boiling hot with a layer of cold perspiration coating me, the rash on my hands had taken over my entire body, I couldn’t sleep because the pain was overbearing my conscience and my stomach couldn’t even take water—I thought I was going to die. I gulped back glass after glass of water in an effort to rehydrate, it didn’t make me feel better. We were a three hour bus ride from the nearest hospital, there wasn’t much choice but to wait it out until morning. I was scared as hell but kept my cool so Rory wouldn’t worry too much.
He ran around town trying to find the lady with the key to the house so we could get the rest of our things as I lay in our dark hotel room unsure of what was taking him so long and whether I would make it through the night.
The next morning I woke Rory at 5:30am and we boarded the first bus out of there, not looking back. Our attempt to book an Airbnb apartment in Quito failed due to our Ecuadorian phone numbers, we were headed there with nowhere to go. We sat at the very back of the rickety old bus with our stuff piled in the seats beside us. Two kids came and squished themselves in beside me. The bus had no suspension and we would fly up out of our seats as we zoomed over the awkward speed bumps dispersed frequently throughout the road. With every one I could feel my organs jumping, I’ve never felt so much pain in my gut, ever. The two boys giggled away and I shot them dirty looks until they found other seats and I laid across the seats in an attempt to sleep through it.
Four hours later, we arrived in Esmeraldas. We spotted a massive orange bus with flashy lights displaying “Quito” on the front. It was pulling away as we ran up and they allowed us to get on despite not having tickets.
They told us we had to sit at the very back of the bus, next to the onboard toilets. The smell overpowered my nostrils, I begged the guy to sit in other seats, pleaded that I was very ill, but he wouldn’t allow it. The toilet water leaked out from the bathroom and he would occasionally come by to pour a strong cleaner over it and wipe it up.
They remained locked so we couldn’t even use them, despite the putrid smell, teasing my aching bowels.
I spent the majority of the eight hour bus ride hunched over with my head pressed up against the seat in front of me. As we made our way higher into the mountains the turns got tighter and the altitude left me feeling dizzy and disoriented.
We arrived in Quito as the sun was setting. We piled all of our stuff into a cafe in the Plaza Foch so we could reattempt to book our accommodation. We sat there for the next two and a half hours, waiting for our host to drive back from out of town to give us the keys, paying fifteen cents every fifteen minutes so I could use the seat-less toilets.
By the time I laid my head down in that apartment I’d had dengue for eight days, three of which were spent on buses. Our stuff smelt of mould, our clothes hadn’t been washed in three weeks, and we’d lost two weeks worth of prepaid rent on that shitty outdoor “eco-house”. I was at my lowest of lows and still wasn’t getting any better.
Luckily our apartment was across the street from a hospital so I dragged myself over there the next day. Completely delirious, the doctor glanced at me at reception and took me in straight away leading me to a blood-stained hospital bed. I mumbled that I had dengue as the nurse shoved a thermometer in my mouth and took my blood pressure. No one spoke any English, yet again, and they took samples of my blood, spilling it on the floor.
They hooked me up to an IV and left me there for a couple of hours until it ran dry, then sending me on my way without any insight as to what I should do except for more acetaminophen and some sort of bacterial flora.
I felt the effects of the IV right away and was able to finally get some sleep. Dengue causes leaky blood vessels and because I was having such bad stomach problems, my body wasn’t able to rehydrate and repair itself. Over the next three days I moved between the bed and the couch, slowly regaining my strength. One day I went with Rory to the supermarket and had to spend a whole day in bed recovering afterwards, it was too much and I was incredibly frustrated by my inability to function.
The boredom and hopelessness of being bedridden was too much to bare. There’s nothing like dengue fever to make you want to be active and working.
Eventually I was able to think clearly again and after two weeks of sickness I spent a day in the park viewing the botanical gardens. The beauty and colours were like a little symbol of life, I felt whole again and was so grateful to be back in action.
All we got from Roni was a complaint that we hadn’t stayed to look after her house while she was away. We hadn’t rented the place with any promises to take care of her cats, but she felt inclined to impose it upon up. There was no apology for the suffering, or our ruined belongings, or an offer to refund the two weeks we couldn’t stay. The only words to come out of her mouth were of her own concern, showing the true selfishness this woman holds.
We hold no grudge but will never return to Mompiche and especially wouldn’t suggest anybody stay at the Secret Garden. The worst part of all (besides the horrendous health hazard) is that we never even got to surf. There were no waves in our two weeks there, we never even swam in the water.
Our whole inspiration for coming to Ecuador was crushed but we wouldn’t let this bad experience shape our opinion of this beautiful country. We’re big believers that things happen for a reason and despite two weeks of terror, good things have come our way since. Things that may not have happened had we stayed in Mompiche.
We even happened to fall in love with Quito despite our yearning for small-town coastal living.
Have you had dengue fever? What’s the worst sickness you’ve contracted on the road?