“You coming?” Marcus asked as he sat down in the seat across from me in the hostel bar.
“Going where?” I said pulling my laptop out, “I’m supposed to Skype with my friend in a minute.” Marcus is from Colorado. He and I met in Colombia nearly two months ago, ran into each other on a bus on the coast of Ecuador, and this week I walked upstairs in my hostel to find him playing guitar to a group of guys. It’s one of the randomly wonderful parts of traveling for a long time.
“To play fútbol,” Leonidas, a German staff member at our hostel, Loki, interjected, “We’re going in five minutes.”
Marcus made the decision a simple one, “You’re in Lima, Peru, and invited to play a pickup game of soccer so you’re going to…Skype…instead?”
“Alright, alright!” I closed my laptop, “except I have sandals or hiking boots to pick from.”
With a big smile he lifted his leg above the table in answer.
“Boots it is,” I said smiling back.
Twice a week the staff rounds up as many people in the hostel as they can to play soccer for an hour. The three times I went, I was always the only girl to go. It was a small victory convincing another girl to go the third time, but a little disappointing when it became obvious she had never played before and was definitely drunk. I’m not above admitting it was intimidating the first time I walked out to catch up with the group going and immediately realized I was a foot shorter than most of the 12-16 guys rounded up to play. Americans, Israelis, Chileans, Peruvians, Germans, Argentineans, semi-pro Argentineans. Too late to Skype instead?
Teams are divided and someone shouts, “Let’s play!” as I stand on the pitch, my heart pounding, and what have I just signed up for repeatedly playing through my head.
Apart from some patronizing moments like always being apologized to when I take a hard shot to the body, not being passed to by the new travelers until they see that being a girl doesn’t mean I suck, later being asked by them if I played professionally – because what girl can just play casually well – or always being the one to sit on someone’s lap when we cram into the taxis, going to the pitch was a rush and I was getting better.
We were nearly out of time in our last 10-minute scrimmage for the night. Their striker was fast and had a strong shot. Our goalie was good, but if he got a close shot it was probably going in and we would lose the game. The ball was played past my teammates and down the field to him. I stuck with him, but he was quicker than me. As he went to shoot, he and I slid in unison, him ripping the shot and me doing everything I could to block it. I managed to get a leg on it sending the ball away from the goal. As we landed together, my arm twisted underneath us taking the weight of our combined bodies fully on my left wrist. There was a crunch.
I’ve taken a hockey stick to the face fracturing my nose and the orbit of my eye, fractured an arm, torn my ACL, but in the moment of any injury happening, never before in my life have I wanted to cry so much. There was also no way in hell I was going to cry in front of 15 boys.
Going to the hospital was the last thing I wanted to do, but when the pain wouldn’t subside, my fingers swelled and wrist was roughly 3x its average size, I couldn’t keep pretending it would fix itself.
The break was bad luck, but everything else considered, I could not have been luckier. Through a network of family and friends, I had connected with and spent the previous week shadowing a pediatrician and missionary from the US living in Lima. Also, I was in Lima. Not in a tiny village, on top of some volcano, or in the jungle somewhere. Great medical care was around the corner.
I asked the pediatrician, Dr. Cooper, if he had advice about me getting my arm checked out before I made plans to go to any hospital. He immediately responded by saying he would swing by the hostel and take a look. It took one glance and less than a minute of evaluation before he agreed it was time to go to the ER for an x-ray.
Dr. Cooper and his wife, Dawn, kept me company, helped translate everything from paperwork and diagnosis, and were there with hugs when we heard, “…cirugía.”
“That’s a new word but it sure sounded a lot like surgery.”
“Yeah. That’s cause it means surgery.”
Sitting on the hospital bed listening to the doctor explain that I would need to have a titanium plate placed in my wrist with screws in the next 7-10 days was so surreal I couldn’t help but laugh and ask, “So, do you think this is going to be a problem for my bartending job?”
Between the Coopers and the staff family I had grown close to at Loki, I was never alone through the maze of pre-surgery hospital rooms, checkups, lines, Spanish, and worst of all, endless fees that left me feeling more lightheaded than when they drew blood.
Some things were a little different from home.
Like when they used mercury-in-glass thermometers that are highly advised against in the US because if broken they release harmful mercury vapors.
Or when they took my blood then went on to prick my ear, watching and timing how long I bled for with a stopwatch.
When they kept me in the hospital for three nights after a 25-minute wrist surgery.
Being showered by a 4 ft tall woman who giggled the entire time as I tried to crouch, making jokes in broken Spanish about how someone must not like her to make her help the tall, one armed American girl.
But best and strangest of all was the operating room. I was impressed by the male nurse who managed to wheel me there through narrow hallways, swinging doors and a tiny elevator, never once bumping me into anything even though there was often no more than an inch of space on either side of my bed. The surprise came once we made it through the doors of the surgical room where I was immediately greeted by a surround sound speaker system loudly playing Peru’s version of American Top 40.
Considering what a big part of the culture music is here, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. As the anesthesiologist started the sleepy drug, the song switched to Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa’s “Young, Wild & Free”.
“So what we get druuunk, so what we smoke weeeed”, played throughout the room and I couldn’t contain my laughter any longer. I didn’t care that the nurses and surgeons had to think I was a crazy gringo. There was no way to explain how this cultural difference was ridiculous and hilarious to me as the reality of the situation sunk in. The anesthesiologist asked in Spanish if I was feeling sleepy, doing a strange are-you-feeling-sleepy dance to try and make sure I understood. Shaking my head no, he made an adjustment to the dosage and cold pumped from the IV into my vein. “Mucha fría,” is all I could get out before I was asleep.
Trips back and forth to the hospital, conversations with my travel insurance company, worried family members back home, and a titanium wrench thrown into my travel plans could have easily made this experience the low point of my trip. It could have been enough to send me home early. Instead, its been an unexpected experience I know I’ll look back on and smile about. I’ll probably even miss it.
The Coopers with their two 13 and 14-year-old girls took me in as a part of their family throughout and after the procedure. We told the hospital staff they were my primos “cousins” when they were there for me as I was wheeled from the recovery room. They brought home cooked meals at night to replace the ones the hospital served, and watched episodes of The Amazing Race from my bed with me. They stayed with me throughout the night, hardly sleeping thanks to a nonstop beeping machine, and jumped to my aid at nearly 1am when the nurse couldn’t understand why her unknowingly shoving the IV sideways into my arm was causing me pain and all I could manage was repeatedly saying, “Dolor! Mucho dolor cuando estas empujando!!”
Friends from the hostel came to visit, bringing me sunflowers one day and coffee the next. Spoiled doesn’t begin to summarize how surrounded by love I felt from the moment I realized I would have to have surgery in Lima, to getting back to bartending five days post-op…one handed!
The total cost in hospital bills adds up to more than I will spend on this entire six-plus months adventure throughout South America. Had I not purchased travel insurance beforehand, I would without a doubt be back in the US simply because of the financial burden. In case that message wasn’t clear: don’t travel without it.
A stay in Lima that was expected to last 5 days has now been a month. With just one more check-in with the surgeon to remove the staples and make sure I’m good to go, I’ll be on the road again. A month in Lima has taught me lessons in independence, how to make a Pisco Sour one-handed, and to always laugh instead of crying because every experience, good or bad, is what you make it.