Somehow we made it back from Uyuni. It wasn’t easy – that’s for sure! Our train that was supposed to leave at 1AM didn’t leave until 10AM the next morning. Not that I’m an inexperienced gringo that expects everything to be on time, but we all boarded the train at midnight and expected to be woken up by the lurch of it starting up. Shay and I didn’t have a blanket, so as we froze in an open air tin can on the tracks 12,000 feet above sea level, we woke up shivering every 20 minutes and deliriously wondered what time it was and why haven’t we moved yet? Morning light solved our problem: “Helloooooooo Uyuni!” We had not moved. In fact our “train” was just a few train cars that were not even connected to the engine! There was a sign on the tracks that said “Hay Lluvia (There’s Rain)” so the train will leave at 10AM. The bathrooms were locked. I used the tiny train latrine only to realize that whatever I was doing was just landing on the tracks below me.
Later on our bus broke down for several hours…
But as I said, we made it back to Cochabamba and got into our routines as volunteers. Shay began working on worksheets about Climate Change for Bolivian schools. I began producing videos for Energética, occasionally leaving the city to film some of their work in the rural areas.
Living with the other volunteers with Sustainable Bolivia was a blast! We had nightly group dinners and parties several days a week. The only problem was I met so many people. Bolivia maintains a kiss-on-the-cheek greeting, and my cheek had some unknown infection on it. I’m sure I made several bad impressions as I forcibly resisted kissing cheeks. Once I even tried to switch it up and kiss on the left cheek but along the way her lips intervened. That one was awkward.
I had to be vigilant! I did not want to be ground zero for some outbreak. With hindsight I know I’m really lucky I didn’t actually have a contagious infection because I wasn’t as careful at first. I had monitored the sore since discovering it in Uyuni and it wasn’t going away. It wasn’t getting better either. Once I shaved and intently went over the small scab. It didn’t bleed. It didn’t hurt. I thought maybe that would open up my pores or something. Maybe.
Another week went by and the sore had redness around where the scab was. We went to a pharmacist and got an anti-bacterial cream. I was starting to feel self-conscious about the sore, especially with all my dodged “nice to meet you’s” and going for the left cheek. Seriously, try hugging somebody with your heads meeting over the left shoulder. Without warning, you can break a nose!
I usually put this cream on in private. I think that might be an obvious statement. Most people would apply their creams in private. So moving on, once I put the cream on before a party. I was getting impatient. Maybe the cream covered it up, too, I thought. I made a goofy hat out of a cereal box and clippings from “Time” magazine for the “A Very Happy Un-Birthday” Mad Hatter party. I must have really looked like a fool; I didn’t notice that the cream had caused the wound to ooze. So here I was, crossing my eyes and lisping the phrase, “Musthdard? That’th ridiculouth!” while my face was leaking. Finally a friend pulled me aside and asked if I was ok. She said she had MRSA once on her forehead and that’s what it looked like at first. I was so embarrassed. I went into the bathroom and washed away a viscous, clear-orange dewdrop.
In the couple of weeks that followed, more and more friends were worried. I brushed it off and was assuring, but grew uncomfortable. I’m a hypochondriac as any kid who grew up watching medical shows would be, thinking he knows all the diagnoses that he could possibly earn. But I was also very reluctant to pay for a dermatologist appointment since we were to leave Cochabamba soon and I wouldn’t have enough time to do any sort of treatment. I reviewed my travels and any sort of contact I’d had with my face. A friend from the Uyuni trip brought up about that scuzzy hostel where we partied with our toothless guide Roberto and I was convinced I picked up an infection from the pillow-case. Shay and I both rationed that I couldn’t have MRSA since she hadn’t caught it yet – a reasoning that still shames me in its risky passivity.
I celebrated my birthday in Cochabamba. It coincided with the pre-Carnaval celebration “Copadres,” in which all the guys hang out together and do manly things. At a meat buffet, I unwittingly tried cow udder. We went out to a bar and Shalynn and all the girls came in with a birthday cake. The band and the whole bar sang “Feliz Cumpleaños” for me. I was happily distracted.