If my wife could press the rewind button and place her then-unsuspecting self back at the moment (in the middle of the one of the harshest High Country winters in living memory) when she was starting to wonder whether yours truly was a passing fling or Something More (maybe even “The One”), and, if at that moment, I would have mentioned the words “tropical cocktails,” I’m sure she would have been positively swayed. Matter of fact, I’m certain, as I was courting the love of my life, I likely did mention those words, sincerely and presciently, for, verily, we have imbibed in many, many tropical cocktails over the past 30 years. Tropical cocktails of the stereotypical variety, I should herein point out. And consumed actually in, you know, the tropics.
I’m not certain what route my now-spouse would have taken had a more-sinister manifestation — but no less accurate — of those words been presented to her as our relationship was beginning to germinate. Less than a year after making her acquaintance, Gay found herself sitting by my side, not in some palm-thatched beachside bar (though that would certainly come later, in spades), but, rather, in the waiting room of the Denver Health Department’s inoculation clinic. “What are you two here for?” asked the wonderful lady who worked there forever. “Well, we’re heading to Central America,” I responded. “So, you’ll want the whole tropical cocktail, then,” she stated, double-entendre and irony lapping atop one another like Caribbean waters onto white sand. “Er, yes …” was our tentative response.
We had a general idea what was coming our way. We knew, for instance, that we needed to get yellow fever vaccine to legally enter several of the countries we planned to visit over the course of our three-month trip. And we knew we’d need some other stuff. We left it to the nice lady to help fill in blanks that read like a medical text from the 1700s. “Typhus, you’ll definitely need to get typhus. And hepatitis-A. And tetanus. And we’ll need to prescribe you malaria. I’m just wondering whether we should go ahead and give you cholera too. Cholera is even worse than the others.”
Three things popped into my mind at that point: First, I could not help but notice that she did not make reference to giving us shots to (hopefully) thwart those maladies, but, rather, that she kept referring to giving us the maladies themselves. And, second, with regards to her reference to cholera being ‘worse than the others,” was she talking about the disease or the shots? And, third, if she was referring to the shots, did that mean that the other shots were bad and that the cholera shot was really bad?
We would soon learn.
Next to us in the waiting room was a young couple getting ready to embark upon a missionary trip to somewhere in Africa. “What shots are you here to get?” I asked the couple, who had been within earshot of our discourse with the shot-giving lady, by way of a conversational icebreaker.
“Cholera,” they moaned in unison.
Soon, it was our turn. First came yellow fever, a disease so bad it stopped the building of the Panama Canal dead in its tracks — twice. A disease so bad, governmental operations as far north as Washington, D.C. would routinely have to be suspended during the summer months. Then came typhus. I don’t know a thing about typhus, except that its very name makes me want to avoid it like, well, the plague. Any disease that contains a “ph” in the middle is almost certainly one to steer clear of. Then came tetanus. I had forgotten about how noticeable a tetanus injection can be. Then, last but not least, we each got gamma globulin injections for Hep-A. This is a particularly captivating little prick, as the solution is so viscous, it requires a very short, very thick needle to work the syrup into the system. Getting a gamma globulin shot is like getting kicked in the ass with the business end of a stiletto high heel. This reality is made even worse by the fact that everyone agrees that, on its best day, gamma globulin is only about half effective.
At that point, the nice shot-giving lady suggested that maybe that was enough, that, if we felt compelled to get the cholera shot, we maybe ought to come back in a couple weeks.
“How far away did you say you live?” the nice shot-giving lady asked.
“About two hours,” Gay responded.
“That ought to be enough time,” the nice shot-giving lady responded. “You two drive straight home, because you’re not going to be feeling very well.”
Huh? We were operating under the impression that the only bad part of the tropical cocktail experience was going to be the actual injections themselves. What was this about not feeling very well? Living like we did in Grand Lake, which was, in those years, very much off the map, we looked forward to our rare trips to Denver to eat out, visit bookstores and drink in bars that contained warm bodies we did not drink with every goddamned day of the year. Yet, we opted to take the nice shot-giving lady’s advice and beelined back up to the High Country.
We stopped off at the little grocery store in Grand Lake before returning to our diminutive trailer. At that point, we both wondered aloud what the nice shot-giving lady was talking about. It had been more than two hours since she treated us like a pincushion and all we felt was a bit sore around the injection sites. Then, as we were literally standing in the checkout line, it hit us like a train and the erstwhile superficial knowledge that, when one is getting injected with a vaccine, one is actually being given a small dose of the disease, was suddenly no longer superficial knowledge. Our asses were down for two solid days. The only redeeming component of that 48-hour experience was the realization that, if what we experienced — yellow fever lite and typhus lite — were that hideously horrible, then we knew we did not want to experience the real thing.
“Why aren’t we just going to Europe?” Gay moaned midway through our ordeal.
Gay basically goes with whatever flow comes her way. Had I been an antiques enthusiast or a devotee of various forms of culture and couth — museums, art galleries, Broadway plays, well-coiffed poetry readings — I don’t believe it would have negatively effected the evolution of our relationship one bit. She did not become interested in me because of my attraction toward traveling to the kinds of places that require nasty-assed inoculations just to legally enter the country. Nor did she shy away from me because of that.
The trip to Central America became probably the defining component in a relationship that has spanned almost three decades. We got to visit the most-war-torn parts of El Salvador during the height of that sad country’s vicious civil war. We got to experience the joy and rapture of proximate exchanges of automatic weapons fire between the Contras and the Sandinistas while tromping through the jungles of Nicaragua. We enjoyed sneaking off a perfectly pleasant caye at the crack of dawn because I had purchased pot from a narc in Belize and, if the island rumor mill was right, I was about to get busted. We took pleasure in negative-five-star accommodations that included a brothel in Costa Rica, an assassin-bug-infested thatched hut in Guatemala, a bombed-out pension in El Salvador that had inoperative plumbing (understatement … use your imagination), a rainforest campground that boasted such high-class amenities as reptiles crawling out of the shower drain and myriad backcountry digs that came with room service consisting mainly of swarms of biting insects, poisonous snakes and the kinds of scurrying noises out in the dark jungle that make the notion of getting out of the tent to take a leak at 2 a.m. less than appealing.
Of course, we also saw quetzals, the most resplendent avian species in the Western Hemisphere. And sharks, barracudas, mantra rays and moray eels on the Belizean reef. And white-faced moneys frolicking in the highest canopy. And we paddled down meandering rivers and hiked up volcanoes and trekked through cloud forest and on an on.
And not once we either of us contract any malady more severe than debilitating hangovers spawned by very cheap rum consumed on full-moon beaches with the dolphins frolicking offshore.
Since that trip, we have interfaced with the tropics on numerous other occasions, and, before each foray, there’s the inevitable trip to the inoculation clinic for whatever horrible booster cocktail was required by the pathogen populations of wherever it was we were headed. None of those tropical cocktails have ever been as bad as the first, but, truthfully, none of our tropical journeys has been as wonderful as that first trip overland by creaky trains and rickety pick-up trucks and thumb and foot.
Two weeks ago, we drove down to Passport Health Services in Tucson for yet another round of tropical cocktails in preparation for an upcoming trip to Cameroon. This go-round, it was: yellow fever, typhus, Hep-B, tetanus, malaria, avian flu, polio and meningitis, as well as a Cipro script because cholera shots are no longer recommended (thanks be for small favors).
We were worried because the clinic is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the Casa De Fayhee. Normally, when we’re in Tucson, we go grocery shopping at Whole Foods, visit Mountain House in case there are any gear-acquisition emergencies, stop in at a couple bars, eat at P.F. Chang’s, stroll through the camera department at Best Buy — all things unavailable in the boondocks town we call home. But, this time, we dashed home as fast as our Outback would carry us, in hopes of being on the couch when the inevitable shot-induced sickness(es) hit.
This go-round, we suffered nary a symptom. Not even sore arms.
Wonder what kind of trip that portends.
P.S. Just for the record: We did take a cultured-and-couth trip to Europe a few years back. Checked out lots of museums and art galleries. Dined in places with tablecloths. Slept in hotels that had working plumbing and no reptiles emerging from the shower drain. It was very pleasant, and it was a trip that required nary an injection beforehand. But, even as I was standing before the Mona Lisa, I found myself wishing that I was right then tromping through some nasty-assed stretch of jungle, where, sure, there lurk snakes and assassin bugs, but where also lurk white-faced monkeys and quetzals.