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In Carmelita, I make my way to where my bike is stored. Conchita, the woman who has been minding it, when she learns of my encounter with the fox, takes the opportunity to reiterate her opinion that tourists should never wander the jungle unsupervised. When she finishes upbraiding me she offers me and my companion some food.

“You shouldn’t have any beans,” she tells me. “They cause infection.”

The alternative is plain tortillas and I am famished and in no mood to humour dubious folk superstition.

“I’m starving. I’d like some beans, please.”

She shrugs, helplessly, at this further evidence of the inability of tourists to look after their own best interests and reluctantly serves me a miserly portion of beans. While we address ourselves to eating Conchita relates a tale of a man from Uxactun, a nearby village, who died recently from rabies.

Carmelita has no electricity, no running water, no public phones. A bus leaves once a day, at five o’clock in the morning, and takes four or five hours to rattle, bump and bang its way, stopping at every village and dwelling, over the fifty odd kilometres of gravel road to San Andres. From San Andres mini-buses leave a couple of times a day to San Benito. I guess I could reasonably expect to arrive somewhere with medical care by tomorrow afternoon but this prospect is almost unbearable.

Conchita is also anxious and turns over various alternative possibilities. She suggests calling an ambulance from Santa Elena but I am reluctant to cause such a drama. Apparently, the village possesses a collective vehicle and Conchita endeavours to contact the person who is empowered to make decisions as to its use.

Conchita’s heavily pregnant sixteen year old daughter possesses a mobile phone. The phone signal in the village is extremely weak and so people wishing to use their devices stand in the middle of the village green and raise the phones towards the sky waving them this way and that. The area is dotted with people performing this strange ritual – the tiny screens glowing in the darkness. We join them and once we stumble across an area which receives signal Conchita pleads my case to a man called Carlos.

The first thing she learns is that the vehicle is currently in Santa Elena and not due back for three or four hours. However, Carlos approves the proposed trip to the San Benito hospital. We go back to Conchita’s hut and she wraps me up in a blanket and puts me is a hammock under a lean-to while she and her daughters retire to the communal bedroom. The cacophonous sounds of various conflicting evangelical church services drifts out of the darkness but I am listening for the sound of the returning vehicle.

Eventually, long after the un-tuneful communal sing-songs in praise of the Lord have ceased, I hear the sound of an engine. It stops and starts and then passes by the house and fades away. I wonder what will happen next. There is an extended silence and I try go out to the village green to see where the car is but Conchita has closed the gate and I can’t get out. I return to the hammock. Some time later I hear Conchita get up. She emerges from her room. “Where is the car?” she asks. “I don’t know.”

We walk out onto the green and suddenly the pick-up appears, speeding out from behind some buildings. Conchita flashes her torch trying to attract the attention of the driver and the vehicle swerves in our direction. Conchita tells the story again. The man views me expressionlessly but the idea of returning to Santa Elena tonight clearly is not attractive to him. We get in the car and drive to another house. The man knocks on the door and another young man, ready for bed emerges. After a quick conferral, the second man re-enters the dwelling to prepare himself for the trip. Conchita offers to accompany me but I send her back to her pregnant daughter. She comes running out of the house with the blanket and pushes it through the window.

We set off. The driver obviously knows every curve and bump in the road and approaches them at the maximum speed possible. There is no room for error. I review my conversation of a couple of days earlier with Richard, the archeologist at El Mirador. When he was scolding me for walking alone in the jungle I parried with the throwaway line – “I’d rather be eaten by a wild animal than die in a car crash!” Being mauled by an irate fox wasn’t exactly the wild animal encounter that I had had in mind and now it seemed that I was in imminent danger of dying in a car accident but it also occurs to me that catching a glimpse of a jaguar while whizzing through the jungle in a vehicle at night is a good possibility so I keep my eyes on the road. However, we see nothing but foxes.

Eventually we arrive at the hospital in San Benito. I get out of the car and tell the men they can leave me there but they accompany me inside. A motley collection of people are sitting around the entrance to emergency but no staff are in evidence. We wait. After a while a man dressed in what appear to be grey pyjamas enters the building carrying a Coke and a bag of chips. He eyes me unenthusiastically.

“What is the problem?” I explain. He ignores me and turns to the two men. They confirm my story. He pushes a piece of paper towards. “Your name!” I write it down. “Where are you from?” I add the further information. He eyes me again. “Here in Guatemala we do not give vaccinations at the hospital,” he informs me. “Could you maybe look at the bite?” He makes no move. “You must go to the health centre.” “OK. The fox bit me two days ago. Can you tell me how much time I have to get the vaccine?” He says nothing. He is waiting for me to leave so he can drink his Coke in peace.

It is midnight. The men drive me to the hotel where I stayed before my trip to El Mirador and wait until I rouse someone. I wave goodbye. I lie awake pondering on what to do if the health centre is similarly unhelpful.

In the morning I am up by six and my first stop is the internet service across the road from my hotel. Wikipedia informs me that the rabies virus enters the human nervous system in somewhere between 7 -10 days, at which point nothing can be done. By 7AM I am at the health centre behind a sizeable queue of woman and children waiting for the 8AM opening.

Santa Elena Health Centre.

Woman and children start to gather outside at 6AM. The doors open at 8AM.

When the doors finally open a woman stands at the entrance handing out numbers. I am number 30. Women with snotty nosed babies and toddlers mill about and the nature of the system is not clear to me. Numbers are being called out and when I hear 30 I go to the counter. I am asked to write my name down and the staff direct me to a set of scales. I resist being weighed and explain why I am here. “Oh, you don’t need a consultation then.” “No. I guess not.” “Wait.” “OK.”

I sit down and study my bird book and try to match the notes I took on my walk in the jungle to the pictures. It is not always possible to find a good match.

A man approaches me. “How long will you be in Peten?” I misunderstand him and tell him two weeks, the amount of time I have been here already. It transpires he is reluctant to give me the anti-rabies vaccine because he believes I will leave before the course of injections is complete. I promise that I am committed to whatever is necessary. He disappears into the crowd. He returns and invites me into his office.

The rabies protocol is posted on the wall and we study it together; the injections must be given on Days 0, 3, 7, 14 and 28. We consult the calender. Today is Wednesday and so Day 3 will fall on a Saturday. “Come in on Monday,” he says. I am dubious. “Perhaps Friday would be better? It is sooner.” He considers this possibility and then goes away to make a phone call. When he returns he tells me they will send a nurse on Saturday to give me the second injection even though they do not normally open on Saturdays. I am grateful. Finally, I am directed into a room where I receive the first of my injections.

The Health Centre is noisy and chaotic but the staff are kind and professional.

I leave the health centre and return to my hotel and sleep. When I wake I return to the internet and google rabies. Self-motivated internet research on matters of health is never a comforting business. Every page I visit mentions the series of vaccines that I have just been administered but the first line defence against the disease is an immunoglobulin injection made from human cells which contain existing rabies antibodies and gives immediate protection while the other vaccines gradually build up your own anti-bodies over a longer period of time.

Saturday arrives and I return to the health centre and check if I have been given immunoglobulin. “No, no. All the injections are the same.” “Ah. OK.” I leave and track down a private doctor in Flores. “Can I get an anti-rabies immunoglobulin injection?” “No. We don’t have that here in Guatemala.”

The manic chatter of internet forums adds fuel to my growing unease and concerned friends, who have consulted experts on the matter, start to exert a steady pressure. Having exhausted my personal resources, I pull out all the stops and write emails to everybody I know who ever mentioned they had friends in Guatemala and within a couple of hours I have been referred to a hospital in Guatemala City with the vaccine and have someone on standby there waiting for my arrival on the bus.

Immunoglobulin: the most expensive private hospital in Guatemala City, 9 hours bus trip from Peten, has a store of the medicine.

Claudia, a friend of Monika who I met volunteering at JUCONI in Puebla, Mexico, meets me at the bus station at 8PM on Sunday evening with a friend who drives me to the hospital for the injection. Later she takes me to her apartment where I sleep for 12 straight hours, get up, eat a massive breakfast, and then return to bed for the rest of the day.

The bite…

…in all its glory.

{ 6 } Comments

  1. Bill Graves | December 25, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Hope you are having an enjoyable Christmas even though you are away from friends and family.

    Sorry to hear about your fox bite and hope everything turns out OK for you. You can’t help but think that the locals in those remote areas probably die when they are bitten by animals. The fox acted as if it wasn’t “normal”…..unless it was protecting pups in the area.

    Lea has left our neighborhood… living down in Cuernavaca for awhile before returning to Australia. Maybe she has returned by now……haven’t heard from her.

    Wishing you well….and a safe journey.
    Wm & Isabel

  2. cass | December 27, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    glad to hear it’s all under control… ish.

  3. Lindsay | December 27, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Norman wondered what happened to the fox. C said she worried about it, as well as you, and it had probably died by now. Of Anna-phalactic shock says Norman.

    Hope you had a good Christmas.


  4. anna | December 27, 2010 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I imagine the fox, if it really was rabid, will die of rabies, poor thing.

  5. WSmart | December 31, 2010 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    I read that retro virus can be distributed via food bait to inoculate wild animals. Two questions come to mind. Can the actual virus be contracted through a food bait, and how much money is a government contract for baiting vast areas of land with retro virus, how much is that worth? Tourist getting rabis is potentially a very costly issue for a Nation that depends on tourism. The lure of easy money…..

    Global warming and global warring have nothing on global denial; be real, be sober.

  6. Nico | March 2, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Hi Anna,

    Very unfortunate to get bitten but it’s good to hear that you got medical attention fast enough.

    I’m planning a similar trip for this summer and I was wondering if you had the Rabies vaccine before you started your trip?

    Take care and safe travels, your trip has been an inspiration for the one I am planning.


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