Baños De Agua Santa: Lessons In Spanish And Painful Reality

New Spanish vocab:

caer: to fall
dolor: pain
pie: foot
radiografía: x-ray
romper: to break
ligamento: ligament
muletas: crutches
factura: invoice
seguro: insurance

I came to Baños to study Spanish for a week, check out some waterfalls and do some hiking. The town is famous for its beautiful natural setting including a nearby active volcano and proximity to the Amazon jungle, adventure activities, thermal baths and a historical apparition of the Virgin. Things started out well enough with an 18km bike ride (or roll, it was mostly downhill) along the Ruta De Las Cascadas with Molly, Becky and Tue to El Pailón Del Diablo or Devil’s Cauldron. This waterfall drops around 80 metres into a dramatic, steep-walled canyon and at some point a bunch of lunatics built paths and stairways into the walls of the canyon so tourists could experience the falls up close. It feels like the kind of place Tolkien’s river elves might live. Good company, a cable car ride, a picnic with a view, a swing (not the famous one), the BEST empanadas at Mercedes’ Empanadas (right beside the entrance to El Pailón), cold beers below the falls and then a visit to the thermal pools all made for a delightful day.

Lots of waters falling.
A waterfall along the Ruta de las Cascadas | Our awesome hiking/biking crew in front of el Pailón: Becky, Tue, me and Molly. Photos: Molly Ahern.

I find Baños surprisingly charming for such a busy tourist destination. Sean (you may remember him from Tikal and Medellín) describes his month-long stay in Baños as “like being in retirement except i’m not even 35 yet and I haven’t got any money.” As charming as the town is, my Spanish teacher is super tough and the lessons are torture. Conjugations, reflexive verbs, direct and indirect object pronouns and on, and on, and on. At least starting mid-week gives me a weekend break in the middle. Sean and I decide to go canyoning on a whim with Imagine Ecuador, a tour that takes us scrambling down a river, jumping, ziplining and rappelling down several waterfalls. After surviving this, I trip in the street. Over several hours a slight limp turns into a pathetic hobble turns into an excruciating shuffle interspersed with hopping. Sean comforts taunts me:

“Life’s crazy huh? You fall over in Baños and walk away with a life changing injury.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, I’ve only sprained my ankle.”
“Well, it’s changing your life right now!”

Luckily Sean and I are both staying at our Spanish teacher’s house so he makes me hot chocolate and dinner (he’s single ladies!) while I sit with my foot iced and elevated, trying not to cry. As I head to bed he tells me to call him if I need anything during the night. About thirty minutes later I send a frantic “HEKP!!!!!” (no time for spell check) to his phone. As Sean bursts through the door I hop around laughing like an idiot while trying to pin down the giant spider in my bed with my iPhone torch light. I usually deal with my own spiders but I am not in this moment equipped to handle the situation. Thank you, Sean. 

Chasin' waterfalls.
After our first descent: Sean, me, Di and Mini Khal Drogo, one of our guides. Photo: Imagine Ecuador.
Funemployment.
You want me to do WHAT? | Ziplining down one of the waterfalls with a questionable braking method. Photos: Imagine Ecuador.

The next day, still unable to walk, I relent and let my very kind Spanish teacher Liz from Baños Spanish Centre take me to the hospital. She drops me off at intake while she parks but as I look around I can’t figure out where to go. There are a lot of people waiting outside the emergency room and long lines of people standing in front of some windows waiting for what looks like hours for who knows what, but no obvious place to check in. No one steps up to offer to help me, so I stand on one leg looking like an idiot, staring at the poster explaining what constitutes a need for ‘emergency’ care versus ‘urgent’ care versus etc. When Liz shows up she just walks straight past all the people waiting into the emergency room and finds me a bed. “Uh, I don’t think this is really an emergency…”

We get a referral for an x-ray which I have to take a half hour cab to another town to get. My dreams of surfing in Peru next week are circling the drain. Later, back at the hospital with a trauma doctor I learn that I have a fractured ankle and two torn ligaments and will be in a cast for at least 3 weeks. Goodbye, Peru. Liz has to go to a pharmacy in town to buy the supplies for the cast, because why would you keep them in a hospital? 

Looking on the bright side?
A cast? Yay! I’ve never had one of THOSE before!

After bringing the cast supplies Liz has to run off to meet one of her students so I’m left to wait alone for the doctor to return. The doctor speaks only a little English and I speak un poco Español so the experience promises to be an interesting one. And it is. Upon his return the doctor casually mentions that I’m going to need to cut off my jeans when I get home because I won’t be able to take them off over the cast. Ah ha, yeah, there’s NO way that’s happening. When I protest and tell him these are my only pair of trousers, he condescendingly tells me I can cut them really carefully and then have them sewn back up. I condescendingly tell him that I will take my jeans off and walk out of this hospital in my underwear before I let anyone cut off my jeans. “This isn’t Australia! You can’t walk around in your underwear here!” 

These are the best fitting pair of jeans i’ve ever owned. You cannot put a value on that. These jeans are literally (not figuratively) priceless to me, so leaving a hospital in my underwear is a price I will pay gladly many times over to maintain their perfection. Once the cast is on, doc looks at me in my underwear like, ‘What are you gonna do now?’ But when I start to get up to hop out he runs off to find something to cover my offensive body. I cleverly fashion a hospital gown into a charming mini skirt and hop off with my jeans folded neatly under my arm and my dignity intact-ish. Nobody tells me where I can and cannot walk around in my underwear, sir. 

Crutches and all.
Hospital chic: Ready to hit the runway for Baños fashion week in my fashion forward new skirt. So smug.

The actual medical care at the hospital is free, even for foreigners (thanks Ecuador!) but the lack of supplies at the hospital is confusing. The doctor directed Liz to a specific pharmacy in town which had plaster for my cast, and then afterward we’re sent to a different specific pharmacy which sells crutches… What kind of a system is this? Why has no-one opened a well-stocked pharmacy right next to the hospital? Baños is famous for bridge jumps, canyoning, ziplining, rafting, biking and hiking; there must be plenty of traumatic injuries even without idiots tripping over their own feet in the street.

Anyway, my life has become a comedy of errors. I spend a lot of time laughing at myself. When we got back to her house, Liz asked if I wanted to move to her bedroom downstairs instead of the room I was in upstairs. I insisted that it was fine, I would need to learn to negotiate stairs on crutches, and promptly yard-saled on the third step. Stairs are my new no fall zone and it takes all my energy to pick a line down the street between cobblestones and dog shit. This weekend Sean decided to rub in the fact that I can’t walk by going on a two-day hike. Yesterday I slipped on the wet tile outside and the two year old golden retriever thought it was a game, jumping all over me and biting my hands while I scrambled around on the ground looking like a newborn giraffe trying to stand up for the first time, pathetically trying to fend him off, swearing profusely and failing to hit him with my crutch. I keep meeting strangers in town who ask what happened and then delightedly tell me how they’ve seen me crutching around town like I’m some kind of B-grade celebrity. Two days ago I was outpaced by an abuelita with a walker. 

 

Cracking.
My cracking pace gives me plenty of time to admire the street art around town.

My insurance company are a bunch of cheap jerks (shout out to World Nomads/ AIG, you jackasses) who don’t see the need for a person traveling alone on crutches to return home for treatment. Cos I can just throw my 15kg of belongings onto my back and skip off to my next destination, yep. So I’ve booked a flight to Dallas to relax with family… but a ‘flight to Dallas’ really means a cab to the bus station, a 3-4 hour bus to Quito, an hour long cab from the bus terminal to the airport, a 5 hour flight to Miami, negotiating customs and immigration in a country where I have a history of memorable interrogations in immigration, a 12 hour layover and then a 3 hour flight to Dallas. I need to plan 32+ hours of snacks, pee breaks and transport transitions with both of my bags. I simply will not shit during this time, it’s not worth it. 

On the bright side I’m improving strength and balance in my previously weaker left leg, I’m getting better on crutches which although highly specialized is nevertheless a new skill, I have a lot more empathy and understanding for all my friends who’ve been in this situation and I have a bunch of hilarious new stories that involve me being unequipped to perform simple tasks (usually the task is getting up after falling down but the stories vary based on whether I slipped in the rain, whether Benji the golden retriever is involved and whether there are strangers silently witnessing my struggle). 

And it could be worse. I could have had my iPhone stolen. 

Screw you World Nomads.
A conversation with my insurance company. Machete it is. Miguel?
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