October 4th, 2011

Bolivia Stomach Parasites (South of the Border Series)

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A Street Parade in Potosi, Bolivia
My travel friend had been living with a Bolivian family for a month, eating homecooked food. She started feeling ill and went to the hospital, where she tested positive for three different intestinal parasites.

“Wikipedia says that this one can break through your intestinal wall and go into your bloodstream, eventually making its way to your brain,” I told her, unreassuringly. We looked up each of her parasites to see how serious they were.

She had already taken medication for a week, but was still feeling sick and wanted a second test to make sure the parasites were gone. Then there was me. I had been in Bolivia for a week, eating plenty local food without getting sick. I had already seen so much- Tupiza, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had met their demise, the amazing Uyuni Salt Flats, and Potosi, the world’s highest city (13,290 feet altitude).

The worst I came down with was a head cold. A minor setback. Given I was in the world’s highest city, that was to be expected. The same day I made my new travel friend, I met a second girl in my hostel from Las Vegas. She had been careless about what she ate and was recovering from an E. Coli infection. So many people with stomach parasites, I must have a strong stomach, I thought. I made sure to use a water filter, never drinking water from tap. To be even more careful, I made it a habit to drink a beer or two in the evening. That would probably kill anything still living in my stomach. I haven’t found any research that proves this yet, it’s just a hunch.

Bolivian Street Food

That day, I discovered the local street food market in Potosi. I tried saltenos (big empanadas), ice cream, and a large meal of breaded chicken, rice, potatoes, and salad. The large meal cost less than one US dollar. I could eat like the locals and pay less than a dollar for lunch. What a deal, I thought.

The next day, I felt fine and returned for more of the same deliciously cheap street food. Afterwards, my friend and I went on one of Potosi’s infamous mine tours. These tours support the local miners financially, and give outsiders a perspective of the working conditions the miners face every day.

After finishing the mine tour, my friend got her second parasite test results back- negative. “Congratulations,” I told her.

It Was My Turn

That night, I slept terribly, having nightmares and waking up many times. I was on the top bunk of a six bed dorm room, and felt bad for the person sleeping below. When I finally got up, the other five occupants had already left, and I had kicked all my sheets to the floor.

Something didn’t feel right. I had no energy and felt very cold. Somehow, I gathered the energy to check out of the hostel and take my mid-day bus ride to my next destination, sleeping the whole way there. Once there, I quickly found a hostel and crashed in a cheap private room.

No energy. Stomach pain. Too cold. Too hot. Diarreah. Dehydration. Lots of sleep. I stayed in my bed for two days without eating. Finally, I went to a hospital. It turns out my stomach wasn’t prepared for Bolivia street food. The doctor told me that the salad I ate probably caused my illness. I was prescribed a few medications to kill the parasites, including one called “Septicide”… Sounds like a liquid plumbing cleaner, right? Well it killed whatever was breeding in my intestines.

During my bedridden state, I noticed that someone had written on my bedframe, “See the world with another man’s eyes.” I have no doubt that the Potosi mine tour helped me accomplish that. And the stomach parasite? It helped me realize that even the strongest stomach is no match for Bolivia street food… I ended up getting sick from the food two more times during my three month stay in Bolivia.

Part of the South of the Border Series

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