Cold and flu season is upon us. Only in equatorial Africa, it also would appear to be unknown stomach ailment, raging high fever with no explanation and malaria season. Judging from what I hear, these particular ailments only occur in the winter, spring, summer and fall, so that’s good.
So far we’ve been pretty lucky, but a few of Chris’s teammates have not been so fortunate. We were warned about the introductory stomach bug that is Gabon’s equivalent of the Hawaiian lei. Some insist that it, too, is handed out at the airport as soon as you arrive. Since we’ve been here, the week usually begins with one or two people out with something – from upset stomach to full-on food poisoning. You never really know, but it’s safe to assume it was something you ate.
The food here is phenomenal, but I don’t know that “Health Inspector” is on the “Top 10 Most Promising Careers in Gabon.” I often imagine restaurant kitchens to resemble a scene from Pixar’s Ratatouille. For those of you not familiar with this particular film, it features a cooking rat. Not a rat that is being cooked, but a rat that can cook. Although, I suppose either scenario would hold its own relevance in this case. All I know is that the food is delicious. And if an occasional weekend of violent stomach pain is the price I have to pay for not cooking, then so be it.
Next, there’s the mysterious fever. Saturday night, one of Chris’s colleagues was taken to the hospital with an insanely high fever. Three days and several blood tests later, they ruled out malaria, but I’m not sure anything else has been diagnosed. Fortunately, he came home today, but I think he’s pretty wiped out.
And last but not least, malaria. Another team member was diagnosed on Monday morning after starting with fevers on Sunday. She has a milder case, but still…malaria.
It’s easy enough to think of a stomach bug as a great way to lose 5 pounds; or to imagine that three days in the hospital with a fever is just another name for “vacation from the kids”; or even that “having had malaria” will make you an exciting and exotic guest at future dinner parties; but like a $300 pair of shoes, everything sounds glamorous until you actually get it.
The fact is, it’s kind of scary to get sick in a place where you’re not familiar with the local viruses, infections or doctors. Fortunately, aside from Emma feeling a little queasy one day, Nora has been the only one source of medical drama, but even that’s been minor.
Her first problem started with a fever that I had no way of measuring because my thermometer is currently somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After she woke up feeling like a toaster oven and missed school 2 days in a row, I decided to go the pharmacy. Unlike a CVS or Rite-Aid, the pharmacies here are more like pharmaceutical dispensaries with everything behind the counter. No prescription needed. Just go in, explain your malady, the pharmacist will find the appropriate treatment and off you go. Should you also be in the market for cosmetics, face creams, baby lotions, sunscreen or a wide variety of prophylactics, not to worry, they’re all there…just behind the glass case.
So after picking the older girls up from school, we stopped off at the pharmacy just down the street. It was pretty crowded, so in order to make our presence known, we went with one of my favorite strategies – I call it the “make a scene then smile like a mental patient” technique.
Step 1: Dump an entire bottle of water on the floor, then attempt to mop it up with a non-absorbent nylon shopping bag.
Step 2: Stand quietly in the resulting puddle with a hopeful look on your face while holding a dripping shopping bag.
When it was finally my turn, I realized that while “bonjour” (hello), “ça va” (what’s up) and “je voudrais le poulet” (I would like the chicken) serve me just fine on a daily basis, describing a child’s illness was way out of my range. I started by gesturing to Nora, then proceeded to inform the pharmacists that, “Elle est mal.”, which roughly translates to “She is bad.” I then followed up with the clincher, “Elle est chaud” (She is hot). Judging from the look on the pharmacists face, I might as well have announced “We are sweaty Americans” because as I turned to look at Nora, I realized that we were all flushed red with sweat dripping down our face and hair clinging to our foreheads. She must have thought we were trying to order a Coke.
It was clear that I was going to get nowhere with my French, so I came up with Plan B and got serious. I sent the girls to sit on a bench, all but Nora as she was an important prop in my act. I then did a riveting mime interpretation of what I like to call “Fever, Runny Nose, Cough but No Vomit.”
Apparently it was outstanding as it resulted in a new thermometer that only reads Celsius and the equivalent of Children’s Tylenol. I felt like a huge success – my motherly instincts had kicked in and the need to take care of my young had triumphed mightily over a language barrier. I could practically hear Obiwan Kanobe whispering, “Yes, the force is strong with this one.” It was glorious, right up until I paid with 30,000 CFA (~ $60 US) instead of the 2,500 ($5 US) that she had asked for because I haven’t the faintest idea how to understand numbers in French and I am utterly confused by the money. She returned my money and I humbly left.
Our second trip went much better. Nora developed a ridiculous looking heat rash under her arm so I marched in, went for the obvious, announced that “Elle est tres blanc! Ha Ha Ha” (“She is very white!”) and went away with a lovely ointment that cleared it right up.
I might just become a Jedi yet…if the malaria doesn’t get me first.