April 10, 2010

Dodging Snakes in Costa Rica

She had to mention the snakes.

“The fer-de-lance is the worst,” my friend Linda pronounced as we made plans to meet on my upcoming trip to Costa Rica. She’d arranged for us to stay for several days with an expat friend of hers near San Jose. Then I’d head off for five days alone in a remote rainforest lodge on the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf), the first time I’d ventured solo to such a rugged and isolated place. I am no stranger to threatening environments. I’ve traveled in the wild before with my husband, Jack, a seasoned adventurer – first to Borneo taking tea with a tribe of former headhunters, later on an elephant safari in Thailand and then on a jungle trek as the guests of a stone-age tribe in Papua New Guinea. But shortly after New Guinea, at 48 years old, I’d suffered a stroke caused by an autoimmune disease that turns my blood to sludge.  To prevent another stroke, I learned, I’d have to take dangerously high levels of blood thinner for the rest of my life.

In the eight years since my stroke, Jack and I continued to travel: to Botswana and Burma, India and Silk Road cities near the border of Afghanistan. Costa Rica had seemed tame by comparison: a middle income country, only two time zones away, with a stable government and robust tourist infrastructure, a “rich coast” where rainforests resplendent with scarlet macaws and a thousand species of orchids meet Arcadian white-pebble beaches.

I hadn’t considered the snakes. I also had not considered that, on my impetuous jaunt to the rainforest, I’d be alone with the only medical help a half-day slog by boat, then jeep, then aging single-engine Cessna.

I lowered my chin and eyed Linda over the top of my glasses. “I don’t plan to see any snakes.” My approach to snakes, as to all other terrors, was strictly see-no-evil.

“Oh, if you hang around me, we’ll see them,” she said with a malicious grin.  “I’m a regular snake magnet.”

A snake magnet?  At 5’2” and maybe 100 pounds I’d never imagined her the Indiana Jones type. I didn’t know where to put myself on the Indy scale:  I flunked 7th grade jump rope, had to take remedial swimming to graduate from college and still considered jazzercise a competitive sport. Then, improbably, I’d married Jack and tagged along with him to some of the most rugged spots on earth.

“The fer-de-lance will kill you in a minute, you know.” My conversation with Linda was turning into a scare fest. “Stealthy little things, too.”

A vision of slithering malevolence wriggled across my brain.

I tossed my head to shake off the dread. Just what I needed. Something else that could kill me. I had already had plenty to give me the willies: a pesky infected finger that was threatening to go septic, the specter of tripping over a tree root, a coconut falling on my head.

Since the stroke, my doctor always blanched when I planned these escapades but he didn’t forbid them. Costa Rica didn’t seem to bother him much. “Just don’t get an infection, don’t fall down, and whatever you do, don’t hit your head.” A few months before I signed up for Costa Rica, I’d been laid up for five weeks after a spontaneous bleed flooded my knee joint, a situation that at its worst could have resulted in the loss of an appendage. The doc didn’t have to spell out what would happen if super-thinned blood leaked into my brain.

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Anne Sigmon

For more information about stroke and autoimmune disease, visit AnneSigmon.com