Malaria Scare and Throwing up at the Hilton

I start my morning with a walk to Kaldis (the Ethiopian coffee chain that looks like green-logo mimic of Starbucks). While the coffee is decent, the burgers are fantastic, and the waitress (who now runs up to hug me upon arrival after a week away) is a friend. I order in unfaltering Amharic now. She grins with my improvements. Then leaves me to work–which is one of the reasons I keep coming back to this place, I can concentrate on work in relative peace (compared to other places, where I’m hounded with questions and male attention). That, and I know the two tables where there’s a power outlet.

Today the food is great, but little peace. An Ethiopian family, visiting from Australia, applaud my Amharic, as their 10 year-old son eyes me curiously. He complains that the burgers don’t have any toys (i.e. McDonalds) and asks me my name and how old I am. He speaks no Amharic, he won’t learn, his father tells me, then continues to say that I know more than him. Now that’s a shame! So I teach him one, two and three (and, huluet, sost) before they leave.

No sooner do they leave, than three British men walk in, to take their place. They do a triple-take when they see me sitting there with a laptop, trying to focus on the screen. What could I possibly be doing here? So on.

The gentlemen continue to tell me their story. They’re in a band. Prompting my question, What could you possibly be doing here?!

They’re military musicians. They’d volunteered with the military to train up the Ethiopian military band here in Addis.

Eventually, I retreat to the Hilton lounge to hide and work. On my walk up Menelik II Avenue, I break into a woozy sweat. Perhaps it’s hotter than I’d thought. But I plod on, each step feeling like a hundred pounds. A weak smile to the UN guards, who salute back. A tired hug to the Hilton guards, who dismiss my open bag over greetings of guardenia (friend) and questions about my husband’s health (He is doing well, amasegnalo) and questions of when they’ll possibly meet this most amazing man who could have won my hand in marriage (Gheez, I’d like to meet him too! Instead I shrug my shoulders and give a vague nod and a in a day or two, yichallal, it may be possible)

I drop into the nearest chair. I feel like trash. Look up, Franz (the German I blew off the night before) is one table over with another woman, and nods coolly. Great, to late to move now.

I try to focus on work, on my lamb sambusa and pepper salad that I always eat with ravenous delight. But my stomach is churning and the room is spinning. My whole body aches, my throat dry. My fingers look as white as the china teacup in my hand. What is going on.

Malaria pill. I forgot to take it last night. Again.

I’m dizzy as I google the symptoms for maleria, as my throat tightens into short asthmatic wheezes between waves of nausea. Who knows what this is. But I know I’m alone in this. I never did get travel insurance. That was stupid.

Ok, think Joya. But my sweaty hands can hardly type. I buy a 72 hour emergency evacuation pass, with medical rescue, the works: the $80 I spend is what I assume would be cheaper than sorting out what comes next if this does get bad. I can barely sit up straight when the payment processes and I see the confirmation number. My helpline.

I slowly stand up to cash out my tab when the room spins so sickeningly fast that, in front of a horrified Franz, the sweet waitress and a few other well-dressed Ethiopian women, I proceed to projectile vomit through cupped hands full of birr notes. Then I’m heaving, wretching over the sink, as it feels (and smells) as if my insides are being expelled from my body through my mouth. The smell alone makes me vomit more, as tears of utter pain and a shame squeeze from my eyes.

I am so sorry, I am so sorry, I am so so sorry. I whisper to the waitress who hands me towels, as I mop up the mess and wipe away tears.

Despite the horror and disgust that must be overwhelming her, I will never forget my waitress of the last 4 weeks patting my hand and brushing back my hair, It is no problem, angel. God be with you. And bless you. God be with you. And bless you….

They’ve called the nurse, I can hardly stand. I stumble through the Hilton halls to the infirmary. I sit. Hands in my head. I recount my travels. I recount the breakfast and lunch I’ve had time and again without so much trouble. Thanks to my little iron-stomach. And we deduce, when I spent 20 consecutive minutes not throwing up, that I probably don’t have malaria. That I should come back if I feel worse. Otherwise, I’m free to go.

I don’t know what to do. Too traumatized from the taxi-threats the night before, that I shuffle home, one slow step. Half-dead. I empty my pockets of any non-wet birr into the hands of the street beggars.

Thankful they’re busy at the front desk to notice my pathetic arrival, as I climb the stairs. I fall into bed, barely able to stand up, but still not throwing up, and set the alarm for 45 minute intervals, just in case the nurse is wrong and I do succumb to a malaria-induced seizure while sleeping (apparently, one article I read thought this was common — people resting and then never getting back up.) That way I can at least, I don’t know, email for an emergency evacuation and/or text my family and tell them I love them or something. I’d not thought that part totally through as I was still a little woozy. (I’d just thrown up all my internal organs.) But in the moment, it all made sense. Otherwise, I’d just nap for a spell and hope this passes so I can enjoy my last days in Ethiopia.

And I sleep.  For 45 minute, then 2 hour, then 5 hour intervals, until 14 hours pass. And while I can’t get out of bed for more than a minute or two at a time, I am alive and holding steady. It’s probably not malaria.

I curl up on my tiled balcony and watch the sun rise, in the cool morning, head alternating between the smoky heavens and resting on my knees.  Travel. It would be nice, I admit, to have someone here right now willing to trudge down the six flights of stairs and the half mile to the store…

Heading Home…to Addis

When I arrive in Addis, I revel in the familiarity of what was foreign just weeks ago. I know where to go and what to do. The blue-white taxis, the noisy dirt-paved streets, the mish-mash of buildings.  The way “amasegnalo” slides off my tongue (compared to the tongue-twister it was just two weeks ago when I arrived here). The way we’re on a first name basis, and I call this, simply, “Addis” now.

I can tell my impressed cab driver, listening to Katy Perry, where to turn and where to stop.

The Hilton guards, the UN guards remember me and call out warm Amharic welcomes. When birr starts flying from the ATM to my hand, in weathered piles of paper (after nearly eight days without access to cash, in Africa), it feels like I’ve won the lottery! My heart is lighter than air. I know where to find the bank that can wire the money to the trusting hotel owner in Gondar.

When they see me coming, my Addis hotel guards hop from their stools with big grins and waves. Everyone wants to know, “Did I see it? Did I see Lalibela? And Meskel?”

And when I put my hands to my heart, “Lalibela, betam conjo. Meskel, betam conjo. Fasilidades castle, betam conjo. Oh, Ethiopia, betam conjo!” Everyone gasps and laughs with pride!

Five winding flights of stairs up, my room is waiting for me: tidy and clean, fresh sheets stretched across my so-luxurious king bed. I unpack my bag, folding clothes and lining shampoo, conditioner and soap in front of the bathroom mirror, thinking how great new places are, and how good it feels to be home.

I close the doors to the two empty, spare bedrooms and open the balcony door and all the windows to let in the sounds of my Addis side street and hungrily eat spaghetti (a standard in once-occupied-but-never-successfully-colonized-Ethiopia). Even the Italian red-sauce seasoned slightly with cardamon and pepper, for a spicy-sweet Ethiopian twist to the classic, tastes familiar now.

I collapse, dead tired, coughing. Barely remembering to take the malaria pill that I’d already forgotten the last two days in a row.  (While no worries in Addis, where high altitude temperatures keep malaria at bay — my meds must be dutifully taken two weeks after leaving malaria zones. And I’ve repeatedly forgotten. And I’ve spent a week in malaria-plagued Gondar.)