Before going abroad, Grinnell students must attend an informational session about all the terrible things that can happen to you (but probably won’t) in order to prepare you to deal with the worst-case scenarios you will most likely never face (but then again, you might). So long before setting foot on an airplane, I listened to Richard Bright, the director of off-campus study, lecture on the dangers of rape, AIDS, armed robberies, kidnappings, murders, freak accidents, natural disasters, and potentially fatal tropical diseases. By the end of the presentation, my head overflowed with so many “what-ifs,” I began to wonder if I really wanted to spend a semester in Costa Rica and Nicaragua at all. After all, Iowa has corn. Central America has malaria.
Luckily, I got over my initial anxieties about crossing U.S. borders, because I ended up having one of those clichéd, amazing-life-changing-I-now-see-the-world-in-a-new-light-and-will-never-be-the-same-again experiences. Last spring I spent a month studying Spanish and globalization in San José, Costa Rica, and while there, I mastered the fine art of crossing the street without getting plowed down by towering buses and aggressive taxis (pedestrians do not have the right of way).
Then it was on to Chagüitillo, Nicaragua, where I volunteered for two wonderful months with a nonprofit community development organization. I spent my days teaching at the local high school and preschool, working in a museum, and learning lots of risque Nica slang words. My nights were spent with my incredible host family, talking, dancing, and rocking chair-ing. And it was in Nicaragua, amidst all the rice-and-beans-eating and sunset-appreciating, when I unexpectedly came face to face with one of Richard Bright’s “what-ifs.”
I got sick.
I woke up one morning with an upset stomach, and assumed I was being punished for drinking a soda chilled with ice made with unfiltered water. I figured the discomfort would fade as the day passed, and went through with my plans to travel with other students in my program to a beautiful organic farm situated way up in the mountains, several miles from paved roads.
As it turns out, I had more than food poisoning.
After a night in the hospital, a shot in the bum, an IV, two blood tests, having to poop and pee into separate cups, and explaining all of my symptoms to Dr. Rosado in my Gringo-accented Spanish, I was diagnosed with dengue fever—a pesky mosquito-borne illness with malaria- like symptoms that make the seemingly impossible expression “constipated diarrhea” possible — as well as a rockin’ intestinal infection.
But I’m pretty stoked to know that one day I’ll be able to tell my future grandkids about the time Grandma Erin fell violently ill while visiting an isolated organic farm in Nicaragua and then had to hike three miles through the mountains in 90 degree weather with all of her travel gear to get to the nearest bus station, and then spend another two hours using a combination of public transportation and hitchhiking to get to the nearest health clinic.
Even though my travel guidebook claims that contracting dengue fever “will put a stop to your fun in Central America like a baseball bat to the head,” getting sick didn’t detract from my time abroad — it enhanced it. True, I was bedridden for quite some time, I got terrible headaches behind my eyes, and my bowels were doing some pretty freaky things I didn’t know they could do. But my, oh, my. What an experience. So many stories to tell! And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Overall, Grinnell has been good to me. I’m appreciative of my five semesters here, and of the two remaining. But my advice to the young ’uns (and the advice that more than 50 percent of all Grinnell students follow) is this: go abroad. Some experiences just can’t be had in Grinnell. Iowa does have corn. And Nicaragua, along with its gorgeous lakes and volcanoes, has dengue. And I’m grateful that in my stint as an undergrad, I’ve had both.
Erin Sindewald '08 is an English major from Orland Park, Illinois.