We were working in Nicaragua at the time. I was working for CARE Canada as Project Coordinator for a rural potable water and sanitation project in the north of the country. Claire was doing some consulting for CARE USA, a tricky undertaking given the US government was funding the Contra guerillas at the same time. The Contras, on behalf of the US, were engaged in a destabilizing insurgency against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Any US funding for projects was seen as tainted ‘blood money’ by the Nicaraguans. The irony of it all was that the US funding was to go towards children impacted by the war. A war funded by the States!
Similar to our time in Mozambique, Nicaragua was a posting in a war zone that warranted two one week R&Rs per year (which included the cost of return tickets to Miami) . It was time for our first R&R so we opted to combine the two and head south to Ecuador, instead of visiting Disneyworld in Florida! Yes, some might question our priorities.
Neither of us had been to South America. At the time, Columbia was being torn apart by leftist guerillas, right wing paramilitaries and drug cartels. Peru was being terrorized by the Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) and Argentina was still enmeshed in the fallout of a brutal right-wing military dictatorship (the ‘Dirty War’), amongst other problems on the continent. In this context, Ecuador seemed like an island of stability. The tensions and uncertainties of our life in Nicaragua encouraged us to seek some peace and security. (Note: I look forward to writing about our three challenging but, once all is said and done, wonderful years in Nicaragua in a future post.)
We had heard of an obscure, trail just south of Sangay National Park that crossed the cordillera that forms the eastern edge of the high central plateau (the Paramo) and descends down into the Oriente, that portion of Ecuador contiguous with the vast Amazon basin. It was said to be a six day walk which fit with our timing so we headed south to the old colonial city of Riobamba.
“Señor, we understand perfectly, that in a affair like yours, it is necessary to dissemble a little, and you, doubtless, do quite right to say you intend to ascend Chimborazo – a thing that everyone knows is impossible. We know every well what is your object! You wish to discover the treasures that are buried in Chimborazo…..”
Claire had developed quite intense gastrointestinal cramps for the last few kms of the hike and continued while seated in the truck. This was somewhat relieved by the non-stop, high speed chatter of the Argentinian driver (a distinct version of Latin American Spanish) that we struggled to follow. As we arrived in Macas, we asked to be dropped off at the nearest, decent hotel. I checked in while Claire rushed up to our room and the nearest toilet. I will never forget the sight of my poor wife, sitting on the toilet, wet, muddy pants around her ankles, with two black eyes quietly crying. She had just miscarried.
We had been trying to get pregnant for at least a year and Claire had mentioned that her period was late but, based on past inconsistencies in her menstrual cycle, this was not an indicator to be counted on. Though we kept our thoughts to ourselves (not to jinx things!), I had been contemplating kid’s names as we hiked along. Claire had also quietly suspected a pregnancy. We spent a sad, quiet evening in the hotel recuperating.
We pulled into Puyo, tired, with Claire once again cramping and starting to bleed. Puyo was a run down, dump of a frontier town with a reputation for petty thievery. Apparently the local tribe, once feared headhunters, had adapted poorly to ‘modern’ life and were the scourge of town. Knowing that the picturesque tourist center of Baños (famous for its mineral springs) was only another one and a half hours further, we pushed on. By the time we got to Baños, Claire’s pants were soaked through with blood which she managed to hide with a jacket tied around her waist. We checked into a hotel and I contacted CARE associates in Quito to see a gynecologist the following day. We took a taxi for the 3 1/2 hour drive to Quito, collected some clean clothes we had left behind, got washed up and then headed directly to a new, private hospital where Claire was soon seen by an elderly, well respected gynecologist. When he walked into the examining room and saw Claire on the bed, with her two black eyes, claiming she had a miscarriage possibly provoked by a fall in a creek, he shooed everyone out of the room, gently took Claire’s hand and asked “Please tell me, what really happened?”
Claire found the ‘battered wife’ suggestion amusing but wasn’t happy to hear that a partially retained miscarriage would require a curettage and another overnight stay in a hospital while on R&R. (She had fallen off a horse in Swaziland on a previous R&R and also spent time in the local hospital!). The operation went well. We still believed the miscarriage was a result of the fall in the creek and unaccustomed altitude but the doctor was sure it was a non-viable pregnancy from the outset. Whatever the case, we were at least comforted to know we were both fertile and testing wouldn’t be required.
As I tell this tale, I’m sure many people must wonder why Claire has stuck with me all these years. In my search for these little adventures that give meaning and substance to my life I have often, unwittingly though some would say callously, gotten Claire into situations beyond her skills or experience. Somehow she rises to the challenge, doesn’t complain (too much) and pushes through. I’m a lucky man who found the right partner in life!