Half Way to Havana - My Near Death Experience
One year ago on this date June 11, 2015, I almost died.
How did a nice little bicycle ride across a tropical island turn into this?
I spent 3 days in Trinidad and I was ready to move on. The next destination that I planned to visit was a city called Cienfuegos. No real reason other than the town was located along the coastal road to Havana. The route would be one of the longest rides of my journey. The locals were telling me that the distance between the two cities was about 90km (55miles) with no major towns, only small villages in between. For about a third of the route, the road would pass through a nature reserve park called Topes de Collantes. The park contained some of the tallest mountains on the island as well as caves, rivers, falls, grottos, canyons, natural pools and supposedly quite a few mariposas (butterflies).
Knowing that there would not be any towns in between the two cities I filled my 3 liter water container and picked up some bread and bananas. I ate some bread and two bananas and carried two bananas with me. I was expecting that the weather would be hot and humid by mid day, so I wanted to ride as much mileage as possible as early as possible. I got an early start and left Trinidad at about 6:30am.
As I exited the city, the road was paved, flat and in great shape. I encountered a little traffic - a young man on a bike pulling his horse. I quickly passed them. To the right of me was the Topes de Collantes nature reserve. To the left of me was the ocean. I was never really able to see the nature reserve nor the ocean because along the road there was a green wall of vegetation that was so thick I could not see beyond 10 to 15 feet.
I continued down the road. The sky was filled with clouds. I welcomed the clouds knowing that they were protecting me from the direct rays of the sun. I did notice that even though it was early in the day, it was quite hot and humid.
After about 10km (6miles) I was not feeling quite right. I was feeling tired and was sweating profusely. Normally I sweat a little on my back. Today, I was sweating on my back, chest, face and even my arms. I drank some water and proceeded. I thought that maybe I just needed to break through a physiological barrier and that soon my energy would return. It did not.
I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped pedaling.
I took a few deep breaths. I wiped sweat from my brow. I was dripping in sweat. What was going on? I felt weak. There had been times during my trip when I felt tired, times when I was short of breath, times when I needed to get off my bicycle and walk. This was different. I felt weak.
I've experienced many strange illnesses while I've traveled. I've experienced altitude sickness in Nepal. My whole body swelled up when I was stung by a scorpion in Guatemala. I've had food poisoning (Delhi Belly) in India. I was thinking that maybe I had food poisoning. I had been eating pretty much everything that was put before me. Some of the symptoms of food poisoning are stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, dizziness, weakness and sweating. I had a few of the symptoms, but surprisingly no stomach pain at all.
I put down my kickstand and dismounted my bicycle. I took a long draw of water from my water bladder. I slowly peeled a banana and ate it.
OK, now wait, wait until that energy kicks in. You'll be fine.
I conducted a mental inventory of my supplies. I had plenty of water, at least 2 liters. I still had a banana, some energy bars that I carry for emergencies, some pieces of candy that I had bought a few days ago. In my first aid kit I had some medicines - aspirin, ibuprofen, benadryl, rehydration drink mix. I always travel with a fully stocked first aid kit. I had a hammock and tarp if I needed to stop and camp for the night. I even had a lighter and fire steal if I needed to start a fire.
I thought about sitting down and resting. But then I thought, no. Don't sit down. If you sit down, you might get complacent, you might loose motivation to continue, you might give in, you might give up, you might not be able to get back up. Don't sit down. Eat! Drink! Don't sit down!
I looked forward and all I could see was the road. To my right, nothing but thick vegetation. To my left, nothing but thicker vegetation. I even looked back, back toward Trinidad. There was nothing… nobody… no bicyclists… no horses… no cars… no trucks… no buses… nothing.
I remember that for a long moment I was just staring at my bicycle. I was staring at my bicycle as if there was something wrong with it. But there was not. The bicycle was working perfectly. It was me.
Some thoughts started rushing through my mind. What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? No answers became readily available. I realized that I could answer all those questions later. Right now, I needed to save my energy to evaluate my physical condition and come up with a plan of action. I'm good at that. Keep calm and come up with a plan of action.
I reviewed my options. I could wait by the side of the road until the next vehicle passed by. I assessed that on this part of the road it could be 1, 2, 3 or more hours before a vehicle passed by. I could simply stop and camp on the side of the road. I assessed that I had the equipment, food and water, but there really wasn't a good place to camp. The vegetation was so thick that I'd basically be forced to lay down on the side of the road. I could walk and push my bicycle. I assessed that I might be able to do it for a while, but to push my bicycle for a mile or more would take more energy than it would to ride. Or I could just hop back on my bicycle and ride.
I took a deep breath. I mounted my bicycle. I began to pedal.
I wiped the sweat from my face. I rolled up the sleeves of my shirt. I pedaled on… right, left, right, left, right, left. Trying to make the most of my energy I started to use circular pedal strokes. I began to practice some deep breathing technique to relax my body and take in more oxygen. My plan was to keep riding until I encountered some people.
After riding for some time my energy did pick up a bit. However, I was still sweating more than normal. And I started to fill a little pain in my upper chest. This was not good. I felt a tightness in my jaw. This was something new. This was not food poisoning. I needed to find help, and soon.
At various times in my life, I've actually been in life or death situations. I've always cheated death. I'm a survivor.
My mind wondered… this would not be a such a good place to die. There was not a scenic view of the ocean. There was not a majestic view of the mountains. I was basically riding on an asphalt road surrounded by two walls of dense vegetation - it was a tunnel with no light at the end. I always imagined that if I had my choice of where I might die that it would be in a location with beautiful majestic poetic surroundings - lying on a beautiful beach with waves splashing against the shore or high in the mountains with the wind in my hair or even a forrest surround by tall and fragrant trees. This place did not meet my standard. I continued to pedal.
I was pondering... I've lived an incredible life. I've done things, gone places and seen things that probably 99% of people have never experienced. I was thinking… I don't want to die, but I would be okay with dying. I'm a Christian, so I have no fear of death.
I remember thinking… My mom would be really upset if I died in Cuba. Not wanting to upset or disappoint my mom, I pedaled on. I've always heard that when people are in a life or death situation, that it is not the thought of self-preservation that can sustain someone to survive. It is usually the thought of the need to return to loved ones that motivates people to survive. It is the love of family and friends that pushes them to survive. I pedaled on… I decided to live.
I pedaled for what seemed like a long time, but in reality it was probably only 4 or 5 kms (2 or 3 miles). I remember riding across this bridge. I was thinking, this is the best constructed bridge that I've seen in all of Cuba. At the far end of the bridge, I could see a few structures. Houses! Civilization! People!
As I neared the houses, I realized that the community was only a small village. The road leading up to the houses was more like a dirt pathway. There were maybe a total of 10 houses. It was not really a town, it was a village. I did not see any people walking around. There were two men standing by the side of the road next to a road sign which appeared to be a bus stop. Hallelujah! I pedaled up to the two gentlemen.
Me, "Hello, how are you?"
Cuban, "Bien, bien." (well)
Me, "Are you waiting for a bus?"
Cuban, "Si." (yes)
Me, "When is the next bus?"
Cuban, "Se sabe. Talvez en 30 minutos." (Who knows, maybe in 30 minutes)
Me, "My name is Troy. I want to go to Cienfuegos. I'm not feeling well. When the bus arrives can you help me put my bicycle on the bus."
Cuban, "Si, no problema." (Yes, no problem)
To the right of the road there was a building that looked like a store. The door was closed and the windows were covered with panels. I asked the two men if the store would be opening soon. They said that they did not know. There was a little porch attached to the store. I decided that I should wait in the shade of the porch. I walked over to the porch, sat on the ground and leaned against the wall. I was not feeling great, but I felt well enough to take the photo above. I was disappointed that my body was failing me.
I opened up my medical kit, took two aspirin and drank some water.
Above is a photo of my bike by the side of the road. I folded it up so that it and I would be ready for the next vehicle that passed by. Next to the bus stop sign is one of the men that was waiting with me for transportation.
We waited for an hour, then two hours.
I had some time, so I tried to get to know my new amigos. One of the gentlemen had a stick that was about three feet long (one meter) with a large metal hook protruding from one end. The hook reminded me of the hook of the villain in the horror movie Candyman. That movie scared me when I was a kid. My imagination is vivid, I was thinking that this situation seemed like the perfect setting for a horror movie. A lone traveler riding a bicycle across a tropical island and encounters two men in an isolated village - one man carrying a stick with a metal hook.
I asked the man with the hook, "For what do you use the stick?" He said, "Para enganchar pesces." (to hook fish) They were fishermen. I like fishermen. I felt at ease. I inquired where they were going. They explained that they were on their day off and traveling to Cienfuegos for a friend's birthday party. We chatted a little more about the US, fishing and baseball,
A few trucks passed by, but did not stop. A bus passed by, but it was a tourist bus, it did not stop. A horse drawn carriage galloped by, it was not going all the way to Cienfuegos. A private car filled with people passed by, it did not stop.
After two and a half hours we were all getting impatient. A woman was walking up the road and stopped to talk to us. We explained that we had been waiting for over two hours. She said that sometimes when the fishermen stop working for the day they depart in their trucks from nearby the bridge. Maybe we could ask them for a ride. She advised us to walk toward the bridge to see if any of the fishermen were preparing to leave. We headed her words. The two men grabbed their things and started walking. I unbundled my bicycle and followed along. When we approached the bridge we could not see any trucks nor fishermen. The two men stopped at a boulder that was the size of a car that was laying by the side of the road in the shade. They took up a new waiting position leaning on the boulder. I joined them.
Within 30 seconds of positioning ourselves alongside the boulder a car passed by and then pulled to the side of the road. I think that the driver spotted me, a tourist, and decided to stop. We hurriedly ran to the car and began talking with the driver. He asked me where I was going. I said to the center of Cienfuegos. He said jump in. He looked at my two amigos. I said that they were with me. He told them to jump in. I think that it is a custom in Cuba that if a taxi picks up a tourist then the Cubans in the car get to ride free. The fee that the drivers charge the tourists usually makes up for the fee that he would have charged the Cubans. I did not mind. My two amigos sat in the back. I sat in the front. My bicycle was folded and placed in the trunk.
We cruised down the road with the windows open, wind in my hair and music playing. Cienfuegos was still about an hour away. I talked with the driver most of the way. The driver was a taxi driver that had just transported some tourist from Cienfuegos to Trinidad. He was now making the return trip back to Cienfuegos with an empty car. I learned that his car was a 1950s era Plymouth that was handed down from this grandfather to this father and now to him - an heirloom. The car was cruising along nicely at highway speeds. I complimented the driver on how smooth and strong the car was running. He said that he had replaced the old V8 cylinder engine with a 4 cylinder engine from a Toyota. The three speed was swapped out for a five speed. The suspension was different. He said that now the car got better gas mileage and was more reliable. I did not know if that 1950 era Plymouth was a magical machine, but I was feeling better. I sat back and enjoyed the ride.
As we neared the town of Cienfuegos, my two amigos signaled to the driver that they wanted to be dropped off. They asked the driver what they owed him. He said, "Nada." (Nothing) They thanked him. The Plymouth was soon moving again.
The driver asked me if I already had a reservation at a hotel in Cienfuegos. I told him that I wanted to go to the center of town and then I would find a casa particular. He said that he had a aunt that had a casa particular and that he would take me there. I said that I would look at it as long as it was in the center of town and if it did not cost more than 15CUC. I pulled out my iPhone and opened up a navigation app that I often use when traveling internationally called Pocket Earth. The app can function without a cellular signal. I tracked where we were traveling. We pulled up to a building and the driver ran inside. He said that his aunt was willing to accept 15CUC. I looked at Pocket Earth and told the driver that we were not in the center of town and that I wanted to stay in the center of town. My driver jumped back into the car and said that his aunt had another casa particular that was closer to the center. He would take me there. After a few minutes we arrived at different casa. I looked at Pocket Earth. We were still a fair distance away from the center of town. I told my driver that this would not work for me. In Cuba the central plaza is almost always called the Plaza Marti, named after the revolutionary Jose Marti. I told my driver, please take me to the Plaza Marti. He said okay.
We eventually arrived at the Plaza Marti. I told him to circle the plaza once and then I would pick out a casa particular from one of the many surrounding the plaza. He circled once. Then I picked out the yellow casa particular in the photo above. My driver pulled over and quickly ran inside. I believe that he wanted to quickly negotiate with the owner to ensure that he would receive a commission as my "jentero". I was okay with it. He had been more than helpful. I unloaded my bag and my bicycle from the trunk. I asked him how much I owed him for the ride. He said whatever I wanted to pay him. I asked him again. He responded the same. I ended up paying him about 15CUC. He seemed happy. He turned to the casa manager, smiled at her and said that he would pass by later. I understood… he would pass by later to collect his commission.
I entered the lobby of the casa particular and sat down on a sofa. The woman that was at the casa said that the owner would be back in just a minute to register me and show me to a room. During the ride in the car I felt okay. When I was unloading my bag and bicycle from the car I felt okay. But once I entered the casa particular, I suddenly felt weak and dizzy. I reclined on the sofa. When the owner showed up, I stood up to shake his hand. I felt dizzy, the room spun and I sat back down. I told the owner that I was bicycling from Trinidad to Cienfuegos, was not feeling well, so I caught a cab to Cienfuegos. He seemed quite astonished that anyone would try to bicycle between Trinidad and Cienfuegos. He said that I probably was not feeling well because of the heat and humidity. I shook my head in agreement. I tried a second time to stand. I was able to stand and walk, so I asked him to show me to my room.
We walked down a short hallway to a room. He opened the door to show me the room. I shook my head that it looked okay. Then… I blacked out.
I blacked out. I felt myself falling over. It was all in slow motion. It was black. then there was a flash of light, then it was black again. This was all within a fraction of a second. When I saw the flash of light I stuck out my hand and braced myself against the wall. Then it went black again.
The next thing that I remember was that I opened my eyes and there were faces staring at my face. It was like a scene in a movie. I realized that I was flat on my back and that there were two or three people hunched over me. I could see their faces, with stern looks of concern. I said, "What happened?" They said, "You fell down." I said, "Alright, I feel okay. I would like to go into the room so that I can lay down." They said, "No! No! No!, Let's go to the lobby." There were two men and one woman helping me to the lobby. I lied down on the sofa.
I'm not sure how long I was lying down on the sofa. I may have closed my eyes. I may have kept them open. I may have stayed awake. I may have dosed off. I don't remember.
I remember after a while I was greeted by a rather tall man with a bald head and a mustache and goatee beard. He was speaking to me in English. He introduced himself as Jorge (George). He said that he was the father of the two younger men that had helped me to the couch. He said that he also owned a casa particular around the corner. He asked if he could take my pulse. I said sure. We then transitioned to speaking Spanish. I explained the whole story - how I was bicycling across the country, was traveling between Trinidad and Cienfuegos, started feeling weak, caught a taxi to Cienfuegos, then ended up at the casa. His sons filled in the details of what happened after I had arrived at their casa.
Jorge contacted a doctor that lived in the neighborhood. I do not remember his name. The doctor took my pulse and blood pressure. I shared my story once again. The doctor concluded that I was probably dehydrated and simply needed to eat, drink and rest. So I ate and drank some of my supplies. The doctor packed up his medical kit and left.
After about 30 minutes I was not feeling any better. Jorge tried to take my pulse and blood pressure. He said that both were very very low. I said that I thought that it would be better for me to go to a hospital. He agreed and called an ambulance.
Within a few minutes the ambulance arrived. The medics asked me what happened, so I explained the whole story again. They took my pulse and blood pressure. Then they said that they would take me to the hospital. They brought in a stretcher and loaded me onto it. Once inside the ambulance they connected me to some machines and connected an intravenous therapy to my arm.
I remember vividly that I was tilted on the stretcher with my feet above my head. I could tell that the blood was rushing to my head. I asked the medics if they could lower feet because I was a little uncomfortable. They said, "NO!"
This is Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 when I share what happened to me once I entered the Cuban hospital.