Vilcabamba Ecuador, after a long break

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So I haven´t written anything here all month. Peru and the death of my computer are my excuses. But now I want to go back and catch up. I’m currently in another small town that is quite tempting to a lot of retirees, dropouts, new age practitioners, ayahuasca and San Pedro enthusiasts, fake and real shaman, and snake oil sales people. In other words, the southern Peruvian version of Vilcabamba. So it put me to mind to get to work on my blog.

Vilcabamba has a reputation. It is also a bit of a mystery to me. The reputation is as a valley of longevity where you can retire on thin air and live forever. It also has a reputation as a place to take “plant medicines” aka ayahuasca and San Pedro. Hence its attraction to the above list of motley characters. The mystery is how this place has developed in a little rather hard to get to valley in the south of Ecuador on a barely used/usable stretch of road that leads to the least used jungle border crossing to Peru. To the north by an hour or so is the town of Loja, but that is far from an outpost of urbanity. If you are looking for a city, it is a 4.5 hour flight to Quito. It is in the middle of pretty much nowhere.

So, I had a rather jaundiced view before my arrival. I had read the stories of drugs, hippies and violence.    I had also read all the glowing reports from International Living Magazine, a publication dedicated to convincing retirees or future retirees that they can live an idyllic life on next to nothing in one of their selected locations, for all of which they just happen to offer seminars and webinars for a small fee, so you can learn how this prestidigitation is performed. Yes, I know snake oil when I smell it.

This wariness was reinforced when I got on the bus from Loja to Vilcabamba and sat down next the an escapee from Alaska. Now I have spent years in Alaska and I know that when they emptied out the mental health hospitals in the lower 48 in the 70´s and 80´s, a good percentage of the former residents headed for Alaska. This kind lady made her second escape to Ecuador. She checked all of the boxes for what I had come to expect from some of the residents of Vilcabamba; spaced out, check, paranoid, check, conspiracy theorist, check, spiritually committed, check and double check (Seventh Day Adventist), broke, check, delusional. . .well, you get the idea. So upon my arrival I already might as well have continued on the Peru.

So I surprised myself and actually fell deeply in like with the place. The local church certainly was painted by some cosmically inspired group. The people I met on the sunny town square were not the cashed up one I´d heard about, and maybe they had their ¨plant medicine¨ moments, but mostly they were friendly down to earth exiles from gringolandia.

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I have written a lot about Cuenca, but the bottom line for me was a lack of feeling connected. Cuenca seems to roll up the sidewalks at night and everyone escapes to their own little, mostly family, enclave. Certainly the glorious town square in Cuenca lacks the social vibe that to me defines town squares. It was quite the opposite in Vilcabamba. Choose a bar or restaurant, order a beer and you will be chatted up in a matter of minutes, and deep in conversation before you know it.

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I really liked that one of the first conversations I overheard was a deeply cynical and very humourous take on the local new age pretenders. Complete with pantomimes of yoga positions. There are at least some here who have a sense of irony and humour about themselves and the place they live. I had conversations with people living on less Social Security than I get, and feeling at peace and at home here.

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During the day young hippie types, probably on the ayahuasca trail, sell the same trinkets you find at every beach or vacation town – beaded bracelets, hand made thises and thatses, and some fake stuff from China. A dreadlocked poser juggles, 2 more have a clown act, and a young gringa in a long skirt nurses a baby, beneath a sky inspired by plant medicine.

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DSC01514There seem to be (invisible) hitching posts actually in use, and lots of antique 4 wheelers. Ducks are steered through the dusty streets lined with small stores and living spaces.

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Okay, a confession, I was actually quite taken with the quality of the food here at very good value. I think I was hungry a lot of the time in Cuenca for good food. I know, many would argue with that assessment, but I was there for 2 months, and on my budget I never had a great meal. I had three really good meals (and one really mediocre one) all on the small town square. Fried potatoes and an omelet with salsa and good coffee. Now that is a breakfast.

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So, could I live in Vilcabamba? I´m not sure. It is a bit far from urban escape, and it really is a small dusty town. But it is reasonably cheap, in Ecuador, which has great benefits for retirees, and it is close to Peru, which I am growing to love, and close to the Amazon, which I quite love. Spanglish seems to be the common language, and there are people that I can relate to. It might make it to my short list. DSC01540 (2)

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My Final Words on Cuenca

There are many reasons to love Cuenca, but in the end, they are rather prosaic. Where to live and what feels like home to a person is highly personal. I’m moving on, but I can understand why many people stay.

It is a cheap enough place to live, now. But the developers are coming, and have been here for a while, and the cost of living is rising. The cheap little apartments that probably once housed Ecuadorian families, then new-comer immigrants, now are being redeveloped into more expensive “loft’ spaces. As rents go up, so will the cost of things as locals have to adjust their incomes. Cuenca is not cheap today, by Ecuadorian standards, and will become relatively more expensive as time goes on. Even if I were totally convinced to stay in Cuenca, this would convince me otherwise.

That Cuenca appeals to middle-class economic refugees from the developed world is no surprise. It is a very easy and undemanding place to be. There is an excellent symphony, with free performances, as well as dance and other arts, museums, clubs and cafes. The hope for many is, I believe, that you can pick up your “life-style” where it left off where you left from, only at a fraction of the cost. The relative loss of standard of living as one transitions from working income to pension will be absorbed by the difference in cost of living between the home country and Cuenca. This is the hope, of course. And given this ehop, it is easy to see that learning a new language and adjusting to a very different culture are not part of the expectations of the newcomers.

For me, Cuenca lacks a certain edginess that comes with international cities-the clash of cultures and classes that keeps things lively and fresh, and a touch threatening. I think that sort of sums up my personal response to it. It is a pretty place to visit. I’m happy for the displaced foreigners who find a second home here, and a comfortable one. I’m sorry for the fate of the locals, but in truth Cuenca has belonged to foreigners for 500 years. Really since the beginning. It was born a middle class European colonial city, and that is remains.

There is my final hurrah for Cuenca. It will continue to be promoted by the developers and the International Living magazines. As the US becomes increasingly unaffordable for retirees, they will seek out the Cuencas of the world. Meanwhile, I am off to Vilcabamba, a retiree spot of a decidedly different, funkier sort in the far south of Ecuador.

Cuenca Conclusion, Part 1

After a couple of weeks with a bad cold, which coincided, not coincidentally, with two weeks of really lousy, cold, wet weather, I went out with my friends walking in Cuenca, under a random and resistant sun.I was reminded what a beautiful city it is, and what a sweet temptation.

I’ve now been in Ecuador almost 3 months, and in Cuenca for about 7 weeks. As Cuenca was a destination for me in terms of considering retirement, and I was fortunate enough to gain a couple of friends along the way who also wished to spend time here, I have had the time to check things out and get a feel for the city.

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Cuenca is architecturally and geographically gorgeous. The historic district is a living museum. Each blocks yields to the next in order of magnitude. As it is hilly, and the surrounds are mountainous, there are views from every angle. Oh, and the sky! West Texas would blush in jealousy. Being at 2600 meters, with the coast on one side and the Amazon valley on the other, the sky is a constant collision of wet clouds and sunshine. Yes, the beauty of Cuenca cannot be denied.

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Of course, beauty may be a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a place to stay. It is necessary for me. I don’t know if “beauty is truth,” but the truth is, I need beauty where I live, as well as perspective-enough elevation to have a sense of where I am. Having a bit of a perspective and an ever changing horizon matters to me. Even threatening black clouds dropping over the mountain vista has an ominous charm. So I will give Cuenca full marks for inspiration.

I did rouse myself for a turn at the public market on Wednesday, one of the two big market days of the week. My post-cold lethargy made it a slog to get there, but I found my pace when I arrived in the midst of traders and buyers, and stacks of fresh produce and glistening fish. Cuenca has great markets. I realized how good when I was in Riobamba a couple of weeks ago catching my cold and touring the markets (not coincidentally, I suspect) There on Saturday, market day, the markets begged for buyers, and many sellers’ stalls stood empty. The women selling hornado de chancho, a whole roast pig served with mote (c0rn) and llapingacho (potato patties), were a uniform wearing dispirited lot, having squabbles with each other while badgering passers by to eat at their pig.

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Assembly line hornado in Riobamba

By comparison, the marketers in Cuenca smile in their randoms marketing clothes and tease each other and the customers. If you don’t buy, there is nothing more than a smile and a nod, no pushing. The markets here are a joy, even if you aren’t buying. And a photographer’s dream.

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And the markets provide all sorts of possibilities for good cooking. As Cuenca does not really have a culture of eating out in the evenings, and the main meal of the day is mid-day, it helps to cook for yourself or yourselves. The main meal of the day, almuerza, can be a real money saver for people on a budget, but it is generally fairly prosaic and not terrifically inspired.

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Typical $3 almuerzo

There are many kind words for Cuencans; pleasant, gentle, kind, self-effacing and helpful. But full stop at “quiet.” This morning as I write, at 8 AM, the local park is trying out the loud speakers. We are a kilometer away and it is a concert in the front room. Car alarms are a constant. We have come to consider it Cuenca’s theme music. I’ll never hear a car alarm again and not think of the days in Cuenca when 10 a day would be a quiet day. At night the local bar empties and the loud voices carry on as if it were noon, not as if the rest of the neighborhood had been asleep for hours.

Cuenca’s people are probably a very good reason for moving here. I haven’t met a mean one yet, though I am sure they exist, and they seem to me to be tolerant beyond reasonableness with our outsider ways and our big footprint.

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They are also family people before anything else. In most Latin cities the evenings are spent in paseo, strolling with family or friends in the town square, and hanging out at taverns and cafes that ring the square. It is a social time and my favorite time of the day for this reason. In Cuenca people go home in the evening and stay there. There is a rush home, a marienda, or small dinner, and then, of course, I don’t know. It is private. Cuencans are a private bunch, it seems. My Spanish teacher told me that the local big park (home to this morning’s 8 AM concert) used to be a place utilized mainly by drunks and drug users. These days the place bristles with activity and weekends are full of families. She told me this was due to outsider influence, and Cuencans were getting outside more.

But back to my cold and the weather. I know that colds, and swine flu, of which there are 3 confirmed cases in Cuenca at the moment, come from rhino-viruses and not a change in weather. Mine probably has more to do with being in closed spaces such as markets and buses than with the weather. But I have barely been able to keep warm for the last two weeks, which has certainly made me feel more miserable. The spring-like weather of Cuenca seems to be one of its main selling points. But I think we tend to envision spring as a season of sunshine and blossoms, and warm weather broken by a few cool breezes. Here what I have experienced is Seattle spring on a bad day. The mornings are cold and cloudy dismal gray. Any tiny crease in the cloud cover causing reflections of the the sun that is surely out there somewhere is a reason for optimism. The optimism is sometimes rewarded with a full blast of sunshine which is, alas, quickly erased by a cold wind bringing in darker clouds and a freshet of rain. This cycle can continue all day till late afternoon yields to a downpour. And, as the PR agents say, there is no heat in the homes, as it is always springtime. I have had a cold and been cold for two weeks.

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When the weather good it is glorious. Sunny days broken by clouds that wander by as close as your neighbor, ending with sunsets beyond words.

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Cuenca is full of museums and galleries, and musical events. You cannot want for entertainment of that sort. We spent yesterday afternoon in two different museums, one dedicated to hat making and the other to Latino handicrafts from different countries. Both were homed in marvelous buildings. There are more museums to be seen. Art and history, archeology and anthropology are all properly celebrated. Pumapungo Museum itself is worthy of a trip to Cuenca. The Alliance Francaise hosts many events, musical and otherwise. The immigrant community of westerners also sponsor activities and fundraisers.

Cuenca is a pretty extraordinary place. A walk this afternoon took us first to some beautiful stairs up to the historic center, to a bookstore where I could exchange a handful of books for a new one, almuerzo, the post office, a street corner eyeglass repairman/photocopier, coffee and desert in a decidedly gringo little cafe and back via another grand staircase.

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I leave Cuenca tomorrow, and I really don’t envisage returning. Ecuador was a surprise for me, and a gift. But I won’t be settling here. I’ll write about this decision and why later in the week. If you have gotten this far, thanks for your patience with such a long and rambling post.

 

 

Am I too old to learn a new language?*

*http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/13/am-i-too-old-to-learn-a-language

This year, as I travel through South America, I am finding my limits. A one mile swim followed by a 5 mile hike takes all that I have and I am rendered exhausted beyond words. (It didn’t help that after the 5 miles, we arrived back home to find the power out and a 5-floor stair climb awaiting.) My recovery time is much longer, as well. It is frustrating.

My language learning skills are equally challenging. I admit to never having been good at second language learning, but I have been studying Spanish online now for over a year, and tested at intermediate level when I started my course at Cuenca University this winter/summer here in Ecuador. Being a “false-intermediate” (I haven’t every taken a course, so my intermediate skills are spotty, with big holes) I was probably overly confident. My class has been a huge challenge, and has been getting increasingly discouraging.  My false confidence was probably encouraged by the kindness of Ecuadorians, who are very pleased when anyone tries to learn their language, but there I sit in the classroom feeling that my brain is impermeable brick. Sometimes I have to fight back tears of frustration and embarrassment. I am starting to appreciate better why so many immigrants to Ecuador, and Mexico as well, fail to learn the language.

Those immigrants most often are “mature” adults of retirement age. I suspect many of them have not been in an education environment for 40-50 years, so learning is even more of a challenge. At least I have been an educator for my career. We older people get the message from society too much that we are past our prime. This message is reinforced by our experiences with our bodies and minds. In an episode of Frankie and Grace, Frankie has a hard time passing her driving test. She has let her license expire because she was afraid of failing the physical part of the test-vision. But what turns out to be the obstacle is memory and the written test. As her doubts deepen, her sons get worried about her mental capacity.

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But Frankie is wiser, of course. She remembers learning in university that the human brain responds to similarity of conditions when trying to recollect information. Since she usually studies with a bong-full, she replicates the conditions and goes and takes the written test while high, and passes with no problem. Yes, her memory was slipping a bit, but she had strategies for overcoming the problem. She had many years of learning and experience.

I recalled this episode (my memory is not that bad) while I was struggling with my Spanish class. I’m only encouraged when I see my fellow student, who is young and Japanese, struggle with cognates (cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning or spelling). Though her brain is young, fresh and retentive, it lacks the ability to connect new words to words from her native language. For me, some Spanish vocabulary is a small step from my existing English vocabulary, and Spanish is not such a “foreign” language to Americans, especially those of us who have lived in communities in the US that have a large number of Spanish speakers. This is an advantage of both culture and age, and it is an advantage I have.

According to the article in the Guardian, “Am I too old to learn a new language?,”Picking up a new language’s vocabulary is much easier for adults than learning the rules that govern its grammar or syntax. This is because new words can be easily mapped on to a learner’s pre-existing knowledge.” I think we also have more mature social skills, and can understand speakers of other languages better because we can read the environment and body language better. This is a real advantage for me, as I have spent the last 14 years living in non-English speaking countries.

But how can I learn Spanish when I get frustrated and demoralized? In English language teaching most instructors rely on the “communitative approach:”

The communicative approach is based on the idea that learning language successfully comes through having to communicate real meaning. When learners are involved in real communication, their natural strategies for language acquisition will be used, and this will allow them to learn to use the language.(source)

This approach emphasizes the use of the language being learned in real life situations, and “success” is measured by the ability to communicate. Prior to taking my current class, I was gaining confidence in my Spanish. I was increasingly able to communicate effectively in my dealings with a monolingual Spanish environment. This successful communication increased my confidence, and thus my courage to continue, and, hence, my learning. Despite the kindness of my teacher, I feel my confidence and skills have actually deteriorated. We have been studying, from a book, grammar. The emphasis has been on verb conjugations and especially irregular verbs. Irregular verbs are highly unlikely to have English language cognates. They seem to hit the side of my brain like bugs on the windscreen. Dead on arrival.

Yes, we can learn a new language in our 60’s and beyond. It takes patience, and the right approach. If you are looking for a language school, pay careful attention to their methodology. An emphasis on rote learning and grammar is clearly not the best way for us to learn languages. We need to be able to build on our strengths and develop confidence by way of successful communication.

An important added benefit to language learning is that we also are strengthening our brains in the process:

Learning a new language may not always be easy for adults, but there is research to suggest that doing so is beneficial for brain health. As we get older, most of us experience an age-related decline in mental functions such as attention and memory, and in some people the acceleration of this process leads to the development of Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. A number of recent studies suggest that learning a foreign language can slow this inevitable age-related cognitive decline or perhaps even delay the onset of dementia. (source)

Just as we need to actually increase our physical exercise as we age, so it is the case for mental calisthenics, “”Learning a language later on in life might be more beneficial than learning it earlier, because it takes more effort,” Bak continues. “It has parallels with physical exercise – a stroll is good for your health, but not as beneficial as a run.””(source)

Next month I’m going to Machu Picchu with a couple of friends who are 10 years younger than I. They will climb the mountain. I will be very grateful to be able to hike the site and climb the stairs, and communicate with the patient guides in Spanish.

 

 

Ecuador, Arrival and 1st Impressions

I will start this by admitting that I had seen so much written about retiring in Ecuador that I was prepared to not love it. Yes. Not necessarily a confession, but an acknowledgement that I can be a bit of a snob. How can that many people like something without some of them having relinquished their critical capacity? So I arrived with a bit of an agenda-a desire to find the spider under the bed that everyone else had overlooked.

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I had myself rather unceremoniously dropped by the side of the road in Otavalo with a couple of much younger backpackers after taking a long raucous bus ride from the Colombian border. We stood there for a few moments and then I went and found a taxi, as I already had a reservation. They didn’t, so I invited them to come with me to my hostel.

When we arrived it seemed as if the hostel was closed. It was darkish, towards sundown, and seemingly lifeless. Finally a young man came to the door, after we rang a few times, and showed us into a dimly lit entry. Yes, I had a reservation, no, the couple didn’t. No problem either way. The partner of the young man arrived and scooted the young couple to the “honeymoon suite” at the top floor. I was taken to a smaller room on the second floor off from a bit of a library. It was getting darker, and the largely unlit building was empty save the 5 of us. I have to admit to visions of the Bates Hotel. I have learned along the way not to judge the accommodations too harshly when arriving after a long bus ride, especially from another country.

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The Hostel sat a little uphill from downtown, and every level offered views of volcanoes and the city. At the top was a kitchen the size of a small apartment, with volcanoes from every direction. The hostel was the loveliest I’ve stayed in, and the young men running it saw to everything quietly and with a very patient graciousness. At $15 a night for an ensuite single with a view, it was perfect.

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The big white building in this picture is the hostel.

Otavalo serves as the eponymous city core for the indigenous people native to Imbabura Province in northern Ecuador. The streets are filled with Otavalans strolling and taking care of business. Poncho square functions as the city center, close to which is the Saturday animal market and the fresh foods market.

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This is a favorite snack of tiny snails.

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I stayed in Otavalo for a week-probably out of laziness and the pleasure of a good kitchen in which to cook the market findings. I still was unconvinced about Ecuador, but it was early days. Walking the streets every day in Otavalo was a pleasure, and the people were kind and warm. It certainly meets the criteria I have for a place to retire, but I didn’t feel it, as it were. Maybe it was just too entirely other, and I felt like an interloper and a bit of a voyeur.

But I appreciated the striking difference from Colombia, which has a very small indigenous population. It was a good introduction to Ecuador, and I warmed to the country. While there I visited Cotacachi twice. I’ll write about that another time.

 

 

 

 

Emergency Room Bogota: Health Care in Columbia

Nothing makes you long for “home” like getting ill while traveling. I’ve been sick in many countries, almost to a one with food borne illnesses. It is a miserable time, exacerbated by needing to encounter an unknown medical system in a developing country. Last night I got an immersion course in Colombia’s health care system.

The last time I needed urgent care I was in Bangkok, and for me it was about like being home. I knew the health care system, and I had a hospital that I had been using for many years for my basic medical needs. When I got food poisoning there and was doubled-up with pain, at 2 in the morning, I got myself a taxi and was to the emergency room in 20 minutes.

This time was different. Being in Colombia for about a month, I knew nothing about the healthcare system except what I had read and heard. It is essentially a socialized system, but one that is fragile and inefficient. Delivering adequate healthcare to a large, and largely poor, clientele, would be a challenge anywhere, but here there is an inadequate tax base and too much corruption. The system covers everyone. I don’t think it is intended to cover foreigners, but effectively, it does.

This was research I didn’t intend to do. On Friday afternoon I had a large meal at a fairly well known restaurant. It is in fact the nicest restaurant I’ve been to in Colombia. The meal was mediocre, maybe because it was at the end of the afternoon meal time. By 8:30 I was good and sick. I got worse through the evening, and by the middle of the night I asked the owner of the hostel for help. He made some phone calls, and then said I needed to go by ambulance to a clinic. This seemed a bit extreme on one hand, on the other, taking a taxi in my condition in the middle of the night is a bit risky.

The ambulance arrived about 50 minutes later. The hostel owner helped me to the ambulance and the driver asked him for money. There is a sign in the ambulance that says that you do not pay for an ambulance, and he didn’t. My vitals were taken, and then we sat in the ambulance for about 1/2 hour for some unknown reason. Finally we took off, me weakly on a gurney in the back, not strapped in at all.

45 minutes later we arrived at a very modern clinic. I was wheeled in and planted next to a wall across from the admitting desk. The attendant from the ambulance stayed with me and was my only contact. The rest of the people of the clinic aggressively ignored me. After over an hour, the ambulance attendant said he was taking me to the hospital. They loaded me up again in the ambulance and drove for 45 minutes to the public hospital. Wheeled in, and planted again next to a wall, I went through the same experience. Other patients walked in to the emergency room or were brought in by ambulance, and seemed to be in excruciating pain, falling on the floor and crying for help. They also got little attention. I clearly wasn’t being discriminated against, or for, as a foreigner. We were in this together, and suffered the same indignities and level of service.

A couple of hours later, by now 8 AM, things started moving a bit. I was told I would get an IV. I said I wanted to see a doctor first. A crowded under-served old emergency room is not a place to be unmindful about things like needles. Around 9 AM I saw a doctor. I think all of us were waiting all night for the morning doctor to come on shift. Wisely they had treated the worst patients first, so I was about 4th in line. The doctor was young and competent, and spoke a modicum of English. With my less than a modicum of Spanish, we managed. I got examined, diagnosed and got prescriptions in about 20 minutes. All smartly and efficiently. When it was my time with the doctor, I had all the time I needed and did not feel pressured or rushed.

I had meanwhile called my friend/former hostel host from Villa de Leyva and he advised me a bit. He offered to have a friend come and help me and take me back to my hostel after I was done at the hospital. He said I was in a very bad neighborhood and I should not go on the streets. Instead of putting his friends out, I had the hospital call a taxi for me. 45 minutes later I was on the road home.

I’m feeling better today. The meds are doing their job and I’ve been making up for lost sleep and the stress of the illness.

Conclusion about my healthcare in Colombia:

I was treated as well as anyone else here, which is marginally adequate but I was treated. If I were to show up at a hospital in the US as a foreigner, getting treated at all would require a ton of paperwork and a lot of money upfront. I could easily be turned away.

My out of pocket expenses?

  • $12 to the hospital (the hostel owner was outraged-he said I should not have been charged at all)
  • Nothing for the ambulance. Remember, the attendant stayed with me for hours, in addition to the total at least 2 hours ride
  • $3 for 3 prescriptions
  • $6 for the return taxi, only because we had to drive around to find and ATM and drugstore

Yes, in a developing country, socialized medicine is a struggle, but one based on the principle that health care is a human right. The drunkest, most belligerent, ancient toothless old man got respectful care, and poor mothers with small children were able to walk in and get care, after waiting a long time.

Yesterday morning I would have given anything for a nice bright efficient US clinic. But even with insurance it would have cost me a lot of money, money that the drunk and the poor mother don’t have. Even with Obamacare there are still “deductibles” and out of pocket expenses. Now in retrospect, even just a day later, I am grateful for the care I got and for the experience of the system. It was a sobering experience, but a useful one.