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Let me say off the top, I do not have rabies. I don't foam at the mouth (regularly) and I have no urge to bite anybody. But I wasn't always sure.
Imagine crowds exiting a hockey game. Place them an hour outside Guatemala's second-largest city, Quetzaltenango. Add pigs, plastic flip-flops, babies, mangos, women cooking tortillas, religious paraphernalia, hot-pink candy, chickens, gorgeous textiles. Like most trips with my Spanish tutor, Asuzena, I'm the only gringa in sight: She's busy making sure nobody steals my camera and I'm busy trying not to get in the way. But I did, accidentally stepping on a little black dog that disappeared forever into the crowd - after it chomped on my leg.
Panic becomes my tenacious new best friend. Asuzena looks at the bite, furrows her brow, mutters something about a remedy and disappears into the crowd. I am briefly elated, fear replaced with visions of mystical Mayan fixes - until she returns with a lime and expertly squirts its juice into my wound.
Giving my ankle a satisfied look, Asuzena starts talking about where we'll go next, while I scan for the word "rabies" in my modicum of Spanish vocabulary.
I'm stalled on the phrase: "Yes, please. I take milk in my coffee." So I begin acting out the final indignities of a rabid dog, my melodramatic side partly pleased by the foreshadowing. She lets me amuse a few bystanders before pooh-poohing my concern. "We don't worry about that here," she says.
Asuzena explains that Guatemalans wait until their children reach the age of 2 before naming them because so many don't survive. The mother in the family I am living with is equally dismissive.
My guide book's warnings about rabies do little to console me. I find out that once the virus takes hold, certain death follows within a month. Extreme thirst is a first sign of infection, then a fear of water. I have a sudden urge to drink. I dream about foaming at the mouth.
A few days later, a Guatemalan man I know from a local restaurant is sympathetic. "I wouldn't go for the vaccine," he says. "I've lived with risk since Day 1. I'm probably immune. But you're from Canada. You probably need it. I'll get you in touch with a vet I know. Don't go to a doctor."
By now, the bite is surrounded by an unpleasant purple-yellow bruise. The vet suggests a private clinic in the touristy town of Antigua, and a few days later I find myself in a waiting room full of extremely pregnant women. I get my elixir, three needles full of the human diploid vaccine, at $80 (U.S.) a shot.
Skip ahead three months. Safely back in Vancouver, I'm reminiscing about exploring caves and Mayan ruins, hiking up volcanoes - oh, and little black dogs that bite.
Someone asks about the vaccine: "So, are you safe from rabies forever? If you got bit again, would you need another vaccine?"
These seem like good questions, so I phone the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
"You got bit by what?" I'm surprised by the doctor's strong reaction. "In Guatemala? When? Where's the dog? We'll send the vaccine to the nearest hospital. Where are you now?"
He doesn't trust the antidote I received. To boot, B.C. is practically rabies-free, and they're proud of it. Can't have me biting a kid, or a dog, for that matter.
I jest, perhaps, but the attention - however disconcerting - did feel good. When I arrived at the UBC hospital, a nurse was waiting for me with a vaccine paid for by Canadian taxpayers. My blood sample was couriered overnight to Toronto. The doctor called a few days later to check on me and to give me test results. Everyone was reacting with the concern I craved in Guatemala.
It's not that Guatemalans are any less caring. It's just that individualized health care is not fiscally feasible in Guatemala, and is therefore not socially expected. We can worry about the health of the individual in Canada because we have the financial ability to do so.
In the end, I didn't bring rabies home. But I did return feeling fortunate to have been delivered into a nation that has enough medical infrastructure to confidently name its children at birth.
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