One Man International Rescue Mission: After-Action Report, Part 1

I got the call last Monday. I missed it, actually, because I was taking a nap. I’d just finished Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, and as is not unusual after reading a work of that power, compellingness, and degree of writerly badassitude, I needed to shut down my conscious brain and let my psyche digest what I’d spent the last day and a half gorging on (to the detriment, obviously, of my list of action items). Not unusual, like I said, but there was a weird edge to the feeling: anxious, almost nauseous even. I don’t remember what I dreamed about, but I remember waking up unsettled and still groggy. I wonder if I didn’t have some premonition of what was coming (it wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened to me).

I woke up, went to the bathroom, washed my hands. My brain still refused to gear up. Usually when I cat-nap, it takes me a couple of minutes to remember who/what/where I am, and at this point I was past the usual threshold, but not necessarily worryingly so. I saw the phone blinking, touched the screen, saw my dad had called and left a voicemail. I remember thinking, “I wasn’t expecting a call from Dad,” and again there was that tiny backbrain premonition.

I unlocked the phone, hit the voicemail icon, put the phone to my ear.

“Dallas, it’s your dad. Call me immediately-” I didn’t bother listening to the rest of the message.

My little brother Michael went to Ecuador at the beginning of December. He’s twenty-four, an avid river kayaker, had gone down there to do the gringo river-rat thing, sleeping in hostels and bopping from town to town in the mountains/jungle to paddle class fours and fives. It’s a good place to do that kind of thing, and by all accounts Michael had been having a grand time doing it. He’d even managed to score a job as a guide.

Michael was sick. Pissing blood, vomiting, knocked-on-his-ass-and-thought-he-was-going-to-die sick. He’d been lying in bed for days, not really able to do anything, or even get it together to call for help.

Now, Michael’s like six-four, a former bodybuilder and wrestler, and strong as the proverbial ox. When he was little, he was super-clumsy, and used to fall and bang his head on things a lot, which made him laugh like a happy little maniac, which he most clearly was. Something bad enough to knock Michael on his ass so hard he couldn’t get up was something that would probably kill a regular person. What it actually was, nobody knew. He’d been to a local hospital, and the docs had ruled out some things — he could probably fly if he had to — but the local hospital didn’t have the resources to do definitive blood-work.

Somebody needed to go help Michael. What that meant wasn’t entirely clear. Michael wasn’t in much of a condition to be forthcoming about his situation, even if his lack of Spanish and compromised vitality hadn’t kept him from understanding much about it in the first place, aside from knowing he was fucked up six ways from Sunday and needed help. Dad would go, but his passport burned up along with everything else he and my little sister and her kids had on Halloween, when the forty-year-old wiring in their house passed its sell-by date and caught the house on fire. My little sister has never had a passport, and though my littlest sister does, she doesn’t speak Spanish and hasn’t yet traveled in that part of the world and is even younger than Michael.

I spent a couple of months in South America a couple of years ago, a week and change of it in Ecuador. Thanks to a combination of schooling, travel, and a couple of decades working in bars and restaurants, I speak Spanish well enough that native speakers think I speak it much better than I do. My passport is valid. Perhaps most important of all, I have, in the last few years, built a life that affords me the flexibility to schedule my time as I see fit. The opportunity to do so was my mother’s parting gift, a gift I’ve tried, with some success, not to squander.

Clearly I was the one who was going. Dad phrased it as a request, which I appreciated. I guess I could have said no, but we both knew I wasn’t going to, and of course I didn’t. Whatever my feelings about whatever, when the chips are down I take care of business, and Dad knew that, because, well, he taught me to. On the plus side, he was in a position to bankroll the whole thing, thanks to the insurance check from the aforementioned house fire. The new house might end up fifty square feet smaller, but who gave a fuck about that?

I went online and bought a plane ticket for nine o’clock the next morning. Then I got on the phone with my friend Kevin, whose parents had retired to Ecuador and lived there for most of a decade before moving back Stateside last summer, a few months before Kevin’s sister gave birth to their first grandchild. Kevin had visited them several times (as had I, once, during the previously mentioned trip, a solid week of which was attending Kevin’s wedding at their home), and between them they had a solid grounding in the basics of what was up and what was where. While we were talking, Kevin looked up the eco lodge where my brother was staying, and while he called his parents I called there and talked with Kathy, the Ecuadorian lady who ran the place. She asked for my flight info, said she’d arrange to have me picked up at the airport around 11 pm and driven to the eco lodge, which was about two hours southeast of Quito’s new airport, in the mountainous jungle near the town of El Chaco.

I was pretty sure that’s what happened, anyway. I hadn’t spoken much Spanish since South America, aside from a few days in Barcelona when my girlfriend and I had gone to Europe for a few weeks last fall, which had mostly involved my starting a conversation in Spanish which turned very quickly to English once my proficiency level became clear. Either way, I figured if Kathy didn’t come through, I’d work it out one way or another once I landed.

I called Michael and told him I’d be there, either late the next night or the morning after that, depending on the vagaries. He was pretty out of it, but he sounded relieved, and I let him go back to sleep pretty quickly. I posted on facebook about it, because who wouldn’t in this day and age, and checked periodically through the night as the likes and offers of help rolled in. I knew I knew a lot of amazing people, but I was pretty blown away by the response: encouragement aplenty, to be sure, but also offers of contact info for friends of friends who were in-country and had offered to help if I needed it. The world is pretty amazing these days, even if it is fucked up in a lot of ways.

I spent the next few hours packing and freaking out. I got in touch with the friends I’m building bookshelves for and told them what was happening, and that the install, which I’d been planning on doing that week, was going to have to get pushed back. I figured I’d better travel light, and so packed only my carry-on and the satchel I carry around town when the stuff I need won’t fit in my pockets. I brought my hardcore water filter, my travel Buddha (another gift from my mother), some meds and supplements I thought might come in handy, and three packs of organic cigarettes, which habit I’d been planning on quitting that week, what with the new year and all. Other than that I just packed a week’s worth of clothes and a few hundred bucks in cash and my credit card. You don’t really need much if you have money, and with Dad footing the bill I just had to make sure I had the necessaries to hand in case atms were scarce where I was going.

I thought I’d better do some research, but by this point it was getting late, and my freakout was really hitting its stride, so I dragged my girlfriend — who was a really good sport, that night and thoughout this adventure — around the corner to our friendly local cocktail lounge instead, where we ran into some people and had a few drinks and the next thing you know it was closing time, and time to go to bed for what amounted to a long nap before we had to get up and get me to the airport.

I slept, deeply but not well, and hit snooze for most of an hour the next morning. I showered, put on the clothes I’d laid out, sent a quick prayer to the travel gods that I hadn’t forgotten anything important, and off we drove to the airport.

I got all the way to the gate and was just settling in to my thousand-yard stare when I heard my name called on the intercom. When I went to the desk, the attendant told me that without a ticket home (not knowing when I was coming back, I’d booked a one-way ticket) or a visa (which even if I’d thought to get one I wouldn’t have had time for) he wouldn’t be able to let me on the plane. He pointed out some phones about a half a city block away where I could call the airline, and I hauled ass over there and called up a very nice lady in another state, who helped me purchase a one-way ticket home a week later at not particularly advantageous terms while my flight boarded that half city block away. I paid with my credit card and hurried back, just making the flight and having to plead/argue not to check my carry-on at the gate. The lady rolled her eyes, made it clear I was being that guy, and that she didn’t have the patience to deal with me and I was on my own after that. She was right, but with all the uncertainty ahead I wanted to reduce any extra as much as possible. I only had forty minutes to make my connection, and couldn’t risk being separated from my bag. And yes, I am pretty obsessive/compulsive (which is why I was able to find space in the overhead next to my seat with a little judicious, low-impact rearranging of the bags that had been casually chucked in there by the regular people I was surrounded by).

I settled into my seat, turned on my Kindle, decided to re-read Nicola Griffith’s Hild for my next book. I read it when it first came out, and had been thinking of revisiting it, since it’s the kind of book you have to read a few times to really thoroughly appreciate. The one good thing about a long airplane ride is that you can get a lot of good reading in, and though I prefer paper books in my regularly scheduled life I much prefer the Kindle for traveling, since it’s lightweight and holds so many books that there’s no risk of being stuck without something to read unless you let the battery die. I think I got about twenty pages in before I dozed off.

I never sleep well on planes, but it does pass the time. Next I knew I was in Atlanta, half an hour early, a good thing since the international terminal was clear on the other side of the airport. I rode the tram there, found my gate, and got right on the plane, pausing only long enough to make a couple of phone calls I needed to make before my cell phone was out of range of my network (I called and tried to get international service set up, but it wasn’t clear if it was going to work out in time). I dozed a bit on the second flight, which was about as long as the first, but the sleep gods weren’t with me, so I settled into Hild and let it carry me through the hours.

I was kind of resentful when the plane landed, to be honest. Fellow readers will understand.

I emerged into Quito’s new airport, which is like all international airports everywhere, only more so. The rope-line was full of Ecuadorians waiting for loved ones flying home from the States, along with a few cabbies and tour group employees holding signs, none of which had my name on them.

I was in Ecuador.

(Part 2)

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