We’ve been in Puerto Montt now for 3 days and are packing up our things to leave. We’d stopped a little longer than usual in town to wait for some packages to arrive from the UK (one of which contains some new shorts for Faye’s now permanently exposed buttocks). Alas, there seems to be no sign of the packages, and so we prepare to leave, hoping that they can be sent on. We go to bid our host Corina farewell. Corina is just shy of 5ft, with dark brown eyes, crop cut brown hair and an exuberance of energy makes her seem 7ft tall. She is surprised at our plans to depart:
‘You are going today?!’ Corina asks
‘Sadly yes. We have to be getting on’ Faye says.
‘But the plane that brings the post will arrive tomorrow.’
‘Will it?!’ This is news to us, and possibly something lost in translation during the previous days’ thrilling and repetitive ’are the packages here yet?’ chit-chat.
‘Yes, the plane comes in on Wednesday each week.’ Corina confirms.
Faye and I look at one another. After 3 full days off the bikes, cabin fever has well and truly set in. Although I opted to go for runs along the lakeshore on some of those days, my body is craving more movement. I am like a caged (bicycle) tiger, and I cannot wait to hit the road again. But it now seems foolish to leave when just one more day could save Faye’s bum from it’s naked fate. And what harm could one more day do?
‘OK’ Faye says to Corina. ‘Can we stay one more night please?’ Corina of course accepts and we return to our room to unpack our bags.
‘Shall we go on a little cycle?’ Faye suggests as she pulls the final item back out of her pannier (her worn shorts) and puts it on the bed.
‘A cycle without our panniers?!’ I reply. ‘You, Faye-bomb, are a maverick. Let’s do it!’
A FREEDOM RIDE
There’s a whiff of the illegal about heading out of the door for a two hour ride on completely unloaded touring bikes. It’s started to rain again, but it doesn’t bother us today. The feeling of blood pumping through our veins once more and fresh air filling our lungs is enough to spur us on. We ride along the lakeshore, passing small towns, and fishing boats of all shapes and sizes. Through a particularly industrial section the smell of ‘the sea’ is so strong that it seems as if someone has a shoved a fish directly up each of my nostrils. It makes me gag at little, but the views across the glassy lake and onto the surrounding green mountains serve as a wonderful distraction.
After an hour we turn around and start back towards Puerto Montt. We are gliding down a hill, and I spot a sandy coloured dog on our side of the road. There are three large trucks coming up the hill at a slow pace and the dog is going nuts. Barking and snarling at the trucks, and chasing their wheels. This is not an unusual sight. In our 4 and half months in South America we have been chased by hundreds of dogs. We’ve had some bite our tyres, or go for our ankles, and so have by now have established some techniques to deal with them.
We know that it’s normally the person riding at the back that gets the brunt of the chasing. And that often the best thing to do is to stop in our tracks, and to shout at the dog very loudly. The dog will usually back down and you can be on your merry way. Faye has just run the dog gauntlet and I’m up next. The dog is still going mental and is now right in my path, so I pull to a halt and prepare to shout at it as it starts to move towards me. I am fixated on it, and so I don’t spot a second dog emerging from the house to my right.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch a light brown shape on the move. I turn to see a stocky mid-sized dog, with a very square jaw and eyes filled with rage. Before I have a chance to do anything it lunges at my right leg, clamps its jaws around the front of my shin and bites down, hard. It feels as if my shin bone has been put in a vice – the pressure and the pain is excruciating. The dog sinks it’s teeth into my skin, and then releases me, before retreating a few steps, still barking. I stand stock still, in complete shock, and not quite able to compute what has just happened.
I fight off a wave of nausea and look down at my bleeding leg. The first thing I think is: ‘Sh*t. Rabies.’
I check to see if the bite has broken the skin, and am surprised to find that there doesn’t seem to be any red stuff, just four white puncture marks. But then it starts: one of the dog’s canine teeth has gone in deep and the wound on my outer shin fills with blood, before a flow of warm viscous red liquid begins to trickle down my leg. I bring myself ‘to’ and wonder what hell I am doing stood still opposite the damn barking dog, and so I begin to hobble down the road, towards Faye.
Now come the tears. I am always amazed in these situations how we are reduced to our most basic human selves. That evolution takes over and we have seemingly no control over our behaviour. The pain in my shin is still excruciating, and I cannot get over how powerful the dog’s jaws were, but above all else – I am in complete shock. There is nothing I can do to prevent salty tears from tumbling down my cheeks, and my chest as it begins to shake. Faye rushes over and asks if I’m alright. I begin babbling at her, repeating the same things over and over again in between sobs, but all the while (stupidly) trying to get back on my bike.
I just want to get out of here. Away from that dog, and away from the pain. I feel like a complete idiot for not seeing it coming. On top of that I am now beginning to think again about the dreaded ‘R’ word: Rabies.
Luckily I had my pre-exposure rabies injections in the UK before I left. Unluckily, and in some kind of sick fascination with one of our few modern incurable diseases, I recently read a whole book about the history and mythology of rabies. How it is unlike any other virus, as it makes its way into your nervous system and travels undetected for anything between 1 week and 1 year up the spinal chord until it reaches your brain. By which point the symptoms appear, and it’s too late. All reported cases of rabies in humans end in fatality.
‘We need to get you to a hospital and get you some jabs’ says Faye. And I nod in reply. We wash out the wound as best we can and begin to pedal back towards the town. The rational and irrational parts of my brain collide and do battle. The reality is, everything will likely be fine, but there is nothing in the world more scary than not being 100% sure. And I am anything but sure at this point.
A FIRST OPINION
We walk to the local clinic and with limited Spanish are bussed from pillar to post, grappling with who we need to see and where we need to be. I first see first a nurse, who does a rather terrible job of cleaning the wound, before putting a glorified plaster on it and waving us on. We then go upstairs to the ‘vaccinations’ department.
I tell the nurse in vaccinations what has happened and that I have had my pre-exposure jabs in the UK. She asks for proof of ID and also a piece of paper which shows I have had my pre-jabs- which of course, I don’t have. She then says she cannot administer any post-exposure vaccine because I don’t have any papers. Back come my irrepressible tears. She simply looks away, pulls out her mobile phone and begins playing with it. This feels hopeless. I cannot believe that I am asking for treatment I am sure is vital and because of a lack of paperwork, no one will help.
Another nurse walks by who speaks English, sees my red puffy face and kindly says that she will find a doctor to see me. 40 minutes later I am sat opposite a lovely young Chilean doctor, explaining what has happened. ‘Don’t worry’ he says, smiling. ‘Rabies is a real public health issue here in Chile. We are very aware of the procedures.’ That makes me feel a little better. He introduces another man, who is stood in the corner of the room and speaking very quickly in Spanish. I can’t work out who this other man is or whether he is more senior than the young doctor or not. He is dressed in normal non-medical clothing and seems to be advising, but is attitude is dismissive, and I don’t much like his tone.
‘If you have had a vaccination in the UK, this is OK. You cannot get Rabies. You have the antibodies to fight it’ says the young doctor.
It all sounds a little wrong to me, and ill at odds with what both Faye and I have read online, but perhaps things have changed recently. And my default position in life is to trust people, and to trust in their knowledge and expertise.
‘And besides…’ the doctor continues. ‘…we have not had a case of canine rabies in Chile since 1970. It is now only bats that carry rabies here.’
Okay. Now that does sound like some local knowledge I can listen to. I feel more assured, and so leave the hospital with just a prescription of antibiotics (each pill is the size of my head). The doctor has warned me these drugs will give me diarrhoea, and also that I should not be concerned that the pills are all in clinical trial packaging…
SECOND TIME LUCKY
That night, while icing a rather swollen and throbbing leg, I can’t help shake a feeling in my gut. The more I read, the more I begin to doubt the Chilean doctors knowledge. I discover that there have been three confirmed cases of humans dying of rabies in the last 6 years in Chile. It’s not this that concerns me so much, but more that the doctor didn’t know about these cases. And it also rings alarm bells that he was incorrect in the fact that my pre-exposure jabs prevent rabies (they don’t), and that he asked me nothing about the dog or the event itself.
So the following morning I get up early and hobble the 4km to the main city hospital. There I am seen by a lovely female Colombian surgeon. I don’t tell her that she is my second opinion and simply relay the events to her as I did to the doctor yesterday. She immediately asks questions about the dog and the details of what happened, and says: ‘You must have post-exposure injections’. After calling an infectiologist for advice, she prescribes two injections for today, and one for a months time (which I can get in any clinic in Chile). She also prescribes me a shorter dose of antibiotics, in normal packaging, and ones that won’t that won’t make me poop my guts out.
I hobble back towards our accommodation in light rain, feeling relieved and at ease at last. ‘Adventures’ I think, ’never a dull moment.’