Symptoms Diagnostics

Sarah Richmond - Ecuador


January 7, 2015

If there’s one thing I have plenty of here, it’s symptoms. Gathered with any other friend from Global Citizen Year, usually perched over an indulged cappuccino in a gringo cafÌ© in Riobamba, the topic inevitably floats into conversation. We file through our symptoms as we might flick through the synopses of this week’s episodes of Modern Family and Game of Thrones (access to network television is one thing I don’t have plenty of here) — explosive diarrhea, inexplicable stomach pain, peculiar reactions to insect bites — the list goes on. I think we’ve come to the conclusion that our bodies are fated to a continuous assail of painful symptoms for as long as we remain in this country.

Just this past week I’ve battled an indomitable fever, stuffy nose, sore throat, and bone-shaking, chest-breaking cough. As I sat in the small impersonal examining room at the health clinic, stumbling through an explanation of my symptoms in my less-than perfect Spanish, the enormity that the accumulation, recognition, and attempted eradication of these symptoms plays in my life dawned on me. I walked out of the clinic several minutes and several hundred misunderstandings later with a handful of antibiotics to help me recover. However not all of the symptoms I’m experiencing here can be diagnosed with a stethoscope and a popsicle stick holding my tongue down; and the remedies are a bit more complicated than a bag of pills.

I’m discovering the symptoms of isolation. Not the kind with bearded men stranded on a ludicrously small island, but the kind where standing in a room full of people, you still find yourself utterly, and entirely alone. When no amount of Spanish or smooth social skills can amend the fact that the faces around me grew up chasing chickens and counting how many mangoes they could eat, while I just recently left a world of vegetarian potlucks and yoga classes. The symptoms include a vast, desert floor type of loneliness. The symptoms include looking inside my own mind, and finding pools of gems and pearls of swirling thought that are more beautiful because I don’t have anyone to share them with. The symptoms include dancing wildly alone in my room at night until I turn into a spastic, moving mass of limbs in the dark, filled with the irrational joy of being by myself.

I’m discovering the symptoms of discrimination. All the more crucial for the naÌøvetÌ© graced by my white middle class privilege. It’s a subtlety that creeps on me with sideways glances and whispers, until it crescendos into the vulgar grab at la gringita from across the street, across the bus aisle, across the front seat of the taxi. The symptoms include occasionally shrinking from my own individuality as the culprit, and wishing away the things that make me different. The symptoms include a gratitude for the aforementioned privilege so immense that I want to crawl, scraping my knees across endless miles of cement, begging for a drop of equality for everyone. The symptoms include muttering, F### Machismo, a lot under my breath.

I’m discovering the symptoms of homesickness. A constant, throbbing pull on my breath that drags it north. It’s called sickness but it’s really more of a limp at this point, only occasionally detrimental, but always noticeable as I trip down the dirt road from my house to the bus stop. The symptoms include creating elaborate vegan meals in my head, and mentally putting every single item on my imaginary grocery list into my shopping cart. The symptoms include stopping still this morning as I walked into town, and smelling the burning of half-made bricks and morning mist handed down from ancient volcanoes, and realizing my homesickness won’t go away when I come back to the United States. The symptoms include worrying that wherever I am, I’ll always be missing somewhere else, and not knowing if that means I should stay put or never ever stop moving. I’m discovering the symptoms of something I can’t name, and no, it’s not for my lack of Spanish vocabulary. But the symptoms are innumerable. And they include dancing in the kitchen in my rain boots. I think chopping my hair above my shoulders just to laugh at the reaction of my family, who is very vocal about their dislike of short hair, was probably a symptom too. So is getting irrationally angry over a ridiculously large daily serving of white rice. The symptoms include crying when mope-y acoustic pop songs in English come on the radio. I’m fairly certain my ongoing conversation with the farm cat is not a symptom; I just really like cats, and kind of miss speaking English sometimes.

Needless to say, I did not include any of this in the list of symptoms I gave to the infinitely patient doctor at the health clinic. If I had, maybe my little bag of pills wouldn’t have been quite so little. But I am finding remedies on my own; like my eight-year-old nephew running up to hug me, and the little girl on the bus falling asleep in my lap. Like getting sent goofy selfies from my family in the U.S, and sharing peanut butter and inside jokes with my incredible, life-saving group of friends. I think more than anything else, I’m gradually ceasing to diagnose myself, and finding the best remedy for my symptoms is absolutely nothing at all. That’s the thing about certain symptoms: if they stick around long enough, they eventually become as much a part of you as your toes, or in my case, as my hopelessly stuffy nose. What’s more, I’m beginning to believe my very symptoms may just be the cure I didn’t know I was looking for. My very symptoms may have been a part of me, all along

Sarah Richmond