My medical moments


A warning: This all sounds pretty horrible and much of it actually was, but I’m feeling fine now and I think I’ve learned where to be careful in the future. I’m hopeful that I am on the mend for a long while and would like to note that my circumstances were a little extreme and I’ve learned a great deal about how to care for myself during travel.

So as many who would read this blog will know, I have been plagued by miscellaneous illness over the last few months. Thus, I have now experienced medical care in five different countries and on three continents. 

I thought maybe people might be interested where and how I received care, especially those who are interested in travel and worried about health care. So here it goes:

In Mali I was blessed with fever blisters, which turned into infections and then abscesses. Mali (Bamako) has a few different medical options but I choose a local clinic. After spending about $20 and an hour or so I got to see a doctor who after a very brief interview gave me antibiotics for my feet.  There was not much more than that; keep them clean and wrapped. The medications were less than $20.

After a while we had to get to Senegal a little faster than usual, but my foot problems continued. We were fortunate enough to have met a doctor who came out to our house free of charge. He wrote me a prescription for another antibiotic and gave me instructions to air my wounds, which was a major factor in them healing.

However, it turns out that for some reason I was just prone to infection, so in Morocco I formed another abscess, which was quite a bit more painful and impactful. This time we visited a clinic and saw a doctor who again prescribed another antibiotic. I also received an ultrasound. The visit was $25 and another $10 for the antibiotics. I was also scheduled for a blood test to check for possible diabetes due to my multiple infections. We went to a military hospital for the test and were sped through multiple lines to be seen by the head doctor. Another $25.  I saw him again later in the day to get my results, then saw the first doctor again to have a final look at my abscess which was quite a bit better. All told, I received a doctor visit, ultrasound, blood work, two more visits, and antibiotics for $60 with no insurance. They even solved my problem :).

All was well for awhile until I worked one too many days in the cold and rain in France. I got a pretty nasty chest cold. Fortunately, we received healthcare for working in France and our employer picked up the tab. The doctor visit was about $30. He basically just said rest and prescribed some special cough syrup and mistakenly gave me some kind of stomach medicine, all of which cost me less than $20.

Unfortunately, just as I came back to the States the chest cold came back with a fury. I was so congested that I got a horrible earache and had to go to the ER. We don’t have the bill yet (which I’m sure will be multiple hundreds) but the 5.5 hours it took to see a doctor was pretty crappy. They actually fixed me up pretty well once I finally got in. The antibiotic was somehow free. We are fairly confident that because of our zero income a lot of the medical bill will be written off.

So, in summery…medical care gets more expensive the more Western the country and is not necessarily any better for usual problems. Drugs are definitely cheaper overseas. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that there are social programs all over the world that help people in general cover medical costs (or their costs are made quite reasonable), but it only seemed like the States had income requirements specifically for poorer people. In general, we felt like people went out of their way to help us in Africa as we were clearly foreigners. I would imagine a Western hospital to be a horrible experience for someone from Morocco or Senegal. I also was asked to have by far the most complicated procedures in the States where those procedures are far and away the most expensive.

I am fortunate enough to be relatively healthy, and I’m sure should I end up with some horrible condition I would appreciate American healthcare, but I would also spend the rest of my life paying for it.

Reflections from Camp

It's our last week at American Village, and with approximately 5 long days left on our contract, I find myself attempting to reflect on the last 5 weeks of craziness that has become my life and sort it all out. It's been a fascinating, frustrating, at times funny, and at most times frantic experience (Jon wants me to insert f^&*cked in to my 'f' adjective list...). So here are some thoughts on where we've been and perhaps what's next. "Being" in France

Yes, it's true, the phrase, "I'm working in France" sounds sooo romantic and exciting and wonderful all at the same time. We've also been pretty good I'd say at sharing some enticing photos from where we've been. But it's time for us to come clean. In the last 5.5 weeks, we've had 4 days off, with the addition of a 3 day break when we moved work locations. ALL of the adventuring, eating and yes, drinking, we've been boasting about has happened on those short days. That should tell you that we do a lot of the following things when we're not at camp:

  • Eat
  • Drink
  • Walk (usually 5-10 miles in a day)
  • Think about eating and drinking
  • Think about and subsequently search for patisseries and chocolatiers (that's usually JStern-driven)
  • Walk
  • Get ourselves to and from our work site.
  • Oh yeah, we usually spend a lot of time griping about camp...

I will say that in our short and few days off in the last month or so, the best part about where we've been in France is that we would NEVER come to these small towns and villages. Most likely we would pass through Vienne on the way to somewhere else, and we certainly would not have stopped in Marmande or even remotely thought about going to Eymet - which was truly a highlight. We would probably not have quite the exposure to the different regional flavors and wines as we are having, and we certainly wouldn't be seeing so much rural farmland. So although the time we're spending experiencing France as opposed to working in the bizarre little microcosm that is American Village is short, those days off have been really great.

Cultural Lessons from Camp

The fascinating 'f' adjective in my introduction stems from the fact that being around French adolescents for 5+ weeks really has been quite interesting. It's a great way to experience French culture and see how different (and sometimes similar) French kids are from American kids. For me, although I am not permitted to speak French with the kids (full on English immersion) it's been an excellent way to improve my comprehension of the language, as well as learn vocab and take in colloquialisms. I also realized today that it really wasn't my fault I can't understand anyone here back at Vienne, their accent is so much thicker than the folks that live near Bordeaux. It's as though they really do have marbles in their mouths! Some observations about the kids are:

  • Although incredibly competitive - much more than American kids - French children will support and encourage their peers in such uplifting ways.
  • French kids are pretty whiny
  • As a result of an education system that teaches by repetition rather than problem solving and critical thinking - French kids have a really hard time with creative projects and open ended questions for which they have no model. (Insert a plug for the need for quality arts education HERE!)
  • As language learners, they say incredibly funny things. For example, we had a super cute kid last week try and ask to pass the bread at the table, but what came out was (think of a strong french accent here), "can uhh you uhhhh shit bread?" What?!? Awesome. Of course he wasn't saying 'shit' but whatever he was trying to say certainly sounded like it.

Life After Camp

At the end of our American Village experience what will we do? SLEEP. I will also be certain to never work a job that pays less than $3/hour and requires me to work 6 days per week for over 15 hours per day. It's just dumb.

We're thinking of heading back to the South of France, but it's super expensive so we're looking at other options to spend time here until May 10. On said date, we're flying all the way to Jacksonville, Florida for the fabulous celebration of my brother's (heeeyy Jeremy) wedding. Let me tell you, we have NEVER been more thrilled to go to Florida. 3 months of various illness, exhaustion, ups, downs, stress from this crazy job and so on, makes us happy to spend a relaxing 2 weeks soaking in the sun and doing nothing but celebrating. Don't get me wrong, travel is AWESOME, and I feel blessed and so fortunate to have been able to make the decision to take my life in this direction. Wouldn't change a thing. A little break will be nice, that's all.

Signing off for now - have you ever needed a break from something really super awesome?

Wine, Ducks and Camp

These are the things that occupy our minds most days in France. Apologies for the lack of writing, camp keeps us busy! Wine

As previously mentioned, and as you probably have assumed, there's a lot of wine in France. We like it and it's incredibly cheap. Generally we can give 10 euro to someone making a run to a grocery store and say, "can you pick up at least 3 bottles?" and there's no problem. The best part is that we've only had one dud in all the exceptionally cheap wine we've bought. Not bad!

Yesterday (Saturday), was our day off and we decided to take a classic 'séjour' in France and ride bikes through the rural farmland that surrounds our camp location. We're about 5km from the border between the Lot-et-Garrond and the Dordogne regions. Despite being on the worst bike I've ever ridden in my life, it was great to be out in the country, soaking in our first day of sunshine in 2 weeks, and of course, being in France.

Our goal was to ride 33km (about 17 miles) to Bergerac, but at km 16 we were in so much pain (in the derrière) that we gave up and turned around to head back to the little 12th century town of Eymet. A wise decision, because Eymet is awesome - as in we want to live there awesome. Jon had read up a bit on a little 'cave' - or wine cellar - that we ended up visiting, which is owned by a British expat named Mitch (a lady) who sources about 50 local wines from the region. Woohoo! We walked in and were greeted by 2 other Americans and a Frenchman, who owns the town's favorite local tavern down the block. In 15 minutes, it was like we were all old friends, and the 'free tasting' consisted of 3 full glasses of wine, specially picked by Mitch, to give us a flavor of the local rosé, white and reds of the region. Again, the best part is that buying all three bottles cost us no more than 25 euro - and these are good wines.

After our tasting, and a hearty invitation to come back next weekend for homemade canapés and wine at lunchtime, we picked up a delicious "Opéra" pastery (coffee buttercream, chocolate genoise cake covered in chocolate) we decided to check out this town-favorite tavern. The owner was so excited to see us that in addition to the glass of house rosé we ordered, he gave us a glass of the red and the Sancerre (white wine from the Loire valley). That sealed it, we're going back next weekend for sure! Love wine in France.

Jon sampling rosé from different regions in France


No, not the Oregon ducks, I'm talkin' French ducks - and the kind that make delicious fois gras. The Dordogne region - next to which we are currently living - is where the best fois gras in France comes from. Like the incredibly cheap and accessible wine, fois gras du canard (duck fois gras) is cheap and can be found everywhere. You can buy it in little pre-packaged portions at any grocery, or you can get a delicious terrine or paté from the local boucherie (butcher). Either way, it's cheap and yummy, if you like duck liver.

Not surprisingly, fois gras d'oie (goose) is 3 times more expensive. Boooo - that stuff is gooooood. And you know what? I have no problem eating fois gras - 'cause if you saw these ducks and geese, you would know they are living very happy lives plodding around the unbelievably green and gorgeous french countryside. Ya ya so they get fattened up, but they get to go walk it off right??


You've heard our complaints - long days, little pay, inefficiencies and too much coloring (yes there is a thing) - so I guess not much has changed. We had 43 kids last week, all 12 years old 32 of whom were girls. Yikes. They were from a 'european school' which apparently means bilingual, upper class, private, good education. My guess is that most of these parents are diplomats, CEO's, export/import/international business owners. They're english was great.

We have 2 more weeks here in Miramont, in the beautiful region of Aquitaine - which has been inhabited since prehistoric times. It's cool to think that this place was once Gaul, and is know as the "pays des bastides" - or the country of ancient walled towns. I counted 7 chateaux in the first 10km of our bike ride, and the towns are quaint, friendly and beautiful. Jon said it right when this is what he imagined when he thought of France.

In 2 weeks we're being moved back to our original side of Tour de Buis near Lyon and Vienne. It's just a week and then our contract is finished. Yipee!

PS: finally, we're both healthy! First time in 2.5 months!

Weekly Fireflies - Essouira

I know I just posted a couple of days ago, but I am going to make an effort to post weekly, so here goes. Catching up! Essaouira

I-swear-a it’s a good place (hehe, I love turning city names into phrases). This laid back beach town is a craft-lovers dreamscape. It seems everyone is an artist in their own right – whether it’s the inlaid woodcraft, silver filigree, weaving or stitching, this place not only is downright beautiful in and of itself, but it’s full of beautiful things. I can see why it’s a popular vacation spot for Moroccans and foreigners alike.

The food in Essaouira is also particularly good. Jon talked a bit about it in his recent post – but we’ve had a great time sharing meals with our AirBnB host, Hamid. Every night we’ve gone to the souk, picked out our meat of choice, visited Hamid’s favorite spice guy, his preferred vegetable vendor and we were on our way to the best meals we’ve had in Morocco. It drove home the point that home cooking is where it’s at here, and I’m so glad we were able to do the airbnb thing and stay with Moroccans.


One of the most fascinating opportunities we’ve had has been to travel overland from Mali to Senegal through Mauritania and up through Morocco. To experience cultural shifts and changes and to see qualities that are similar has been such a wonderful learning experience. Things as simple as the tea service that has gone from a multi-hour super strong syrupy green tea in Mali, to the even sweeter but minty-er brew in Senegal, to the very light even more minty tea of Mauritania to tea that is served in every café on ever corner in Morocco – this is something in which nearly everyone in this region of the world partakes.

It’s been fascinating to watch mannerisms change from the kind and gentle but indirect communications of Malians to the abrasive, loud and argumentative ways of Mauritanians. We’ve seen the similarities and differences in how people negotiate for prices, and how plumbing does and doesn’t work and just what service and hospitality means to different cultures.

Pan-African Health

It apparently is hard to stay healthy! I realized today that between the two of us, Jon and I have had some sort of ailment since week 2 of this trip. Wowza. Here’s to good health!

Being a woman in Morocco

Gender has been a topic of discussion often between Jon and me, mostly because my experience when doing something alone is entirely different from when we’re together. In Mali I could walk around safely and unbothered just about anywhere. In Senegal I knew the culture well enough to know how to deal with just about anything that came my way. In Mauritania, I covered up and hung back quietly.

Morocco has been the most complex and challenging for me, as this is clearly a country that has a conservative and traditional past for women, but whose position is rapidly changing. In 2004 the new king passed laws giving women more equal rights, abolishing polygamy and paving the way for women to have more choices. But it’s still awkward and difficult for me to go to a café alone, walking in a souk by myself warrants unending cat calls and hassle, and conversations with Moroccans about the egalitarian nature of my marriage confounds most. What’s also interesting is that it’s challenging for Moroccan women as well. Many experience the same hassle as I have, and I imagine that many young independent women feel pressures from family and potential husbands to adhere to certain cultural norms. All I can do is be grateful for the opportunity to experience these cultures and understand a world different from my own.

Transport Tally

One thing’s for certain about our first 2 months of 2013 – we did a lot of moving around. After final tally and some guesswork, I figured out that we took about 85 different types of transport trips. Here’s how we got around from leaving Portland, getting to Belgium, and moving through Mali, Senegal, Morocco and Mauritania:

  • 10 Buses
  • 5 Airplanes
  • 4 Bush Taxis
  • 2 Taxi Clandeau (shared inner city taxis)
  • 5 Trains
  • 2 Ferries
  • 1 Pirogue
  • 3 Car Rapide
  • 4 Metro/Subways
  • 2 Rental Vehicles
  • 1 Mini Bus
  • 1 Ride with Mom (that would be Jon’s, thanks for getting us to the airport Sheryl!)
  • Approx 45 taxi rides (I had to guess, we really weren’t counting)

Phew! No wonder we’re tired. By the way, I wished I started taking photos of the taxis in every place we’ve been. Taxis in Bamako are all yellow. In Senegal, always yellow and black (except in the Casamance where they spray paint some blue stripes on a car). In Mauritania, I have no idea, they aren’t identifiable – like so many other confusing things about that place. In Dakhla and on the Moroccan coast, white with a blue stripe, or all blue with a white top. In Agadir, bright red. Finally, in Marrakesh – tan or..mud brown/yellow – not attractive.

Not wanting to go to France – um, what?

I never thought I’d say that I don’t want to go to France. Jon and I are leaving Morocco today to head to a small village outside of Lyon. We’ll be in France for six weeks working for a camp that teaches English to French kids. Maybe it’s because I haven’t had a steady job in 3 months, or because I just like waking up at 10am every day, but I’d really like to just head back to the Dades Gorge and hang with our friend Ismail. My perspective on life must be really off when my choices are spending 6 weeks in France or skipping out on responsibility and immersing myself in a lush green valley tucked in a range of snow-peaked desert mountains.

Marrakesh to Ait Ouffi

My first attempt at creating a weekly blog post has quickly failed. Sorry. But in all fairness the last 10 days have been a wild ride – from arriving in Marrakesh which is so different from what we expected it to be, to getting lost in the Medina, to getting sick to taking an adventure up and over the Atlas Mountains and somehow landing ourselves in the most beautiful chateau-like house by the good grace of a new friend, it’s been a long week! On the way to Marrakesh

Marrakesh = Maz’ll catch ‘ya

We arrived in Marrakesh on a Monday night (I guess that was Feb 25), expecting to land in the middle of a crazy large, crowded city with tall buildings that felt super urban. Instead, we drove into an area that appeared out of a rural agricultural land, with buildings not more than 4-5 stories high, palm and olive trees everywhere. The snowpeaked Atlas Mountains rise sharply in the background, reminiscent of Denver, although the mountains are much closer, and the call to prayer ringing out from the mosques is a stark difference.


The Grand Koutoubia Minaret in Marrakesh

For Morocco’s main urban draw, Marrakesh is a puzzling place. It’s urban and the traffic stinks, but it’s incredibly green and lush. The Medina, with its 7km of walls, separates the Nouvelle Ville (the new city) that was built by the French.

Our single day wondering in the Medina left us with a frequent, “Aannnd, we’re lost” refrain. Winding-unnamed streets lead one to easily lose any sense of direction. And this is just a warm up to Meknes and Fez! Oy. But the Djemma el Fna is exciting – an open air circus, and we certainly didn’t shy away from being tourists. There are snake charmers (see exhibit A), monkeys, dancers, storytellers and anyone and everyone trying to sell you something (or rip you off, depends on how you look at it). Marrekesh is fun, but we had our sites on the High Atlas, and the oases towns on the southern side of them. A fever and bad bout of digestive troubles for me threatened to ground us again, but I’m working on being the winner in that battle.


The High Atlas

Up and over the mountains

It takes no time at all before you’re out of the city and into the country. It took us only 2 hours on a big bus to climb high up (on the most windy, tiny roads you could imagine a big coach fitting, but they do) and reach the pass through the mountains. Squarely in Berber country, the people look weathered, but are so incredibly friendly.

Berber Music

Coming from the cafes and grillades (places where you get grilled meat – whatever’s cooking is hanging outside) I’m serenaded with Berber music – the boutique owners are kind to give me the musicians name and album so I can find it. Love.

Mountain Cafe

$50 for Independence

This excursion to the mountains was our ‘splurge’ trip. We decided to rent a car and stay 2 nights in a nice hotel for some pampering. It’s amazing what a different feeling it is to have your own means of transportation. For $50/day we had our own little car that can take us wherever we please. So nice. With no understanding of how many litres of gas to put in the car, we filled it up (gas is REALLY expensive here) so we had a mandate to drive as much as possible. FREEDOM.



Our little car!

Budget Traveling 

We suck at it. Not only do we suck at finding good deals, but we suck at being ok with it. Since St. Louis Senegal, every place we’ve stayed has had some plumbing problem, or something essential that hasn’t worked. Thus the pamper trip. Oh well. But it seems that just a little more $$ gives you a lot more value more. It doesn’t always happen that way (hello everything Mauritania), but in our High Atlas adventure it worked.

Dadès Gorge

Is truly Gorgeous (yes pun intended). Our bus from Marrakesh took us to the town of Ouarzazate, and from there we drove through the Valley of the 1000 Kasbahs into a canyon. I can’t get over the contrast of the deep terra cotta red earth and the vibrant green gardens that are tiered along the river and up the sides of the canyon. Ancient crumbling castles are perched on every high places, tucked into villages and built right into the rock. The valley of 1000 kasbahs is also home to the Valley of the Roses – thousands and thousands of Damascus rose bushes make this area a pink carpet in May and rose products are sold everywhere. Throw in some happy goats meandering the hill sides, plus the almond and peach trees that are blossoming and it’s a perfect high desert paradise.

We rocked the Kasbah

Our wonderful friend Ismail

Upon arrival at our fancy hotel (Auberge Chez Pierre, you must stay here if you go), we exclaimed, “oh we’re so tired” and had a nice tea and chat with the owner, Ismail. I was still recovering from fever-meets-digestive-problem and we must have looked really pathetic because when we showed us our room he said, “You stay here tonight and then tomorrow I take you to the riad, it’s quiet, and there will be families and children here, so you must relax.” We kinda saw this as an inconvenience, until we saw the “riad,” which we’ve now named our own Kasbah. “It’s for making the babies!” exclaimed Ismail and pretty much the entire staff at the hotel. Um… (that’s all I have no response).” How on earth we were blessed with such fortune I have no idea. We planned to stay 2 nights and stayed 4, and I’m still bummed we left. I'm campaigning for our return in June.

We got rocked by the Kasbah

We went exploring through the nearby villages and walked into an ancient Kasbah. All was well, minus the animal stench, until we were climbing the stairs and noticed the gaping holes in them. Time to turn back! I don’t want to die in a crumbling mud structure. Apparently in the old days the way to conquer a Kasbah was to divert the water from the river and just wait until the Kasbah dissolved. You’d think for citadels they’d come up with a better protective solution…?

Desert Rain

Makes everything crazy beautiful. One of the reasons we stayed an extra day was because it rained (apparently for the first time in 4 months). There’s so much silt and clay that when it rains it seems like the mountains come down on themselves and the roads get blocked. On the plus side, the reds become more red, and the greens become more green. It’s beautiful. I don’t know if the Moroccan flag is green on red because of the colors of the land here, but it would make sense. The red of the earth is SO red and the green is SO green. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even the water running off the mountains is deep red.

We almost died – no really.

We’ve taken a lot of bus rides in Morocco. I mean, I don’t know how many kilometers we’ve traversed but it’s well over 2500 since crossing the Mauritanian border. The buses here go REALLY fast, and feel like a rocking freight train hell bent on getting to its destination as fast as possible. Hairpin turns on crazy mountain roads that plummet hundreds of feet into nothingness don’t stop bus drivers from taking blind corners quickly – while passing – all while the driver is happily singing along to the music. Yeah, we almost died while rounding one of those corners when a truck came around the bend. We actually hit the side of the mountain, swung out towards the pathetic excuse for a guard rail and stopped. I realized my final thought would have been, “Really??!!” Jon’s was, “You’ve gotta be f#$^in kidding me.”

I am so grateful that we were able to spend four days in the Dades Gorge. Our friend, Ismail, made us feel so at home in such an incredibly beautiful place. I almost don’t need to go anywhere else. I’d be happy hunkering down right there the mountains, surrounded by lush green wheat gardens, snowy-capped mountains, red, wind-swept earth and people with the kindest faces. Tanamirit Morocco (that’s Berber for thanks, Morocco).

A perfect picture.


I’ve found the perfect picture to represent my initial travels to Africa. I have no idea what this plant is; it is quite beautiful, but those thorns are pretty nasty looking. In Mali I have felt so amazingly welcome by everyone I meet. People are jovial, animated, and so open that it takes a while to get used to just genuine people. Everyone laughs and is comfortable with who they are. The weather is warm, the nights perfect, and I’ve never felt so in touch with the moment. Even in these tough times, people remain hopeful and revel in their profound sense of community.

Then there are the thorns in my experience…in addition the rather scary political unrest which kept us confined to Bamako and spending hours at a time not understanding what everyone is saying, today I had to go to a clinic because the sores on my feet. I have for the past week been nursing ever reddening wounds caused by popped heat blisters. Every day it got a little worse until I could barely walk without great discomfort. I’m also really tired, but I don’t know if that is due to infection or if it is just that more tiring to have to walk gingerly and still have it be painful. This the third day in a row I wake up and don’t wan to get out of bed because I know that first step will make me gasp, so we went to get some antibiotics and painkillers. The doctor took no time at all in telling me that I obviously had an infection, and he was surprised that we did not just have antibiotics on hand (I have Cipiro, but that is a total reset for serious sickness). The nice thing is that the visit, antibiotics and painkillers came out to 20,000 CFA ($40) total! However, being constantly tired and in pain every step I take is certainly not the way I wanted to spend my last few days in Mali.


Sore feet aside, it makes me so sad that Malians have to go through this problem which is not their own. Jess told me earlier that due to the threat to large gatherings, the tradition of colorful and dance filled weddings which usually happen throughout Mali on Sundays will be subdued, small, and intimate affairs…very un-Malian.

I have no reason to stay, but I do not want to leave this place yet. I do not speak the language, have infected feet, am covered in red dust and flies constantly during the day and buzzed by mosquitoes at night; I have to boil water to drink it, can’t eat a lot of the food, pay too much for most things by local standards, and am constantly at a loss for why things are happening around me, but the people is where it is at. Mali is awesome because it is full of Malians. If you can’t get past the little things that annoy, you’ll never get to the real things that matter.