The Trail to Titicaca: A Journey Through South America

My thoughts were broken by the screech of brakes announcingthe arrival of Tommy Goodall. Tommy clambered out of a rustywhite pick-up wearing blue denim dungarees and a brown fadedshirt. He was a tall man, with a physique and fitness which beliedhis 70 years. He sported a full head of hair and a distinguishedgrey beard. His face had a healthy, ruddy glow and was dominatedby dark kindly eyes. As his eyes played over us, a wry smileappeared on his face. I felt sure that he was thinking, ‘Thesedamned stupid naive tourists, fancy eating mussels’.Tommy was not one for formalities.‘Good to see you are still alive!’ he said encouragingly. ‘Get inthe back.’Our source had been right, he was a man of few words.Quickly and without ceremony the bikes were thrown into theback of the open truck and we clung on for dear life as Tommydrove at break-neck speed down the rutted track to Harberton.The prospect of impending death affected us in different ways.
At Harberton we found out the reasons for the panic. Tommytold us that the Beagle Channel was currently experiencing theworst marea rojo poisoning the world had ever seen.There were those two words again!
‘Red Tide,’ Tommy explained, ‘is a red algae floating aroundin the sea. It infects most of the shellfish. Mussels, as the filtersof the sea, are the worst hit and invariably they become deadlyas the poison builds up in their tissues. Last year scientistsmonitored the levels and spread of the poisoning. It variedthroughout the Beagle Channel, but the most severeconcentration was very close to where you stayed the night. Theyanalysed one mussel from there and found it contained 200,000rat units of poisoning. The human body can only cope witheighty rat units.’It was evident, in eating twenty-one mussels, we had beenplaying a game of Russian roulette.With a sense of theatre, Tommy presented us with a large redbook. It was titled the Dictionary of Poisons and he opened it to atwo-page spread entitled ‘Marea Rojo (Mesodinium RubrumDinophysis)’. Directly underneath, jumping out of the page,were the sinister words:‘THERE IS NO KNOWN ANTIDOTE.’With a sense of foreboding laced with curiosity, I read on.‘The first symptoms are that your lips and tips of your fingers will startto tingle.’My mind started to play a psychological game that set myimagination running riot. Lips and fingers, which had feltperfectly normal until then, started to itch and throb.‘You will then start to feel light-headed and experience difficulty inbreathing.’I started to feel a tide of delirium wash over me and with itmy breathing became intermittent and gasping. Bloody hell, Ihad it! With intrigued trepidation, I moved on to see what wasgoing to happen next . . .
In severe cases of poisoning, breathing difficulties will increase, leadingto collapse of the lungs and death.’Was I to be a severe case? I did not want to wait to find out, Ineeded treatment. I searched for the word.‘The only treatment is to reduce the level of poisoning by vomiting.’It had been twenty-five precious minutes since our failedattempts. Vomit, I needed to vomit!Natalie, Tommy’s wife, sprang to our aid. She concocted awarm mustard drink laced with salt.‘I have never known it to fail. Make sure you drink it withintouching distance of a lavatory,’ she advised.She was right. Within seconds of sipping the cloudy yellowliquid, I was kneeling beside the porcelain bowl. I was not inthe mood to be discreet and it was the mere sounds of myoutburst which set Mike off with his mustard drink stilluntouched in the glass. David downed his glass in one and weall waited for the inevitable. To everybody’s utter astonishment,David smacked his lips, smiled and then asked for more.‘I do not believe it!’ Natalie said shaking her head inincredulity.‘Oh and while you are at it, can I have the recipe?’ old iron gutscontinued.Quite a crowd had now turned out to witness this bizarrescene. They were peons (labourers) and tourist guides from thefarm and they all had marea rojo stories to share. We were told ofa Frenchman who had died only last year. He had been divingoff a yacht in the Beagle Channel and he had come up withsome mussels. The captain warned him that the mussels couldbe fatal and he had apparently replied arrogantly,‘What do you mean? I am French, I eat mussels all the timeand I will eat them when I wish!’ He defiantly popped one in his mouth and within five minuteshe was dead. A young peon told us that his uncle had died eatingthem a few months ago. The trick, he informed us, was to feeda mussel to a cat and if the cat lived then they were safe. Thistheory explained why we had seen no cats since arriving in Tierradel Fuego. We would remember this suggestion for next time,if there was to be a next time.While we were vomiting and listening to these encouragingtales, the hospital in Ushuaia had been called. At first, we wereinformed that a helicopter was being sent to pick us up, but acall ten minutes later told us we would have to make do with afive-hour round trip by ambulance. The helicopter, it transpired,was still in the garage after what had been a four-month service.A dusty off-white ambulance eventually arrived, fortunatelybefore the acute symptoms had taken effect. The men in whitecoats looked at our tongues and took our blood pressures. Theyswayed on the side of caution and decided to give each of us astomach pump. I volunteered to go first to get it over and donewith. It was an excruciating experience and even now the thoughtof it brings tears to my eyes. A tube, the width of my thumb, snakedup my nose, slithered down the roof of my mouth and hit myepiglottis. That was it, I could take no more! As I started clawingfrantically at the offending plastic tube, a bright flash dazzled me.It was David.‘What the bloody hell do you think you are doing?’ I chokedas the plastic became tangled in my left nostril.‘Only taking a shot for posterity,’ David replied.I could have quite easily wrapped that tube around his neck.The doctors discarded the tubes and ordered us to drink thesaline solution directly. This time David did not ask for the recipeand promptly vomited.
After only one day of our cycling expedition, we had to bidfarewell to the bikes. There just was not room in the ambulance.It was a long, dusty, bumpy trip back to Ushuaia, taking sometwo and half hours to cover the fifty-three miles. The ambulanceonly achieved a sense of urgency when we arrived on the pavedstreets of Ushuaia, where with the siren on, it forced its waythrough the busy streets.At the hospital we were all given a thorough check up. Thetests were clear, but they wanted to keep us in overnight forobservation.

The stream had saved us from the ignominy of the following expedition statistics:
Distance:47 miles

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