Natural Remedies Vs Modern Medicine

No right answer – thoughts that circled my head on the trip, most of which have no conclusion

Part II: Natural Remedies Vs Modern Medicine

An hour into our first day hiking the Inka Trail, our guides paused for a break underneath a shelter with thin wooden benches along the perimeter. I was now double my normal depth so my pack fit on the bench but my butt didn’t -so for a while I awkwardly leaned, refusing to take my pack off. An older woman sat on a wall with her ankles crossed working on some piece of fabric across the path from us. A stray chicken and a boy ran around the shelter. After an early pick-up and rushing to starting points and check points, it was a moment where we had nothing better to do than take a sip of water, breathe, and look around. The guides did the normal get-to-know everyone thing and 16 strangers began to try and remember each other’s names.

But then our guide Raul, changed direction a bit and asked “What happens when the people who live here get sick?” Bleakly, in my head, I thought “they die?” We are on a trail into the forest. There’s a train several miles away, but that’s probably expensive. There are no roads. There’s the Urubamba river, but that’s miles away and it doesn’t look like a tranquil float. Even if you do find transportation after walking miles, there’s only a small hospital (for tourists, mostly) at the base of Macchu Picchu in Aguas Calientes (at this point, that’s a four day walk away for us) or back in Cusco, a two-hour bus ride away at best. Even if they make it to a hospital, could they afford the bill and prescriptions? If you live out here, you’re probably a farmer eking out a living from the land – where is there money for transportation and care? But Raul takes a different tact that makes my foreboding thoughts feel true but naïve. Plants, he says. The locals make medicines from what’s around them. People don’t take obstacles laying down – they invent and learn and use the resources at their disposal to the best of their abilities.

Which brings us to literal herbal remedies. The Peruvian’s seemed to have a tea for everything. Upset stomach? I’ll make you a special tea. Diarhhea? I’ll make you a special tea. Period cramps? Headache? Sore muscles? Altitude sickness? Special tea. Special tea. Special tea. Special tea. And the favored tea? Coca. As in the leaves that are eventually processed and concentrated into Cocaine. At leaf level, the effects are not as deleterious and instead act as a sort of pain relief. (E.g. Coca Cola used to have real cocaine in it and was first advertised as medicinal.) The porters shove leaves directly between their teeth and cheek, sucking out the juices as they haul pounds of gear. All of us Westerners brought along mini-pharmacies for the hike. To cover our bases, we sampled from both our western pharmacy and local prescriptions. So for sore muscles it was Ibuprofen and special tea; for an upset stomach it was pepto bismal and special tea.

Mike nurses his morning coca tea as he tries to recover from the war-crime ridden bathroom

I have a lot of opinions on America’s healthcare system. Like how Mike’s altitude sickness prescription cost $10 with his insurance and mine was $50 and that only marriage or the kindness of my employer can fix that because insurance options (and Congress) suck. The U.S. has some of the most expensive healthcare in the world – maybe a Peruvian hospital stay is affordable; in the U.S., it’s the number one reason people file for bankruptcy. Though, obviously, I am more privileged than most of the world by sheer access to vaccines and medicine. But that’s not what I want to get into right now.

I had researched online that we should get altitude sickness medicine for our trip to Peru – that preemptively taking this drug would help us acclimate and avoid getting sick. What I want to get into is how that altitude sickness prescription made us feel. Diamox is the only drug out there that treats altitude sickness, everything else just attempts to mask the symptoms. Everyone used to sea-level quantities of oxygen feel lightness of breath at higher altitudes – but, for a random few, altitude sickness is like day one of the flu or the worst hangover of your life:  you are puking your brains out, your head is pounding, and even the thought of moving is too exhausting to contemplate. Luckily, Mike and I took our Diamox. However, there were side effects: first a tingly feeling like your hands and feet had fallen asleep and were now on pins and needles and then, for Mike, diarrhea. Which is not the greatest when you only see two (disgusting, brutally smelling) toilets a day and your next best option is a bush. (SN: don’t worry, Mike didn’t suffer alone – I got my period and was in a nearby bush – lol so much TMI right now). Those side effects are still way better than day one of the flu. But our beautiful western medicine that was supposed to cure all ails still came at a price – those pesky side-effects that are only mentioned in the tiny print. I don’t think any tea has been scientifically proven to stop altitude sickness, but it also probably doesn’t have side effects. Maybe masking symptoms is enough of a middle ground to get you through.

I have no idea if the Coca leaves or Ibuprofen got me through four days of hiking (probably the Ibuprofen). And I have no idea if Quechua tea, herbal pills bought off of Amazon (ran into a lovely Mormon Utahan couple who did this – but seriously, yall, who knows what’s in those?!?! They’re not regulated by the FDA!), or a prescription of Diamox ultimately solved people’s altitude sickness or other ailments (it’s probably the Diamox). There are ways to overuse and abuse western medicine – we could have taken less of it after a day or two at altitude to try and minimize the side effects had we known what they were.

And how bad is coca tea really? Could there actually be no medical benefit to it? If acetominophin can cause liver damage, are Coca leaves really that dangerous? Is this more of a social science thing of what substance could be more easily abused? – like actetominophin doesn’t eventually become cocaine…

Ok…I got sidetracked… what I mean is beyond the hype, I would like scientific progress and the search for truth to win. I would like pain relief and comfort to win. We still have a lot to learn from tea (and local remedies in general) though – I’d just like to observe their effects with repeatable, double-blind studies.

Final Day: feeling accomplished with a new destination

We took our time packing up our campsite on the final morning of work. I was called an overachiever for taking down my tent before breakfast and for a while we just stood around Jaime’s computer, laughing at some of the ridiculous pictures and movies we took in between doing actual work. There were still two large reaches left, but instead of splitting into two groups we kept the wolf pack intact and surveyed together. The first reach was large but relatively easy. The second reach was surrounded by logging and roads with huge rock slides at every turn, clearly changing the channel from its natural course and greatly decreasing sediment size. The rest of us tried to hold back our excitement for freedom as Jaime made the difficult decision to leave the site.

We ended where we had started, going full circle around the peninsula: on the Skokomish river. We sat silently in the truck, music blaring, windows rolled down, finally experiencing the beginning of summer heat. We all picked up our cars at Olympia, headed to the campground we have established as our safe haven, and finally showered. Chris soon headed out to meet his wife in Seattle for their honeymoon, cracking my back in at least twelve different places as he hugged me goodbye. Our wolf pack was down to three. I owed Paul dinner as I had forgotten my wallet on our last excursion, so the three of us went in search of seafood and a good view. After running away from the fancy places where women in heels and men in jackets climbed the stairs, we finally found a laid back outdoor seating, right on the water’s edge. Our waiter, to say the least, was entertaining. He introduced himself to us by haphazardly relating some drunk story where he ended up sleeping in his car. When we asked for more time to decide on our order, he said he would be back in three minutes – but wait. “You’re not going to time me right? Cause I’m not married to you, I’m not going to lie to you – it might be a little longer.” And that was just the beginning. Every five minutes some new gag or story approached our table – he wanted to try Jaime’s oysters or made fun of us being on separate tickets or wondered why my desert wasn’t gone faster. At first it was strange and we contemplated if we were on candid camera, but eventually it made for a highly entertaining evening.

When we returned, Jaime pitched her tent and went to bed, Paul passed out in the bed of his truck, and I headed to the laundry room next to the outdoor pool for Internet. I sank into the dilapidated but comfy couch, opened up my laptop and went immediately to my e-mail. Amongst Obama campaign letters and REI advertisements, a small note from a Curt Maxey made me literally cry with joy in the silent and dark room:

“Hi Rachael,

I’ve put paperwork in place to try to employ you for the upcoming fall term with the DOE SULI program, so I hope it will work out that I will be your new mentor, unless you get a better offer.”

I won’t readily admit it, but this past year very few things seemed to go right. I cannot begin to relate how thankful I am for this opportunity and how happy I am to finally study alternative energy, especially at such a prestigious institution. Not that I normally screw things up, but there is no way I can let anything go wrong with this one. Wish me luck.

Squire Swim Team

All of us, at at least one point this summer, overtopped our waders. I believe Chris was the first, though for some reason I’m completely blanking on his story. I was next, falling in at dusk after a full days work in the heavy rain. The last two survivors fell on the same day at two different locations on Squire Creek. The creek was one of the larger ones we had done and the water was still running higher than normal from all the rainfall. I was teamed with Paul on a downstream section and he thankfully had volunteered to wade through the rough water and run the stadia rod while I stood on relatively dry land with the auto level. Though he certainly lasted longer than I would have, on the 4th cross section his foot got stuck underneath a root on the left bank and he toppled forward. I noticed the slip, but didn’t realize how bad it was until later. It had also now begun to rain and on top of falling, Paul was now getting soaked without his rain jacket. Further up the stream, Jamie was on top of one of the steep banks, laying out the tape for a cross section. I’m not sure if she slipped or tripped or what happened, but somehow she face planted off the side of the bank into the water, laughing and shouting to Chris as her floating boots lifted her downstream with the current until she was stopped by a nearby log jam. Of all of us, that was probably the most eventful swim and epic fail – how did we miss it?! When everyone was warm(er) and dry(er), we saluted Squire and thought up potential t-shirt designs for her swim team.


Collectively, we decided that in order to live here you need to be…strange? A little off your rocker? Maybe that’s what happens in more isolated areas?

A lot just kind of walk right up to you and ask, what are ya doin? It’s hard to explain. We can’t say geologists because then people discuss rocks with you. And really we tried to avoid anything about climate change or the forestry service. Not that either of those necessarily have bad connotations, they just have the potential to ignite some sort of opinionated lecture. So most of the time we stick with looking at Salmon habitat. Most of them like this, but then we undergo the unfortunate time of listening to everyone’s fishing stories and then having to confess that we actually know nothing about salmon. When we mentioned to our camp host that we were surveying one particular stream even though there really isn’t any reported studies of fish, he regaled us with “Bulllllshit there’s no fish in there! Now let me tell you…” and so on for about ten minutes (later he would introduce us to all of his bear statues). Others look at our surveying equipment and ask if we’re selling their land or increasing their property values. Those who don’t know what surveying equipment looks like, often ask if we’re going fishing – either the traditional way or some sort of electrocution method. Laughingly, we came up with a few sample responses (none of which we ever actually tried). My personal favorite was Jaime’s: I’m a scientist; I work for the government (has a sort of Manhattan project flair, doesn’t it?). Others included that we’re surveying for the new dam or coal plant that will be going in soon. Lol, everyone loves that.

One stream Jaime and I did, situated next to a backwoods campground, had quite possibly the best assortment. There was a family reunion, in which even though I was freezing cold in my waders and three layers of jackets, the girls bravely donned swimsuits in order to wash their hair. Jaime and I laughed at each other: it had been at least a week since we had washed ours. One girl, for no apparent reason, though I suspect it was to make bubbles, dumped half of a Dawn dishwashing soap bottle into the river. Just climbed up on a log, opened the cap, and started squeezing the bottle and smiling. Another elderly man had the longest beard I have ever seen. He randomly appeared on the rocky bar maybe twenty feet down from us, and, after watching us pick up rocks to measure, he himself would pick up random rocks and toss them aside. Another man on the other side of a wooded log jam had a newspaper bag in his hand and was just picking up rocks and placing them inside. Jaime tried to ask what he was doing, but all he replied was “picking up rocks.”

A not old person went to the observatory with me!

By sitting in the lounge/kitchen area most nights I have come to be at least recognized by my hostelmates. Many of them are here looking for an apartment or just working and so have either already spent a few months here and/or will spend several more. So, while many of the travelers come in, sleep for the night, and leave unnoticed, there continues to be a core group of people that come together, learn each other’s languages, swap dialects and tennis lessons, and of course tell stories. On Friday night most people were off from work for the week and looking for something to do. A core group of people were going to a dubfx concert, but the ticket was a little too expensive for someone I had never heard of. Walking from my car back to the hostel I ran into another smaller group on the street, one proudly displayed a coconut he had just bought and sipped serenely from it with a straw. Another girl had just bought a tiny liter of chocolate milk. I asked them if anyone wanted to go to the observatory with me and though I got a few laughs, my roommate of all people was thrilled to come along. We had exchanged conversation briefly before, the simple details of why are you here, where are you from, etc (she is a dancer teaching summer camp and from Montreal) but we hadn’t really hung out. We walked the hour to the observatory discussing the various tourist things we had gone to and what jobs we were applying for in the coming months.

When we got to the observatory, a large telescope sitting neatly beside the science museum, everything was dark. I apologized profusely, knowing I had thoroughly researched the dates and time, but when we tried the door, it magically swung open and we stepped cautiously into an incredibly dark entryway. To the right awfully eerie space music was playing (I don’t know how else to describe it – it wasn’t like electronic and dancey, it felt like it should be the soundtrack for some Deep Space Nine mission). So of course we walked toward the creepy sounds, passed beneath one more doorway, and entered into a room lit by glowing red computer screens and filled with whirring noises of the telescope slewing, the dome above maneuvering, and the human operators grunting at the sight of clouds. Within minutes we were shown an incredibly close view of the moon and the rings of Saturn.  We hung out for a while longer, discussing the international space station, the last American shuttle that had launched earlier that morning, and the fact that this was a terrible location for a telescope (lots of rain from the mountains and light pollution). At midnight, the observatory closed up shop and my roommate (why am I so terrible at names?) and I walked back along the water to the hostel.

A day or so later, one of the guys mockingly asked how the planetarium was. My eyes lit up as I responded that it was really awesome and he should have gone. Which of course ushered in the question: “how old are you?” Always ready to defend both my age and interests, I retorted, “Have you ever seen Saturn’s rings?”.