Chapter 8: Pushing the Limits

A month ago I hopped on a plane from Medellin, Colombia to Santiago, Chile. The night before I left I was filled with anxiety, worried that my already swollen foot would swell dangerously and painfully while in the air.  The process of packing my suitcase had left me frustrated and in tears. And the point where I had to give up and let a friend pack the final items nearly threw me over the edge. 

I woke up the day of our flight well rested and feeling much more brave than I had the night before. My group helped me off the bus and into a wheelchair and Erin, my new roommate, accompanied me and my attendant through the airport. All in all, the day went as smoothly as possible aside from the moment we landed in Santiago and were told we’d have to wait over 20 minutes for a wheelchair. After a full day of travel the last thing I wanted to do was crutch through the airport. I walked what felt like a quarter mile before an attendant with a wheelchair found me. I was tired, but not in pain, and happy to be in Chile.

Bourdain arrives in Santiago, Chile

I had set some goals for myself for this month before breaking my ankle. 1. Plan two awesome side trips 2. Find a solid routine to make up for my lack of one in Colombia. With a broken ankle I realized that any sort of routine would be very challenging to keep. I decided instead to be gentle with myself and listen to my body and what it needs. While I understand the importance of rest when your body’s trying to heal, I was also determined to make the most of the month and not miss out on experiencing Chile. I think I found a good balance between the two.

In this post I want to share the challenges and the triumphs I experienced this past month as a result of my broken ankle. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve done my best to stay mobile and cheerful despite the toll this injury has taken on me physically and emotionally.

Erin left for Patagonia the day after we arrived in Santiago and Sam had left Colombia early for Carnival in Brazil. This meant I had five days on my own to figure out how to be self-sufficient. I contemplated moving in with Sam’s roommate, Ricky, for a few days, but instead took the opportunity to see what I was capable of on my own. This was definitely a challenge.

My first day in Santiago I set out to the workspace on foot. I hadn’t wanted to get out of bed. I was exhausted from the travel of the day before and didn’t know how long it would take me to get ready in a new place. I knew no one would fault me if I didn’t show up to orientation, but I also knew I was capable of going and wanted to prove it to myself and everyone else. Laura messaged me before I left to see if I wanted a walking buddy that morning, but I chose to head out alone. I wanted to take my time and familiarize myself with the route. The workspace was five blocks away and took me about 10 minutes to reach. It was definitely doable, but it took some strength and patience to get there. 

The workspace itself presented some unique challenges. I learned I’d have to ask one of the doormen to open the gate at the turnstile for me every time I wanted to enter or exit the building. The floor our office was on was also heavily divided by doors that required key card access. Scanning a key card and opening a door on crutches is no easy feat. It also took me three days to realize there was a ramp up to the front doors of the building. As I arrived for orientation that first day I fell in front of everyone trying to get up the stairs. 

After orientation everyone went to a local mall for lunch. I took a cab with our Program Leader, Helena, and Sahoua. We had a great lunch and I was proud that I’d crutched up a giant flight of stairs so we could have a better view. After lunch, Gert, our local Experience Manager, gave me a bottle of wine that Erin Brennan, my friend in Colombia, had sent me. I headed home to relax and get ready for the week.

In Colombia I’d become familiar with the delivery app, Rappi. It worked seamlessly there and I was happy to see it was available in Chile as well. Unfortunately, I learned that first day that the experience would not be nearly as great in this new city. Unable to navigate a grocery store on crutches, I got home that afternoon and immediately put together my Rappi order. As I waited for it to arrive, I pulled out Sam’s laptop to work on a few things. (Side note: Unfortunately, the same weekend I broke my foot I also fried the battery in my laptop. I’d chosen to bring my laptop on a digital detox retreat and plugging it into a generator-based electricity source turned out to be a horrible idea. Luckily Sam had a back-up Chromebook and was letting me borrow it until I could get my MacBook fixed.) Eventually I decided to move from the living room to my bedroom. I put the laptop and the bottle of wine Erin had gifted me in a shoulder bag and began crutching to my room. Several steps later the bag fell from my shoulder to the floor. The wine bottle shattered and I had to scramble to get the Chromebook out of there as quickly as I could. Luckily, the bag contained all of the glass shards, so I didn’t have to figure out how to work a broom and worry about stepping on stray shards of glass. I did, however, have to grab a roll of paper towel and mop up an entire bottle of wine with only one leg.

By the time I finished cleaning my mess I was sweaty and crying and utterly exhausted. I added a bottle of wine to my Rappi order and inspected the laptop. To my relief there was no wine damage, but the fall had damaged the screen slightly. Great. Another broken laptop. Meanwhile, I was also realizing that it had been over an hour since I’d placed my Rappi order and it still hadn’t been picked up. Finally I got a message saying a personal shopper was available and at the store fulfilling my order. 

From there I received a slew of messages, all in Spanish, basically telling me that nothing I’d ordered was actually available. Using Google Translate, I had to guide the shopper through countless substitutions, approving their new choices. This took at least another hour. Eventually my delivery arrived and my doorman called up to my place to ask my name. I gave it to him and expected the delivery man to come up. Moments later he called again to say the delivery man didn’t recognize my name. I put on a shoe and hobbled downstairs and with the help of my doorman met the driver on the curb. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the solid, giant oak door at the entrance to the building and the extremely narrow secondary door a few steps behind it. I met the delivery man and confirmed my name. From there, he took the crumpled, torn paper bags with my groceries from his bike and handed them to my poor doorman, Jason. Somehow Jason managed to open both doors for me, while cradling my groceries precariously. He brought them upstairs and placed them on my kitchen counter. At this point I was too worn down to cook what I’d bought. I instead grabbed the bottle of wine, a glass and a wine key and headed to the bedroom in defeat.

Given my situation I was very thankful to Gert for helping with a few major things throughout the month. He scheduled my first two appointments at the hospital and helped me rent a wheelchair for a weekend outside the city. He also helped me determine which activities I could participate in and how. Despite the challenges of my first day, I began to figure out hacks to make my life easier. On Day 2, I managed to drag a chair to the bathroom so I could sit down while getting ready. I started stashing bags everywhere so I could easily carry things from one room to the next. I used a stool in the kitchen to kneel and sit as needed. Thanks to the galley-style counter tops I was also able to swing myself through the kitchen without my crutches. My backpack became my work bag. I wasn’t taking any more chances with Sam’s laptop. And for the first time in three months I enjoyed taking many baths, because it’s easier to lay in a bathtub than to sit on the edge with the sprayer in hand.

On our fifth day in Santiago, I joined a group hike to the top of San Cristobal Hill. By joined I mean I took an Uber to Parque Metropolitano and waited 20 minutes for the cable car to open. While waiting I met an American who had recently recovered from six months with crutches and a boot. He taught me how to manage stairs without falling on my face like I had done just days before. I took the cable car to the top of the hill and met the rest of our group there. It was cute to see how impressed and excited everyone was to see me. Gert in particular was my biggest cheerleader. I was just happy knowing I wouldn’t miss out on a month’s worth of fun and proving that there were ways to get out and explore despite my condition.

Janice and me at the top of San Cristóbal Hill

Not willing to waste the three weekends I had in Chile, I planned a road trip for our first weekend there. Sam volunteered to drive and I put the itinerary out to the rest of the group. We ended up with nine people in a van leaving Santiago Saturday morning for the Casablanca Valley, followed by Valparaiso, Viña Del Mar and Reñaca. I relished the freedom of setting out with our very own car and glowed with pride at having coordinated a perfect side trip. 

On Saturday our first stop was a winery called Bodega RE. We got there 30 minutes after they opened and secured a tasting before anyone else showed up. From the winery we drove on to Valparaiso, a bohemian paradise on the coast. The town was made up of hills and although we’d rented a wheelchair I chose to tour it on foot. With all the curbs and steps and steep inclines the wheelchair would have been a nightmare. For two hours we explored Valparaiso. I crutched up stairs, down hills and into a cable car before collapsing at the lunch table swollen and uncomfortable. To my relief the rest of the group was ready to move on as well, so we headed to our Airbnb in Reñaca. 

Crutchin’ around Valparaiso

We spent the afternoon by the pool and met up with seven others from our group. We went out to a giant group dinner that night and all returned stuffed and ready for bed. The next morning we walked along the beach. Sam pushed me in the wheelchair to a beachside bar where we had breakfast. We basked in the sun afterward and most of the group played volleyball before piling back into the van and heading to another winery. This one was Casas Del Bosque. We had an incredible four-course meal and pairing before returning home. I went to bed that night satisfied and feeling whole after a weekend of pushing limits and experiencing the best of what Chile has to offer. 

The following Thursday came quickly and the majority of our group woke up early to participate in Race Across the Nation, a charity event to raise money for the non-profit of your choice. Every group in Remote Year competes to see who can log the most miles in a defined two-hour period. Although I’d been Ubering a ton (yes, I was regularly Ubering the six blocks from my place to the office) I’d been crutching enough to have built up some major muscle and callouses. I showed up the morning of the race with Janice’s bike gloves and my walking shoe, ready to do my part. I walked the park at my own pace cheering on and chatting with friends as they passed or came along. In the end I logged 3.2 miles, helping Bourdain win the Fittest Group Award and earning myself the Individual Spirit Award. At about 1.5 hours my crutch tips wore through, exposing the metal end. So after the race I went directly home and walked two blocks to find the Medical Supply Store Sam had spotted nearby. When I got there I couldn’t even crutch into the shop, because the smooth tile floor was too slippery for my worn down crutch. I had to hop to the counter and show the cashier my crutch, conveying my need. Finding this store and effectively communicating felt like a triumph. That day I felt like a champion.

Slack recognition to the entire RY Community

I had three hospital appointments while in Chile. The doctor in Colombia had referred me to Clínica Alemana, the top private hospital in Santiago. A week after we arrived I went in for X-rays to see if the break was healing properly. My new doctor confirmed everything was properly aligned and seemed to be progressing the way it should. He told me to come back in 10 to 12 days for more X-rays. Twelve days later I returned and this time the doctor found something new, another fracture no one had noticed before. He said that was likely why it was still so swollen and experiencing pain on the front of my ankle. He had previously advised me to try putting some weight on it from time to time, but now he advised against that until I could get a CT scan to confirm the extent of the damage. I went to the Paul McCartney concert directly from the clinic and tried to hold it together in the car. I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. It was not the news I had hoped for and furthermore I’d felt frustrated when trying to ask the doctor questions about what I could/should do. Likely because of the language barrier, I felt like he wasn’t truly listening to me, but instead he assumed he understood what I was trying to say or ask and would advise me based on that. I also had a feeling he was just giving me the best short term advice, assuming at the end of the month I’d return home and see an American doctor who could give me proper longer-term care.

The next day I was still feeling down. By the evening I was deep in a depressed, self-pitying funk. I was supposed to go to a wine night with some of the other women in our group just a block away, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave home. I was tired and stressed and feeling overwhelmed. I felt worn down from having only one good leg. I just wanted to be able to explore my neighborhood or go for a hike or walk aimlessly around the city for a day. I was tired of relying on others so much and in doing so, having so often to struggle through the language barrier to be understood. The effort of having to go out and find some place to repair my laptop, communicate with a doctor about my ankle, find someplace to rent a wheelchair, replace my crutch tips or buy medicine, even the frustration of ordering groceries was bringing out the worst of my shyness and social anxiety and it was becoming too much to handle. I had hit my limit with it all. The next day I bought a plane ticket from Mexico City to Denver, deciding it would be best to head home for a week and get my computer fixed, get a second opinion on my leg and recenter myself at home.

The next day, anxious to get away from the city and do something fun, I posted to Slack asking if anyone in our group wanted to rent a car and take a day trip to El Yeso Dam and a nearby hot springs. I had intended to fill a car with five people, but interest was so high that we rented three cars instead. Sunday morning we set out, driving into the Andes to San José de Maipo. There we stopped for food for the few who hadn’t planned ahead before heading on to the dam. The dam was a large, crystal blue body of water surrounded by mountains. Although man made, it was absolutely gorgeous, fed by glacier runoff. We picnicked there, enjoying the perfect weather and views before driving on to the hot springs. The hot springs were in a National Park and the views got prettier as we went. The springs themselves weren’t particularly hot, but it was still nice to slide into warm water and relax. On the way home we found a large Peruvian restaurant in a small town that could accommodate our group of 14. It had been a great day and dinner was no exception. This helped boost my spirits from where they were just days before and I had achieved my goal for the month of planning two awesome side trips.

Sam and me at El Yeso Dam

Days later I went back to the hospital for a CT scan. The scan confirmed I did in fact have a small compression fracture in addition to the original fracture they’d found in Colombia. The doctor told me to keep all weight off it for six weeks after the accident. I got my X-rays and scan from the hospital to share with the doctor in the US and looked forward to further clarity from a native English speaker. I want to emphasize that I received world-class care from the hospital staff in Santiago, but I really wanted the peace of mind that I’d receive from speaking with and being able to question a US doctor.

March was a month of ups and downs, but overall I really enjoyed Chile and the people I interacted with while there. Perhaps it was because of the crutches, but I felt everyone was particularly helpful and I advances my Spanish ever so slightly through the many conversations I had with Uber and cab drivers throughout the month. I wasn’t always pleasant to be around and I had times where I’d cry alone in self-pity, but I made it through the month without missing out on much. I also learned a valuable lesson about ability. You don’t realize how able you are until something happens to limit your mobility. You don’t realize how capable you are until you’re forced to adapt to that limitation. I am learning that lesson for the first time in my life and I know I will come out of this experience more able and capable and stronger than ever.

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