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Dr. Joel Robles Uribe and I in 2008. We had not seen each other for 14 years. Sadly, it was for my father's funeral.

It’s Christmas, 1993. I’m 25 and excited to be going to Mexico for the first time. With my father and his new wife, Martha, I meet my Mexican family. At the rustic little beach house in Sayulita, Martha teaches me to make ceviche and shows me how to wash my clothes by hand. Two Guadalajaran brothers invite me to take a road trip with them and I end up staying five months, three of them in Guadalajara teaching English at a bilingual kindergarten and volunteering in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Guadalajara’s public hospital, Hospital civil.

That last part was made possible by Dr. Joel Robles Uribe.

He is my stepmother’s brother, mi tío político. The night before asking him how I can staying in Mexico and volunteer, I cram, studying my little dictionary — my Spanish was pretty bad. Three years in high school but not much practice speaking, and tío Joel didn’t speak English.

Querio ser voluntaria,” is what I manage to say. Gracious man that he is, he worked it all out. “Why don’t you volunteer here, in the hospital (where he is a doctor)?” I was so excited! I was going to stay in Guadalajara and volunteer! I would be so useful! The Hospital Civil needed me; it didn’t even have soap in the bathrooms.

The nurses looked at me sideways and said little. I saw no other volunteers in the whole place, and I don’t think they knew what to make of me. They probably thought I was some spoiled relative they had to put up with, in between doing their nails and taking their hour desayuno breaks. To me, this was a hospital? I never saw such leisurely nurses. Such patient patients. Just waiting, never complaining, never in a rush.  I wanted to run around and get things done. I bought soap for the bathrooms; they were all gone the next day. I worked with the Oficina de planificación familiar. We put up family planning and contraceptive posters and they were all gone the next day, too.

My Spanish was so bad I didn’t know how to ask what had happened. I assumed the administration took them down. Or patients stole them.

Dr. Joel put me on blood pressure duty. I got to take patients’ blood pressure and dictate the numbers to the nurses, who dutifully wrote them down. Then one day Dr. Joel, who knew I had studied nutrition, said to me:

“I want you to prepare a talk, in Spanish, about controlling blood pressure through lifestyle and diet.”

What?” I said.

“You’ll deliver this talk to patients in the waiting room in one week.”

Gulp. I could barely say “la presión de la sangre es 110 sobre 80.” I worked hard. I studied my little dictionary every night. I recalled as much as I could about the topic, wrote it in English and then translated it into Spanish.

The day of the talk, about 10 patients were  in the waiting room, as usual, with plenty of time to kill. I spoke for a minute about controlling high blood pressure.

Uh….una forma de controlar la presión de la sangre es hacer ejercicio…” I faltered, nervous.

One of the female patients chimed in, “como bailar…?”

I said, “Yes! Like dancing!!”

From there the ‘talk’ was interactive and fun, and the patients really helped my struggling Spanish. I like to think I left them with a couple tips for being healthier – or, at the very least, provided them with some good gringo entertainment.

When I returned to the states 5 months later, with passable español I secured a bilingual job essentially doing the same thing Dr. Joel had just trained me to do. I worked in public health and delivered talks about pesticide safety. I owe so much to him for pushing me beyond my comfort level, for providing me with such an excellent opportunity, and helping me feel useful in meaningful work.

An Homenaje en vida, or Living Tribute was given to Dr. Joel in San Blas, Mexico in October, 2010. An interview with him, in Spanish, is published in the Periódico Panorama Nayarita. From this I learned many details of his political and personal life as a doctor that I found so fascinating and touching, I wanted to share it with you. I have translated it to English (any errors are my own) so you can know a bit more about this very interesting and gifted mentor. Please see the English translation here.


When I was about 5 years old, my big brother mixed melted vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce together in a big bowl, stirred it up, ate it and told me, “It’s poop.” Of course, I believed him.

This is the same brother that persuaded me to sample Tabasco sauce out of the bottle because it “tastes like sugar.” He put some on my tongue and I ran away crying. These are the obligatory big brother-little sister tortures that come written into big brothers’ DNA. There’s probably an evolutionary mechanism at work.

Other than these incidents, I honestly did not suffer much torture from my siblings because they were so much older than me. My brother was 11 and my oldest sister was 16 when I was born.

Perhaps because of the age difference, the poop incident stayed with me. I truly believed my brother. I don’t know at what age kids’ fascination with poop peaks, but I do remember around the age of 8, I watched another 8-year old friend torture her toddler brother by making him eat his. I was simultaneously in awe of the power she had over him, and disgusted.

What does all this have to do with travel? Well, if you’re going to be a traveler, you might need to re-explore this childhood theme and get re-friendly with your poop. Not eat it, of course, but at least get more familiar with it than you would probably like.

*****Warning***** The following contains poo pictures.**

So far I have done and redone seven poo tests and I still don’t know what’s wrong with me. The “traveler’s diarrhea” that many sojourners get has not fully resolved itself in over a year.

Three of many poo tests.

I’ve been tested for parasites, Giardia and stool leukocytes. I’ve seen four doctors in three countries, had ultrasounds and blood tests. I’ve tried four different types of probiotics. The most effective ones were the little blue capsules that I bought in a Skopje, Macedonia pharmacy. The second best came in a little glass jar from an Istanbul pharmacy and cost about $2 dollars. The most ineffective was purchased off the shelf in a health food cooperative in Olympia, WA after I returned.


I’m now trying a $16 bottle of refrigerated probiotics from Whole Foods, hoping that will do the trick. In the meantime the MD is using the dreaded ‘colonoscopy’ word and the acupuncturist is giving me herbs that taste like dirt. Some one or combination of these things may help, and I suppose that is just the price I pay for the adventure of traveling to strange lands, eating strange foods and strange bacteria. I probably wouldn’t trade any one of my travel experiences for a year of chronic gastrointestinal distress; but if I had I might have enjoyed things a bit more along the way.