A Terrible End to Our Year of Travel

If you’ve been following Free Two Roam for a while, you’ll know that we spent the end of 2018 and most of 2019 on the road, travelling.

We celebrated our first travel anniversary on the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. What an amazing place to celebrate it too, I might add! Travelling full time was something that we’d wanted and had been planning to do for a while. We were having an amazing time, learning new things each day, visiting remarkable places, and immersing ourselves in the various cultures we encountered along the way.

Celebrating one year of travels in Bolivia

Of course, it wasn’t always fun and we’d had a few hiccups along the way. But for the most part, it was everything we’d ever wanted and more. We had no regrets about deciding to set off travelling.

But recently, our relatively easy time on the road took a turn for the worst, ultimately resulting in the end of our long term travels; at least for now.

Chile, the beginning of the end

We thought that Chile would be an easy country. It’s the most developed and the safest country in South America. So, how could anything go wrong? We’d survived much tougher countries and we knew that once we crossed the border into Chile, everything would be a breeze. Well, at least that’s what we’d told ourselves.

Exiting Bolivia on the day of their presidential elections, we were glad to have avoided the turmoil that followed soon after. We’d been warned by Bolivians themselves, there would be protests after the elections, and they often turn violent.

It was by pure luck that we’d booked a tour that would take us out of Bolivia by election day. So when our passports were stamped out of Bolivia and we entered Chile, we felt relieved. We’d escaped the craziness to come.

Or had we? 

As we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, just across the Chilean border, we were quickly informed that the craziness was not just reserved for Bolivia. For the last few days, Chile had been having its own political uprising. There had been violent protests and rioting in the country’s main cities.

Santiago’s city centre, where we had planned to head next, had become a no-go zone. The army was on the streets, spraying tear gas to disperse rioting youths, who were setting fire to train stations and looting shops and banks. It didn’t sound fun at all.

We were forced to cancel our stay in the centre of Santiago and move to a quieter area called Las Condes. Las Condes was recommended to us by people living in Santiago. We were told “you will be safe in Las Condes, it’s like a bubble” and they were right. Staying there, you hardly realised anything was amiss.

So we spent four days in Las Condes, waiting for our three friends from Melbourne who had unfortunately booked to come and spend a week with us in Chile for my 40th birthday. Talk about bad timing; I felt pretty guilty about it all. They were coming all this way to be amid all this turmoil, just to help me celebrate my birthday. I knew we should have picked the Maldives! 

Celebrating being 40 in style!

A lovely birthday made everything better

Thankfully, our friends arrived at the start of a four-day long weekend in Chile and somehow things calmed down a bit. We picked them up from the airport without incident and then drove for an hour and a half down to Concon, a seaside town where we’d booked a lovely Airbnb apartment with ocean views.

From there, we spent a nice few days catching up and enjoying the sound of the waves and drinking plenty of lovely Chilean wine. We had the best day celebrating my 40th at the Casa Valle Viñamar vineyard in Casablanca, the most beautiful winery we’ve ever visited.

But of course, it didn’t stay quiet for too long and as soon as the long weekend was over, the trouble started yet again. The towns of Vina Del Mar and Valparaiso, just a short drive away from us, both had more violent protests and we were a little worried that the trouble might head up our way.

By the time our friends left, we were glad to escape Santiago and its surrounds and make our way to Vicuña, a quiet town in the Elqui Valley. Vicuña was the quiet little paradise we’d been hoping for.

When we arrived in Vicuña, we were told that the rioting had made it to Renaca, right next door to Concon. We’d been walking those same streets only a few days earlier. Seeing them on the news looking like a war zone was heartbreaking. Some looney had even decided to fire a gun at the protesters! We were very glad that we’d, once again, escaped just in time.

More protests in La Serena

After a few days in Vicuña, we were booked to go to La Serena, a large seaside town just an hour away from Vicuña.

We’d heard that La Serena had also been having some protests. So a week before arrival, I emailed the hostal we were due to stay at, asking if it was ok to still come. We didn’t want to turn up there in the middle of some riots.

The hostal replied quickly. They said that things had quietened down in La Serena. So, we made our way there, only to discover that the rioting had commenced again and that we couldn’t go out at night after 6 pm! Each night, there were violent protests, just two blocks away from our hotel.

It’s ok to walk around during the day they said, except that you could still smell the tear gas from the night before! The city was heavily damaged by the looting. There was graffiti everywhere, broken windows and broken statues, I really couldn’t see the point of even being here.

Getting cash out was a nightmare. Most of the cash machines were closed or hidden behind wooden planks to protect them from looting. The beach area was nice and quiet but still, we felt like we’d wasted our time there. We should have just stayed in quiet, peaceful Vicuña for a few more days. 

The Moias of Easter Island

In search of peace, Easter Island… or not!

Our next destination in Chile was Easter Island. Easter Island is the most remote island in the world and we just knew that we’d find peace there, after all the problems on the mainland. We did find peace there, at least for a day!

Easter Island is small and tranquil with not much to worry about other than the sound of the waves and the smell of the sea. It’s a piece of heaven in the Pacific that reminded me a lot of Hawaii, a place I adore. 

Unfortunately, while on Easter Island, an accident occurred that would end our time on the road.

A fall that would end it all 

On our first full day on the island, we hired a car and drove around exploring. We’d covered a fair bit of ground when we decided to stop at Ovahe Beach on the western side of the island. Ovahe Beach is a remote beach with pinkish sand. It’s much quieter than its neighbour, the popular Anakena Beach.

We decided to get out and explore the beach and while we were doing so, something terrible happened. I slipped on some gravel and fell. Trying to catch myself, I fell backwards off a small ledge, down about a metre onto jagged volcanic rocks.

Straight away, I knew something wasn’t right. I couldn’t put any pressure on my right leg. I felt sick to my stomach. Had I broken it? 

Getting me to the car was also a major concern. We had to get back down onto the beach, across it and up the other hillside back to the carpark. On two legs it was no brainer but not on one! Thankfully, there was a lovely German tourist on the beach who helped carry me to the car. 

Wild horses roaming the grounds of the hospital

A time in hospital I could have done without

Once I was in the car, it was straight to the hospital. Yes, thankfully, the island did have a hospital. However, due to the major strikes going on around Chile, the hospital was running on a skeleton crew and we had to wait over four hours to be seen by anyone, without pain killers! Once again, just as well it was my leg and not my head!

Eventually, someone came to see me and after inspecting my leg, they sent me for X-rays. The bad news was that I was right, I had fractured my fibula and I needed a cast. I suppose I’m very lucky that I only broke a leg, rather than sustaining a head or back injury. But still, it was a real bummer.

Cast in place, we were sent back to our hotel, minus crutches. They sell them in the pharmacy they said; you can pick them up tomorrow. 

Waiting in Easter Island hospital

NO crutches on the island

That’s right, they were lying. There are no crutches to be bought on Easter Island. Maybe people don’t break their legs often, or maybe they just import them as they need them from the mainland and pass them down to friends and family over time. But all three pharmacies didn’t stock them. We were even told that the local car rental company would have them, which of course they didn’t!

This was going to make things very difficult. How would I see the island without crutches? But thankfully, the owner of our hostal had an old pair of crutches to lend me. What a legend! I managed to get around and we were able to see a fair bit more of the island. We didn’t see everything we wanted to but it left us with enough good memories of the island to counteract the bad ones.

You can read about what we got up to here

A broken leg on Easter Island

Going home

Being in a cast is not a lot of fun. I had never broken a limb before so it was all new to me; wow it’s hard work. Travelling in a cast? No way!

We quickly reached out to our insurance company to see about getting my leg fixed. They gave me two options. Either fly back to Santiago to be seen by doctors there, or fly home to Australia.

To be honest, after the time we’d had in Santiago recently, we didn’t think treatment there would be the best option. There were still large-scale strikes going on, including in the hospitals. So we chose to return home.

We figured that we’d get my leg fixed up and perhaps come back and finish our trip later. However, our return to Aus turned far more sour than anything else so far.

Flying business class courtesy of the broken leg!

Getting DVT on the plane

There’s a silver lining to everything. Being in a full leg cast means that you get to fly business class! Although I would still have preferred not to have broken my leg if I had to fly home now, at least it wouldn’t be in cattle class. Plus, it’s always nice to fly business when you don’t have to pay for it! 

As soon as we landed at Melbourne airport, we went straight to the hospital. We needed that leg fixed ASAP and we didn’t want to waste any time. That turned out to be the best decision we’ve ever made.

After another X-ray which turned out better than the one on the island, the orthopaedics team suggested doing more X-rays of my ankle. The type of break I had normally only occurred when someone twists their ankle badly, never just from a fall. Everything happened so fast when I fell, so I couldn’t remember if I twisted my ankle while trying to catch myself.

The second X-rays were not conclusive and they ordered stress X-rays of my ankle. They also ordered an ultrasound of my right leg. They were concerned that no-one had prescribed blood thinners for the plane ride.

The ultrasound was performed first and they were spot on. I had a massive clot on my right thigh, as well as other clots near my knee and down my leg. Bummer! What was I going to do now, I asked the sonographer? Take blood-thinning mediation, she replied.

Collapsing in the X-ray room 

After the ultrasound, I was moved back to the X-ray room for stress Xrays. If my leg wasn’t sore before that, it quickly changed as they started doing the stress Xrays. After twisting my leg and ankle in different positions lying down, they asked me to stand for more X-rays.

As I stood up, I suddenly felt terrible and before I knew it, I was fainting. I collapsed, and when I woke up a few seconds later, I was convulsing. I had no idea where I was, nor who all the people running around me were.

All I could hear was “who is this patient? how old is she? what was being x-rayed? does she have any allergies?” A lot of questions that I wanted to answer but couldn’t. I could hear them but my convulsions left me unable to talk. It was scary, especially since I still had no idea what had happened. 

The doctors and nurses around me quickly put me on oxygen, medicated and stabilised me. Eventually, my memory came back and I remembered where I was.

A Pulmonary Embolism

A few minutes later, I was lifted onto a hospital bed and rolled into the intensive care unit. Then, as they rolled me out of the room, I finally saw Simon who was in the waiting room. He looked so worried. In ICU, they inserted many cannulas, gave me lots more medication and performed ECGs. I was then sent to have a CT scan of my lungs. 

The CT scan showed that some of my blood clots had moved to my lungs and caused a massive pulmonary embolism. I was in very bad shape and I was extremely lucky that this had happened while I was in the hospital. Otherwise, I may not have survived. It is starting to feel like I’m a cat and I have 9 lives. Although recently, I’ve gone through a few too many of my spare ones! 

First trip in an ambulance

The decision was made to transfer me straight away to the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne’s best trauma hospital. I had never been in an ambulance before or even spent a night in the hospital. My 40th year was not starting well for me. All the things I had been fortunate to avoid till now were suddenly kicking in; broken limbs, blood clots, ambulances and hospital stays! It was all getting a bit too much.

My bed for the week!

First night in a hospital

After further tests at the Alfred, they learned that my heart was quite stressed by the clots. Given the gravity of the situation, the solution was to administer a clot-busting medication. The clot buster would break the clots into small pieces and ease the stress on my heart.

But there was a risk of taking the buster. Any injuries I had would probably start to bleed again but the worst risk was a roughly one per cent chance of bleeding to the brain. That could prove fatal. Unfortunately, it was still the best option, so we went ahead with it.

Thankfully, it all went well and two hours later, the treatment was over and it appeared to have caused no major damage.

The first night was kind of a blur. I was high on morphine for the pain and I didn’t sleep much. Every time I woke up thinking I’d slept for hours, only to discover that it had been just a few minutes. That’s a side effect of morphine. Not my cup of tea!

A week in the hospital 

The next day, I was a lot more stable and the doctors were a lot happier with my progress. However, as everyone had been dealing with my pulmonary embolism, the broken leg had not been dealt with. After a long and boring weekend in the hospital, I was keen to get an MRI done on my ankle, to find out exactly what was going on. The stress X-rays were also not that conclusive.

Unfortunately, one ligament on my ankle was half a centimetre out of place and they would normally recommend having surgery to fix it. But because I’d had a pulmonary embolism and because I’d need to be taken off the blood thinners for the surgery, it wasn’t clear whether I should do it or not.

It was left up to me to decide. There could be very high risks from stopping the blood thinners so soon but surgery on my ankle had to be done within two weeks of the injury for it to be successful. We were running out of time and I needed to decide quickly. 

In the end, I decided against the surgery. The risk of not doing it was that I could get arthritis of the ankle in 5, 10, or 15 years, and it was just a maybe. I decided that the risk of dying during surgery was worse than potential arthritis. It also meant that I could get the hell out of the hospital, which made me so much happier!

Another 6 weeks in a cam boot! Merry Christmas!!

Fixing the ankle

I was discharged from hospital after a long week, with my right leg in a cast. I had to spend the next six weeks in that cast. On Christmas eve, the cast was finally removed but was unfortunately replaced with a cam boot for another 6 weeks. This healing process seems never-ending! Plus, there will be many physiotherapy sessions to follow.

So, I may have issues running and hiking in the future but at least I’m still alive. Only time will tell what exactly will happen to my ankle.

The end of the trip for now

This ordeal put an unexpected end to our long term travel plans. We may not be back on the road any time soon but you never know. Anyway, we can still holiday as often as we can from home. I’m already busily planning to do just that!

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