I wasn’t raped, kidnapped, or robbed. What happened to me on February 13, 2005, was both more mundane and more unexpected.

I was in the small town of Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, and three weeks into a 10-week trip when it happened. After spending a whole day roaming around the spectacular Iguazu Falls, ending with a boat ride under the falls (that left me soaking wet down to my underwear) I was walking toward my guesthouse, relishing the thought of a hot shower and a nice dinner.

Iguazu, a couple of hours before the incident (Argentina)

Iguazu Falls, a couple of hours before the “incident”

Lost in thoughts, I noticed a young guy coming the other way with a small dog trotting along. There is always this process going on in my mind, when I’m out on my own, especially in foreign countries. I watch the people, trying to figure out who the bad apples are. I remember thinking that this young man didn’t look very trustworthy. Not dangerous, but just somebody to be wary of. While I was looking at him, I stopped looking at the little dog. Until I suddenly felt pressure on my left calf, and realized that the little critter had walked toward me and, totally unprovoked, had bitten me! What?! While I stared at my leg in utter disbelief, a bruise already forming, blood started seeping through the skin. “No, no, no, no” I thought with a sinking feeling.

The thought of a trip ruined

You see, I was one week away from the trip of a lifetime: a 10-day Antarctica cruise. I had been planning and dreaming about this voyage for almost a year. It was expensive, and had involved a lot of planning. And now it looked like the whole thing might be ruined. I could contract rabies, I would need to go to the doctor, get shots, and who knows what. Maybe I would need to abort my trip and go back home? That all went through my head within a couple of seconds.

I looked at the guy, pointing at my leg and said in Spanish. “Look! Look what your dog did!”. The guy replied “This is not my dog. This dog is crazy”. And then he just walked away! I guess my assessment of him was right after all. But the dog, I never saw coming. Which was a bit dumb since the town was crawling with stray dogs.

Within a couple of minutes, I was at my guesthouse. I showed the owner my bite. I asked if there was a clinic nearby and she said yes. I asked her to call me a taxi. I wondered if it would be open since it was Sunday. I rushed into my room and ran water and some soap over my leg. By now the bite looked like a crooked smile in the middle of an angry swelling bruise. I grabbed my vaccination card, even my passport, and made sure I had cash.

It turned out the little clinic was opened, but there was only a nurse attending. She cleaned my wound and told me it wasn’t very deep. She said I might need a tetanus shot. Fortunately I had had one just before leaving home and I showed her my vaccination card. I wanted to ask about rabies, but I didn’t know the word in Spanish. She was kind enough to call the doctor anyway (at 7 pm, on a Sunday) and he showed up pretty quickly. I don’t remember ever feeling as despondent as I did during that short wait, staring at the patterns in the curtains. “This can’t be happening” I thought. “Why now?”

No rabies in Argentina?

When the doctor showed up, he took a look at the bite, and said pretty much what the nurse had said. He didn’t speak English either, but I found a way to ask him about rabies. (It must have gone something like “You know that disease that dogs have when they foam at the mouth and go crazy?”). “Ha, rabia!” he said. He then explained to me that I didn’t have to worry. Rabies had been eradicated in Argentina, he said, because of a systematic vaccination program of the dogs. Really? All these stray dogs had been vaccinated? How? I was dubious, but still pretty amazed at how much Spanish I could speak and understand when I really needed to!

I left with gauze, tape, and a prescription for pain killers and antibiotics (apparently dogs’ mouths are full of bacteria – no kidding). But no prescription for rabies shots. I was limping a bit, but it didn’t hurt that much. I was thinking I should go online and confirm what the doctor had said. That would have to wait until the following day, when I could find an internet cafe.

That night I lied in bed while all the feral dogs in the neighbourhood howled at each other, and decided that I really hated dogs.

The following day was my birthday. “Happy birthday to me” I said out loud, with more than a small dose of sarcasm. I searched online for a good part of the morning, but failed to find confirmation that rabies in Argentina had been eliminated (although apparently it had in neighbouring Uruguay). Finally, with mounting frustration, I emailed my travel doctor in Toronto and told him the whole story. Then I waited.

There were only three answers to this predicament I reasoned. I could do nothing, and risk dying if the local doctor was wrong. I could fly back home, ruin my trip, and let Canadian doctors deal with the issue. Or I could try to manage this here in Argentina, and hopefully keep travelling. It was obvious that this third solution was the one that made the most sense.

I had become so afraid of encountering dogs on the street, that every night I drank a bit more wine than usual with diner to give me the courage to walk back to my guesthouse along the dark streets.

Except there is!

The following day, my heart sank when I read the Toronto doctor’s reply. “There is rabies in Argentina and people have died from it. Go to a clinic as soon as you can and get the rabies vaccines.” Fortunately he had been nice enough to leave me the contact information of a few clinics in Buenos Aires that dealt with foreigners. My research had also taught me that, as I suspected, rabies is always fatal once symptoms appear, but also that you must start getting the vaccines within a week of the bite for them to be effective. So, yeah, no stress at all. 🙁

Fortunately I was flying to Buenos Aires the following day. I made an appointment with one of the clinics right away, and went there directly from the airport as soon as I landed. The consultation itself cost only $25 or so, and the doctor was very nice and spoke good English. She said that since we couldn’t examine the dog, there was a chance, albeit slim, that I could have contracted rabies, so she would prescribe me the vaccines. Since I never had pre-immunization, I needed the whole series of five vaccines, each on a specific day: 0, 3, 7, 14 and 28.

The box

On that day (day 0) I got the first shot, intra-muscularly in the arm, along with a special gamma-globulin shot that had to be injected in the wound. I was rather relieved that everything was falling into place, but then she gave me a styrofoam box filled with the remaining four vaccine vials, sterilized needles, and alcohol pads. And dry ice. Because you see, these vaccines had to be kept between 2 and 8C or they would spoil. On my way out, I also got the bill for the vaccines and the gamma-globulin: over $1000 CAD! (The gamma-globulin accounted for most of this amount). It’s a good thing that they accepted credit cards. It’s an even better thing that, as with every trip, I had purchased medical insurance before leaving home.

And so I kept travelling with my little styrofoam box for the next four weeks, going to a local clinic on the prescribed days, and asking a nurse to give me my shot. On the Antarctica boat, there was a doctor, so that worked out. Although I was able to keep travelling along my original itinerary, I had to adapt my plans to suit “the box”. For example I had to fly instead of taking the bus in Patagonia because the dry ice would only keep the vaccines cold for a maximum of 12 hours. And I had to make sure that all my accommodations had a fridge. I was a bit nervous in some of the hostels with those big messy common fridges, so I taped huge warning signs to my box, in both English and Spanish!

First day on the ground in Antarctica

First day on the ground in Antarctica (penguins:good; dogs:bad)

After I had my last shot, in mid March, I was so happy to be getting rid of the box (and this whole ordeal) that I bought myself a nice steak diner with Argentinean red wine and raised my glass to “the end of the rabies shots”. I was in Calafate, Argentina. I remember it very well.

It was the best of trips. It was the worst of trips.

Since I’m a practical person (and obviously not a novelist), I can’t help but leave you on a few practical notes:

  1. Once you’ve had either the full series of rabies shots, or the pre-immunization ones (which are rarely given unless you are going to work with animals) you only need a couple of booster shots if you get bitten again.
  2. If you stay in Puerto Iguazu, find accommodation on the main road instead of the back streets. It may be noisier, but you will not have to deal with the stray dogs as much.

Have you had something scary happen on your trips? Tell me your scariest travel story in the comments!

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