Mal de Puna

An image of a geyser field with a cloud of white steam rising from it. A dark, cloudy sky can be seen in the background.

In San Pedro de Atacama, there is a geyser field over four thousand meters above sea level called El Tatio.

My sister had won a contest from a snack company that gave out trips for two people to the winners, with the hotel stay and flights paid for. Most of the places—Tokyo, Sydney, New York City—were outside our beautiful country, but one of them was in the very north of it, where a desert valley named after its similarities to the Moon had Mars rover prototypes roam its rough terrain. We joked about getting the one place that was in our country, how that would suck - before my sister got an email saying exactly that.

I was a little bummed, of course. I wanted to explore the world, something I had never gotten to do except for going to our neighboring country of Argentina, and that hardly counted as anything. I imagined going to New York City or Tokyo, even, where my mom went to live for two years during her twenties. Instead, I was left without the chance of leaving my home country. But the hotel and the flight were paid for, so it wasn't like I had any room to complain.

My sister and I had always lived in seaside towns. Puerto Natales was our latest venture, and we were used to watching the Strait on our ten-minute commutes to our respective jobs. I was working at a restaurant as a waiter and she was working in a salmon company, closely following in our father's footsteps. Traveling elsewhere was a breath of fresh air—Puerto Natales was wonderful, its atmosphere always friendly, but we wanted to go somewhere else. Having it be given to us for free was the best option possible, money always being tight, especially in small cities where rent is cranked up to the high heavens.

The geyser field was the first attraction we went to. We had heard stories of mal de puna, altitude sickness as they call it around Chile, but we believed ourselves untouchable, as people often do. The bus trip was a steep climb upwards, the wheels pat-pat-patting on the rocks along the path.

I got out of the bus as soon as we were allowed, my sister by my side. We walked across the geyser field and watched the spurts of water and steam with fascination. Some of them were small and only bubbling, but if you leaned in close you could hear their noise, that growl of the depths of the mountain.

"Do you feel the impulse to shove your hand in there?" I asked her, hand gripping at my pant leg to stop myself from doing so.

"Yes," she replied, staring at the water and the steam surrounding it. "But you'd burn your hand off."

"Yeah," I said gravely. I wanted to know what it felt like. I had never gotten burned before. "I know."

It was hard not to feel lightheaded there. We hadn't received any sort of advice for clueless tourists—much later I would learn that the geyser trip was better for people who had gotten used to the altitude, and I wish I knew that before I signed up to go there first. The oxygen was stolen from your lungs and walking even for a little while made you breathless. We stood there for some time, just staring at the geyser in front of us, catching our breaths.

"It's wonderful," my sister said after a while, clearly resisting the urge to sit down on the stony path. Rocks marked the safe zones, and anyone who walked out of the path delineated by them was sure to get burned by the geysers. I wondered just how many people hadn't been able to resist the urge to touch the steam.

It wasn't until about twenty minutes later that I started to feel bad. I had gotten closer to one of the geysers, leaning over the rocks to watch it bubble, when I started to feel nauseous. I coughed and turned to look for my sister, who had walked through the path away from me to keep looking at them. Dizziness soon started to overcome me, and I shakily headed back to the bus.

"You okay?" the bus driver asked me, comfortable in his seat, looking at me warily.

"Estoy con el mal de puna," I said, biting back a whimper. I squeezed my eyes shut before heading back to where we sat, collapsing on the seat and leaning onto the window. I heard the driver get up and walk out, but I didn't think what for. It wasn't until one of the guides, a man that looked to be in his mid-late twenties and yet already had a grey streak in his hair, came to me with a plastic bag and a water bottle that I realized he went to look for help.

Mal de puna was usually not too serious a thing, but there were cases when it got worse. Some people even die from it. I could hear my sister's voice in my head, admonishing me for my hypochondriac tendencies—You'll be fine, Alejo, I swear to God you'll be fine, get up!

"Drink some water," the man instructed. I blinked blearily at him, and he grabbed me gently by the chin, put the bottle to my lips, and made me drink. Color flooded to my cheeks from the embarrassing state I was in. At least María wasn't there to make fun of me. I took a few more sips until he deemed it enough and pulled away. "Does your head hurt?"

"Dizzy," I rasped out. Words didn't come to me; everything in my head was feeling off-center, like I was staring at my room and someone had slightly moved my bed toward the window while I was at work. "Nauseous," I added after what felt like ages.

"That's what the plastic bag is for," he said, placing it on my lap. "I usually get two or three sick people on these trips. Don't worry, you'll be fine."

"Most likely."

He sighed. "Most likely."

María came back to the bus soon enough, and it didn't take long for her to freak out. As much as she admonished me for being a hypochondriac, she was much worse when someone close to her was sick. She sat next to me and said it would be fine, her voice shaking with uncertainty. What if it was not fine, it said, in every syllable.

"I'll be alright," I rasped out. "I'll be just peachy. I'll just stay at the hotel for a few days."

"A few days is half the trip," she pointed out.

That was true—the trip was funded for a week of a hotel stay, and then we had paid flights back to Natales. I didn't want to miss half of the trip, but if I was still sick by the next day I had little choice, didn't I?

We stayed together for the last thirty minutes of the geyser field trip before people started to go back to the bus. María's big sister instincts took over her, always having been taught to take care of her brother by our parents—she shushed me like a small child and watched my face, paler than usual, the way I nodded off against the bus seat.

When the bus started moving, turning back to where we came from, nausea overpowered me and I started retching into the plastic bag.

"Alejo!" my sister hissed at me, eyes wide, a hand on my back, gently punching at it like she was burping a baby.

Eventually, I felt something leave my throat, hacking up what I assumed must have been bile or even the measly breakfast I had while running late to the bus. Instead, I felt something burn up my throat and I cried out as I retched.

Suddenly there was boiling water in the plastic bag.

My eyes widened and I threw my head back, the vapor making some of the other passengers look up at the ceiling in confusion. My throat burned but I felt better: my body was sated by taking out the water. I had taken too much in, enjoyed the sight, resisted the urge to burn myself a little too much, and now I had to pay for it. I thought about the tour guide's warm voice, the way he looked at us as he explained the inner workings of a geyser, science most of the other tourists didn't really hold onto. But I listened to his weary voice as he told us about the intermittent expulsion of steaming water.

It was only a matter of time before I got nauseous again. I leaned into María, hiccuping softly, and she rubbed my back.

"It's okay," she said. "Sana sana, potito de rana."

"Si no sana hoy sanará mañana," I whimpered, eyes fluttering shut. It hurt, having that amount of heat inside me.

Everything was hazy from then on. The bus continued on its mighty trip down the mountain and onto the still high fields of San Pedro, my sister gently leading the way toward our hotel room. The hotel/resort was rustic in look and atmosphere, but damn it was comfortable, especially when one was a geyser. María took me back to our room and settled me down in my bed, grabbing the trash can and offering it to me.

I took it, only to feel too weak to hold it up, leaving it on the floor.

"This sucks so bad," I rasped out.

"I know, you big baby," she said, albeit I could tell she was worried. "It'll be alright." Even as my insides turned into those of a mountain with those same hydrogeological conditions that, as the tour guide had explained to me so carefully, were required to create a geyser, she assured me it would be alright.

"Do you think I'm going to die? Surely the boiling water must be burning off my esophagus or something."

"If your body is turning into a geyser, it'll be reacting accordingly," she replied with all the certainty in the world, as if she knew about geyser-humans like the back of her hand. "You'll be fine, Alejo. Don't worry about such things."

"I think I will worry," I spat out.

But soon enough my body got used to the change. I threw up boiling water sporadically, but we found ways to use it. After letting it cool, for example, it worked just fine to take a bath in the tub; at first, I had my hang-ups about using something that came from my body to wash myself, but otherwise the water was all going to waste, so it seemed good enough.

I wondered if my illness would leave with me as I left San Pedro. I didn't want to be a living geyser after I came back to Puerto Natales and went to work—a hundred anxious thoughts of burning a patron's face or leg off because I couldn't stop myself from throwing up lived in me, tethering me to the hotel room, keeping me there. I wanted to go to the hospital but I knew they wouldn't have a cure for it, just like all those people that have other related diseases from traveling to places they hadn't seen before. María had told me a story once about one of her college classmates, who went to Puerto Aysén to check out its glacier lake and soon enough was constantly dripping wet with rainwater, no matter the weather. That was what the constant downpour of Aysén did to his body, for not being prepared for it, used to the warm sun and dry snowy winters of up north in Casablanca. Just like I wasn’t prepared for the altitude and the need to step into the geysers, burn myself into a crisp.

"How am I going to work like this?" I asked as the days ran out, as we were getting ready to get back to Natales. I took to calling the airline's workers and explaining my condition ahead of time to ask if I needed to pay to bring a trash can into the flight. They said yes, you have to pay. Of course they did.

"I don't know," she replied. "Maybe you could try to get a remote job? Quit being a waiter. That way you can throw up all the water in the world without burning someone."

Someone that wasn't me, I thought, but I didn't say it.

I tried to go back to work as soon as we got back to Natales. I didn’t explain anything to my boss, as much as I knew I should have. The idea of him firing me on the spot terrified me—our economic situation was always precarious, and I didn't need to be unemployed right then, or ever, really. I had become capable of holding off on throwing up boiling water, but steam started to roll off my nostrils if I did so. I just had to take frequent bathroom breaks, hope the steam wasn't questioned, and that my boss wouldn't mind said bathroom breaks in the first place.

Everything worked out for the most part. Rumors about the steam spread like wildfire and my boss tried to get the pipes fixed, only to be told everything was okay down there by the repairman. More stories like mine spread through every part of the country—tourists that went to Torres del Paine, just three hours away from Natales, started to act like guanacos; tourists that visited the volcano in Osorno had a similar reaction to mine with the geysers, magma sliding off their throats. The mountains, with water or lava inside them, look into us as we look into them, nature grabbing onto bodies and making a place for itself inside them. I can reach for hospitals, reach out to people with similar ailments, for travel threw us toward a new state of being. I read the thinkpieces by one of the men affected during break at work. I don’t have the time for such banalities, pouring out thoughts about what happened to me into a willing public’s ears.

There is little to do about my condition now. I am a geyser in a human body, but I still have to move on with my life.


David Salazar (he/xe/she) is a teenage writer from Chile. He is a writer at Ogma Magazine and Ice Lolly Review. Xe has been published in various magazines and you can find xir on Twitter at @smalllredboy and in his website,