Rotorua -- it's sure to make you pleased!When I was nine years old, my family took a road trip through the North Island of New Zealand. From Wellington we drove up the centre of the island, visiting friends in Palmerston North and Auckland, spending a few days at a motel on Ninety Mile Beach. As we arrived on the shores of Lake Taupo, early in the trip, we started to catch a whiff of the hot springs where we'd decided to eat lunch.
Rotorua -- it's sure to make you pleased!Rotorua is the centre of New Zealand's geothermal energy production, an extremely active hot springs poised over the tectonic rift which created both major islands. (Or so I had learned in school that year.) I'd never visited a hot springs before, and I was looking forward to it. And so my seven-year-old brother and I started singing about what a great strange place it was. Sometimes we made up our own tunes, but this song was set to the melody of "C is for Cookie."
Rotorua -- it's sure to make you pleased!We ate at a diner. I probably had a hot dog, or macaroni and cheese, or some other generic item from the kids' menu. My attention wasn't on the food. All I remember about Rotorua is the way the smell tickled my nose and throat; the way I sagged onto the padded bench as all the energy started to seep out of me; the persistent sneezing and coughing; and my brother's song like a mantra:
UNLESS ... sulphur, sulphur, sulphur makes you sneeze!On the way back to Wellington we skipped Rotorua, and I tried to hold my breath all the way around Lake Taupo.
Rotorua was my first clue that I might be allergic to sulphur. My second came during the summer I turned 20, when I was prescribed a course of septra antibiotics. I swallowed the first pill without incident, and I remember being very pleased that it didn't upset my stomach like erythromycin. But about an hour after my second pill, my friend Michelle looked up at me from the table where we sat stuffing envelopes, and asked, "Did you eat lunch outside?"
"Um, yes," I said. I had grabbed a Pitburger and eaten it as I walked from the SUB to the Physics building and back.
"I think you may have gotten a little too much sun."
"I don't think so…."
"No, go have a look in the mirror," she advised. "Your face is all red."
And so I did, and so it was. I splashed myself with cold water to calm down the sunburn, and returned to the envelope-stuffing. But after another ten minutes my back and shoulders started to itch, and when Michelle next looked up at me, she gasped, "Gods, you're turning purple!"
At Student Health Services, my doctor quickly diagnosed me with an allergy to my medication. She took the rest of the septra away and gave me some penicillin instead, and my mother drove out to pick me up. By the end of the afternoon I had a rash over my entire body and a fever of 40 degrees…both of which were gone within 24 hours as the sulpha drugs cleared my system.
That summer I went for allergy testing and confirmed that I was allergic, not only to sulpha antibiotics, but also to sulphonamide anæsthetics—usually called "amides" for short. My mother wasn't completely surprised; her mother had a similar allergy. But I still didn't work out the full implications for another ten years, when I realized my allergy extended to sulphites in food. Maybe, just maybe, I was allergic to sulphur itself.
Since my twenties, I've been careful to warn doctors and hospitals about my medication allergies. Throughout my thirties, I've taken the same care to read ingredient labels, aiming to minimize my exposure to sulphur in any form. So you'd think I would have known better than to book a vacation in Harrison Hot Springs.
We drove out in CAN's one and only Volkswagen Golf, through a wet and misty late afternoon. From the freeway we turned onto what must be British Columbia's shortest highway, #9. I remembered that Harrison was BC's first resort town, founded well over a hundred years ago, and had a moment of scale shift: once upon a time, the distance from Agassiz to Harrison must have been a significant spur off the main Hope Road. Now it takes fifteen minutes to drive the length, skirting the west side of a mountain.
The Fraser Valley is pretty big, all things considered. It extends west from Hope to Vancouver, and southwest most of the way to Bellingham. The Netherlands would fit comfortably here. But what distinguishes it from the Rhine Valley is its route through fjordland: it's not a low plain, but a filled inlet, where epochs ago the Fraser once poured into the ocean just west of Hope. As its sediment grew into a delta, it started changing its course, extending that delta ever further west while building up the fjord bed into a wide valley. Mountains which once were islands rise abruptly from the flat ground. I looked backwards in time and saw rising sea levels, a valley turned to swamp and washed away.
Some of the mountains marked the edge of the old inlet, and the road followed these north toward Harrison Lake. I thought about the early European cartographers, following the edges of the plain to find its extent, and wondered where the old fjord would have ended with the slow rise of the land. And then we passed through a wooden tourist gate welcoming us to Harrison Hot Springs, and five kilometres later we reached the lake.
The touristy downtown of Harrison Hot Springs is quite small, about two long blocks east to west, three short ones north to south. In the far northwest corner is the original Hot Springs Hotel, built on top of the springs themselves. To the east along the water run a veneer of new-looking luxury condominiums, most of which are probably corporate time-shares; behind them are a few run-down houses and a trailer park. South of downtown, at a respectful distance so the tourists won't wander in, is the town itself: houses and side streets, a few small businesses, a couple of kids-adventure-campground-style resorts, and a lot of trucks in driveways for the inevitable grocery run into Agassiz. There's not much to buy in Harrison Hot Springs, unless you're a tourist.
Our motel—the Harrison Village Motel—turned out to be in the northeastern block of downtown, across from the water and a couple of doors down from the public pool. We checked in, admired the comfy bed, and started reading the tourist paraphernalia with an eye to restaurants. I don't think I'd quite grasped yet how small the town was. We pored through every restaurant ad in Harrison…Full of Surprises! and worried that we couldn't find an address for a place called Cookin' Kim's, making it doubtful that we'd be able to peruse everyone's menu before choosing. At last we hit upon the idea of asking for advice at the front desk.
By now the front desk was inhabited by a girl who looked about twelve. "My mum will be right with you," she said.
"Actually, you might be able to help us. What's the yummiest place to eat in town?" I asked.
She barely managed to shout, "The pizza place!" before her mother walked in and suggested that we'd probably prefer a bistro called Crazy Fish. We thanked them both and headed out.
Harrison Hot Springs boasts about a dozen restaurants altogether. Two of these are German schnitzel houses. Two more offer sushi; one each are a pub, a pizza place, and a hot dog stand. Cookin' Kim's turned out to be an unprepossessing diner in the local strip mall, which we would later discover to have the best (and cheapest) food in town. The Crazy Fish bistro is an upscale restaurant across from the pub, where I ordered cajun snapper and rilwyn the idiosyncratically spelled orange ruffy. The food was excellent, but the service was not terribly knowledgeable: although rilwyn went through the menu with our waiter looking for something free of spice, she still got burned by the cayenne snow peas.
An artificial sandbar curves around the south end of Harrison Lake, forming a shallow lagoon. To the west the sandbar is wider, and supports a large display of world-championship sandcastles. Their lower extents are hidden behind a six-foot red fence emblazoned with far too many ads for the Vancouver Sun; a lonely kiosk offers admission in exchange for rather more money than we wanted to pay. Instead we walked around the fence and admired their upper halves—along with what we could see of the lake and mountains through the mist and light warm rain. We speculated about what kind of aerosol glue must be holding the sandcastles together, because ordinary sand would have collapsed in the mist long ago.
And so we returned to the motel, where I crashed early. It had been a long day.
In my dream I was nineteen again, and horribly sexually irresponsible. I was teasing half the boys I knew, flirting egregiously, taking both words and deeds well beyond the limits of propriety. I wasn't doing quite enough to earn the title of "tramp," but I was certainly well into the realm of "bitch." It was great fun, but I woke up thrilled that I didn't have to be nineteen anymore in real life.When I woke up it was almost noon. I'd slept for over fourteen hours. Sluggishly I got up and let rilwyn led me to lunch at Cookin' Kim's, where I ate a delicious vegetable soup…and then left to go back to the motel and crash. Eventually rilwyn went swimming at the public pool, and when I got up again at 5pm I decided to join her, no matter how sluggish I felt. So I gathered my bathing suit and towel and that's funny, I wonder where I put my purse?
A diligent search of the motel room turned up nothing. But I'd only been to one destination that day…so I took my motel key and a book to read, and returned to Cookin' Kim's, where they were just locking up for the day.
"Hi, uh, I ate lunch here today," I said to the woman who'd served my soup.
"Yes, I remember you."
"Uh, I wonder if I might have left my purse here?"
"Yes you did!" she said, and let me inside. "I thought at first it went with the big party of ten that was sitting behind you, so I asked if it was any of theirs. They said, 'That depends; does it have any money in it?' I said I didn't know, so they said, 'I guess it's not ours then.'" She scowled. "I thought we'd put it back here. Another staff person must have put it in a different drawer."
"It's a small black purse, with an orange notebook and a wallet inside—"
"Oh, I know what it looks like, I'm just not the one who put it away, so I don't know where they—ah, here it is!" And she pulled my purse from a drawer and handed it back to me.
I thanked her and crossed the street to the pool, where I realized that I was far too weak for swimming. The adventure of finding my purse had nearly sapped all my strength again. Instead I waved to rilwyn through the glass, sat down, and pulled out my book.
In half an hour I managed to read about ten pages. I kept forgetting where I was, and having to go back a paragraph or two. Sometimes I would have to read a sentence three or four times through before I understood it. Whatever this extreme tiredness was, it had obviously seeped into my brain as well. I couldn't concentrate; I couldn't remember where I put things; I could hardly walk three blocks without closing my eyes for a rest; I was fuzzy, fuzzy—
The tune to "C is for Cookie" was running through my head. Only Cookie Monster seemed to be singing something about sulphur.
When rilwyn came out of the pool, I knew what my problem might be. Could I perhaps be having some sort of reaction to the sulphur from the hot springs, I speculated? It was in all the water, all the air. "And all the soup," she pointed out. Right. That too.
Although I mainly wanted to go back to the motel and lie down, she took me to dinner first, and bought me a large bottle of filtered, completely unsulphurous water. The smell of cheese from the pizza place was turning my stomach, so we went to the Old Settler Pub instead, where I ordered a Caesar salad and a Shaftebury Cream Ale. (The Old Settler is the name of the tallest mountain along the east side of Harrison Lake; it's not actually named for an inevitable grizzled miner.) Then she marched me to the bed & breakfast where we'd reserved two nights later in the week, and to the motel office; both proprietors took one look at me and offered to cancel our reservations at no charge.
In the morning the sun came out. We ate pancakes at Cookin' Kim's, and drove out of town without a destination.