When Leah Peterson woke in the terminal of the Quito airport, a group of people was crowded around her. Directly to her side stood the group leader and her close friend, trying to ascertain whether or not she was alright, while others peered at her curiously. Looks of concern spread across their faces.
The trip was off to a poor start.
Altitude sickness is not uncommon at airports like Quito International, which sits around 9,000 feet above sea level. Travelers accustomed to lower elevations disembark their planes to immediately encounter thinner air, leading to symptoms such as nausea, headaches, disorientation, and trouble sleeping…
Or, as in Leah’s case, fainting.
The last thing she remembered was feeling woozy as she stood just outside the jet bridge, waiting for the rest of the group to exit the plane so they could make their way to customs. Understanding that they were at a high altitude, she figured everybody felt the same way and focused on getting through it. But the world continued to spin and, eventually, she blacked out.
Accompanied by two older chaperones, the 20 or so students from the U.S. had arrived in Quito to embark on a two-week tour around Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. They were there to learn about the small South American nation, to interact with its people, and to gain an understanding of their culture and way of life.
But minutes into the journey, Leah lost consciousness. She barely had time to interact with her fellow travelers, and she’d already made a name for herself as the girl who fainted at the airport. After overcoming her initial bout of confusion, she climbed into a wheelchair security provided for her, and they rolled her through customs.
Worried thoughts raced through her mind.
She was embarrassed, still slightly confused, and concerned she may have hit her head. There’s no shortage of things to freak out about while traveling — “Will I make my flight?” “Do I know enough of the local language?” “Did I pack my toothbrush?” — and now she added a possible concussion to her list.
Leah called her parents, and they told her she should just come home. But she resisted; she wasn’t going to let one loss of consciousness end her trip before it even started. She wanted to get to the hotel, fall asleep, and start fresh the next day.
When she came downstairs for breakfast in the hotel the next morning, she was worried about the reactions she’d have to endure, envisioning hushed conversations and sideways glances from her fellow travelers as they spotted her and recalled her terrific tumble.
“Look who decided to use two legs today.”
She glanced at the table next to her to see a member of her group smiling, not out of malice, but with a playful grin. Leah couldn’t help but laugh, and the others joined in, welcoming her to sit at the table with them.
By the time they had commenced the morning’s activities, climbing to El Panecillo to overlook the city and later practicing their balance as they walked along the equator, Leah had completely forgotten about her fainting spell the night before.
In fact, throughout the two weeks, while she hiked through the Amazon rainforest, snorkeled in the waters around the Galapagos, and planted balsa trees with Ecuadorian children, the episode took a backseat in her mind. Of course, she had to endure occasional lighthearted teasing, but she was so busy exploring lively towns, admiring breathtaking landscapes, and immersing herself in new experiences to even think twice about it.
To this day, though she’s journeyed to Australia and South Africa, backpacked across Europe, and studied for her master’s degree in Scotland, her Ecuadorian adventure is unrivaled as her favorite trip. When she thinks about fainting at the Quito airport, it’s not as a devastating moment that ruined her trip, but as a quirky hiccup, an amusing reminder that the unexpected is to be expected when we travel.
That’s part of what makes it so rewarding.
Photos by Avery Stolte