Monthly Archives: August 2002

Traditional medicine

Another night in a hotel room and I’m missing my flat in Birganj.

I’ve been in Kathmandu (Thamel, actually, which is the tourist district) for four nights. I’ll be away from Birganj for almost a week more before I get back to teaching and facing the devils who are my students.

Two weeks ago in Birganj I developed an upper respiratory infection, which worked its way through my sinuses and into my ear—my inner ear to be specific.

I had jinxed myself by telling one of the PCMO nurses that because I had been in Nepal six months without any problems, I should be rewarded with a break from my post with a visit to Kathmandu.

And when I did get sick, I was suddenly afraid that perhaps PCMO would think that I was sick of post instead of other things. I was in a situation I hadn’t been in since elementary school.

I finally made a trip to Dhunche to visit Zach, and Lang Tang was extraordinarily beautiful.

I finally made a trip to Dhunche to visit Zach, and Lang Tang was extraordinarily beautiful.

I had to go to nurse, tell her I didn’t feel well, and have her send me away from my responsibilities with a comforting pat on the back. After all those times in elementary school when I told the nurse my stomach hurt (I can’t remember how many times it did hurt), I had the notion that the nurse secretly knew I was merely trying to indulge myself.

But my ear was bothering me. I just had to let it go on long enough so that there would be no denying that I was ill and that something needed to be done. I wasn’t crying wolf, yet why was I feeling so guilty at the possibility that the PCMO would have me leave the sweltering heat of Birganj for the temperate climate and delicious food of Kathmandu?

The first time I had called the PCMO the nurse told me, Play it by ear.

I realized that my symptoms would have to be more severe before I’d be called to Kathmandu.

I thought that finally having an ear infection for two weeks merited another call to the PCMO and, ergo, a departure from Birganj. I had the feeling of some disembodied finger being in my ear, but nothing painful.

I often had the inclination to take something, like a Q-tip, a pencil, or my Swiss Army knife, and try to get at whatever it was that was bothering my ear. It was driving me crazy.

My hearing had been affected and my students were developing this especially annoying habit of mimicking me when I asked them questions by saying, What? Sorry? Say again?

The best part of this was being referred to a Nepali doctor by the PCMO. When I went to Phora Dubar, the location of the medical offices for both Peace Corps and the embassy staff, and the nurses looked at my ear and told me stories about finding roaches and leeches in PCVs’ ears, but that my ear was free of bugs and such.

All this talk reminded a nurse that she had some intestinal worms in formaldehyde and insisted that she show them to me, which she did.

This one, she said, holding up a yellowish tapeworm about a meter long, was vomited up by embassy staff.

She then showed me a book of horribly infected ears and gave me an idea of what the swollen membrane in my ear looked like. After she looked through the book with a grotesque eagerness, she took another look at my ear and said to herself, Oh, I’ve seen worse.

The worst part about seeing the Nepali doctor was the awful preferential treatment I received because of my skin color. The doctor’s office opened at 5:00 p.m. and he saw patients until 10:00 p.m.

Odd hours, I thought, but apparently common in Nepal. My appointment was for 5:30 p.m. and I got the office just a few minutes early after a painless cab ride from Thamel.

Maybe there’s some sort of Nepali cab dispatch office where the cabbies are taught how to try and chat with passengers who are possibly American. During any given cab ride in Kathmandu a cabbie will at least use one of the three standard conversation starters:

Osama bin Laden.

September 11th?

George W. Bush!?

But these aren’t even intended to start conversation. They’re just statements, like a complete sentence needing only an understanding nod. I’ve tried to engage drivers in Nepali to talk about their notions of any one of those subjects. I get the same responses, time and time again, which are (respectively)

Na ramroo manche. (not a good person)

Na ramroo. (not good)

Confusion. Al Gore. (even the United States has its day)

This driver mentioned all three topics, but left me only with a perplexing Na ramroo.

I’m not sure if he was talking about Osama bin Laden or September 11th or just the lot.

When I came into the waiting room I saw about six or seven individuals and several kids with waiting parents, all Nepali.

A sign welcomes visitors to Lang Tang National Park with a prohibition against honking.

A sign welcomes visitors to Lang Tang National Park with a prohibition against honking.

I hadn’t been in the office two minutes before they led me to the doctor, who spoke with me for a bit. His English was soothing since I was slightly concerned upon coming into his office slash examination room.

On one side of the room sat his desk and several chairs in front. The other side was an examination table with a trey next to it filled with peculiar, stainless steel tools. All of this was illuminated by a single, 60 watt light bulb. The lighting alone made me think something illegal was going on.

But he practiced just as any doctor I had ever known. He asked me a few questions about how I was feeling, looked at me for an equal amount of time, and then wrote out a prescription for some antibiotics and said I should be better in three days.

His assistant gave me some hearing tests before I left. The machines, though skillfully manipulated by the doctor’s son, were circa 1965. I have a BA in English, so who am I to say if that’s a problem?

But I’m feeling better. I was planning to return to Birganj last Saturday, but since that would require me flying back and then returning in three days time on another flight, I asked the PCMO just to keep me in town so my ear wouldn’t have to suffer all the pressure from the flights.

It’s been tough occupying my time in Kathmandu. Today I walked to Patan, and old historic district to the south of Kathmandu. One of the Peace Corps’ drivers asked me to go to Dhunche with him on Tuesday morning.

Dhunche is the main city of Lang Tang National Park, Rasuwa district, one of the more beautiful places in the world, so that’s definitely something to do.

After getting back from Dhunche the next day I’m working with Trina to help plan the regional peer support conference, a quarterly excuse for everyone to get together at least regionally. The conference is being held in Nagarkot, which is a beautiful city just to the east of Kathmandu and famous for its views of the Himalayas.

And then it’s back to facing the kids. I think my stomach hurts.

The most exciting blog post yet

Let’s see. I’ve had all sorts of awful things happen to me. I’ve had my head bashed open a couple of times. I’ve fallen from a moving vehicle at least once (thanks, Jeff). I’ve had a bit of my finger chopped off, as well as some of my big toe.

I’ve tore off all the skin from a knee, which is one of my earliest memories (Ah, Arizona). I broke my thumb. Just childhood stuff—life—lots of little nicks and bruises along the way.

It’s only the things that leave scars that seem to sear the memory. Stories that go, One time I almost caught a baseball barehanded and contused all the blood vessels in my hand, which would have made me almost lose consciousness, don’t last as long as the real thing.

The main intersection in Birganj, just north of the clock tower, around August 2002.

The main intersection in Birganj, just north of the clock tower, around August 2002.

For the most part, no one learns much from near misses. We just dust ourselves off, smile, and say, Boy, that was close.

My mother said I was accident prone and maybe I am. Most of the times I’ve had to go to the emergency room were not for exceptional reasons, unless you call cutting off the extreme quarter of your big toe while removing luncheon meat from an air tight container exceptional.

So yes, I’m afraid I’m accident prone. But if it eases your mind, I’ll reassure you that, in fact, I am bullet proof.

Or mostly lucky. Here’s how:

I’m riding back from town towards where Luke and I live. Luke is a N/192 PCV that lives directly across the street from me. Luke had gotten quite sick and I’d offered to get him some medicine and juice from the bazaar.

It was drizzling outside and I’m just cruising along the road, Mary Poppins-style with umbrella in hand and sitting perfectly upright.

The bikes in Nepal are replicas of Pee Wee Herman’s bike. True. The roads have numerous banners across them that have appeared in lieu of the Prime Minister’s visit to Birganj (that day).

Earlier that morning I went with Jane-Erie to her school. We hadn’t been at school long before the headsir marched all the students outside and ordered them to stand along the roadside, telling them that the PM would soon be coming to wave and smile for them.

At some point prior to the PM driving by, the headsir had the students begin clapping, which they did with an eerie robotic autonomy, like some machine that had been clapped-on itself.

The kids stood, moist and humorless, clapping as if they were powering the world. The kids clapped and clapped until, finally, the PM soared by.

I’m not sure if anyone could confirm if he was actually in one of the vehicles, which looked like they had been collected from the worst used car lot in Nepal, but I could tell it definitely affected the kids, who gladly ceased the clapping and went back to class.

I digress. So I was trucking along the main road, looking like Pee Wee Herman (or Mary Poppins, rather) on my bike, jingling my bell carelessly (actually, quite aggressively as that is the way) with my umbrella in hand, feeling purposeful with a basketful of juice and medicine, until a motorcyclist turned towards me, ramming my bike at a 20° angle, casting me forward off of my bike—not unlike Superman—across the motorcycle and motorcyclist and onto to the wet pavement (a good thing, I think) where I tumbled until I found my way underneath a rickshaw that hit and dragged me a few more feet until it finally just ran over me.

But you know what? Not a scratch on me. Well, two actually. Both were on my left hand and hardly mentionable.

I stood up, dusted myself off, and walked back to the scene of the accident. (That should illustrate the impressive distance that my body traveled from where my bike was struck, that I had to walk back to the scene. My bike’s front half looked a lot like an uppercase D.)

Rickshaws line the main road in Birtamod, Jhapa, on a cool morning in January 2004.

Rickshaws line the main road in Birtamod, Jhapa, on a cool morning in January 2004.

The motorcyclist was starring open eyed at what had happened. Running over a foreign development worker would not play well when the police arrived. Indeed, things would have played out badly for him. The cops came over and I explained in eloquent Nepali what had happened.

One of the cops calmly took the butt of his rifle and whacked the motorcyclist across the face, knocking him to the ground to the delight of the crowd.

That didn’t happened actually. Instead, the motorcyclist waited about four to five seconds and then got the hell out of there. When the cops showed up on foot (about ten seconds too late), they asked me if I got the cyclists’ number.

I contemplated giving a random number to make a martyr out of a random Nepali to pay for his fellow countryman’s transgressions against a hapless aid worker, but that was merely a fleeting idea.

The cop was upset that I hadn’t gotten the number, and I wanted to explain to him that I hadn’t been trained to keep my cool after being run over by a third-world rickshaw and dragged across the road. Peace Corps didn’t make us hold up logs in freezing water while a drill sergeant fired automatic rifles in our ears until the wee hours of dawn.

Peace Corps training did enable me to yell, Motherfucker! in the native language when I was hit, which I did.

And that was pretty much it. I picked up my bag from the road and found the juice I’d bought for Luke. I hailed a rickshaw (yes, you hail rickshaws), and loaded my bike and took it to the shop, which had it fixed later that day.

I went home, read a book, took a nap, and thought about what had happened over dinner. Wow. I almost really hurt myself. I guess I’m stilling waiting for that magic bullet.