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.