In Leh, I spent most of the week off recklessly, naively and inexperiencedly tearing around Ladakh’s hundreds of kilometers of long wide open desert road, dizzying mountain passes and cliff-clinging scenic river byways on my rented Royal Enfield 350cc Bullet Classic. [Read through the saga here!] Meanwhile, Steve spent his holed up in the room, straying no more than ten meters from the shared toilet where he sat, blasting out 12-second farts and draining his guts, up to fifteen times each day.
But I couldn’t let Steve have all the fun.
So, while riding, I made good sure to inhale as many metric tons of dirt, dust, smoke, smog and pitch-black exhaust fumes kicked up and belched out the ass end of trucks and buses and sent billowing off from villagers’ blazing trash heaps as I humanly could.
And in a country without such oppressive freedom-hating hippy activist pussy liberal faggot legislative measures like smog checks, Clean Air Acts, greenhouse gas caps, National Environmental Policy Acts — or even completely paved highways — it was a cinch!
Within four days of returning the bike (including two days squashed against the window of a dusty dirt-road government bus ride) my two lungs went from spitting up occasional little wimpy baby coughs to spewing up thick yellowed mucasy egg-flavored ooze to flooding with fluid and spewing out amoebic chunks of rusty blood.
Even better, Steve’s stools had seen the error of their sour bestenched greenish fluidy ways and hopped back on the high road to Solid City, so my fresh ailment could hog the spotlight. Every familiar traveler we encountered got to hear about it. Every meal we ate, I got to excuse myself countless times to hock over the railing into the marijuana-overrun gardens and pooey cow pens below. Yes, we were ridin’ high on hacks and wheezes, good times indeed.
But then, as usual, Margie-in-Chargie had to show up and ruin everything.
“You’re coughing up blood?” she Skyped. “That’s disgusting. You have an infection.”
“I bought cough syrup…” I offered.
“Go to a doctor. Now.”
Well, Dr. Internet wasn’t very helpful. But tossing around bad-sounding terms i.e. acute pulmonary edema and tuberculosis like they were mere emoticons, he scared our this hacker into action. The next morning we trudged the handful of kilometers down from Vashisht, past the crews of old women pounding bigger rocks into smaller ones, the boys carrying spent burlap sacks of dirt and piling it up, the men and soldiers squatting around smoking, in some sarcastic looking stab at roadwork, into town.
Eventually, just beyond a deep unmanned pee-scented ditch and over a crumbling wall, we reached the Manali Civil Hospital. We entered the musty old peely-painted place, its lights flickering on and off with the power surges, and the beginning of the rest of their soon-to-be long day began.
We had no idea what to do, and every sign was in Hindi. Eyeing a long line leading to a closed door, Steve took a seat next to a lost-looking old man as I took my place at the end. Each person had a piece of white paper. Thanks to some speechless pointing, I went to Registration and waited for a short flatfaced man to come in and give me one — a rectangular sheet with only my handwritten name and age and empty space — and returned to a new place, my previous one since filled.
We’d called earlier and, thanks to no one speaking any English, we’d gleaned a doctor’s mobile number. Dr. Rakesh Negi had told me he’d see me, so hoping perhaps I’d receive an expedited special westerners-only doctor visit, I called to let him know I’d arrived. He said he’d be there soon. Thirty minutes later, no sign of any doctor and not several steps closer to the door, I called again.
“You are there. Good. I am coming. I have been delayed. My patient, she is died. Good bye.”
A little while passed before a large man carrying a white coat rushed to the front of the line and entered the room. Since I’d been cut by about ten other people (evidently, old people and women are expected to do so), I didn’t think much of it. Another spell later and still several people away from the door, I tried one more time.
“You are here. Yes, good. Go to registration and wait in line. Good bye.”
Well, good, I had a head start then. The exact eon I made it to the doorway, a few old men snuck past, opened it and filled a room that I could see was already clearly filled. Done with cultural sensitivity for the day, I wedged myself into the room’s entrance and blocked it from without, gradually inching my way into it.
Once inside I recognized the coat-carrying man by the coat itself, hung up on the wall, reading on the pocket: Dr. R. Negi. On his desk was the cell phone he must’ve used to speak with me just fifteen feet away. The room was small and messy, with funny posters scaring readers about rabies (a vaccine we elected not to pay for back home) and bloody stools. There was another doctor on the other side of the desk, and the two of them examined patients. They used their bare hands to finger each patients face and mouth and used nary a wet-wipe between stethoscoping dirty old chests, breasts and backs. If I didn’t have a real reason to be here, I figured, I soon would.
Several more old people and little girl with crusty red scabs on her ass later, I sat on the stool opposite Dr. Negi, who took a wild guess that this white guy was the one who called him four times; I confirmed. After probing my face with his grubby fingers, asking me some questions and filling the empty space on his slip with my answers, Dr. Negi decided that, despite the journey over 15,000-foot passes mere days ago, it was not altitude related. Pulmonary edema: out. Three minutes later he handed me a yellow slip, told me to go down the hall for an x-ray and return afterward, and waited for the next afflictee to take my spot.
In the hours that had passed, it was now lunch time. Apparently for both the hospital staff and the patients; the place had cleared out. So I found a seat by the x-ray lab, rested my skull against the cold, dirty wall and tried to nap. I wondered about this x-ray business. Did Dr. Negi already know what I had, and was this just a way to squeeze a bunch of money out of a westerner? I guessed I’d soon find out.
Seeing the lack of security or general care by anyone about anything, Steve took the camera and explored the upper floors. They looked like those of an abandoned 1940s mental asylum. The only people he ran into were the orderlies who halted their wrestling match to tell Steve that their friend, the flat-faced white slip dispenser guy, was a sexy, sexy man.
In a half-hour or so we followed a young guy into the lab, uniformless, his t-shirt reading “Loud Sound: Rockability Friday Night”. Maybe he was the x-ray tech, maybe he was just a dude who dug shooting people with ray-guns; we couldn’t tell. Whoever he was, he had me take off my shirt, manhandled me onto the target, shot me up with radiation, and sent us to an inside waiting room where he unquestionably must’ve heard Steve let off a thunderous echoey fart. We were still snickering when he came in, handed over the x-ray wrapped in manila paper and asked for the fee: 50 rupees. About a buck and some coins.
After another wait alongside some sprawled out geriatrics, the doctors returned stuffed, and out of nowhere a massive line reformed. Having seen others do it before me, I held up the x-ray and cut right up to the front. Among the sea of hands pushing their slips at the doctor, he took mine and sat me back down.
He removed the x-ray from its half-wrapping. Perhaps the power was out again because he just held it up to the window and squinted at it. He pointed at some visible spots throughout the otherwise dark place where I imagined my lungs might be and told me I had an infection.
“Ah. Well, what do you suspect it is?”
“It’s bronchitis,” he responded stoically.
A hobo disease. Jesus. “Huh. Is it bad?”
“Bronchitis is always bad. Here.”
He wrote me a prescription and told me not to ascend to high elevations any time soon (our exact next trip plans) and to come back in five days. I waited for him to hand me a bill, or just ask for money, but instead all I got was a handshake and a Hindi word that probably meant “Next, please.” Wasn’t going to argue with that.
Next door the pharmacist searched for my tablets, my other tablets and more syrup, a threefold five-day Bronchitis course that added up to 350 rupees: a tad over seven dollars. Walking home, we wondered aloud what the same course would cost us back home and settled on somewhere around a billion dollars, dragged out by years of hospital visits.
(Incidentally, if we’re keeping up with the cross-cultural comparisons, we looked up my drugs. One of them is so good, it’s banned in Europe — wowza!)
We took advantage of our five-day marooning by sleeping in, lazing around, visiting the local foul-smelling men-in-undies-filled hot springs (for my steam treatment), and finally buckling down and building this very website.
My coughing subsided into sporadic fits, as did the hocking-up of bloody phlegm. But just to be safe I didn’t go anywhere without my favorite new accessory, my Spit Cup. With this plastic q-tip container, serendipitously manufactured with the name “Hicks Buddy”, I felt like I was back in Elko, cowboyin’ with the best of ’em, so long as the duct tape kept the goo from dripping through the holes.
So the wacky illness spotlight has faded once again… at least on me; Steve read up on his giardia and found out he might not shit normal again for the next two years.
We’ll keep you poosted.