Off the tourist track
7.14.10 - 7.23.10 80 °F
Here’s an important lesson for travelers arriving in a foreign country: decline when people ask to help you with your bags. When I went to Ghana in April, I fell prey to this trap and ended up tipping the guy $20 (well, he snatched it out of my hand but what was I gonna do?). Anyway, I was ready when we arrived in Nepal. When we landed, a man came up to us and asked if we were here to work for VSN (the group we worked with). When we said yes, he asked to take our bags, saying the man who was supposed to pick us up was not there. We believed him and he took our bags, but I soon saw the man who was supposed to pick us up, and I knew immediately what was going on. When we got to the car, I knew I was going to have to give him something, and when I pulled out the few Nepali rupees we had out of my pocket, he immediately pointed and said, “you can give me the white one, it’s ok.” Well, the white one is 1000 Rs, or about $13. I replied, “No, you can have one green one,” which is about $1.30. I hate scammers.
Anyway, we were brought to Pepsi Cola Town Planning, which seems to be a relatively affluent suburb of Kathmandu, about a 30 minute cab ride from Thamel, the tourist part of the city. Pepsi Cola is nice and quiet, with one bar called The Hut, which is the volunteer hangout. After a couple days, we had met most of the volunteers and quickly learned that everyone went to The Hut each night. We loved The Hut. It had great momos (delicious Nepali dumplings that are essentially potstickers) and chips chilly, which is french fries stir fried with onions and peppers, and is very spicy. The bartender was a college-age guy named Bikram, who spoke English well and towards the end of our stay played drinking games with us and Jim, another American living in the same house as us. But most importantly, at least for Laura, it had puppies! The owners had a little cute white dog, which was actually pretty mean, but she had puppies soon after we arrived. Needless to say, when the puppies were around, Laura spent every second with them. The Hut was awesome.
A couple of days after we arrived in Pepsi Cola was the World Cup final. Since about half the volunteers we had met up to this point were Dutch, we were all pretty excited to see it. It was at 12:15 am local time, but that didn’t stop us from walking 3 miles round-trip to a temple with a large projector screen. It was a very fun night, especially since I was rooting for Spain, along with most of the Nepalis as well, for some reason. There was quite a party when Spain broke through just before the end of extra time, much to the dismay of the Dutch supporters. Even Laura had a good time, even though she slept through the second half!
After 3 days of language classes (which we never used) and sight seeing, we began working at the VSN clinic just outside of Pepsi Cola. Nepal is listed as the fourth poorest country in the world. Judging by the health clinic I would say that’s about right. Bimal and his wife, who is a pharmacist, ran the clinic and adjacent pharmacy. Bimal isn’t actually a doctor, but a junior doctor, or the equivalent to a physician’s assistant in the US. Nonetheless, he proved more than capable of handling everything that came his way, at least from what we saw. But back to the sparse clinic. Bimal has only one set of clamps, and only one pair of scissors. He has no way of sterilizing anything, and has so few gloves that he only uses them sparingly, sometimes more than once. He has two blood pressure cuffs and two stethoscopes, and that’s it. His only medical book is an anatomy book from 1981 that he’s used since school. Oh, and the clinic itself is smaller than my new bedroom in Chicago, which is 154 square feet. Considering room and board is quite cheap in Nepal, it made us wonder more than once where the combined $800 dollars we paid to the program was going, especially since the head of the program has a nice house and an apparently new car and new motorcycle. But that’s another story.
Our time in the clinic was very fun. We spent about 4.5 hours a day there, and though it was slow at times (only about 10 patients a day while we were there), Bimal filled the rest of the time, telling us about the clinic, the most common ailments the people in the area suffered and asking about America. He was also really into the project on the clinic that Laura is doing for school, so that was nice. Most of the time we just took the blood pressure and pulse of the patients, but there were a few more interesting patients. There was one lady who came in every day because she had a wound on her middle finger that went down to the nerve. After the first couple days, Bimal let Laura clean and dress the wound, and when she came in on our last day it was almost healed.
We did miss a couple of days however. One morning we were helping to clean the pharmacy when suddenly Laura ran outside to the ditch and doubled over. She yelled for me to bring water, and by the time I reached her she had started vomiting. Two cafes in front of which men played board games all day flanked the clinic. As Laura was vomiting, I looked around at all the people in the area. Surprisingly, only a few were watching, and even they had very passive looks on their face. There was one child of about 5, however, who was staring with her mouth wide open. I feel pretty safe that this was the first time she had seen a white person puking, and the look on her face was rather humorous and cute. After Laura finished, we had a good laugh about the whole situation and chalked it up to a few beers and not enough sleep, but it turned out to be more. We ended up missing a few days of work as she slept and I cared for her, but after a couple days she was back to normal.
There were also a couple of women who came in with gashes on their head that required stitches, but one in particular was quite memorable. Towards the end of a slow day about 10 people suddenly approached the clinic, all supporting a tiny old lady between them with a bloody rag wrapped around her head. This woman looked about 70 years old, and could not have been more that 100 pounds. She could barely walk, and we figured she got hit on the head and had a concussion or something. When we got her onto to the table, Bimal started laughing, much to our surprise. When we asked him what was so funny, he told us what the family had told him. This tiny, ancient looking woman had fallen and gashed open her forehead because she was drunk. Very drunk. And it was about 4:30 in the afternoon. After stitching up her cut (her forehead is going to closely resemble Harry Potter’s), Bimal needed to give her a couple shots. The woman, however, had other ideas. The shot in her arm went well, but the second needed to go in her butt, and she kept rolling over and pulling her skirt up. After about 10 minutes, Bimal was finally able to administer the shot after her family pinned her down. She then proceeded to lay on the table for about an hour and a half, pounding the table with her foot every few minutes. It was quite a scene, and quite a way to end our time in the clinic.