A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: galaurasia

Where There is No Doctor

Off the tourist track

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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-Galen

Posted by galaurasia 00:49 Archived in Nepal Tagged volunteer Comments (2)

Peaks, People, and Pollution

Gateway to the Himalayas

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I’ve read a lot about Nepal, mostly about the Himalayas. Whether it’s a story outlining someone’s inability to summit, a memoir of a fallen friend, or a personal recount of what it felt like to be on top of the world, one thing remains constant…. People come to Nepal for the mountains, and return for the people.

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So far, Galen and I haven’t seen any mountains, but we have encountered numerous friendly people… mostly children.

It’s almost as if all children are handed out a script in their classes of what to say to westerners they encounter. Children run up excitedly, put their palms together, bow their heads, and politely and shyly utter “Namaste” – the Nepali greeting. As soon as we respond, their heads rise, their eyes brighten, and they exclaim “Helllooo!” And each conversation, without fail, goes like this:

Child: Helllloooo!
L and G: Hi! Hello!
Child: Where are you from?
L and G: USA
Child: Oooooh. What is your name?
Galen: Galen.
Child: What?
Galen: Gay-len.
Child: (giggling) Oooh. And what is your name?
Laura: Laura
Child: Oooh (giggling)

And then they run off, as if they suddenly remembered they have more important and fun things to do then talk to two blond haired people with funny names carrying backpacks.

Third in notability behind the mountains and the people is, sadly, the pollution. I’m reading a book right now called, The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal, by Dervla Murphy. When describing the pollution in Kathmandu, she quotes a British doctor who said, “from a sanitary point of view Kathmandu may be said to be built on a dunghill in the middle of latrines.” She also felt “that he was being charitable when he stated that ‘this is one of the filthiest cities in the world.’” Unfortunately, these descriptions could not be more accurate. Trashcans are a rarity, and stray dogs rummaging through piles of trash on the streets are common… as are men urinating on roadsides.

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Our first few days in Nepal were filled with language courses (mero naam Laura ho.) and sightseeing. The big tourist attractions in Kathmandu are Thamel, Durbar Square, and Boudhanath Stupa. Thamel is where all of the backpackers stay, and the trekkers book their journeys. It’s great for shopping, people watching, and coffee drinking. We have done our fair share of shopping, and learned that the most powerful thing you can do when bargaining is simply walking away. As soon as you even make a half step towards the door, the vendors will agree to almost any price. Awesome!

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At Durbar Square, we saw “The Kumari,” also known as the living goddess. An important icon to the Hindu religion, the Kumari is chosen as a young girl through a somewhat barbaric selection process. She is kept inside (with the exception of festivals), not allowed to touch the ground outside, and appears through a small window every day at 4pm for about 5 seconds. It’s apparently good luck to see her, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the young girl, who rarely gets to see the sky, or feel the sun on her face.

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Boudhanath Stupa, a typical symbol of Nepal, was incredible. It’s sacred among Tibetan Buddhists, and beautifully decorated with hundreds of prayer flags. Monks wander around the stupa, feeding the pigeons, and muttering prayers while local vendors sell postcards, prayer beads, and mini Buddha statues.

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Kathmandu as a whole is the most hectic and crowded city I have ever seen – cars drive as if there are no lanes, and 25 people often cram themselves into “buses” the size of vans. Some people even have to ride on the roof! Sacred cows roam the streets, and take naps in the roads. When it rains, it pours, and there is a seemingly endless gray cloud covering the surrounding valley. But, the people, as promised, are incredible – friendly and always smiling, and the culture is rich and vibrant. Each morning around 6 am, I have woken up the sound of laughter. “Laughing Therapy,” as it’s called, involves people gathering in circles, embracing each other, and bellowing out their deepest laughs for ten minutes. What a great way to start the day!

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- Laura

Posted by galaurasia 00:52 Archived in Nepal Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

River of Tears

The Story of Javier

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As we crawled along in first and second gear, I began to wonder if our bus would make it up the next hill, or around the next turn. I read a book a few years back called Learning to Breathe, written by Alison Wright, recalling her near-death experience after being a victim of a bus accident in Laos. Remembering this story, I sat awake and attentive the entire drive, biting my nails with each turn. Little did I know that the bus would be the least of our worries in Laos…

The first two days of tubing exhausted both Galen and I, but we were able to rally ourselves for one last hoorah before taking off for Nepal. Galen enjoyed the swings while I took my turns going down the slide, and as we approached our favorite bar, “The Slingshot Bar,” we found ourselves ahead of most of the other tourists. The bartender we had befriended later confirmed, telling us that we were the first customers of the day. Because we had taken a liking to the family and their dogs, we hung out for a bit – playing with the puppy and shooting darts and slingshots. Eventually more people began to pop in as the sun began descending. We made more new friends, shared stories and laughs, and before we knew it, the sky was black. We had returned at dark the previous two nights, so we weren’t too concerned, and figured that we could always hop out and take a tuk-tuk back to town if need be. Eventually though, the air began to turn cold, so we said our goodbyes and peeled ourselves away from the puppy, the family, and the party.

Soon after we got in the water, a young man (who we later learned was named Javier), and a young woman, Flor, from Argentina floated up to us. Flor had a tube, and Galen and her were quick to start a conversation. Javier appeared quite inebriated, and didn’t have a tube, so I told him to hang onto mine while I used one arm to hold onto him, and the other to paddle. Galen and Flor must’ve caught a quicker current, and within minutes were about 100 yards ahead of Javier and me. As we floated along, Javier rambled on, attempting to make conversation, but was one drink too deep to do so. We never exchanged names. The only thing I remember him telling me was, “You should be a lifeguard.”

And then, ten to fifteen minutes into our float, without any warning, Javier let go. I yelled to him, telling him to swim back, and heard nothing in return. Within a minute, the yelling turned to shrieking, as I pleaded with him to say something if he was alive. Still, no response. I swam upstream and towards the shore as hard as I could, but the current was too strong.

As soon as I came to the conclusion that there was nothing I could do about Javier, I realized that I was alone on the river, with no sight of Galen and Flor. I started calling to Galen, whose responses came few and far between. I later learned he couldn’t hear me, and that Flor had thought that my sobs were actually laughter. I sobbed, paddling as hard as I could, trying to catch up. I was thrown a rope by a family, who said they would give me a tuk-tuk ride into town, but that I was the only westerner there. I debated the offer, before concluding that Galen, wherever he was, would wait for me when he got out of the river. I politely declined, and headed back down the river, sobbing.

When I finally caught up to Galen, he had to pull me out of the river. I was hysterical – the phrase “buckets of tears” might not be enough to describe how much I was crying. I couldn’t speak more than a word or two between gasps and sobs. Eventually though, Galen and Flor were able to get past my hysteria, and piece together the puzzle of what had happened.

As we were walking back through town, I continued to replay what had happened in my mind, provoking more sobs. I imagined myself, not even knowing his name, but being the last person to see him alive. What would I tell his parents? What would they tell their friends? What would his friends think of me? Would they be angry, wondering if I really did all that I could? Would people resent that I was the last person to see him alive? Did he have any brothers or sisters? What, if anything, was he studying in school? All of these questions, and more, kept flashing through my mind, creating a whirlwind of emotions.

One thing that flashed through my mind was that Galen and I would have to cut our trip short if Javier didn’t make it. I later learned he had the same thought… that we would be on a bus to Vientiane the next morning, and on a flight back to the States that same night. My emotions were especially mixed about this, because I have to come to Nepal for a long time now, and I was excited about the volunteering we signed up for. However, I wasn’t sure if I could get past the heartbreak of losing Javier. I have had friends and dogs die, but nothing could compare to the way I felt, alone on the river, yelling to Javier to no avail.

We met up with two other friends of Flor’s, to whom Galen and Flor quickly retold the story. They jumped into action, going to the police (who told them, in no uncertain terms, “No one is in the river”) while Galen and I got me into some dry clothes, and hung out at their hotel, hoping that Javier would wander back.

I knew that if Javier had opted to swim back, there was no way he would’ve made it, given his drunken state. His only chance was to get out of the river, and walk or catch a ride back. Given the rural, jungle environment surrounding the river, I didn’t think his chances of that were too good, either. His friends tried to comfort me, telling me, “It will be okay. I know Javier. He will find a way.” However, then they would turn around, whispering to each other, as if they too, thought that Javier would not make it.

Time seemed to crawl by as we waited, and waited outside of the hotel. I had eventually stopped crying (hysterically, at least) and was able to tell Flor’s friends, in detail, what exactly had happened on the river, where it happened, and when it had happened. It was a very surreal experience, and I have yet to put a finger on my exact emotions. Likely because I was experiencing a whirlwind of them… worry that he might not make it, wonder of why he let go and if we’d ever know what had happened, anger that he let go and that I couldn’t do anything, sadness that he probably didn’t make it. As time went on, I think we all began to lose hope. Galen imagined us on a plane home the next day, Flor and her friends imagined themselves at a funeral, and I imagined myself telling Javier’s parents that I was sorry, and that I did everything I could.

Our worries were put to rest when, as we sat together outside of their hotel, me crying on Galen’s shoulder, Flor rounded the corner with Javier, exclaiming, “We found him! He’s alive! He’s here!” A whole new wave of tears hit me, these out of pure, utter happiness as I embraced Javier, and learned his name for the first time.

- Laura

Posted by galaurasia 03:47 Archived in Laos Tagged tourist_sites Comments (3)

A River Like No Other

Shenanigans on the Nam Song

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When we got to Vang Vieng we knew immediately that it was going to be a shit-show. The bus from Vientiane was a 5-hour ordeal in a sweatbox crammed with westerners. As soon as we tumbled off the bus in Vang Vieng we were all talking about how we needed a drink.

When we arrived at our hotel we found our room to be quite sub-par. It was small and had no A/C, plus the bed was as hard as stone. We were disappointed to say the least but we decided to deal with it the following day, and got some food instead. At dinner we ran into two guys from San Francisco that we had met on the bus and went with them to a bar called Qbar. We quickly realized this was the bar everyone went to. As we were drinking we ran into quite a few people we had meet elsewhere in Asia. First, Laura spotted a guy named Charlie from England we had met in Nha Trang a couple weeks back, then later we ran into two girls and a guy that we had hung out with the first night in Saigon. We were pretty surprised to say the least (a couple days later at another bar I spotted another Englishman whom we had seen in Can Tho and Nha Trang!).

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The next day we decided to move to a nicer hotel right on the river that had amazing views of the river and surrounding karst cliffs. It was definitely the right choice, despite being more expensive.

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After we moved our stuff, we went tubing, as that was what everyone came to Vang Vieng to do. Little did we know it would be the only thing we did. I don’t think there are enough words to describe how amazing and absurd tubing in Vang Vieng is, and even if there were, I wouldn’t be able to. There are over twenty bars along a one km stretch of the river, and as you float down people throw you ropes and pull you into the bars. Many of them have huge rope swings and they all serve very cheap drinks. One bar in particular had a huge tile slide as well as a swing, and we spent a lot of time there. Laura even got to play some volleyball! In the mud!

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The last bar also had slingshots and darts, plus one of the most adorable puppies we have ever seen. That bar quickly became our favorite, and we spent most of our time there. After the last bar it’s about a 35-minute float back to town, and we met lots of people floating on the way back. However, when we got back to town, we had our tubes stolen and couldn’t get our deposits back and we lost almost $30 on them. We decided we would no longer deal with the shady mafia-like tube operators, and the next day we bought our own dinky tubes that were much cheaper, and we also noticed that much fewer people had the big rubber tubes from the tube operators. We think the people are wizening up to the scam that is the tubing operators.

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We went tubing three days in a row, and needless to say, it took a lot out of us – both mentally and physically. Some of the bars geared towards tourists hire westerners for weeks or months at a time to bartend, and we were shocked to find that one guy had been working there for thirteen months. It was a great time, and we can see how one could get sucked into the culture there, but astonished that someone could sustain themselves for that long.

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Tubing turned out to be one of the most fun things we have ever done, but as is clear when you mix drinking with water, it was quite dangerous. Throughout our three days on the river we collected countless bruises and scrapes, but it was the last night on the river that really tested our resolve.

-Galen

Posted by galaurasia 04:29 Archived in Laos Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Nepali Time Update

More internet struggles

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So our attempt to upload blogs and photos in Thamel the other day failed when the power went out. Oh well. The photos were taking forever to upload anyway. So for now, we'll just have text updates and we'll upload photos as soon as we can. There's apparently a good internet cafe in Thamel that some of our fellow volunteers recommend so we'll give it a shot in the next few days. Until then, keep reading and take care!

Galen and Laura

Posted by galaurasia 04:11 Archived in Nepal Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

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