The other night I fell into a hole full of sludge. I climbed out of the concrete roadside ditch and found that my bottom half was almost entirely covered in black who-knows-what and my arm was grazed. David and I looked at each other and said, “Oh shit” – and then, almost in unison, “That really is shit!”
“What do I do?”
We quickly realised that no auto-rickshaw driver was going to let me within smelling distance of his vehicle. We stood there a moment, both completely unsure what to do, and me with my gritty, soaked pants sticking to my backside. Headlights lit the street and horns continued to blare. Sari-clad women paused, tut-tutted and kept walking. It wasn’t long before a man took pity and directed us to the hotel where we’d had dinner.
With wet, smelly grit in my shoes I tiptoed gingerly to the hotel. We stopped at the door and called to the registration desk, “Do you have a bathroom?”
“Stay where you are, stay where you are!” The hotel staff, it seemed, were not particularly keen to get black sludge all over their white floors.
There was a group of nicely dressed Indians sitting in some kind of waiting area in the hotel. They gazed at the gunk-covered white girl and let out a collective “Eww” (or the Indian equivalent). The whole situation struck me as particularly funny, so I started laughing. There wasn’t much else I could do.
Eventually, a hotel staff member led us around the back of the neighbouring service station. David said, “I’m coming with you for this bit” (he’s the hero in this story). We dodged parked trucks and men smoking cigarettes until we found ourselves in a small Indian bathroom, with a toilet, a bucket and some taps.
I stood there in my undies and panicked about what the hell was in that sludge while David went off to find some antiseptic and new clothes. He returned with a shiny plastic bag from the lit up Reebok store a few addresses down – the only place selling clothes that was still open at this hour, it seemed. I pulled out a white cricket uniform. It cost Rs1000 (about $25 – there was 30 percent off cricket gear that day) and it would have to do.
Dressed up in my cricket uniform, with my (thankfully shallow) wounds drenched in antiseptic lotion, we stopped by one of the many drug stores that dot the streets of Keralan towns. We walked away with a course of antibiotics in a brown paper bag (“Sell only upon receipt of physician administered prescription”) and hailed an auto-rickshaw for the bumpy ride back to our abode.
We decided it would be a good idea to see a doctor, mainly to get the dosage on the antibiotic right. The next morning, through a series of directions, we found ourselves at a hospital. Rows of people sat on long dusty benches in a breezeway, while official people wearing white whisked in and out of doorways. I stopped in my tracks and surveyed he scene.
“Do you want to go in there?” Dave wanted to know. “We don’t have to.”
“Sure, let’s do it,” said the writer in me.
I was aware that I was getting special-white-person-treatment, because after registering and paying the Rs150 initial fee, we managed to skip several queues and were led quickly through a door, past a very sick-looking man lying on a narrow bed, and into a small room crowded with hospital personnel.
“Please sit down.”
I sat down on the bed, but it was the wrong spot so I got moved. A man in a white coat asked me a question that I couldn’t understand. I looked at David but he appeared as clueless as me. The man asked again and I looked back, blank-faced before saying, “Oh! Australia!”
“No no no.” The man repeated the question again. I looked at David. David finally figured it out. “What is your complaint?” he interpreted.
“Ah, right.” I related the story. The man in the white coat pulled out a stethoscope and strapped Velcro around my arm, pumping it tight.
“So do you know how much antibiotic I need?” I asked.
The man waggled his head. “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the doctor that.”
Ah ha. So he was the triage nurse.
I sat there a few minutes longer before the nurse announced that the doctor was here. He pointed over to a corner of the room, where an overweight man wearing a stethoscope around his neck was walking slowly through the door. The fat doctor lowered himself onto a chair, his face grimacing. He motioned for me to come over.
His face was a sickly grey-brown colour – not exactly a picture of health, I thought to myself. Oh well, hopefully he’ll know about antibiotics.
“What is your complaint?”
I explained the story again. As I spoke he gazed over my shoulder through yellow-lens glasses. When I finished talking he looked at me, felt my forehead, and briefly pulled the skin under each eye. He poked his stethoscope into his ears and lifted the end, motioning for me to shift forward on my stool – he wasn’t going to come to me. The doctor wrote something illegible on a piece of paper (I guess there’s one thing all doctors have in common!) and handed it to the triage nurse.
The nurse gave David a piece of paper and we wandered back out into the breezeway again.
There were about three counters to choose from in the following order: Pharmacy, Billing and Cash. We lined up at Pharmacy because that seems somewhat logical – turns out we were supposed to go to Billing first, then followed by Pharmacy, and then by Cash. But the staff were very gracious and communicated amongst ourselves to get the two whities paid up and out of there.
It all seemed chaotic and illogical, but it must be functional. After all, we were in and out of there much faster than most Australian clinics. Then again, I really did get some serious preferential treatment. The meds cost about Rs180 – about $4 for us, but a fair bit for a local. I’m not sure whether healthcare for locals is subsidised in Kerala.
We Googled the medication we had been prescribed (each in a little brown paper bag with squares that were ticked according to the frequency of administration). Turns out we got an antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory and something to cure indigestion from overconsumption of spicy food. I suppose he prescribes the latter drug for all white people who come, no matter the complaint.
So I think I’ll live through the experience. For the time being we’re not going far from the beaten track, in case I come down with some terrible fever. But so far I feel ok – from now on I’ll watch my footing a little more carefully, and be grateful for the opportunity to tell some more tales.