Mary Smich, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Chicago Sun Times, wrote a soliloquy made famous in 1999 when, recorded by Baz Lurhman it became a hit on the US radio charts. Among other wise and witty advice, she said:
"Don't worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday."
And so it is. After all of my medical precautions... It might even have been a Tuesday.....
Traveling continuously for about three months now, and I'm beginning to be tired. Each day is a marvel; complete freedom to choose each movement, or do I even want to move, and where do I wander next? I feel like Alice in Wonderland. The people, the language, the signs, the food, customs, everything is just a little alien and I understand how she must have felt. The Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter: these are anecdotal for someone wandering in a strange land with no clear idea how to respond to oddities as they come along. For me, Asia in all of its beauty and strangeness, is Wonderland. I have fallen down the rabbit hole.
And yet for all of its joy, that small bit of alienness begins to wear. Each day I must pack my suitcase -- which is still too full of things I don't really need, hang my passport pouch inside my clothes where it cannot be stolen, remember not to drink the water when I brush my teeth, find something to eat...
It is very hot now. And humid. In order to stay hydrated I drink water constantly, more than a gallon each day, and yet I almost never need to pee -- handy while riding on busses and trains. I just sweat. And speaking of sanitation: no, there are no words!
I have almost no appetite. The only things I really want are Nescafe, watermelon, and Sprite. A couple of times each day I force myself to eat something more substantial: I don't want to become sick. And a couple of times I have become sick because I have eaten something.
Travel alone in a strange land means I am rarely completely at ease. I am constantly making choices and judgements for which I am aware that I may have incomplete, insufficient, inaccurate, information. And it is not just around me that there are oddities. I am an oddity. I am a western woman, in her fifties, traveling alone. Everyone stares. I am not allowed to travel in anonymity. Many smile, many just stare. No matter how guarded I feel, I try to smile back. Sometimes, someone tries to make conversation with me. Our exchange, in very broken English, always begins the same way: "Where do I come from?" When I tell them the US, there is always a little silence. Awe? Resentment? I ask if they have been there, they laugh. It might as well be the moon. I ask if they would like to go. More laughter. This time a little wistful. They would love to go to the US, but for them its not even a pipe dream. And in my ability to come here and to travel on my own, I am truly the alien.
I am thinking that I need the ocean. I have not been on the coast since leaving Myanmar, almost two months ago, so I begin to make my way down the Andaman peninsula knowing proximity to saltwater will refresh me. I am planning to visit the coastal islands and later, go to Phuket for some sailing. On my way, I make a detour to Ranong for a quick visa run into Myanmar.
Ranong is a border town on the northeast of the Thai peninsula. It is a little out of the way for tourists, and the only reason westerners come here is to renew their visas by crossing into Myanmar and back across an inlet of the Andaman Sea. This is an in-and-out operation, so nothing much has been built here for the amusement and leisure of tourists. I am staying in a very nice accommodation, with a beautiful pool and restaurant, but I am the only western guest. After I have made the border crossings and renewed my visa, I will be leaving in the morning for Ko Phagnan. I don't really want to eat dinner in the restaurant alone, and I am tempted to just skip it and go to sleep in my room. But I am becoming a little too thin. I can see it when I look at my face in the mirror. Suddenly my chin is pointed and angular, and I am too tanned. I am beginning to look like a monkey. So, once again, I chide myself into going out looking for food. There is a television in my room - a rare occurrence - and I decide to bring something back to eat. I love watching the RTN news when I can get it. It is such utter nonsense! I head out into the market a few blocks away from my hotel.
One can find marvelous food in many markets, and, as I have traveled, I have learned a lot about what I can and cannot eat here. There are always stir fried vegetables and fried rice available: it is cooked fresh while I watch so I can be assured there are no bacteria lurking, but the oil used is always a little rancid and everything is overcooked, finished with very hot chili sauce. At home I love to eat Thai food, but after a couple of months continuous consumption, it is hard to get excited about the street market version. There are always lovely fruits and sticky rice which is very sweet. I crave sugar constantly so I can still get excited about sticky rice.
This market is a small square block of stalls and carts set in haphazard fashion on hard packed dirt. There are a lot of open spaces - unusual as the village markets are usually crowded warrens, but there was a large festival last night and I suspect some of the vendors are home resting.
I am wandering, looking for something that will spark my interest in eating, when suddenly, something hits me sharp and hard on the back of my ankle! A moment of shock and pain: I whirl around. A medium size dog with short blond fur standing up on the ruff of his collar jumps back and growls at me. He has just snuck up behind me and bitten me! Asshole! What have I ever done to you? Probably, doesn't like farang....
My first thought is, of course: "Is he going to do it again?" But he snarls at me and backs away. I watch until he turns and leaves, chuffing at me as he goes. There are many people in the market, but for once, almost no one seems to be paying attention to me.
My next thought is: "Oh shit! I've just been bitten by a dog in Thailand. (duh...) There are strays everywhere and no animal control: no way of figuring out if this animal has rabies."
I squat down to look at the damage. It is difficult from my position to see: my feet and ankles are dirty and at first it looks like I have only a surface scratch. Then, a small puncture in the back of my heel begins to seep blood. A Thai woman approaches me. She begins to make brushing motions and repeat: "water, water, water." I nod and assure her that I AM going to wash it. I have to repeat this assurance several times before she will let me go. I want to laugh: "Water? What the hell good is water?"
Images from my childhood dance through my mind: the stories we all heard of people needing shots: many of them, in the stomach, after being bitten by stray dogs. I am seriously pissed off and resentful right now. Probably, I am also more than a little scared. I am alone in a foreign country with no common language and I need to go to the hospital. My legs are shaking, but I don't want to stop. I just want to get away. I begin walking back to the hotel. I pass a fruit seller and for some reason I stop and buy a cut up watermelon (???).
My first stop at the hotel is my room where I put the watermelon in the mini-fridge and go to the bathroom to wash and examine the damage. Not bad at all....mostly a superficial scratch where his fangs grazed the surface of my skin. Everything would be fine if not for that one, minute-but-oozing puncture. In my suitcase I am carrying every antibiotic known to man, so I open my kit, wash and then spray with the most industrial ones I can find. But I know, with sinking certainty that this is not enough. None of this will solve my problem now. I wonder if I am going to have to go home. And I am filled with resentment at the whole fucking situation. (Fear thoughts are best expressed in sailor language...)
I leave my room and go to the hotel reception. I try to communicate - without the sailor language - with the girl at the desk that I have been bitten and I need to see a doctor. It takes a couple of moments, until I say: "hospital" and suddenly I have everyone's attention. A man who I believe is a manager and who speaks a bit of English comes and invites me to sit away from the desk. I wonder while talking with him if I will need an injection. He is very matter of fact and his demeanor is soothing. He tells me that I certainly will need to have an injection, a series of them in fact. But he assures me he has also had them after being bitten and it isn't so bad. I begin to relax just a little.
The owner of the hotel and his sister come for me. He is going to drive me to the hospital and she is coming along as she speaks a little English and can translate. She assures me of the excellence of Thai doctors -- I have read this and I believe her -- and that none of this need bother me too much. The drive is not far. We pull up next to a very small storefront clinic and go inside. Even in the clinics there are geckoes running along the walls.
The woman speaks with the doctor who takes me into a treatment room. There are two gurneys, no curtains, and on the other is a woman who is having a deep cut in her finger stitched. She mimes to me that she cut herself while cooking dinner. I mime back that I was bitten by a dog. We commiserate with sympathetic smiles. The doctor finishes stitching her while I watch and then comes to me, cleans my minuscule puncture wound with beta-dine and bandages it. He gives me an injection in my upper arm that I can barely feel -- he doesn't bother to bandage the injection site. Then, he shows me a small folded card with pharmaceutical information written on it in Thai. I cannot read anything, except that the word rabies and some numerical dosage information that does appear in English. He has filled in a series of five dates. He tells me, through my interpreter, that I will need to have another injection on each of these dates. He assures me that I can have them done in any clinic or hospital in the country but he warns me: I must not go to Laos, Cambodia, or Myanmar to have them done...
The owner and his sister take me back to the hotel. They are so solicitous in their care of me: they try to make me eat.... They assure me that I can call them any time during the night if I need help. I am exhausted and only want to go back to my room, eat my watermelon, sleep, and recover my equilibrium, and then get the hell out of Ranong.
In the morning, the owner, personally drives me to the bus station. I wonder: how much of this is kindness and how much desire to get a troublesome guest out of town? I decide to chalk it all up to kindness. There is something universal, communicative, unifying in acts of kindness between strangers. Once again, I am grateful....
It is interesting to note: I was in and out of that small clinic in about 30 minutes. I had been seen by a doctor, had a (very small) wound cleaned and bandaged, had an injection and the whole visit cost me less than $25. Over the next four weeks I will visit a clinic in every city or town I visit, ending with a consult with an immunologist. The price escalates each time: by the time I have the last one, I am in Cairns, Australia where it costs me over $200. Hmmmm.....