Getting Sick in Nepal

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bad scare this morning.  As soon as I got through the orphanage gate, Bipin rocketed himself at me and landed with his legs around my waist and his arms around my neck.  Rupus was right behind him, and then Gorima, Nirmala, and Anura were on me.  Only Krishala stayed behind.  She was sitting on a mat in front of the door.  She has been complaining of headaches and stomach trouble for the last few days, and I have been worrying about her.  Now she was very ill, hot with fever and a racing heartbeat.  I don’t have a cell phone, so I had to walk over to Sugandha’s house, where I hoped to find Pete, one of the fifth-year medical students volunteering here as part of a third world medical course.  He had already gone to the hospital, so I borrowed Sugandha’s phone to call Kat and Maria, Pete’s classmates,  who came straight away.  In the meantime, at my prompting, Bimila had called Tej, who called Gehlu.

Kat and Maria examined Krishala, who had a stiff neck, a fever, and extreme sensitivity to light.  These are classic signs of meningitis, which can kill within hours.  Gehlu came a few minutes later, propped her up in front of him on his motorcycle, and roared off  to the hospital.  We checked there about an hour later, but could not find Krishala.  Hospitals and clinics are notoriously bad here (the doctors don’t come in when it rains, for example), and we could not get a straight answer from anyone.    The staff could not seem to understand why we were concerned about a little Nepali girl, not another westerner.  Finally we tracked down Gehlu, who could tell us nothing because the results of the tests had not come back yet.  He told us that the doctor did not think it was meningitis, however.  We went to check up on Krishala, and she did seem a little better. There was nothing that we could do until we got the lab report.

I taught my class at the women’s center.  Deelu, who is very wonderful but also very demanding, insisted that I start to teach them math, so from now on Fridays will be math days.  I hated math when I was a kid, so I was happily surprised to find that I enjoyed teaching it.  Most of the women can do easy addition and subtraction, but only a few can multiply and divide.     I gave the two advanced women more difficult problems to solve.  In addition to other topics that I never thought I’d end up teaching, I’m instructing the women in basic business skills.  I’m trying to show them how they can make money by borrowing, investing, and repaying, and reinvesting.   Like all things in Nepal, it will take time to get this program underway.  We are beginning from a rudimentary level.

Nothing moves quickly.  I’ve been pestering the landlord to turn on the water and clean the apartment where the women’s center is for over a week.  Shreezanna, who directs the sewing classes and manages the center, simply laid a plastic floor covering over the cement and set up shop.  I want to wash the floors first, but I need some help.  The whole center is still really dirty—the kitchen is covered in construction dust and the toilet is filthy.  I had brought a bucket and some Lysol-like stuff and started to clean the bathroom during our break.  Devi, Menuka, and Rayphati would not allow this.  They snatched the bucket and rags out of my hands, and within twenty minutes had all the tile, ceramic and chrome gleaming.  This was a miracle, since the toilet is a squat-style contraption on the floor, and workers had ground the dust and dirt into the groves where you stand to go.  Their cleaning was truly remarkable.  The Nepalis are nothing if not industrious, but it can be difficult to get them to start or finish a project.

Speaking of projects completed, I got my kurta suruwal back today.  It was finished a couple of days ago, but I wanted to have it taken in at the waist.   I had bought fabric in Kathmandu and brought it to the women at the center.  They charge very little for their services, but they also double the price in order to benefit the women who are learning to become seamstresses.  So, it cost 200 rupees (about 3 dollars) to sew each kurta and suruwal, but I paid 400.  These women will likely be the first entrepreneurs to take advantage of the micro-credit program that I’m setting up.

In my new Kurta Suruwal on an Elephant at Bhaktabur

After class, I took a bus—the wrong one, of course—into Kathmandu to meet Kat and Maria for lunch.  I ended up walking for long stretches without having any idea where in the city had I gone, asking people in my broken Nepali the way.  Finally, one young man in a motorcycle helmet told me to get on a bus that was just pulling up, and so I did.  It took me a little closer to my destination, Thamel, but I still wandered and begged for directions for another half hour or so.  Getting lost is never really a problem, because people are friendly and kind, and taxis are plentiful.  I don’t like to spend the money on a cab, since the buses cost about 15 cents and I’m trying to get my bearings by walking.  I finally arrived at the restaurant, La Dolce Vita, a touristy joint that claims to serve the best Italian in Nepal.

It was great to be eating penne pomodoro with what looked like real basil leaves on top, but I won’t be going back there again.   I could not finish my meal because I got sick halfway through it.  I thought I had simply eaten too much and needed to walk it off.  When I started to collapse on the street, Kat and Maria rushed me into a café, where I threw up into an airplane sick-bag that Kat miraculously whipped out of her backback just in the nick of time.  Then they lay me out on three chairs and pressed a cloth with ice in it to my forehead, wrists, neck, and cheeks.   I felt like a complete idiot.  There I was, pale white woman with golden hair in a green and red kurta, having a fainting spell.  Somehow it seemed so cliché.  But Kat and Maria insisted that this sort of things happens all the time.   When I sat up I was still quite nauseous and dizzy, but Kat produced an anti-emetic from her magic bag.  They said I had become dehydrated, which made some sense.  I still wanted to blame the food.

Of course the monsoon broke just as we tiptoed out into the road to go home, and there were no taxis available.  When you don’t want one, taxis pull up and pester you every five minutes.  We took a bus, but had to change at Ratna Park, where we waited like beggars in the rain for the bus to Pepsi-Cola.  After we were thoroughly soaked we snagged a cab, which cost us another 400 rupees, leaving both Kat and Maria broke.  They had each changed $20 and spent every cent.  It is true that one can live here very cheaply, but not if one is going to tourist restaurants and taking taxis and fainting in cafes where bottled water costs 10 times the price it should.  At any rate, by the time we got home the anti-emetic had kicked in and I felt a lot better.  I took a shower and headed over to check on Krishala.  The report had come in and Gehlu had rushed her back to the hospital.  She did not have meningitis, thank goodness, but rather a viral infection of her tonsils.  I found her shoveling dhal bhat into her mouth with the other kids at the kitchen table.  On the refrigerator were the medicines that the doctor had given her.  She was fine and would get better.

There is an even happier ending to this story.  While Kat and Maria were examining Krishala, they noticed that the children have no toys whatsoever, not even so much as a ball to throw.  They told their parents, who now want to donate some money to buy toys.  They are planning to give the toys to the children at a party.  Since so few of the kids know when they were born, Kat and Maria want to celebrate all of their birthdays at once.  They want to have cake, and candles, and lots of presents individually wrapped.  It’s a grand idea.  I wish I had the money to get each of them something really wonderful, bicycles, for example.  I would love to teach them how to ride.  If you have any ideas, or want to give, please let me know.