decompression

Last night, I dreamt of the roads. It was the rainy season, and I was back in town. Another Australian volunteer was back too, and he had his car–an old, beaten up sedan–and we were driving around the city, trying to find our way to the clinic.

He drove right through a river of muddy water. It must have been six feet deep, and the car got completely submerged. But somehow, it came out the other side, and he grinned at me from the driver’s seat, flashing a waterlogged thumbs up.

We were going to stay in a hotel. After all, we didn’t tell our homestay family we’d be coming. I didn’t know when we had arrived, or when we had decided to come. We just showed up. I wonder if anybody knew we were here.

We decided that we would stay at Dili Beach Hotel. Or if it was too expensive, at one of the other hotels in Colmera. We had to find something to eat, too. But where to go? It was so muddy outside. The roads didn’t look familiar anymore.
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We ate our first meal in Bali with gusto–at McDonald’s, of course. “No matter where you are in the world, it’s always the same. It’s fantastic,” an Australian man told us. I was inclined to agree. It was the first time in months that my taste buds felt genuinely American again. All thanks to this fast food franchise.

The Big Mac was delicious; the fries tasted just the way they did back home. And the ketchup–they had such good ketchup here. I went back for more, ordering a $2 McChicken–ignoring the fact that there was no Dollar Menu. I ate because it was delicious–not just because I was hungry. I hadn’t eaten all day; we were too busy rushing to the airport to have time for lunch.
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We were both amazed at the parking lot outside the Bali airport. So many cars, arranged so neatly on the smooth, black asphalt. The largest parking lot I’d seen in Timor had been at Dili National Hospital. And that was only 20 cars or so. The Dili airport’s parking lot was just a mishmash of U.N. SUVs and taxis; it was nothing compared to this.
___

Nobody spoke Tetun. The last Tetun we heard had been a group behind us at customs–two men and one woman, brandishing maroon Timorese passports, mutteringly quietly to each other. We had only left Timor a few hours ago, but already it felt like days.
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The sidewalks around Bali weren’t all beautiful black asphalt like the airport; some were made of no more than wobbly concrete squares spread over drainage gutters, with bags of cement spread in between the gaps. It wasn’t quite the reassuring pavement I walked on back home, but it wasn’t the comforting reddish brown soil of Timor, either. My feet longed for the familiar, fine layer of dust that had covered everything for months–tires, flip-flops, shorts, backpacks. But here there was only concrete–and beyond it, the dirty grey sand of Kuta beach.
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The people here–good Lord, there were so, so many people. It was disorienting at times. Even at malae hotspots, like Kafe Aroma and Dili Beach Hotel, you needed only to walk twenty meters in any direction before you were greeted with warm Timorese faces and the beautiful sound of Tetun. Here, you couldn’t escape the steady stream of Westerners. They flooded in from every direction. And the funniest part was that I was one of them too. I wore Reefs, Levi’s work shorts, Puma boxer briefs, and a Wong Fu Productions “Nice Guy” t-shirt. I was the epitome of American consumerism. And yet I just wanted to escape from it all.
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I found a place that served nasi goreng ayam. It was nestled in a quiet alley, between a massive upscale seafood restaurant and a ritzy Western place with a stage where exotic dancers shook their bodies to a pulsating beat. It was 32,000 Rupiah for my dish–almost twice what I was used to paying–but it was the best I could find. They served Indian food too, apparently–they had blurbs about lassi, cumin, northern Indian spices; it was a blissful respite from the flashing neon lights of the street.

I asked for a seat nearest to the lights; I had brought a book–a novel co-written by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston, named “Micro.” I would end up finishing it in just 24 hours, intent on losing myself in the wonderfully written science fiction. It was amazing how quickly one could forget where they were going, what they were doing, just by picking up a book. But soon, I had to walk back to the hotel.
___

They called out to me with every step that I took; every one of them spoke decent English, and some even tried their hand at Cantonese. I suppose that’s what I looked like to them–a Chinese tourist, maybe from Hong Kong, taking a couple weeks off of work to relax in Bali. In Timor, I had looked like a Chinese man too–but there, everyone had assumed that I was a doctor. If not a doctor, then part of an NGO; and if not that, then at least a shop-keeper. But definitely not a tourist.

It was hard to explain my identity as a Chinese-American. Eventually, I just said that I was an American, but that my parents were Chinese. That made the most sense to them, and it was true after all–if not still a bit confusing.

They asked me to take a look–just a look–into their shops. They had sunglasses, t-shirts, running shoes, scooter rentals. Maybe I would end up buying another pair of Onitsuka Tigers. The shoes looked real enough, even though I knew that they weren’t. I hadn’t really had time to do any tourist shopping in Timor.
___

They stood up immediately as I began to walk by. Four of them–all young, all beautiful–all wearing identical, slender green dresses. One of them smiled at me, and even in the dim light I could see the spark in her eyes. If Greek sirens were real, they might live on this road; her voice was sweet–in the cool evening air, it could almost pass as loving. “Massage? Would you like a massage?”

If I were a few years younger, I might have once broken my stride for them; if I had just flown from anywhere else, I might have at least stopped to smile back. She started to walked beside me, and her hand found the small of my back; she ran it down my side, as if grasping for a connection. But her fingers found nothing, and she soon fell behind. The darkness swallowed them up, and a minute later, I was back at my hotel.
___

I never thought I’d miss the cries of children shouting, “hello mister!” at me–that the chirps of, “malae! malae!” might make me feel at home. But as I sit on my comfortable hotel bed–swathed in clean sheets, with breakfast delivered to me by a beautiful, smiling young lady–I can’t help but miss the mosquito net hanging over the tiny bed in my homestay. I miss the sound of Timorese children laughing–the sense of wonder that washes over you when a baby opens its eyes for the first time. I know that this feeling will fade in time–that by the time I step off the plane into Logan airport, I’ll be well on my way back to the mindset of college life and Western society. But for now, it’s all so fresh–the people, the sounds, the food, the atmosphere. For now, the feeling lingers; pulses; glows. For now, it’s still real.

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ami

On the road to Beehau. Natto has questionable photography skills sometimes…but this time, he managed to accidentally catch some awesome lens flare. Yay sunsets!

Looking cool a caterpillar. You know, if a caterpillar in East Timor could ever be cool.

Mana Amoe loitering on the benches after work, hah.

A five year old with acute myeloid leukemia, right before he boarded a plane to Jakarta for 20 months of treatment.

Dr. Dan and Pinky on morning rounds.

Inacia DOTS-ing it up with TB meds.

Teresa is as sassy as can be.

Meanwhile, Emma is happy at Larry.

Smile for the camera. The horde of Asians in the back sure is.

Oh, Mana Aida. So much awesome embodied in such a tiny woman!

An eleven year old girl with a heart so pure and a smile so sweet.

The crew from Portugal.

Walking down Mandarin Road. Quite deer-in-the-headlights’ed here, derp.

Lisbeth and our beloved Tio Angola.

I wish my Tetun was better so that I could interview these two old-school ballers. Maybe one day.

oh hay dere you two.

The most adorable couple of the trip.

Looking studious!
…Oh wait, that’s a restaurant menu.

“Hey Jake, what are you guys lookin’ at? Can we see?”
“…It’s a video I took at the cockfighting ring. LOOK AT ALL THE BLOOD!”

“NO, LOOK AWAY, IT’S BAD! AHH!”

Not even close to everyone, but this is the best we could do before we got whisked off to the airport!

consultation

He’s one year, one month old. Runny nose, watery eyes. He’s number 8. Mom is 40 years old, but looks much older. The mountains have not been kind to her old, worn-out body.

___

Can you go to the hospital? Can you drive the car? A patient needs a referral. We need to get more blood. Can you get us an x-ray?

Going to the hospital is always tremendously frustrating. Such a beautiful campus–a beautiful, thrumming, $5 million hive of activity, but with next to no efficiency. Do you really care about your patients? I know that some of you do. A Timorese doctor in Emergency. A Cuban doctor who chuckled at me for being such a stubborn disciple of Dr. Dan’s. A Nepalese woman in Maternity who’s impossibly hard to track down. A British surgeon who looks like a 21 year old professional SC2 player. I know all of your faces, but not all of your names. I know a few of your numbers, but none of your schedules. I wish that we could work together. I wish that we had an x-ray machine at the clinic. I wish you guys had a PCR machine too. I wish that there weren’t so many politics muddling things up. I wish that we could just focus on saving lives.

___

Registration takes forever. “We’re closed,” she says. She doesn’t seem like she’s in a good mood. But it’s only 10:45AM. We were specifically told to come in today. The specialist said so yesterday over the phone. We’re from the clinic.

I’m not some stupid high school dropout, you know. I’m a trained nurse. Even though I’m new here, don’t look down on me.

I don’t know why you’re telling me this. I haven’t even said anything to you. She’s so defensive.

We just want to get a referral, ma’am. That’s all we want. Thank you, ma’am. Okay, thank you.

___

Is this OPD? Is this where we go? I’ve only been to urology before. I don’t know if this is it.

___

There are other kids here, but our kid is special. He came all the way from the mountains–from hours away. He was here last year; he was only three days old. His file is huge, with x-rays and post-op exams. He’s so, so small. How has he been through so much already?

I reach out to poke him, and he grasps my finger. His grip is strong. His fingers are chubby. He smiles at me with those watery eyes—ears sticking out, hair swaying in the breeze.

“Hello, baby. Hello there, baby.”

___

“No, she’s not here yet. Her flight just landed,” they say. “She was a bit ambitious with her schedule. She’ll be a bit late.” From New Zealand, they tell me. A doctor who cares. We could use a doctor who cares—we’ve been waiting here for over an hour at this point.

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“How old are you?” He replies with a blank stare. “What is your name?” He doesn’t understand. “Do you eat well? You have to eat well. Please eat well. I want you to live.”

I’m singing to him now. His mother rocks him in her sling. The music comes through my phone, soft and soothing. Nothing too loud, but loud enough to sing to. There are three other families here—three other families that have come to a consult. One baby has Hirschprungs. The other has polyps. They’re so damn cute. It’s such a damn shame.

I hope she arrives soon. I can’t sing forever. The longer I sit here, the sadder I get. The mom is sitting beside me, but the baby is slung facing away from me. I’m glad he can’t see my face. I’m not singing happy songs today. It feels like I’m singing a farewell.

___

She’s finally here. An enthusiastic, talkative, grey-haired woman. She’s wearing eyeliner, with a dab of blue by the tear ducts. Her energy is contagious; I shake her hand enthusiastically.

We take our seats, and she begins explaining the nutrition supplements. 24 bottles of 200mL each. They look like Frusion smoothies. 300 kcals per bottle, with four bottles per child. A bit of a bottle every few hours. Drink with a straw, or feed with a spoon. If you breastfeed, then breastfeed first. Do not stop breastfeeding. Do not wean yourself. If you start relying on the nutritional supplement, it won’t work. It’s very important that you don’t stop breastfeeding.

The Tetun rolls off my tongue. It’s been over six weeks, and I surprise even myself sometimes. The families stare at me as I instruct them how to take care of their children. They probably think I’m a doctor too.

___

“Are you from Ermera too?” No, no, I’m just here from the clinic.

“Are you a doctor?” No, I’m just a volunteer.

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Well, I’m just here for my patient. I just want to make sure they’re okay. I just want to make sure they don’t get lost. I don’t mind staying, and I don’t mind translating for you. The other staff should translate too, though. They’re Timorese after all. This is their language, not mine. I’m just here to help.

___

We’ll come back on Monday. Well, they’ll come back on Monday. I go home in two days. I won’t see it happen. It’s okay, they’re admitted at the clinic. We’ll make special note for them to have plumpynut, since the mom needs nutrients too. Cassava. Water spinach. Corn. Rice. How do you live off of carbs and vegetables? He needs fat. He needs protein and fat. He needs to grow.

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He doesn’t like the smoothie. The nutritional supplement must taste awful. I feel bad, because the mom is trying so hard. She tries to get him to feed, but he just cries and cries. At least he’s not vomiting. At least he’s responsive. Not like the other baby, the one who came in yesterday. We can’t let that happen again. We need to do better next time. We need to do our best. Because it’s our job. We volunteered to do this, not to have a vacation. I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s still my job to do it.