The Last Schlep
One week of schlepping bags across the Upper Mazaruni area of Guyana’s rainforest, as part of the latest Ve’ahavta medical team, and I’m finally in the Georgetown airport, awaiting my flight home… just in time for whatever Hallowe’en festivities await.
Since internet connectivity was not available in the interior, I saved up my blog posts. Have at ’em!
What a charmed life I lead. Hours ago I was hunched in front of a computer in frigid Toronto, and now I’m… hunched in front of a computer inside a tent in the Amerindian village of Waramadong in the remote interior of Guyana.
Arriving in Georgetown early morning, I hightailed it to Ogle airport to catch a bush plane to Kamarang, which is a remote community near the Venezuela border. The plane only had two passengers: me and a young man who was transporting a birthday cake. Yes, a birthday cake.
Here’s a pic of the view from my seat on the bush plane, of the rainforest below:
Here’s a pic of the front of the plane’s cockpit. My mobile’s camera is able to detect the propeller:
There I met up with my contacts who filled both my hands with bottles of Guinness and loaded me onto a dug-out canoe. So there we were, tipsy on beer, making our way down a jungle river, stopping only to piss. Weird life.
Over for now.
Day 2 of the current expedition to Guyana. My good friend and strong-like-ox team leader Bekkie departed for Canada today. We took a long leisurely boat ride to Kamarang village to drop her off at the airstrip before continuing on another two hours to Jawallah.
Last night was sort of interesting. After traveling for close to 24 hours straight, I bedded down in a palatial tent inside the Waramadong health centre, with my new compatriots fast asleep in adjacent tents.
I was awakened in starts, first by the lovely growl of distant howler monkeys, and then by the less than pleasant cantankerous outbursts of a drunken and profane man, whose voice indicated that he was inside the health centre. I could hear the snores of my colleagues. Why weren’t they awakened by this man?
I would drift back to sleep, quite confused, only to be awakened by a long string of very loud four letter words. I had the presence of mind to reach for my knife, never far from hand. But being semiconscious and very confused, I never found the wherewithal to get up and investigate. Was it a dream? Heck, I’d been in Ottawa earlier that day, and now I was in a tent in the South American jungle, possibly hearing a drunken AmerIndian man wander in our midst. I was confused and dazed.
In the morning I learned that the drunk had been our boat captain, who was engaged in either an inebriated argument with persons real or imaginary, or having night terrors. I lean to the former. A weird first night.
After exhausting ourselves lugging our bags about 200 metres from the boat landing to our tenting location, we relaxed into a delicious swim in the black waters. (For me, more like a splash than a swim… I can’t bring myself to swim in river waters that are too black to see more than an inch beneath the surface.)
Afterwards, I was overcome with a desperate desire for carbonated pop. A can of coke goes for US$3 here. A colleague bought me an ice cold sprite, and I cherished it like my firstborn.
The evening ended with us lazily enjoying the full moon reigning over the Kamarang jungle river. A tropical thunderstorm forced us back to our tents. A long, hopefully sleep-filled night awaits.
The village is nestled in a gorgeous section of the interior, with a moonlit river snaking between two banks of somewhat well developed human settlement. The problem is that, frankly, people suck. The young men seem perpetually drunk. Sexual assault is highly prevalent. Even the women of our team, usually deemed beyond such unwanted attentions, suffer vile comments and innuendos. Indeed, one of our doctors witnessed what seems to be a rape attempt within the confines of our very clinic.
I’m afraid to say that my impression of Jawallah, despite its gorgeous children and friendly villagers, is one of drunken louts and sexual predators.
Nonetheless we had a productive clinic today, with about 70 patients seen. One in particular ate up a fair amount of clinical time: an older man needing a circumcision after suffering an inflamed foreskin. Not the most pleasant thing to watch.
I find myself strangely worried about some water purification kits I gave out to scores of villagers. I gave strict instructions for one packet of the agent to be used for 10 litres of water…. but I’m worried that someone might create an over-concentrated batch as drinking water, and end up feeding his children insufficiently diluted bleach!
I think the fears are unfounded. But I’m a worrier.
Off to sleep now… in a tent on concrete, as a dying generator and howling dogs scorch the background soundscape.
A half day clinic in Jawallah was instructive. The day began with a house call to a house down the way, where an elderly woman had split her knee open after a bad fall. Doing triage, I had my joyous fill of wrestling with adorable AmerIndian kids fighting to avoid having their temperatures taken.
I’ll never forget one particularly adorable 2 year old girl with undiagnosed Down’s Syndrome and partial paralysis resulting from a stroke.
Heartbreaking, yes, but as one of our doctors reminded me, each child is –as cliched as this may sound– a source of hope.
We took down our clinic and went off by boat to Kamarang, transporting two patients in the process, one of whom had to be carried the agonizing 60 feet or so of stairs going straight up from the boat landing to the health centre.
And here we are now, camped out in a local guest house. The rest of the team is bedded down in tents on the guest house grounds. I opted to pay the $20 for a private room and a bed. Hey, I’ve got nothing to prove.
Tomorrow, off to Bartica…. and a chance to upload these blog posts!
It’s 10:30 pm and I’m drunk off my ass. We’re toasting the early departure of Dr Louis , a fascinating and hardworking man who easily won my respect and affection.
Today was a profoundly interesting day. We provided a full day of clinical services to the inmates of the Mazaruni Prison (for long term offenders) and of Sibley Hall (for first time offenders).
The prisoners were uniformly respectful and pleasant. A brief altercation arose after someone called someone else an “Auntie Man”, but otherwise things went swimmingly. We saw 110 patients, much more that we would have seen in a community clinic, due to the regimented nature of the prisoner consults.
I don’t ever intend on being in a Third World prison. Please Zod, never.
Almost everyone had a low back pain complaint. Our physiotherapist had to see them four at a time. Increasingly, I am convinced that the fastest growing global health needs are for psychiatric counseling and physiotherapy.
There were many cases of men who thought they had TB, but who just had migraines.
There were many cases of men with headaches and coughs who likely had TB.
There were a great many cases of swollen testicles (a result of undiagnosed STI perhaps) and at least one likely case of testicular cancer.
Language continues to be a barrier in providing services. Yes, everyone speaks English, but not all English is alike.
I’d like to give more anecdotes, but I don’t think it would be ethical. Suffice it to say that this visit has been downright fascinating, and certainly justifies my participation in this mission, as I hope to write a paper about it all.
Okay, off to bed. Tomorrow we provide a clinic to the community of Itaballi then do a call-in TV show.
So glad to be back in Canada. The Customs dude caught me bringing back more rum than what I am allowed, but let it pass since my mission had been a humanitarian one. See, kids? Volunteering pays off!
I didn’t mention than on our last day in the frontier, as we took a boat ride toward the city, we passed a bloated body that had been washed up on the beach. This is officially the 4th random dead body I’ve seen in my various trips to Guyana. What is it about this place?
Awaiting my flight to Ottawa now, and a frantic search for a Hallowe’en costume. I have soooo much work to catch up on, and now I can add getting a TB skin test. I’m concerned about my exposure, particularly in the Mazaruni prison.
In addition, I have a special treat for my students on Monday. First they get to see my various bites. Here’s a pic of my ankle:
Then they get to watch me take my medication for possible intestinal worm infection. I don’t know that I have worms, but so many of the kids that we saw did have them. And so many cute little toddlers –whom I was holding while their mothers received treatment– stuck their dirty little hands in my mouth. There are no toys in my mouth!
Okay, off to get a stiff drink.