Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Speak of the Devil

Me and my big blog. No sooner do I start telling the tales of woe of my fellow volunteers than I contract something that turns my stomach to concrete and my bowels to TNT. Dy-no-mite! Luckily, the four-day Easter weekend was planned as a low-key affair, with the only highlights being visits from Kristel and Mana and a small dinner party hosted by Alok Kumal, a doctor recently arrived from India. Though Alok’s appearance in town meant I had to relinquish my title as the Only Batauri in the Village, I happily gave it up in favour of sharing the dubious honour with my new friend. An instantly likeable guy with an easy laugh and a ponytail and shades befitting a Bollywood star, Alok arrived with a mandate from his NGO to assist the local health clinics with their immunizations and other needs as well as building their capacities to continue provide services once he leaves. As many volunteers have done, he made the sacrifice of leaving his wife and young children behind in order to take on the new assignment, though the extended nature of his placement will mean that he will try to bring his family to stay with him in Kafanchan sometime soon.

But getting back to my bowels. Good Friday was anything but, I’m afraid, although the day starts full of promise, as I decorate the guest bedroom with a brand new mosquito net and brave the guest bathroom, which hadn’t seen a human visitor since I arrived four months ago. Notice I said human visitor. Lunch consists of the ever-reliable package of Indomie noodles and my weekly ration of half a Snickers bar. The chocolate-nutty goodness fails to deliver its usual high, replaced by a slight brain cramp centred over my left eye. At the time, I chalk it up to the heat of the day and my inhalation of vermin-clearing chemicals. But by mid-afternoon, my deepening headache is joined by what the insightful Pooh Bear once described as a “rumbly in my tumbly”, though the cause this time is definitely not a lack of honey. Soon, my head is issuing evacuation orders to my other end, and I begin my residency in my ensuite bathroom. By evening, I’m sending text messages to Alok and Kristel that are decidedly less romantic than the ones promoted by Adomi Ochuko’s book, although I now know I can summarize my condition as “Xtrem Di R E Ah”.

This isn’t my first bout of illness in Nigeria, so I’ve learned a few things about treatment. A case of food poisoning in Jos three weeks ago had me expelling at both ends at speeds that would impress Chuck Yeager. Just call me Upchuck Yeager. It was in Jos that I was introduced to the wonders of ORS. For the uninitiated, ORS stands for Oral Rehydration Solution, and it’s a mixture meant to replace essential minerals lost when the body badly dehydrates for whatever reason. It can be as fancy as the packets sold at Mountain Equipment Co-op or as simple as salt and sugar mixed in a water bottle. ORS is nobody’s idea of an enjoyable cocktail. Drinking it brought back memories of swimming in the ocean as a child and having an unexpected wave jam a mixture of saltwater and snot down my throat. But as a treatment for dehydration, it’s very effective, so I summoned up all my powers of imagination and turned it into……..lukewarm, snot-filled seawater. Hey, what do you expect? I’m sick and weak, remember?

Of course, whenever any type of illness presents itself, one assumes the worst, or at least I do, and the deadly duo of malaria and typhoid are immediately suspected in Africa. Recent contact with malicious mosquitoes or questionable water are remembered and regretted. High fever is a common symptom of both, so I clap my hand to my forehead so many times that I look like I’m auditioning for a V-8 juice commercial. Wow, I could have had an attack of malaria! Hand smacks are rather unreliable tests for fever, so I take this opportunity to try out my brand new thermometer. Searching through my motorcycle helmet that now acts as my medicine cabinet, I find the thermometer and dig it out of packaging designed to withstand a nuclear blast. A new car comes with fewer instructions. I eventually decipher that I have my choice of three places to stick it, only two of which are diagrammed in the instructions, presumably due to censorship or the timidity of the manufacturer. My condition makes the unillustrated choice rather hazardous, so I opt for under the tongue. Unlike the old mercury thermometers, the NASA-approved ones beep and light up according to your temperature and need for entertainment. Following the traffic light pattern, green means you’re good to go, yellow is a caution, and red means you’re doomed. After five seconds, my temperature chimes in at a yellow and I overreact accordingly. I text Alok for his interpretation, and he responds, “It’s OK”, which somehow sounds both reassuring and disappointed. He offers to see me at his place in the morning if things haven't improved. I take a swig of brine and go to bed.

After a night spent wearing a groove in the floor between my bed and the bathroom, I decide in the morning to take Alok up on his offer and let him check me over. Through some unknown miracle, the phone network is still operating, so I reach Alok immediately and he makes arrangements for a car to come and pick me up. How’s that for service? I may need to start faking illnesses on grocery day. I also get in contact with Kristel and let her know that this weekend will be a dreary affair, but she wants to come anyway. Soon after, Alok’s vehicle pulls up outside and I walk out to meet him, looking like an extra from a M*A*S*H episode. We climb into his truck and head to Kafanchan, the cool air conditioning already making me feel 2% better. Arriving at his compound, Alok takes me into his residence and gives me a tour. It’s a bit like the Pink House, if the Pink House had new furniture, satellite TV and electricity. I look for his medical office, but he ushers me into his living room instead and motions for me to have a seat on the couch. I start to think something is a bit amiss. When I realize that there’s been a misunderstanding and a medical examination isn’t on the agenda, I mention that I should be getting back to Kagoro soon to meet Kristel. Alok flips on the TV and says, “Oh, no. You’ll be staying here until you’re better.”

Remember the film “Misery”, the one where Kathy Bates plays an obsessed fan who initially helps a famous author recover from a car wreck, only to end up going to gruesome lengths to keep him captive? When Alok goes into the other room to get us tea, I expect him to return with a sledgehammer and hobbling blocks. No, not really. I know his kind offer of a place to stay is made out of concern for my health, but the prospect of recovery in someone else’s home just isn’t that inviting to me. If I’m going to be miserable, I prefer to be unhappy under my own Teletubbies sheets. So, after a brief period of argument, Alok relents and agrees to drive me back to Kagoro once Mana, another VSO volunteer, has arrived. Mana soon appears, expecting to find us getting set for the dinner party that night, and is understandably confused when asked to pack her Cokes and Star beer into a cooler so that we can take them to Kagoro. We arrive back at the Pink House to find Kristel waiting for us. The lack of sleep from the previous night is starting to catch up to me and I’m starting to fade, but I can’t ask people to leave right away, so we end up sitting in my living room for an hour or so, drinking Mana’s beverages and discussing the commonalities between Bollywood and Nollywood (Nigeria’s film industry). Kristel relates her tale of starring in a Nollywood feature, and we make plans to get together to watch the DVD when it’s released. The group eventually decides to leave me to my recovery nap and returns to Kafanchan to follow through on its dinner party plans.

After a two-hour slumber, I actually feel somewhat healthy. No more distress down below and a semblance of hunger has appeared. I decide to test the limits with a little pasta and tomato sauce. If my NASA thermometer came with a gastronomical recovery setting, it would be flashing red at me at this point, but without any guardian for my gut, I blunder on and eat a big plateful of mistake. Soon, I’m walking that familiar groove again. And again. And again. Though I’m choking back the ORS as best I can, my bowels are outpacing me and at around 4 am, my body momentarily throws in the towel. I can’t be sure, but I think I start to go into a form of shock, with buckets of sweat pouring down my face and my stomach convulsing. Thankfully, it doesn’t proceed past these symptoms and my body settles down again. Luckily, Kristel had returned earlier in the evening from the party at Alok’s, so she is able to take one look at me in the kitchen and know I’m not in good shape. She insists on me continuing the ORS treatment, which is a good thing, since I may have abandoned it otherwise. Eventually, my system starts to balance itself again and I can grab a few hours sleep before my neighbour welcomes the dawn with his woodsplitter.

Sunday morning’s breakfast of a cracker and half a banana shows there is nowhere to go but up and that my troubles are finally, um, behind me. By the time Kristel is ready to leave on Sunday afternoon, I actually think I may survive. The remainder of the long weekend is blissfully bland, filled with long stretches of watching DVD’s and reading books and no repeat incidents of medical drama. So, my Nigerian Easter weekend was less than ideal, but what it lacked in chocolate eggs and bunnies, it more than made up for in ORS and a story that will hopefully prove to be unique for me.


Anonymous said...

ailments on the road, away from the comforts and familiarity of home...the fear of fears for any and all of us who travel. No amount of Pepto can assuage the fear and loathing.
I was in Barcelona a number of years ago attending a conference. There I met an interesting pack of individuals from around the world [pack is a most appropriate term when spending time surrounded by consultants and quasi academics]. As happens often in these situations, the Americans stand out as the best, most, and any other superlative you want to apply to them. It so happens there were only two Americans among us [not counting me as an Ex-Pat], and they were a team of hilarity that left most of us rolling on the floor with tears of laughter. One was a tall Woody Allen look alike, right down to the unruly hair and round rimed glasses that made him look like a screech owl. He was an r&b guitarist in search of bands at bars in late night Barcelona [and found some great clubs to boot]. His was the dry wit of the dynamic duo. The other was a Dan Ackroyd clone, with a really off the wall funny streak and no sense of reticence to hold him back. He told the most outrageous stories on himself -- true 'shock and awe' kinds of things without the guns and bullets. The intent was pure fun; the pace was nervous energy found in any stand-up routine.
They both worked for Proctor and Gambles as international distribution execs. These were certainly not stuffy board room types, but as global execs, they of course had to travel around the world for P&G. The Ackroyd clone, whom I will call Dan-A for short, was a terrible traveler, by his own admission. He hated to fly; hated hotels; hated "foreign" food, as in not recognizably American fast food -- and was a nervous nelly about the whole thing. He told a story on himself about being in Japan.

He felt sick to his stomach after he ate dinner [probably Kobe beef; definitely not sushi], so he drank a whole bottle of Pepto to quell the nervous rumbling in his stomach [probably caused more by digestion than anything else]. Then he noticed that his tongue turned black -- he panicked and immediately telephoned his wife back in Cincinnati for help [why bother with local services when you can get help from the Central States a million miles away!?].
His ever-patience silent-suffering wife used the Socratic method to get to the bottom of his trouble: what did you eat? when did you eat it? did you take anything for your sick tummy? how much? Oh, the whole bottle. Did you read the document inserted in the Pepto package? No...OK, take it out and look at the side effects....You are not dying from some kind of exotic black tongue disease; Pepto turns your tongue black when you drink large quantities of it..... She obviously dealt with similar situations before for a husband exhibiting advanced signs of arrested development.
We, the audience of this hilarious tale sipping grappa in a Barcelona fish bar, laughed uncontrollably, esp as we realized that Pepto is a P&G product!
Black tongue and all, Pepto may be more fun than snot-tasting salt water. At least it comes with instructions about side effects.
Talk to you soon; gotta run to a meeting. Victor

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear you had a ... um ... shitty Easter weekend. Glad you are feeling better though.
Just remember, that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger!
Jess xo

Anonymous said...

Within the very first days of moving into DPW 356 Dalla in Kano, Jan 1963, I had a similar bout/battle from which, as things got better, I had a fierce thirst. My housemate Mary, opened our first bottle of Fanta Orange and brought a small glass to me. I swallowed the ubersweet, viscous stuff and got sick, the other way in brilliant orange. Never again did we fail to dilute. Lucinda (FON)