In my book, What's an American Doing Here?, I devoted a whole chapter to various pitfalls and dangers that occurred along the way as I travelled the Third World. I wrote, "So what else is there to worry about beside disease and sanitation, running out of gas or unavailability of medical care! Well, maybe rockslides and landslides, storms and floods, frozen roads and crazy drivers, marauding bandits and slippery thieves, insurrections and civil wars, spewing volcanoes and other such precarious hazards one might stumble upon." The reality is that, although the passage was intended to be facetious in part, several of those circumstances may well be experienced if one travels long enough and in the right places. The story of one such occurrence which my friends have been burdened with my rendering of was an incident on my first trip to Burma about fifteen or more years ago.
At the time we were there, Burma was not eager for tourists. There were few places to stay, a visa was granted for only a seven day sojourn, and transportation to and from and within the country was very limited. It seemed that there was but one plane that circled the main cities and, if you were not on it, you either did not go where you were intending to go or you made your way over slow, muddy, unpaved roads or found a seat on one of most uncomfortable trains in the world. We made our way around to some of the main sites by various transport until I developed a slight ache in my side on the way to the airport in Mandalay. By the time we reached Rangoon, I was immobilized by the extent of the pain and lay helpless on my bed in the hotel. It was so bad, we called a Burmese doctor. Medical advances after about 1920 seemed to have passed by largely unnoticed in Burma and the doctors were hardly up on the latest techniques. The diagnosis I received was that I had strained something in my side. I was so desperate that I took the half inch wide pill the doctor gave me. Fortunately, we had heard there was a doctor in the U.S. embassy in Rangoon who would help tourists if they asked him although it was outside his usual responsibility. I was able to get to see him that afternoon. When he heard I had been treated by a Burmese doctor he could not restrain his laughter, increasing my own skepticism and nervousness immensely.
My American doctor was rather convinced that I had a kidney stone problem and informed me that "...one could not get treated for that in Burma." He recommended that I immediately head for a hospital in nearby Bangkok which had American trained doctors and the latest equipment. Our tickets to Bangkok, however, were for three days later and one did not simply exchange tickets at that time in Burma. With good luck and the help of an influential Burmese orthopedist who knew my American doctor I was able to secure tickets for the next day. In the meantime, I was sent to a clinic in Rangoon to spend the night under the watchful supervision of ten thousand mosquitoes. I was to drink lots of water but not the stuff that ran from the clinic spigots. My wife needed to make her way into town to get bottles of water that would not kill me as well as the tickets which had been arranged. No problem except for a few minor considerations that popped up.
My wife left for town in a cab when she suddenly realized that she did not know where the clinic was that she was leaving from nor did she know its name. Her panic was not assuaged by her interaction with the cab driver who spoke not a word of English. The entire event occurred during the Water Festival, a fun-filled but crazy celebration. She got the tickets, found out from the Burmese doctor who met her there where the clinic was, bought some water and made her way out on to the street to be greeted by dozens of Burmese pouring water over her head, down her blouse and everywhere else they could. In tears, she finally secured a cab, handed the driver the instructions and made her way back to me soaked and exhausted.
By the time we left for the airport the next day, my pain had subsided considerably. We could get not get a cab to the airport but arranged for an ambulance to take us there. Along the way, even the ambulance was bombarded with water from every angle. The Burmese apparently had as much respect for their medical establishment as we did. We made our plane in time, got to a lush, comfortable, and very inexpensive private hospital in Bangkok and spent the next five days there. Overall Loss: a couple days of travel in Thailand. Diagnosis: sprain. Result: pain gone and travel resumed. Lesson learned: anything can happen when you travel the Third World. Long term benefit: great cocktail party story.
Sunset, Irrawaddy River, Burma