Monkeys, Mossies, and Maoists, Oh My!



I add another poisonous being to my collection. This one is brightly colored scorpion, yellow with red horse-shoe spot in the middle of his back. Inside the cage that stretches across the length of my backyard is a collection of 100’s of poisons bugs, spiders, snakes, and strange reptiles from all over the world.  I look at my pet alligator in the corner of the cage and realize how incredible sad he seems and how cruel I am for caging him and all of the critters. After all if I really did love and appreciate them as I claimed, they should have the same rights as my cat Steve, so I open the door and let them have the full run of the garden and house. It doesn’t take long before I realize my error, and I lock Steve and myself in my office.

I wake up.

Aug 24, 2010 El Cerrito, CA

It’s hot and stuffy. Not India hot, but Northern California hot. I’m staying at a friend’s empty apartment while I finish up my last couple of weeks of work before I go. I’m really happy to be returning to India, but still, I have nightmares.

I’m packing. One of the bedrooms is filled with piles of clothing, shoes, electronic gear and sundries divided carefully into going and staying piles, A year is a long time to pack for. I have the Tibet pile: Hiking boots, polar fleece for the trek around Mt. Kailash. Cloths that I’ll use for only 2 weeks of the almost one year I’m planning on staying in South Asia. Just looking at the pile causes anxiety. The summit of the Kalaish parakora is 18,373 feet. I’ve been walking in the Berkeley hills most days, but I’m far from a mountain trekker, and at 53 I have no idea how I will deal with the altitude.

There is the India pile; a couple of salwar kameeze and some saris. A tech pile: My computer, camera, recorder and various cables. A pile of 10 books, I want to take all of them, I only have room for 3. Used books are easy to get along the way but somehow having extra books makes me feel safe.

Oddly what doesn’t make me feel safe is the large stack of pills and lotions and remedies;

Tens of tubes of Deet mosquito repellent, 365 malaria pills, diamox for altitude, cepharo, for stomach problems, an anti-anxiety drug (just in case), and a medicine bag of over the counter remedies and vitamins. Up till now my choice has been to put as few drugs in my body as possible, I even limit my use of sunscreens and lotions. I don’t tend to have bad reactions from drugs but I just feel we are all better off with less. Not now, after several evenings of perusing the Internet health forums and a visit to The Travel Doctor I am now both fearful of disease and well stocked.

The last time I was in India, 2006/2007 I opted out of the malaria routine. Ten months traveling seemed too long to be taking medication without suffering long-term side effects. I figured if I was just diligent with the mosquito repellant that I would be fine. But after my recent research, I think I was just plain lucky.

According to The Hindu website “In its World Malaria Report 2008, the WHO estimated that there had been 10.6 million cases of malaria and 15,000 deaths from the disease in India during 2006.”

At my appointment with The Travel Doctor, I was offered a choice of two anti-malarials; lariam which you take 1x a week with some serious side effects included vivid nightmares, depression and angry emotional out bursts and doxycycline which you take everyday with very few side effects. I opted for a course of the nightmare free anti-malarails – 365 of them.

I declined the rabies vaccination. It was simply too expensive and I didn’t have time for the full series of shots. The nurse at The Travel Doctors office looked disappointed and asked me “ Do you know what to do if you get bit by a monkey?

I said, “ Go to the nearest big city, hmmm, perhaps Delhi.”

“No, no, no,” she snapped. “You must go to Hong Kong and go to the AEK International Hospital, it’s the only hospital in Asia that will have the human diploid cell vaccine. You will have only 48 hours to get to the hospital in HONG KONG and insist that you need HDCV NOT EDCV. They’ll say you won’t need it, but you will.“

“Ok, I’ll go straight to Hong Kong and get the hrc vaccination”

“HDC vaccination and if you go to Indonesia be really careful, Bali has the highest deaths to Rabies next to China…. Oh, I see. … you ARE going to China, (sigh) well be careful.”

As I left she gave me a thick folder of printouts for me to read.

The first printout in the folder was form titled India: General Information. Four of the six-page document was devoted to the horrible events you might anticipate from people while traveling in India.

The article encouraged extreme caution with terrorism on public trains, busses, markets tourist sites, as well as places of worship and cultural events, especially in big cities. In rural areas one should beware of Maoist extremist – “Naxalites” and religious extremist groups. The rest of the article was speckled with alarming words: bombing landmines grenade attacks shootings kidnappings, pick pocketing, bag snatching, drugging, assault rape, scam artists and pirates. Best to stay in your hotel… as long as is not the Mumbai Taj.

This is my 3rd trip to South Asia in the last 5 years. I have traveled mostly alone for almost a year and half. Only once did I have a scary person event: I was staying at a guesthouse in a monastery in Bodhnath Kathmandu. I was walking from the Stupa to the guesthouse at the Shechen Monastary where I was staying. It was dusk, there were a few people walking on the small street so I felt at ease. Behind me a young skinny Tibetan teen comes up and sprays pepper in my eyes and cuts the strap to my purse with a blade. You never know how you’re going to respond to an attack, I surprised myself, and screamed, held on to the strap of my purse and proceeded to kick the surprised teen. He seemed so small that I almost felt ashamed of myself. I was as terrified as I was fierce and fortunately after a (really long) short time a dozen monks empty out of the monastery to my rescue. The boy ran away without my purse. Back at the guest house a monk told me to have compassion for the mugger teen. I was a rattled and scared, and would have liked some compassion myself, but had no problem understanding how a poor youth might choose to take my fat purse.

I was a mess, the next 2 weeks I was reluctant to go out by myself and when I did, I wouldn’t carry anything with me. Fear took over, and then I got depressed. Finally I decided that either I had to go home or conquer my fear. The truth is that I lived in Katmandu for 4 months without a problem, and that its far more likely that someone will chase after you with a purse you accidentally left at the table than to steal from you. Daily I am a recipient of endless kindness from locals. While I do my best to be informed and exercise reasonable precautions, I find it’s impossible to have an open heart at the same time be hyper-vigilant. It just doesn’t work for me.

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