Monday, July 13, 2009
A Hand On My Heart
I was gasping for breath and my heart was pounding at an uncomfortable pace so I stopped for a minute by the side of the path. Surrounded by a quiet green forest, on the side of a mountain, the Himalayan peaks were no longer visible from where I stood. There were no houses, or fields, only a still forest, an empty path, and the heavy sound of my own breath. For most of the day, I had walked up hill, with with a 30 pound pack on my back. Three days' walk behind me was the airport up at Jomsom where I had begun my trek, and 4 days' walk below me was the nearest paved road that led to Pokahara in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. I was starting to panic. The hikers that I had been tagging along with that day were far ahead of me and it was getting late in the afternoon. When the sun drops behind the mountain peaks, there is a sudden drop in the temperature in the valleys. Packs of wild dogs and the occasional leopard, might also be roaming around up there at night. Not wanting to be cold and alone in a completely unfamiliar place, I picked up my pack and started up the dirt path again.
I had intentionally let my traveling companion go on ahead of me. Neither of us was feeling well. She had a headache and wanted to get to a place to rest as quickly as possible. I knew that she would be alright with the trekking group that had adopted us. We were not part of their group, but their friendly group leader was a bit surprised to see two completely unprepared young women hiking alone in Nepal for the first time... or maybe he just thought we were cute. He encouraged us to stay close to his group.
I had some digestive problems and wanted a little privacy. There are no public rest stops on Himalayan treks--you just squat behind a rock--so I dropped back from the group. By the time that I reached that quiet place in the forest where I stopped to catch my breath, I hadn't seen anyone on the path for about an hour and I really wasn't sure how many hours I would have to climb before I would reach our planned resting spot.
The path led me over the crest of a hill and to a wide flat area among a very small cluster of mud and stone homes. Two boys, about 13 and 8 years old, were standing on a hill above me on my right. I hardly noticed them because I was focused on putting one foot down after the other. The older boy called down to me, "Please help my brother."
I looked up at the boys and saw the older brother with his arm around his younger brother supporting him. The younger boy had sliced his leg from mid inner thigh to mid calf. The wound was not fresh, but it was an angry red with thick yellow puss oozing out of it. I inspected his leg more closely and asked the boy if there was someone in the village who spoke English. The boy shouted for a man who came quickly. With paper and pen in hand, I carefully explained that the boy's leg needed to be washed, very thoroughly, with water that had been boiled and soap. Then I pulled a full course of antibiotics from my pack. In Nepal, anyone can go to the pharmacy and buy antibiotics. You do not need a prescription. The pharmacist often knows the normal dosage for your weight. For about $4 US, I had bought one full course of sulfa antibiotics, for myself, just in case I got into trouble on the trek. I explained to the village man to cut the pills in half and give them to the boy morning and night until they were gone. If the boy became more sick, then he should stop taking the pills and they should take the boy to the hospital.
As I was explaining all of this, a small crowd from the village formed around us. There was an old lady who repeatedly put her wrinkled hands to her eyes and then stretched out her arms to touch me and pull at my dress. There was a man who was limping and another pointing to his elbow. Everyone had a malady. Everyone needed help. I was surrounded by at least a dozen outstretched arms and open palms. I opened my pack again and pulled out a very large bottle of Centrum vitamin pills. Putting a few vitamins in each open palm, I pressed my hands together and acknowledged the god within them. Then I lifted my pack and continued on my way.
An hour later, I was climbing another steep hill. The sun had already gone behind the mountain and I was feeling very ill. I stopped, almost in tears, with my heart pounding out of control. Behind me a porter appeared. He was a member of the trekking group that we had been tagging along with. He was the 'sweep,' the last person who collected the straggling tourists. Strapped to his head was a 200 pound load of tourist gear. The man, who was only about 5 feet tall, reached up and put his warm callused hand on my heart. He smiled. Then he stayed with me until we arrived at our resting spot about a half hour later. He didn't speak to me, but knowing that he was near was all that I needed to take my fear away and to keep me moving.
*On another trip, my husband and I slept one night in a remote village hospital on the very same trekking route, because we didn't make it to our destination before nightfall. The hospital was no more than a large barn with no equipment or electricity. The beds had straw mattresses and no one came or left while we slept there. I still think about the boy with the wound and wonder if he was all right. Could I have done any better? I regret that I didn't give them my bar of soap, or money to pay for a donkey to take him the 4 day trip to the hospital. These things simply didn't occur to me at the time.