Two weeks of hot and cold fever vision head pains, sweats, and splatters. It came in three acts, climax in the third at an empty guesthouse in Kep, Cambodia: a half-ghost town seaside resort where squatters live in the charred roofless shells of art deco villas, their flame-licked walls covered in lichens, moss, and red and black Vietnamese graffiti: the abandoned vacation homes of colonialists, royalty, and long-dead tycoons, some slowly being refurbished by ambitious hoteliers while the rest are reclaimed by the tangled green of the surrounding jungle. Jungle smells of life and decay, sweet and pungent floral tones mixing with rot and rain and salt and the swell and stink of my own sweat.
For three days, that rain came cold and hard with no respite. Waves crashed over the seawall; roads flooded. Potholed streets empty of locals and tourists and me locked in my cheap bedbug-infested room, shivering, boiling, itchy, oozing shit and more afraid and alone then I’ve ever been with the pain of death grinding in my bones and skull. The hurt radiating from my marrow. And I groaned and I screamed – I think I screamed – as the fever came stronger with horribly banal steampunk hallucinations (my body being churned through a series of weather-stained gears – crunched, pressed, and shattered in a nightmarish Big Ben of never-ending gears, always spinning, slowly, squeezing out my short and wasted life).
I don’t remember the ninth night.
Morning of day ten, some sense returns. I think I have malaria. I don’t know. I think it’s time to see a doctor. I pull myself out of the sweat-soaked bed, each limb a tired heavy log. Cowering under my mildew plastic poncho, I stumble five hundred dizzy metres through sheets of rain to the little restaurant where a persistent waiter had tried to sell me tours when I first arrived.
“Hello friend,” the man says, seeing me emerge from the gray wall of rain. He’s wearing the same striped golf shirt he had on when we first met. He’s young, mid to late 20s (like me), with a faint wisp of a moustache on his smooth brown face. The restaurant is almost empty. In a corner, a small television airs a live kickboxing match.
“You come back. I remember. But you say tomorrow and now many days. So, what? You forget me? Huh?”
“No,” I say. “I’m sick.”
“Sick? Huh. Well, you want boat tour today? You want see old temple?”
“I need to see a doctor.”
“So, you no want tour?”
“Oh.” He paused. “Maybe you visit Rabbit Island, though.”
“I need to see a doctor. Is there a doctor in Kep?”
The waiter sighs.
“There is doctor over there,” he says, waving into the distance.
“Does he speak English?”
“Can you take me?”
The waiter frowns and looks me up and down. “But you buy tour?”
“Oh man, not today. I have diarrhea. Do you understand? Di-a-rrhe-a. My head feels like it’s going to explode”—I mime—“But when I’m better, I SWEAR I’ll buy tours from you. I swear: only you.”
He thinks it over, then hails a guy dozing on a plastic chair. They speak for a minute in rapid-fire Khmer.
“This is my brother,” the waiter says. “He drive tuk tuk. He take you.”
“Does he speak English?”
“So how will the doctor know what’s wrong with me?”
The waiter shakes his head. “Okay, okay,” he says. “I come with. I translate. But you buy tour next time, ok?”
“I buy tour next time.”
We dash to the tuk tuk and the driver starts the engine. The little Chinese motorbike fixed to the gaudily-painted trailer chugs to life before bouncing over the partially flooded road. We lurch along the seawall past blue ocean churned brown, salt spray in my face, jungle-clad islands poking through the haze in the distance, each lurch and bump a hatchet to my skull, a blow to my stomach. Sphincter puckered. I’m surprised I haven’t leaked.
As we drive, the waiter makes idle conversation: “Where you from?” and “How long you stay in Cambodia?” and “You buy tour tomorrow?”
I hold my throbbing hot head in my hands. If I’m alive tomorrow.
We pass a ruined statue of a naked woman, another of a giant crab, then an empty market and more burnt-out villas. Locals cower in the doorways of ramshackle huts, watching the cold driving rain. No one is in the streets.
After about fifteen minutes the tuk tuk stops in front of a dilapidated one-room shack.
“Why are we stopping?” I said. “Where’s the doctor?”
The waiter gives me a strange look and says, “This is doctor’s office.”
The wood and corrugated iron shack is built on wooden stilts over an open sewer where brown frothy water and debris gushes towards the sea.
I hesitate and the waiter says, “You no worry. This is good doctor. No problem. He give me two babies.”
I step into the rain, run to the covered porch. The waiter follows. A metal roof in hard rain: deafening. Through the chinks in the floor I can see rushing filthy water and a mucous-like foam. A semiconscious man groans topless on a rattan mat in a corner, and behind a chain-link window is the middle-aged doctor’s sour face.
The waiter speaks to the doctor. A piece is missing from his fat, lumpy head. Dark and surly, he looks as if he’s made of mud. I steady myself against the rickety wall. The squat doctor grunts and gives me a quick look-over. It’s the only time he glances at me.
“You’re telling him everything, right?” I say.
“I tell, I tell.”
“You told him about the headache and diarrhea and fever?”
The waiter adds something and said, “I tell, I tell.”
The doctor starts rummaging through a small glass case: his pharmacy. There are maybe twenty different types of pills in boxes and bottles. No more. The doctor picks up a little pair of scissors and starts trimming away pills from larger bubble sheets. He takes his sweet time, rounding all the edges before placing the pills in a little plastic bag. I sway on my feet. The doctor pushes the bag through the chain-link and coughs.
“He say take one now, then one later,” the waiter says.
I examine the contents of the bag: two big grey-black discs, four slightly different round white tablets, two clear gel caps filled with multicoloured pellets, and a pair of pastel green pills.
“I only take one?”
“You take one one one now,” the waiter says, “and one one one later.”
“One one one?”
“Yes, one one one.”
“You mean I take half of them now, then half of them later? And when later? Later tonight? Tomorrow?”
The waiter speaks. The doctor spits.
“Five o’clock later. One one one.”
“Okay,” I say. “Okay. How much for all this?”
The waiter asks. Another doctor grunt.
“You pay four thousand riel.”
One dollar. One one one. All right. I fish out the money and thank the doctor in Khmer. He narrows his eyes. The waiter steps off the porch and I follow and—thwack!—slam my head against the low awning. I fall, narrowly missing the sewer. Ha ha, goes the smiling waiter. Ha ha, goes the stained shirt-wearing tuk tuk driver. Ha ha, goes the shiteating doctor. Ha ha, goes the cataleptic topless guy.
“Ha, fucking, ha,” I say. “Real funny. I’m glad you cocksuckers are having such a good laugh.”
They reply with smiles and more ha ha’s. Slowly, I pick myself up and climb into the tuk tuk. We bounce and fly back past the angry sea.
Back at the restaurant, I chase the first round of pills with water. The waiter says, “You pay my brother.”
“Three dollar,” the waiter says.
“Three dollars?” Most Cambodians makes less than that in a day.
Too sick to haggle, I pay. The driver smiles. Head reeling, I sit down.
“When’s the next bus to Phnom Penh?” I ask the waiter. “I think I need to go to a real hospital.”
The waiter looks at his watch. “It’s one thirty,” he says. “Last bus was ten minutes ago. You stay Kep tonight. Maybe you take tour?”
The rain eased for a few hours and, bundled in my poncho, I sat shaking and watching the waves on Kep’s small beach. Khmer children splashed from inner tubes while their fully dressed mothers waded into the surf. Macaques scampered in and out of the surrounding trees. A teenager approached me—“Hello sir. Can I practice English with you?—and we exchanged halting pleasantries until the rain came heavy again. Back in my room, I finished the pills. I still felt awful. Using the hotel’s ancient computer, I researched the medication the doctor had given me: all the pills were for urinary tract infections.
Another toss and turn night. Damp rainy bed. Cold fever sweats, waves of unbearable heat . Itching all over. Cough cough. Knives between my eyes. Aching weak body. Running to the bathroom down the hall again and again and again… Sunday morning I pack my bag and trudge to the bus stop for a bouncing rain-delayed ride back to the capital. When I finally collapsed in my apartment later that evening, I called a friend who’d been living in Phnom Penh for the past three years.
“Absolutely do not go to a clinic today,” he said. “Wait until Monday. The medical infrastructure in the city is bad enough as is, and the doctors they have working nights and weekends are bottom of the barrel: mail-order degrees. Hang in there, man.”
Another night. Same same. It’s always worse at night. Vision shakes and death fear dreams. Shivering and soaking through my sheets.
In the morning, I head to a clinic. I drive my motorbike. Stupid cheap fucking me. The doctors are all outside smoking when I arrive. One of them—a hollow-faced eastern European woman with a thick cigarette-husky voice—says, “Follow me.”
Examination. Blood tests. Chat with this shriveled Soviet doctor while waiting for the results: “You should chase every meal in Cambodia with Vodka – it kills the parasities.” Her hair is the colour of sun-bleached straw; her skin folding golden brown and grey. I’m put in a waiting room until the verdict comes: “You have dengue.”
Dengue (also known as breakbone fever) is a mosquito-borne disease endemic to all tropical climes. There is no vaccine (though one may be available by 2015) and there is currently no cure. Nearly 100 million people are infected each year, and one to five percent of them — mostly the very young and old — die. Mind you, I didn’t know any of this while wasting away in Kep. Symptoms come in waves and can last for over three weeks. If you get the virus more than once, you risk coming down with dengue hemorrhagic fever — which means bleeding from your ears, eyes, and pores until you die.
Treatment: a whole mountain of medication to combat the symptoms, antibiotics (for some reason — I’m not sure), and several hours of intravenous feeding. After handing me a hefty bill, the doctor said, “Go home and rest for the next few days. Drink a lot of water. There is little else you can do.”
Driving home, dizzy. Why didn’t I take a tuk tuk? Cheap fucking me. I can barely keep the bike straight. Barely. Then, crossing an intersection, my front wheel is clipped by a racing motorbike. I spill into the street. Traffic stops and the other motorbike keeps going. A few men loitering on the corner rush to help me. My hands and elbows and shoulders are scraped and filled with stones and dirt. Holes have been torn into my shirt and bag. I’m shaken, but my wounds are superficial and the bike is fine.
The men ease me into the shade. One asks if I’ve been drinking.
“Be more careful,” another one of them says in perfect English. “Look both ways before crossing the street.”
Daniel Otis is a Cambodia-based freelance journalist. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Southeast Asia Globe, and Australia’s The Monthly. This is his second piece for Errant. For more of Daniel’s writing, visit exhaustandincense.wordpress.com.