Medan is a filthy hole and its nicest spot is in the hospital; Near death from Dengue Fever and an earthquake

This is some kind of bad joke, right? We’re not really admitting Sheryl to the hospital again, in another dodgy country, almost exactly a year after the last time - are we? This is some kind of flashback to India. Maybe a bad dream?

No, it was real. The fever she’d had two days before might have broken in a rush of cold sweats, but now there were bad stomach troubles as well. Too much had gone wrong too quickly, so here we were checking her into Gleneagles Hospital in Medan. The city itself is a stinking traffic-choked hellhole, but the hospital is cool, clean and quiet.

Unlike the Indian experience, the hospital was quite used to dealing with foreign patients. Most of the day-shift nurses had a few words of English, so communicating wasn’t too much trouble. The food was good - much better than either of us have been eating lately - and the staff were much more open to dietary requirements than the Indian hospital had been. Sheryl was able to make clear her allergy to rice in all its manifestations and there were lots of alternatives for her - again unlike in Mumbai where the only possibility seemed to be shrink-wrapped coconuts (naturally, though, the contrary wench was craving one thing and one thing only. See if you can guess what it was).

There wasn’t as much drama as in India, but then she wasn’t anywhere near as sick this time around. She was in for three days, all told. There were various tests and samples, and it was eventually determined that she had a mild case of Dengue Fever combined with a parasitic infestation of her small intestine. Both are constant dangers in the places we’ve been travelling, but I have to admit that I’m surprised by the Dengue. It’s a mosquito-borne disease, and Sheryl never really gets bitten by mosquitoes. They love me, though. I would have bet money that of the two of us it would be me to get Dengue Fever. Maybe I’m just being saved for a dose of malaria later.

There was really only one problem at the hospital, and that was the glacially slow pace. The doctor came by once a day and murmured a few words. He always seemed surprised when we wanted to know what was actually wrong with her, or wanted to know what sort of tests would be done. Tests? Well, we could do some tests, he allowed. Which tests would we like? Another half-day would go by and someone would trundle in to take some blood or something. The next day we’d always have to ask specifically about the test results. It was very strange. We had to keep reminding the staff that we had no insurance and really just wanted to leave as soon as possible. That was absurd and unthinkable and they returned nervous smiles as if we were telling a joke they didn’t understand. “All tourists have insurance!” one nurse told Sheryl soothingly and encouragingly. I don’t think they ever really did believe us.

I suppose I can understand. The hospital is clean and quiet and they give you food, unlimited drinking water and air-conditioning. It’s probably paradise for the average Sumatran except that smoking isn’t allowed (which made it paradise for me). When she was on the mend at last and we asked when she’d be discharged, the doctor gave us a blank look and asked “How long do you want to stay?”. I hadn’t realized it was up to us, to be honest - though we should have known by then.

It was an unintentionally perceptive question, as it happened. Neither of us minded the hospital that much, aside from the expense. It was definitely a break from the noise, dirt and chaos of Indonesia. There was decent food, peace and quiet and the first hot showers we’d had since leaving Malaysia. Every time I ventured out into the city proper for the two-kilometre walk to anything useful, I was glad to escape the caustic, choking air, the heat and the smelly sewers. Since we had no insurance (despite what the nurses believed) there was no private room for Sheryl this time. But no so-called Jungle Ward either, which had been the alternative back in Mumbai. She was in a six-bed ward, with two or three beds empty. Most of the other patients on the floor were Chinese - tourists or locals, we had no way of knowing. We certainly weren’t interested in talking to their families to find out, since their constant bug-eyed stares were incredibly annoying. We kept the curtains drawn around the bed, so the only intrusions were the loud voices during visiting hours and the disturbingly organic sounds of the patient in the next bed. He - or she, the person was very old and it was impossible to tell - was attached to a bubbling water-filtered respirator and gave out a strange sound with every exhalation that was like the moan of a tortured animal. We referred to him (or her) privately as Sheep Man. I don’t think Sheep Man was ever conscious, and neither was the ward’s other permanent occupant, an ancient Chinese woman who looked as if she wasn’t long for the world.

I slept on the floor beside Sheryl’s comfortable hospital bed, in my sleeping bag on top of our inflatable mattresses, like the loyal dog that I am. It wasn’t exactly comfortable but it beat the chairs in the waiting room or the lobby and it beat paying for a room somewhere. I reckoned that we were paying 135,000 Indonesian rupiahs a night for the bed - about C$15) and that’s about two and a half times what we normally pay for a guesthouse so I’d try and offset the cost if I could. We were certainly saving money on food - I had a case of something myself that I was taking antibiotics for, and the little interest I had in food was easily satisfied by Sheryl’s leftovers.

All told we stayed three days in the hospital, and the damage was Rp2,650,000 or something like C$300. It could have been a lot worse, considering. The four days in Mumbai had run to $1,400 - albeit with a private room. Requesting an itemized bill at discharge time might have been a mistake, though - it let us see where all the extra charges and padding had been added. $1.50 for 200 units of sticky dressing? Her intravenous tube didn’t need any more than 5cm worth. They really are used to fleecing insurance companies here.

Making our escape from the hospital was a mixed blessing. We didn’t have to stay in the hospital with Sheryl stuck full of tubes, but she still needed a couple days of convalescence and that meant we had to stay in Medan. Medan is the armpit of Sumatra. Two million people live in the city, and I don’t think a single one of them is happy to be there. It’s sticky, headache-making hot, the traffic-choked streets are lined with cracked pavement and reeking sewers, and the air is impossible to breathe. It’s grey and caustic and spending more than two minutes outside leaves your chest tight and burning. The dirt, bad air, bad smells and unhappy people are unpleasant enough, but the worst part is that there’s nothing interesting to see.

Collected travellers’ wisdom holds that there’s no reason to stay in Medan except if you’re waiting for a flight out, which is exactly what we were doing. I’d had enough of Sumatra. The fish at Pulau Weh and the orangutans at Bukit Lawang had been great, but the rest had been absolute shit. I hated the place, and if Sheryl wasn’t going to be capable of anything active like jungle-trekking or volcano-climbing then it was well past time to be gone. Indonesia’s a huge, diverse country and we’d wasted a third of our sixty-day visa in one of its most godforsaken corners. The first available flight out was three days away and we snapped it up.

I hardly left the room for those three days. I don’t feel guilty about it either. There wasn’t a single damn reason to go outside and inflict that ugly city on myself. Sheryl, recovering, spent most of her time asleep. I was hardly in tiptop shape myself, so in between reading and writing, I slept too. When sleep was possible, that is. Our cheap room was only a couple of hundred meters from the massive Great Mosque with its dozens of loudspeakers. Five times every day the call to prayer would blast forth with window-shattering volume. I’ve never heard a mosque so loud in my life. The walls would shake, and even with earplugs it was impossible to think. It would have been tolerable if it had just been for the usual five minutes each like every other mosque in the world. But this mosque broadcast the entire set of prayers every time - an interminable half-hour, five times a day. Do the math: 2.5 hours out of roughly 15 between 4am and 7pm - something like 17% of the daylight hours we couldn’t hear ourselves think.

During the 4am prayer on our second-last day in Medan, the earth moved for real. The whole building began to sway in all directions and to rise and fall. It was like being in a small ship in a big storm. I’d never felt an earthquake before, but there was no question in my mind that this could be anything else. At first it was fun but it quickly occurred to me that we were on the third floor and maybe it would be a good idea to go out to the street. No sooner had I decided to get out of bed, though, than it was over. I found out later that the earthquake had been a somewhat serious 7.7-magnitude where it struck off the coast on the other side of Sumatra, about 250km west of Medan. Looking out the window, nobody seemed concerned. No buildings had collapsed. There didn’t appear to be any damage as far as I could tell. The electricity was out, though, and it would stay out until the next day. This was a mixed blessing indeed. No electricity meant no fan in our sweltering, airless room, but it also meant no loudspeakers from the mosque. I think we came out ahead.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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