I’d Never Been to Hospital, Then I Went to India
Day One: Anjuna Beach Guesthouse, Goa
The sound of the ocean woke me.
Flames seemed to lick at my skin and still the heat wasn’t enough: I shivered violently. My mattress – a cotton sheet stuffed with hay – was damp beneath me and I all I could taste was salt. The room was empty and low lit; blinds half-closed against a perfect summer day outside.
I think I need a doctor.
To my left, a sliver of light appeared, and the door creaked open slightly. He stepped inside, leaning in to survey the room. The air around him seemed to blur as he turned his face to look at me.
“You okay? You don’t look very well.”
“How did you get here? Aren’t you in Australia?” I asked in disbelief, but he didn’t answer.
He remained across the room, stationed by the old wooden door, wearing his uniform as though on his way to work. The green shirt with the red lining on the collar.
“Claire Bear, I have to go now.”
Before I could even call after him, my ex-boyfriend was gone and I was alone again.
I watched the bugs crawl along the walls, scurrying frantically in a chaotic pattern. But then they were gone, and they were on the ceiling. They disappeared again, only to reappear crawling all over my skin.
“Claaaire, wake up. Wake up, come on. You didn’t even drink any of the water, you have to drink water, please, come on.”
I opened my eyes and saw Ceara. The room was now filled with light, and her red hair and green eyes were almost painfully bright. She helped me sit up against the wall, put her hands on either side of my face and held my head steady.
“You promised me that you would drink the water, but the glass is still full.”
“How long were you gone?”
“What? But — did you — are we back home? Where are we?”
“What do you mean? We’re in our room. Do you want a piece of orange? You need something in your stomach.”
“But I saw …” My sentence trailed off into nothing as cold understanding washed through me.
Ceara helped me get dressed. She wiped the sweat from my face and coaxed my unwashed and knotted hair into a ponytail. Curling a protective arm around my waist, she guided me slowly out of our tiny shared room and down the narrow dirt track to the local tea house next door. India’s oppressive heat pulled at me like a petulant child.
She found us a table in the corner and propped me up against the wall, passing me a menu. My eyes studied the words, but couldn’t make sense of them. The letters were wobbly and seemed to move of their own volition, and the colours leaked from the confines of their outlines like spilled liquid. A sense of terror brushed down my spine when an excruciating ache began in the tips of my fingers.
My hands began to cramp and curl rapidly inwards. My arms – that only a moment ago had been resting limply on the table – were now seizing up so intensely that they were pressing hard against my chest. I was without control. I heard Ceara’s voice from across the room, but knew that her body was right there beside me. My head drooped and again, I gazed down at the menu.
It got closer and closer. I heard the sound before I felt it. My forehead connected violently with the table and I slid away into darkness.
I think I need a doctor.
Day Two: Anjuna Rural Hospital
The hospital felt abandoned to me, and in the haze of my fever, I couldn’t decipher whether that emptiness comforted or disturbed me. My room was small but I was gratefully the only patient in it. Illuminated by a sterile, artificial light, the grey paint of the walls was chipped and peeling in places. I was visited by an image of a child’s toy, forlorn and forgotten.
A woman entered then, wearing a white coat. She walked to the side of my bed and examined the catheter in the crook of each of my elbows and the one in my right wrist, all of which had been placed there by a quiet teenage nurse. She nodded approvingly.
“Hello, Miss Claire. You have a severe infection; your blood is poisoned,” she said to me in perfect English, with a calm, matter-of-fact tone.
“Can you think of a reason – do you have any open wounds or cuts?”
The memory came to me as though it had been patiently waiting.
I had been bending down over the table, the Aussie $20 note in between my thumb and forefinger. The sharp inhale. Head tilted back as the powder hit. It had felt wrong immediately, so foreign and painful in my nose… like glass.
And so, I had gone to the bathroom to turn on the tap. Cupping the water in my hands I’d held it up to my nose and breathed in quickly. Something I’d done before, seen friends do at home.
But I wasn’t at home. I was in India and I’d forgotten the number-one rule. It all dawned on me in that moment with an awful, sickening suddenness.
“The water — if the tap water got into my blood… do you think it could have done this?”
My uneducated and until-that-moment suspicion of Malaria was extinguished then and there by my visceral memory, and I knew that it was my own mindless mistake that had delivered me to this hospital.
“At this stage, we don’t know the cause – we’re just doing what we can to draw out the infection and stop it from harming your vital organs. But of course, the water could be a very likely cause… especially if you suspect so yourself.”
“At least the hallucinations have stopped now,” I offered weakly, in an attempt to make her smile. Her eyes widened minutely before she regained her soft, measured expression.
“You really should have come in sooner, Miss Claire.”
The light flickered on, and pierced my half-sleep, drenching the room in neon white light. My skin felt too hot; my blood too cold.
“Something hurts again,” I mumbled, sensing someone else in the room. I felt the warmth of a hand on mine and strained to open my eyes.
“Get them out, please… please it’s really hurting.” I said to the young girl beside me. Her deep brown eyes were marred with worry but she smiled.
“You are okay?”
“No no no, the needles, they hurt so much.” I looked down at the catheters resting in the veins of my elbows and wrist. The skin around each needle’s entry point was a violent shade of purplish red. I drew a hand up to touch both of my small silver earrings. Each piercing throbbed and stung as though they were new.
The tiny nurse maintained her soft smile and left quickly, returning half an hour later with the doctor.
“Have you ever been given injections like these before, Miss Claire?”
“No. This is the first time I’ve ever been to hospital.”
Trepidation crept in. Without missing a beat, my doctor straightened up and explained. My body was attempting to reject the foreign needles and was treating my long-healed ear piercings with the same hostility. My veins were swollen and my fever half-retuned.
“If you are able to sleep, your body will relax and this reaction should subside. Would you like something for the pain?”
“Yum. Yes, please.”
The door creaked open and presented Ceara.
A sweat-smeared rainbow, she was covered in paint, flushed and breathing heavily as though she’d been running. The resplendent chaos of Holi festival had begun early that morning beyond the walls of the hospital, and she’d clearly been caught in the local explosions on her way to me. Her face, covered in colour like an artist’s experimental palette, was beaming, and there were streaks of yellow and green throughout her long red hair. She was a kaleidoscopic multi-coloured masterpiece, and I felt truly lighter for seeing her.
“I managed to get on to your family!”
I exhaled in relief and some of the vicious anxiety eased in my chest. The days of no contact and no clue of what was happening… imagining their worry had been nauseating.
“It’s crazy out there!” she laughed, coming to the side of my bed to give me a sweaty squeeze. “I couldn’t escape the paint, even on the scooter. Two of the nurses wanted to take selfies with me – look.”
A laugh escaped me at the sweet bizarreness of the photo. Ceara wedged between two round-faced nurses, all three glowing with their collective joy.
“Also, I think it’s time we get you out of here. Has the doctor said anything new?”
“Not really, just that I need to continue with the anti-biotics and the injections. I want to leave so badly. One of the nurses came in last night and gave me a new injection and when I asked what it was for, she pointed at my stomach. I didn’t realise I’d had anything wrong with my stomach but she just looked at me and said, everywhere.”
A slight shadow encroached on Ceara’s brightness and we debated what to do. In graceful, perfect timing, the doctor came in moments later to check on me. My beautiful friend explained that it was necessary I be allowed to leave the hospital as soon as was possible. After a few long minutes of negotiations, the doctor conceded to Ceara’s unrelenting fire, allowing me to be discharged that afternoon on the condition that the friendly two-inch needle remain in my wrist overnight so that I could return the next morning for one final injection.
I was horrified.
And yet, a few hours later I found myself delicately — and with deepest fear — swinging a leg over the scooter seat and positioning myself behind Ceara. Snaking my left arm around her waist and laying my heavily bandaged right wrist along my thigh, we slowly took off along the red-dirt road back to our guesthouse.
The nightmare was identical whether my eyes were open or closed. I pictured one wrong, sharp movement: a bump in the road, a miscalculated turn. And for the first time since I’d landed in Goa, it wasn’t the scorching sun that had me drenched in sweat.
I winced when the nurse (a new white-clad angel) pulled the needle out and saw my squishy green vein seemingly pulse with relief. No more injections. She pressed a circular Band-Aid over the hole and handed me a white paper bag filled with sheets and sheets of pills, smiling widely.
“You must finish them,” she said with great focus, enunciating every word clearly.
The girl turned to look at the doctor, who stood behind us, leaning against the reception desk. The doctor nodded her approval, adding, “Even if you feel completely better. You must complete the entire course of antibiotics. I don’t want to see you ever again, Miss Claire.”
She grinned and I accepted her conditions gladly.
Ceara and I left through the hospital’s front door and this time I walked with my own independent strides. I swung a leg over the scooter seat and squeezed my friend fiercely. Both arms.
She zoomed us to a café where I proceeded to violently inhale a mango breakfast bowl, a masala chai, a dosa, anything, everything. I hugged her whenever the heat would subside to permit me.
“Okay, so we need to fuck this town off and go somewhere new now,” I said, experiencing a wave of freakish cheeriness.
“Yes, we do.”
“Where are you feeling?”
“I still want to keep it tropicaaal… so let’s go along the coast and find our next town.”
The sky was lava as we left, mirrored perfectly by a glass ocean. Florescent orange and pink-streaked through the clouds, brightening intensely before following the sun down into the water.
I couldn’t even fathom then that I would become so perpetually enamoured with India that I would stay to travel another four months. That she would keep alluring me, intriguing me and showing off for me. I had no idea then that Ceara and I would journey through the Rajasthani desert for six weeks exploring the ancient cities that had been built into the mountains there. That we would move north, away from the heat, to the foothills of the Himalayas and spend our time immersed in the village peace of Manali and Dharamasala, drinking Old Monk rum and smoking the local hash.
After everything that had happened, all I could think then — in that tiny big moment — was an incredulous, Are you fucking kidding me with that sunset, India?