Village of the Slate

Himalayan MountainsThe Himalayas are constantly a source of surprise and intrigue and rarely if ever do they disappoint.

My experiences around India though, have led me to be wary of the sub-continents one two punch. This combination of pleasure and pain can be leveled upon you with accuracy and speed; at the most unexpected times.

No sooner are you immersed in the wonder of a colorful spectacle, completely bewildered and enchanted by one of the many cultural marvels, or simply wide-eyed at the sight of an elephant sashaying side by side with a camel in downtown Delhi, than you are dragged fighting and screaming into a state of total confusion brought on by abject poverty as you attempt to wrap your head around the latest immediate moral dilemma.

Our time in Daged would prove to be one of those times.

Veering left from the main road took us on a steep and muddy ascent into mountains. Narrow roads had at this point in the journey become familiar territory and barely an eye was batted traversing this latest one. 

Even the clay slick road with a precarious cliff to one side got little attention. The landslides, the river, and the wreckage of the less fortunate failed to make an impact…we had seen it all before.

It is the Himalayan desensitization effect at play.

What did finally grab our focus was a bridge; a bridge with a man shepherding a trio of sheep. He also had a dog; an old man with a dog and three sheep crossing a bridge in the middle of rural India.

For this we stopped and took photos, chatted a bit and laughed. He spoke no English, we spoke no Hindi or Urdu but sign language is universal.

In the early evening we entered through a large open wrought iron gate.  Dusk had begun to settle and the winding road ahead was darkened by the arch of trees cascading from either side.

The air had become moist and more akin to fog as we had climbed higher throughout the day.  Now as we reached the zenith of this portion of the journey the clouds swallowed us and an ethereal air of doom or hi-jinks, depending on your mood, seemed to lay in wait.

Perched on each side of the entry portal was a single monkey; a kind of simian sentry, watching but refusing to acknowledge us.

The hotel proved to be a Godsend; hot showers, hot meals, heaters, beer, good company, and a peaceful night’s sleep. We ate and talked all night. For part of it we occupied the hotel dining room. We were warmed by the spicy Indian cuisine on offer. For another part we were in our rooms where the clinking of glasses had become a bedtime pre-requisite.

You see right at this moment we are all very happy and completely oblivious to the fact that Punch One had just landed; that’s the punch that fills you with a cozy warm satisfied feeling in order to camouflage the underlying false sense of security.

With morning came a view and drive along mountain tops flanked on either side by white cotton candy fog. The entire country lay below us yet we could not see any of it. We were basking in the deep blue of a crystalline sky that had absorbed everything above us and as we traipsed across our high altitude mountain islands we approached the village of Daged.

After an inspection of the local health clinic, which left some in horror and all others in disbelief, we set up camp outside. Three tents pegged to the ground each catering to its own specific kind of medicine; gynecology, pediatrics, dermatology, while inside the clinic catered to general complaints and minor surgeries.

The doctor in charge of the clinic, who had proudly given us the initial tour, was a shady character at best and portrayed few of the professional qualities seen in previous village doctors.

As the morning wore on, the crowds we had come to expect began to descend upon the clinic.  A cliché it may be, but people walked for hours, through the night and over mountains, in order to be seen.

A young woman carried her son in her arms; he was frail, burnt from head to toe, and no more than five years old.  We would soon find out that no fire had caused his injuries yet the flesh covering his small body appeared to be in a state of decay.  Scabs and puss layered him; pain engulfed his cries for help.

Worse still was the expression of complete helplessness and distress authored across his mothers face. Even now, years after the fact I find emotions welling up inside me as I recall their visit and its aftermath.

Cleaning of the open wounds took hours and the excruciating pain endured by the boy was heartbreaking to all those involved.

He laid in the arms of his mother throughout the procedure but when it was over he found himself cradled by the head doctor and walked throughout the clinic; anything to take his attention from his own misery.

He was diagnosed with an extreme case of polymorphic light eruption; otherwise known as sun poisoning.  So extreme was his condition that his expectancy for continued life was minimal to the point where it was assumed he had just a matter of days to live.

The local clinic doctor, so freaked out and unraveling by this stage, confessed to his part in the original misdiagnosis. His disclosure that he was not a real doctor but more a pharmacist set off alarms among the members of our party.

There was no real doctor in the village and no real doctor in close proximity.

This small hamlet was totally isolated from the rest of the world. They all mined slate.  At every house the backyard was a quarry; increasing in size every day as the rock was removed.

Any and all illnesses were dealt with by the health center in the middle of the village by a doctor who wasn’t. The whole situation reeked; understanding how such a thing could happen seemed criminal yet we would learn that this wasn’t uncommon.

In order for a community as small and resource-less as this to obtain medications necessary to sustain life they had to put in place a person to play doctor. He would in turn complete the required government forms and be dispensed medicines. With no real training, misdiagnosis of illnesses was inevitable and this would sometimes lead to tragedy.

After learning this it came as no real shock that the village doctor, now a confessed pharmacist, was no medical professional of any kind. He had read a few books and kept some in the clinic for reference but mostly he relied on guess-work; trial and error. The cost of which, unfortunately, was about to be the life of the boy now nestled in the arms of his panic-stricken mother.

To find out how this all came about; click Beckoned Skyward by an Earthquake.

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43 thoughts on “Village of the Slate

  1. It is a shame that us westerners have access to great health care while people in third world countries have to rely on people who have no real knowledge about medicine. People like the local “doctor” certainly have my respect for doing their best in helping their fellow man.

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  2. This is so heartbreaking. I remember visiting a clinic outside of Arusha full of children that had been badly burned in open fire cooking accidents in nearby villages. Luckily in that case the clinic was run by volunteer western doctors, so I left knowing they were well cared for. Seeing this in person must have been so hard!

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    1. You are right; there was a set of circumstances here that led to the whole experience being extra difficult as once we left we knew little was going to change.

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  3. Tim, you have such a remarkable way with your stories that I really feel as if I am there and the pain of seeing those horrific conditions. I am oversensitive and think that I truly cannot visit places like that just because of how savage the conditions. It is amazing how lucky we (especially Americans) are to have the health care we have and things we take for granted.

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  4. I’ve felt the same “traveler’s guilt” when visiting Belize and Eastern Guatemala. Both the Mayan Temples and poverty were overwhelming and definitely left their mark on me. It made me realize how lucky I am to be born both when and where I was born, especially as a woman.

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  5. This story is terribly sad, and yet extremely well-written. One of those awful experiences on the road that stick with us as a reminder that not all is sunshine and rainbows, no doubt.

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  6. There are always two sides of a story.. It is sad that poverty and suffering exists in different parts of this country. But India is developing at a steady rate. Though it is extremely difficult to bring a significant change in a country as populated as this at a rapid rate, things are gradually changing for good.

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  7. I’m honestly speechless after reading this. The fact that the “pharmacist” has had to do trial and error with his patients doesn’t sit well with me at all.

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  8. It is amazing that we can just call 911 and an ambulance will be at our house. And if the ambulance were to take a long time, lets say an hour, people would be hysterical and livid. Where you were, people had to travel long distances to meet with a non-professional (not even a doctor). It really puts things in perspective. Very sad for the 5 year old boy, as well as everyone else who has to suffer through those circumstances.

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  9. You’ve captured the extremes of the country well and it invites the reader to multiply the possibilities by India’s swelling population as a way to even begin to imagine what troubles they often face. Travel posts like this matter so much because they help build empathy.

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    1. The difficult part for me, apart from the obvious, was reconciling just how good and easy we have it with them having so little. I am speaking in medical accessibility terms. The children with neurological disorders really got to me as they had no access to drugs, I know are available, that would enhance their quality of life 100 fold. All I have to do is get a prescription and have them arrive in the mail.

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  10. India certainly is a nation of extremes.This is a frightening situation offering a false sense of security. Timely as well, considering the recent devastation in Nepal and nearby regions. Thank you for sharing. I certainly feel your experience as though I am on the journey with you.

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  11. I think that many of the doctors are not much happy to go to remote areas as now the situation in Indo Pak is like for doctors. Stay in big cities and have private clinic and empty the pockets. I think there must be some dr. in that are in the files of government but for sure he/she must have taken transfer somewhere else. This gives time and space to people like this “fake Dr.” to come forward and get the benefit. I am sad for the kid. I hope that someday there will be better health care facilities.

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  12. I don’t know the entire story, but it seems the Pharmacist’s intent was honorable, he knew something about medicine, as opposed to nothing. Perhaps he couldn’t stand seeing the pain and not doing anything about it.I don’t understand why there isn’t a government program designed for lay people to be trained by physicians. Who then could go into impoverished areas and give medical care. We did it during the Viet-Nam War, the soldiers were trained for medical care to assist with the overwhelming number of injuries. In fact, that’s how the career of, “Nurse Practitioners” originated.

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    1. At the time I was, we all were, pretty upset by the “fake doctor” but you are right, he could well have had honorable intentions. That said, it is very easy to be skeptical, then and now, when in plain sight corruption appears to run rampant alongside abject poverty.

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  13. I can certainly understand why this experience remains so vivid for you Tim, the photos you’ve shared only hinting at what you must have seen during your travels. My heart aches for that mother and her child, but I am a bottom line kind a gal so my thoughts immediately went to what – if anything – would it take to bring qualified medical help to the area in an ongoing basis so there is no longer a place for this kind of ‘role playing.’ The fact that the government apparently condones this behavior through the licensing and dispensing of medicines makes me that – right or wrong – the fake doctor is as close to fulfilling that need as they are going to come anytime soon. Another lesson in how much we take for granted.

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  14. There are so many places in the world where stunning natural beauty sits side-by-side with even more stunning poverty. It is one of the things that makes me feel ambivalent about travelling in certain areas. Your story is indeed heart-wrenching, as is the knowledge that it is likely played out far more often than we would like to think.

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    1. I saw this kind of thing more than once on this trip, although this was the most heart breaking, so in a country where the population tops 1.3 billion I can only imagine how many others suffer in a similar fashion.

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  15. Thank you for sharing this. How awful it is that people are suffering like this. I have heard that the poverty in India is like no other and it lays side by side with the wealth of India. I would like to visit but do not think I am mentally prepared.

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    1. There is plenty to love about India but as with anywhere there is always another side. Travel in India definitely requires an open mind and a compassionate heart.

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  16. This is more than sad…I am actually wiping away a few tears. The worst is knowing that in so many parts of the world these conditions still exist. I can only imagine how emotional you still become, just remembering this.

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    1. This was a tough one to recount Jacquie as I wanted to be respectful as well as factual. Life in these tiny villages in the middle of nowhere is so hard that it is almost impossible to make a comparisons between their quality of life and ours. At the very least we, in the west, can realize our good fortune and view the world from that perspective.

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  17. Oh this breaks my heart, and questions abound, but I expect that if there were good answers to them, your team would not have been needed. I don’t know how you can recover from a trip like that without some lingering effects of PTSD.

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    1. I hope that the one lingering effect for anyone taking on a journey like this one is compassion. It certainly broadened even further my perspective of the world and my appreciation for the benefits we have the luxury of often taking for granted.

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  18. Tim, my heart breaks for the mother. I have often thought that the worst thing that could happen to a parent would be serious illness or loss of a child. To think the best medical care they could receive was from a totally unqualified person is so wrong. You say this is not unusual – what is wrong with us that we allow things like this to go on. You can’t blame the ‘practicing doctor’ or the villagers – they are doing the best they can but where is the World Health Organization in this and why is it functioning if things like this are allowed to go on?
    Sorry, that’s a rant but it is so wrong.

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  19. What a heartbreaking story. Knowing that this situation is not a isolated incident in our world makes it even sadder. In Canada, we often complain about our healthcare and waiting times for certain surgeries, but overall we have pretty good care from real professionals. Sad to see such inequlity in our world.

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  20. So you’ve made it all the way to Himalaya, good for you, Tim. It’s an area that I’ve long dreamed of visiting. Thanks for sharing this information

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    1. There was a little bit of guilt from me as well regarding this Jeanette. So many benefits, bestowed or non-existent, simply because of where you are born.

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