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.