Please God, Don’t Let Me Die
“Uncle David was sick, sick, sick. All over a bus, a doctor’s office and a police station.”
–From a postcard to my niece, Lindsay Mindlin.
Until I took this trip I’d never heard of Bukittinngi, Yogyakarta or many of the other places I’d visited, so it still strikes me as odd that each week was filled with quests to see them. Bukit Lawang’s Orang-utan Rehabilitation Center is the perfect example. Although I’d never read about the place where orang-utans were trained to survive in the wild after years in captivity, I’d heard such good things about the place I just had to go. The only thing that stood in my way was an overnight bus trip to Medan, the island’s capital city, another eight-hour ride, a steep half-hour hike and, possibly, even a boat ride across a river.
Have I mentioned that nothing is simple in Indonesia and that you just can’t get there from here?
In an effort to avoid another Bukittinggi Bus Ride to Hell experience, I booked a bus with all the frills including air conditioning and soft seats. At the time, I thought I was fortunate to get the last seat on the overnight bus. Now, however, I’m not so sure it wasn’t more misfortune than good fortune.
The plan seemed to be working in the early going. What would have been a hot, muggy ride in a cramped bus with bad ventilation was quite enjoyable. It wasn’t perfectly smooth, but what can you expect in Sumatra’s mountainous terrain. It was also extremely beautiful with views of terraced rice fields and scenic overlooks so close it seemed the bus could easily tumble off the road and into the valleys below. We were white-knuckling it all the way, and I was enjoying every minute.
Then came the inevitable dinner stop, which, as always, passed without comment from the driver. He got off the bus and everyone followed even though he had stopped several times before and no one had moved. It’s almost as if being able to tell what kind of stop it was were some genetically encoded trait or cultural intelligence that everyone on the bus had except me because I’m Caucasian and didn’t have the sense that god gave Indonesians who always seemed to know when the driver was stepping out for a smoke, bathroom break or dinner even though he never announced it. Not that I would have been able to understand what he would have said if he had, but I could have asked someone else what the driver had said. Whether I would have been able to understand them is another question.
Since there was no toilet on the bus, I don’t know what possessed me to get dinner. Perhaps it was my newfound understanding of Padang food. After all, just the day before I had learned I didn’t need to order anything, just pick out what I wanted from a series of dishes, eat it and then pay my bill based on what was missing. A menu probably would have been more efficient but, hey, this system predated the Guttenburg printing press, so who am I to say anything? Regardless, I chose rice, hot tea and a spicy mystery meat I hoped was chicken.
And I was so cool.
Because I was an Anglo who didn’t need a menu.
Then the bus driver got up from his table, setting off a chain of events that made me feel decidedly less suave. Since I was worried he was returning to the bus and might leave without me, I began to panic. In my panic I ate faster until I accidentally swallowed a large chunk of the mystery meat and felt it lodge in my esophagus.
No problem, I figured, this has happened to me many times. All I need is a drink of water or hot tea and that will dislodge it. Unfortunately, the solution doesn’t always work right away. When I was in a Thai restaurant with a friend the year before a piece of chicken held on for 20 minutes, in Auckland an item from an Italian restaurant hung in there for 30 minutes.
When the food doesn’t go down right away, my body shifts into overdrive to sort out the problem and the pain is tremendous. Although I’ve never had a heart attack, it is the only thing that I can compare it to. My heart speeds up, my body shakes, indigestion builds, giving way to an excruciatingly painful burp-hiccough combination that racks my whole frame as my digestive system tries to force the invader on down the line.
Once the burp-ups start I’m afraid to drink anything because whatever liquid I’ve been drinking isn’t getting through and I worry about the possibility of drowning in my own fluids. It may seem irrational to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but once the burp-ups start, whatever I’ve had to drink backs up and the threat seems alarmingly real. Then my esophagus suddenly clears, all is right with the world, and I’ve successfully dodged another bullet.
This crisis has happened so often, I don’t get upset or clench up the way I used to during my first attacks. I quickly learned there’s nothing worse than tensing up because it makes it so much more difficult to free lodged food. Now, I’m calm and the problem clears up quickly.
Not this time, though.
The hot tea didn’t work, the cold coke was ineffective and warm water was no use at all. By now, I’d swallowed so much liquid and so much saliva had gone down my esophagus I was sure I was going to drown. Then the burp-ups started as my system tried to force the chicken chunk free. The more I burped, the more my chest hurt. The more my chest hurt, the more I tensed. The more I tensed, the less chance I had of a speedy recovery. Twenty minutes passed then 30 and 40.
“Thank God for long bus stops!” I said to myself because I knew the extra-long layover would allow my body to repair itself. It was a good thing, too, because I was traveling through Sumatra after dark, Medan was more than eight hours away and I was afraid to get on the bus on the off chance the problem might devolve into an emergency and I would be nowhere near a hospital. At the end of the hour, however, I had to choose between the uncertainty of waiting at a small bus stop in the middle of who knows where or taking a chance with a bus to a big city. I don’t know why, but I opted for the latter.
By then the vomiting had started (if you call regurgitation of liquids vomiting, that is), and so had the praying.
I prayed to God to let me live. I prayed to my dad, my maternal grandparents, an uncle, my great uncles and great aunts, a friend who had committed suicide years before, another who died of AIDS and even George Burns.
And then I boarded the bus and tried to stay calm. After all, I had a seat near a window and could lean out and vomit any time I wanted. Everything went well until the burp-ups started with a vengeance. I was tempted to ask the driver to stop at a hospital, but the feeling passed when I spit-up out the window at 40 miles per hour.
The next round was so much worse that I told the couple next to me I needed a doctor, but they didn’t understand English. They didn’t know the word doctor, either. Vomiting eased the pressure, but the attacks were more frequent. As I expanded my appeal for help it quickly became apparent no one understood English and that I was going to die alone because I couldn’t find my phrasebook.
When the bus driver stopped for petrol, I knew I had a chance of surviving the crisis. My hope dimmed when I realized the driver and the filling station employees didn’t understand a stick of English, either. Fortunately, they found a passenger who spoke some English to talk to the driver. He got directions to the nearest hospital and sprinted the next 15 miles to safety.
Unfortunately, the hospital’s hours of operation ended at 8 p.m. and it was 9 p.m.
There was a doctor another kilometer down the road, however. When I finally got to his office I was relieved to discover that he spoke English because my phrasebook was AWOL. Sadly, he didn’t know what an esophagus was.
“You’re not sick, you’re not sick, you’re not sick,” he kept telling me after checking my vitals.
“Yes, but I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” I told him.
Be that as it may, he gave me a shot of analgesic, wrote me a prescription, and then sent a boy to the local equivalent of an all night drug store to get it. The drugs cost 9,000 rupiah or about $4.50, the delivery fee was 11,000 rupiah. Sadly, I was afraid to take the pills because each seemed to be the size of a golf ball and I was vomiting so much I didn’t think I could hold them down.
At this point I thought it would be good to call my parents and let them know I was having problems. I figured my mom might be able to give me some useful advice to get me out of the fix I was in. Failing that, I would at least be able to tell her where to go to pick up my body. To my great frustration, I couldn’t get an operator because I didn’t know what number to dial. Apparently, dialing “0” does not work in Indonesia.
That’s when the police came and took me into custody. As Robin Leach would say, “I don’t know why.”
The officers took me to the police station, walked me to a room with a desk, pulled out a bench and told me to lie down and rest. I couldn’t, though, because I was in too much pain to lay on my back. By now, I was so far off the map of most traveler’s experience that I didn’t know whether they were going to start making me chicken soup, pull out the rubber hoses and start beating me or read my Carmen Miranda Rights (“You have the right to meringue. You have the right to wear fruit on your head, should you not be able to afford fruit, some will be picked for you….”).
Instead, they launched into the national dialogue of Indonesia, which goes something like this (with the first word said in a singsong voice):
Where you from?
What’s your name?
How old are you?
Are you married?
Why are you not married?
Where’s your friend?
Why do you travel this country by yourself if you do not know the language?
As each beat officer came off the street, the process began again: Hello. Where you from? What’s your name…
When it began to look like I was going to vomit again, they showed me where to go: a stoop toilet behind the station or a planter out front. I’m still puzzled why the police would want me to lose my lunch in the flowerbeds, but as a wise man on a train once said, “It’s Indonesia.”
Since I assumed the police had taken me to the station to allow me to use the phone, I asked to do so. They told me I wouldn’t get through, but I didn’t believe them because I had an AT&T access code for calls from the island. Of course, they were right and the know-it-all me was wrong. So they had a pecak (motorized bike with passenger side saddle) take me to a wartel (privately owned phone office where you pay through the nose to make phone calls). When I got there I discovered the owner had turned off the line to the United States and said it wouldn’t be possible to call America until the morning. This baffled me. After all, how does one turn off a phone line? It’s not like he reeled in a trans-oceanic phone line and would have to have someone to pull it back out in the morning. It was a matter of flipping a switch. Frustrated beyond words, I exacted the only revenge I could under the circumstances: I threw up in his parking lot.
To make matters worse, the pecak ran out of gas on the way back to the police station.
Apparently, word of my presence had spread throughout the neighboring villages because every taxi driver within a five county radius and anyone else who was still up by at 3 a.m. came to see me and talk to me. Between heaves. I can only imagine what the locals said about me: COME, SEE THE HEAVING AMERICAN! HE WALKS, HE TALKS, HE LIGHTS CIGARETTES AT A THOUSAND FEET, TOUCH HIM IF YOU DARE!
The rest of the evening was a veritable festival of vomiting interspersed with visits from losmen owners who said I should stay with them, even though I couldn’t lie down. Then the bus station contingent wanted me to stay at the depot until the next bus came. Both groups claimed the police wanted me to stay with them. When I asked the cop sitting next to me if this was true, he shrugged. The police didn’t seem to much care what I did even though I was vomiting all over the station.
Not every traveler can pinpoint the exact moment when they knew they had had enough of a particular country, but I can. It was when I had just vomited on the driveway as a police officer from the next shift arrived on the scene. The closer he got, the more official he looked until I was convinced he must be the chief of police and I was in deep trouble. In fact, I still had a bit of vomit dripping from my nose and was about to wipe it away when this meanest, nastiest-looking of all the village’s constabulary looked at me angrily, then got into my face as he prepared to deliver what I was sure was a lengthy lecture.
“Great, he’s the commanding officer and I’m in deep shit now,” I thought to myself.
No such luck.
Instead, I heard his authoritative voice say, “Hel-lo. Where you from?….
As far as the police were concerned, the great esophagus siege of 1996 ended when they diverted the next bus and had it pick me up as it passed through town at 4 a.m. I can’t say when it ended for me because I fell asleep as soon as I hit the seat and the blockage was gone when I arrived in Medan shortly after dawn.