Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vientiane Ear Ache

When I went to University, there was a girl who lived in my residence with freckles and brown hair. She never said much , preferring instead to haunt the halls with a permanently forlorn look on her face. She was utterly forgettable, neither especially kind nor fun to be around. In fact, I am quite certain she would have been lost forever in the jumble of my college memories except that one day she over-heard me complain bitterly about an ear-ache. Quite suddenly, she awoke from her brooding gloom, walked across the room and stared at me unsympathetically. With a deep frown, while unleashing the mother of all sighs, she announced:

"Ear aches are a real bitch."

Perhaps she had once said something else to me, but I can't for the life of me recall what. She was a girl of few words, but it was clear to me then that those select few utterances she permitted herself to make, were statements full of deep and penetrating truth. I can think of nobody in the world more qualified than her to put forth this insight, and with such forcefully cogent prose. For surely there is no common ailment more soul-destroying than a bad ear-ache.

It is not often in my life that I get an ear ache, but whenever I do, I am doomed forever to think of her. And so, as I sat in Vientiane, the gloriously understated capital of the forgotten backwater of Laos, nursing a throbbing ear, a cold coffee, and a week-old Bangkok Post newspaper, my thoughts turned, once again, to that poor girl.

This particular infection found its way into my outer ear after penetrating an immune system devastated by the combined forces of a day-long white water kayaking trip, a spot of cliff jumping, and a miserable four-hour ride through the monsoons in the back of a "Laotian mini-van": basically a second-hand tuk-tuk covered in a dirty bed sheet- an arrangement that is about as water-resistant as it sounds.

Katlijn, shivering in the rain, as we kayaked south through the rapids towards the capital.

Pronounced "Wieng Chan" by the locals, and we can thank the French for the abominable transliteration, "Vientiane" is the curious anti-capital of Laos. Paradoxically mixing a small-town easy-going ambiance, with a worldly array of influences spanning Lao people, Buddhist monks, French food, Vietnamese businessmen, American music, and Soviet-era communist propaganda, it is apparently one of the fastest growing cities in Asia. This tumultuous cultural mix and chaotic growth into a capitalist future, however, felt somehow distant and unimportant strolling down its pleasant tree-lined boulevards devoid of any trace of hustle or bustle. Either that, or my swollen ear canal had rendered me half deaf.

Katlijn spots perhaps the country's only decent hog on the streets of Vientiane.

Unable to find the Australian clinic described in our guide book as the only viable alternative to an airplane ticket for Bangkok, I had to come to grips with the daunting prospect of having my ear examined in a third-world medical facility. Vientiane's city hospital lived up to its reputation: a colourless 1960s communist-inspired cement building; its unkept floor sparsely haunted by a sordid variety of bandaged patients and creepy medical gadgets. We found our way through the dimly lit halls to their top ear and throat specialist: a short Laotian chain-smoker with a faint French accent he must have picked up in medical school. Ignoring the "No smoking" sign posted above his head, he lit up a cigarette and motioned me inside.

Through the thick carcinogenic mist that shrouded his tiny office, I could make out a cluttered desk piled with out-dated French medical journals and a single anatomical ear poster festering off the back wall. As he examined me, I heard him whisper faintly into my swollen ear "oh... mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu..." punctuated by an impressed whistle.

He quickly popped in front of me, and exclaimed with eagerness "we see what we can do, non ?" With that, he put his cigarette down, dived behind his desk, and began rummaging frantically through the drawers. Moments later, he popped back in front of me with a long rusty rod hooked up to a large retro electronic control system, and a turkey baster.

"We start with this, non ?"

With an odd surge of relief, I saw him motion towards the turkey baster rather than the rusty rod. Only in Laos could the prospect of having your infection treated with a harmless kitchen implement be interpreted as good news. Regardless of whether or not my ear actually benefited from a good basting, certainly the antibiotics he gave me afterwards proved effective.

Happy to have survived another Laotian medical appointment and feeling myself finally on the road to recovery, Katlijn and I celebrated that evening in one of Vientiane's fine restaurants. Shortly after the second world war, in a master stroke of utter genius, the Laotians kicked out all the French people in their country but kept their French cuisine. Perhaps not surprisingly, the same cannot be said of American fast-food franchises which are now banned in most parts of Communist Indochina. This, of course, is all good news: it might be possible to find superior French food in Paris, but only here could you enjoy it for the cost of a happy meal. Dollar for dollar, Vientiane is certainly one of the world's finest gastronomical centers.

I sank my teeth into a supremely grilled salmon bathed in mustard sauce. Within moments, my ear ache seemed to have faded away, and along with it, that poor freckled girl from my dorm was once again banished to a remote place in my distant memory.