It’s not all beer and skittles.

Or whatever that means. Maybe it’s not all sunsets and snorkeling.

People talk about living in Dili as “challenging”. It always sounds like it’s in CAPITALS…you know CHALLENGING. And I guess I haven’t really felt that.

Until the slightest hint of it this week.

First on Thursday when we received a fairly regular WhatsApp message from UN Security via VSA. Often, it’s about a group of youth biffing stones at each other and to avoid the area, it’s usually pretty simple, we’re not really frequenting some of these places after dark anyway.

This time however it was to notify a serious incident, 2 dead, 3 in a serious condition in hospital, 6 houses burned down (turns out in the end it was 13!). At a village out of town and part of some reasonably regular violence from one of the martial arts gangs (MAGS)

As many as 90,000 people belong to martial arts groups or gangs. Set up by Jakarta to foster patriotism and then as cells of resistance, these gangs see their roles as mostly about welfare and protection and it’s suggested that only a small number are involved in violence and criminal activity.

Unlike gangs in New Zealand who are easily recognizable by their patches, it’s relatively hard to see the difference between a group of guys hanging out on the corner by the Mall, and an active MAG spoiling for trouble.

About 40 minutes away is just far enough away to not be considered beyond a sense of “god, that’s a bit of a worry.” But then the next couple of messages came over the weekend. “Police released tear gas for warning shots.” “Convoys carrying the body of the late Mr X…traffic congestion and delays may occur” “Take alternate routes”.  Disruptions and potential violence around the moving of bodies and the holding of funerals in Dili. In places we go frequently, places we recognise. In our local streets.

It all passed. Everything was fine. It was a prod though to not get too comfortable, too soft in the middle.

Then Mark went to bed in pain on Sunday. His usual robust stillness gave way to silence and fidgeting. I resisted making too many jokes. I seem to have this perverse thing about trying to ease the situation by making completely inappropriate comments. My children tell me that if there was such a thing, then I would have the opposite of “Munchausen’s by proxy”. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I’d rather you made less FUSS. Secretly I think I’d most admire the person who, dangling severed leg gushing blood, says oh this, just a scrape.

He looked at me with his big brown pain filled eyes and said “don’t be cruel”. Stabbed through my seemingly uncaring heart!! I ratcheted up my inner nurse (and not the one in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and soothed him as best I can. I’m actually pretty good at the old bedside manner, plenty of fluids, the gently cluck clucking while plumping pillows, the cool hand on the fevered brow. When he started to vomit I thought, now that’s something he can do on his own and left him to it. I muttered so quietly he couldn’t hear above the retching,” good thing men don’t have babies” as I closed the toilet door behind me.

Things didn’t improve. We had a slightly heated discussion that went something like this.

Him “It’s just a kidney stone”

Me “you’ve got a medical degree then, could be an infection”

Him “I know my body”

Me “you’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata”

Essentially in his weakened state he had to bow to my greater nagging…threats mainly that if I had to go with him to be medevac’d out cos he was too stubborn to get something sorted then there would be some serious consequences…aka I would throw my toys.

You see it’s not that easy. At about 3am when things always look their grimmest I got to thinking about what we’d do next. There’s no real ambulance service. We’ve been told to avoid the hospital at all costs. 50% of people who go in, never come out! There’re no taxis after dark. I imagined poking him onto the back of my scooter and tying his limp body on with bungies. There is a 24hour clinic, frequented by malae and endorsed for use. You ring them, and they meet you at the door. You hope that what’s on the other side of the door resembles modern medicine. And there is support through VSA with a vehicle and experience and a wealth of knowledge. But nothing EASY. Nothing straightforward. I had sent a txt one of our friends earlier and said don’t turn your phone off, I may need you. I felt slightly disoriented by my need to do that. I’ve always taken care of everything, all the emergencies, all the time.

He suffered through the night, mainly in silence (with the odd plaintive whimper) and topped up and stupefied by a liberal handful of drugs that I had brought with me from New Zealand. Some eye wateringly strong voltaren and some codeine.

Dawn saw us awake and pacing. At 9 am we went to the clinic. Checked in, we’d already registered and almost immediately he was triaged through a couple of nurses, blood pressure, pulse, height, weight etc. Back out to the waiting area, barely sat down and called to the doctor.

She ordered bloods, urine, poked around on his tummy and his back. Asked all the questions. Thorough. Quick.

Back out to waiting area, called again. To the lab tech who took all samples and said mā te wā as we left. We noticed her pounamu and asked, she’d been in New Zealand for 3 months finishing some training.

“Come back at 2pm. Results in then.”

It seems we can both be right (who knew? This could be the answer to a long and happy marriage). Likely a kidney stone AND an infection.

There’s one antibiotic he can take. It’s strong. A sledgehammer. And no codeine in the country, anywhere. Maybe Tramadol or an antispasmodic. But that’s it. The choices appear to be, take these, or take nothing.

The clinic is also the dispensing pharmacy and we leave with 2 little plastic bags of pills. I get him home and caution him to actually do as he’s told, take the pills, drink the water, rest. I think the pills in his hand have sobered him. He knows it’s not so easy to just take another type of antibiotic, or get an urgent scan, or see a specialist. He knows it’s not so easy to be sick in this country.

Post Script (5 days later)

In which I eat my words.

Things don’t quite go to plan. By Friday he is no better, he’s in bed and I’m sneakily googling clinic open hours so come Saturday morning when I ask what’s up and he says “I’ll go see the Dr on Monday” I say, oh how about we go this morning, I think they’re open.

We leave with a new antibiotic, tramadol and a letter of referral for a scan and an appointment if necessary with a urologist. I’m prepared to say I was wrong on all 3 of the counts above.

The other clinic is just up the road. The receptionist reads the letter, looking worried she says, oh I am very sorry you’ll have to come back later. I imagine getting a scan in New Zealand, I anticipate a long wait. She says, 8.30 tonight you come, I will ring the doctor now.

 A member of staff sits with us in the waiting room, it’s very comforting. She uses a translation app on her phone to tell us one patient has taken very long but we will be seen soon.

The scan itself is thorough, the doctor explains everything, shows us everything, takes his time. It’s so unlike anything I’ve had at home. He encourages us to sit beside him while he writes up his notes, which he reads aloud and asks for questions. He pops the images onto a data stick and shakes Mark’s hand with a final “may God bless you” as we leave.

It’s $55.00.

Monday, he is much improved. The trip to Darwin and “better” medicine fades into the distance.

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