It all started on a Sunday afternoon in the sleepy Guyanese village of Hiawa, a small farming community near the Brazil/Guyana border.

It was the Divali Day long weekend, an annual Hindu holiday dedicated to celebrating the return of the Supreme Being Lord Rama after 14 years in exile.

In the past 72 hours my nine fellow volunteer teachers and I had butchered a cow carcass with a blunt knife, catered a wedding, tested various local foods and beverages and danced a night away to a mix of 1980’s American pop and Brazilian dance music.

It was perhaps inevitable that one of us would come down unfavourably from the weekend.

Pain in the neck

Every muscle below my neck began to seize up and lose feeling at around one that afternoon and I fell into delirium. As my body temperature soared above 40°C someone called the ambulance, but was informed that it couldn’t come because it was out of petrol. Next we tried our neighbour’s city-living nephew, Sean, who along with his day job of illegally smuggling drugs and alcohol across the Brazilian and Venezuelan borders, ran a taxi service of sorts.

Sean turned up in his decrepit four wheel drive at around five that evening and, as we careered in the vague direction of the regional hospital, he nonchalantly mentioned that he had downed six or seven Venezuelan beers that afternoon. He then tried to sell me some weed.

Cuban love doctor

Awaiting us at the hospital was a young Cuban doctor dressed in board shorts and a singlet and a nurse in dirty whites. The nurse lay me down on a dusty bed and hooked me up to saline and non-descript anti-nausea drips while the doctor offered Felicity, my friend and chaperone to thehospital, a bed in his house for the night. She declined and took the chair next to my bed, to stand guard.

I awoke several times throughout the night to notice, among other things, a pig foraging in the courtyard and a stray cat hunting down a mouse under my bed. At one point in the night, when a Guyanese patient was crying out in pain, Felicity went in search of the nurse, but in her travels found herself stumbling into the unlocked hospital mortuary, distinctive by the long stainless steel mortician’s table. She finally found the nurse slumbering in her office.

Dodgy diagnosis

The next morning I awoke and turned down breakfast; a can of baked beans that was two years out of date, and waited for a blood test. The blood test was to happen “just now”, the doctor said at 8am; Guyanese lingo for anytime at all. Just now happened at around midday and the results were back in an “easy” Guyanese hour at 2.30pm.

The Cuban doctor announced in faltering English that all of the results he understood were normal but he didn’t know what one part of them meant, and that maybe it was hepatitis.

He went to ask the technician.

So I lay down, light-headed, thinking the thoughts of someone just told they “maybe” have a life-threatening illness, while the doctor talked to the technician. A half hour later the technician came over smiling. “Okay, you are all clear. You can leave just now if you want.” 
It would have taken a lot to stop me.