Three Continent Disease Conversations

Sembilan. Three Continent Disease Conversations

“Cholera is not that serious. You can cure it easily.

“And I heard that they just cut a hole under your arse so they don’t have to keep changing the sheets.”

A small silence then, “They have Cholera here, don’t they?”

Three travellers sat in a coconut grove. Ryan, newly arrived from Brisbane was at the beginning of an 18 month walkabout and probably knew the answer. But it was a conversation starter.

He was lying at the feet of Léon and as he stared up and through the thin reed palm leaves at the blue sky beyond, he sipped his Coke through a straw.

Léon leant back against the curve of his tree. Through the same leaves, the sun flicked a speckled light back.

Ryan continued. “Cholera’s the one where you shit yourself to death, isn’t it?”

He looked over at the third traveller, Bjorn who was reclining in a pink and orange striped hammock that was slung low between two more palms.

Bjorn, who had worked in San Diego for a year, but who grew up in Gothenburg affected the American perspective.

“Yeah man, you just can’t drink enough for the amount you shit,” he said with an air of authority. “You get totally dehydrated.”

Ryan looked up from his postcard.

“Is there anything left of that?” he pointed to the roach in Léon’s hand. Léon had bought the dope. It didn’t make sense because his English was limited, but then again he was the one who wanted it the most.

As Ryan said, Léon was the first Belgian he’d ever met who had a vice… Though Léon disagreed.

Léon leant forward from the tree and held out the stub. “Did you have the vaccine?”

“No,” Bjorn replied.

Bjorn took the roach and sucked up the smoke, held it in his cheeks, and puffed it out as if he was blowing a trumpet. He exhaled sharply, a fast exhalation, a whistle. “In California, they said it was only 50% effective.”

“What was only 50% effective?” Ryan asked.

“Cholera vaccinations,” reiterated Bjorn. “And expensive…”

“Yeah, but what do you mean by Cholera vaccinations being only 50% effective?” Ryan repeated.

“What do mean: ‘what do you mean’?”

“I mean,” Ryan began, “I mean that, say you have two Cholera water drinks then you’ve got it. Or… Is it just effective against 50% of the different types of Cholera?” Then his words faded out.

“Are there different types?” Bjorn answered.

“Anyway, I was told it’s better to have the vaccination,” Ryan continued, “I was told it was only 20% effective… And what Cholera is here anyway?”

“So why did you bother with it, if you were told it was only 20% effective?” Bjorn turned to Léon to return the roach but decided to stub it into the sand instead. He kicked the sand so that its white and grey ashy remains were covered. “And the likelihood of anyone getting Cholera here is remote… You’d have to be extremely unhealthy, undernourished, weak…”

“Well, I thought I would make it,” Léon explained, “…and with Typhoid. No money.”

“Talking of Typhoid…” Bjorn nodded towards a point through the trees. In the distance, a small boy was bent over a well. The boy pulled at a large aluminium bucket and lowered it to the ground.

“That’s what you call Cholera, not Typhoid,” said Ryan.

Bjorn sat up from his hammock. “You can get Typhoid from the water too, man!”

“I got the stomach cramps from taking Chloroquine,” Ryan stressed.

“And I started losing my hair!” Bjorn pushed his fingers through his unwashed blonde tangle to emphasise the point.

Léon interjected.

“Papaya fruit seeds are good contre les merdes.”

“I wasn’t getting shits man, and anyway it was the fucking antimalarials,” barked Bjorn.

Ryan laughed. “Or old age?”

“No, it was the antimalarials!”

“Or… it could even be the virility, but I doubt that.” Ryan teased.

There was a lull in the conversation, that Ryan had to fill.

“In Merapi I had the shits. We were at the bottom of the volcano headed back to the town on an open plain, nowhere to hide, and I just dropped my pants right there… Like the volcano was dormant but me? Not me. I exploded!”

Then, in a quieter voice, “But instead of the usual jimmies I felt something stuck, like I had to pull it out my arse. It must have been 6 inches or more, a measuring tape. Pulled it out with my hand one inch at a time, a tapeworm, I think it was. Tossed it away before looking at it.”

Bjorn laughed, then in an official-sounding voice he announced, “More Typhoid water!”

Léon joined in. “To wash the Cholera fruits,”

“Or the dysentery vegetables,” added Ryan, as he propped himself up on both elbows. “I read that with all these vaccinations and things against all these tropical diseases, none of them work, we aren’t really covered against any of them…”

“Well that doesn’t surprise me,” replied Bjorn.

“… There some really wild diseases as well. Like there’s one that isn’t a disease as such. It’s in fact, a worm. And not just a tapeworm… And this worm, once it gets into your system eats all your flesh, not the blood or the skin or the bones, just the fleshy bits…”

“Oh yes?”

“… Yes, and once all the flesh is eaten there’s nothing left… Apart, of course, from the skin, and the blood, and the bones. So you end up… A walking bag of blood, bone, and no material.” Ryan inched back against a small mound of coconut husks.

“Oh yes? So what’s it called, this worm?” Bjorn asked.

“Oh, I don’t remember… It began with a B, I think.”

“Bilharzhoea?” Bjorn suggested.

“No…”

“Beri-beri?”

“That’s not a worm.”

“Bacillic dysentery?”

“No,” Ryan stressed again.

“Botchelism?”

“And Baileys!” Ryan laughed. “Come on… It’s a worm.”

“Well take two Tylenol, I don’t know,” Bjorn replied.

Léon interrupted them once more.

Oubliez tout ça!”

He leant back against the palm tree for effect. “We sit on paradise island but talk of diseases!”

The three travellers watched the small boy drag the bucket of water back to the hut. Ryan lay back in the sand and Bjorn arched his back against the taut folds of the hammock. They stared up through the palm leaves. Léon lit a cigarette.

Just then, so it happened, they heard the crack of a branch, high above, the wood snapping like elastic and a coconut falling with a heavy breath on the ground that sent a spray of sand over each of them. The newly fallen coconut lay on its side in the centre of the circle.

Bjorn looked over at Léon and Ryan.

“Anyone for coconut milk?” he muttered.


Oh! how many more disease conversations? On the islands, the most common form of accidental death, after cars, was death by falling coconut… But what a way to go!
Photos include temple grounds in Penang and frisbee on Tioman Island.

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