Stories from the field represent a series of remembrances from over a million miles on the road.
There I was, there I was, there I was- Laos. This was my first mission to Laos and I did not know what to expect. All I knew was that Laos had the dubious distinction of being the country that has had the most bombs dropped on it without ever being in a war. Yes the US dropped the bombs trying to disrupt the Viet Cong supply lines during the Vietnam War. The Laotians have not forgotten. In rural villages and midsized towns it is not unusual to see displays of unexploded ordinance.
Broke a Car
So there I was on a mission for the Global Fund to Fight AIDs, TB, and Malaria. On the fateful day we were traveling through the Khammouane region going to see a program that supports ARV distribution in a small town outside of Savannakhet. The countryside was rife with majestic mushroom shaped mountains and monkeys. There was not a paved road in sight. As usual I asked to sit in the front seat to shoot some photos. On past trips I used to think that when I asked to sit in the front I was taking the best seat away from the Senior Doctor. Later I found out that the Senior Doctor was obligated to sit in this seat but really did not want to. The Doctors knew that the seat is the most unprotected seat in the event of a crash. Now I know that when I ask to sit there I am actually doing the Doctor a favor. Fun Fact: What is the number one cause of death and injury for NGO workers? Car crashes.
We are traveling in one of those Toyota vans that have the front wheels right under the front seats. Our route sent us down a really rough dirt road. Within an hour there was a big crack and the van came to an abrupt stop. We all got out and the driver jacked up the car. The axel had broken. He put it on his shoulder and started to walk down the road. Now I am thinking as the driver fades into the distance that there goes the shoot. Two hours later he comes walking back puts the axel back on. Amazing. The guys now make me sit in back.
Broke a House
When we got to the village a large crowd gathers. Often in these cases I am the first 6’2” (devilishly handsome) white guy that the village kids have seen. Some run away, but most kids with a combination of fear and bravado try to get close. As I walk through the village the crowd grows larger. By the time we got to the house we were to visit I think half the village was following. Now in these villages the houses are elevated off the ground. Underneath are the animals- mostly pigs that conveniently eat the food scraps and garbage that is thrown down there. So I climb the bamboo ladder to the front porch. To enter the house every one is required to remove his shoes. So there I am 190lbs with a 40lb back pack on standing on one foot to get my shoe off and the floorboards give way. I end up supported by my elbows with my feet dangling below. To add insult to injury the backpack has ridden up my back and is now on top of my head. I cannot move- except my feet- which after 8 days in the same shoes the pigs have taken particular interest in- so I am waving them around. The village erupts in laughter. After a bit they haul me out and we finish the shoot.
Broke a Temple
Next up is a visit to a PSI program that promotes malaria awareness by bringing a theatre to small villages. Their truck shows up in a rural village in the morning and videotapes the village head person, the village health outreach worker talking about malaria. They have a simple editing suite in the back of the van and insert the footage they just shot into a larger video about malaria. Now there are no multiplexes in these villages so when they put up the portable movie screen turnout is big. When the villagers see their neighbors in the movie their attention to the messaging goes up and the credibility of the health workers is enhanced. This night the screen has been set up at the village temple. The turnout is high. But the screen is so big I cannot get the crowd, the screen, and the temple in one shot. So, in my wisdom, I decide to climb to the top of the temple gate to get some perspective on the scene. Everyone is worried but ‘yo soy gato’ and I make it to the top no problem. I spend some time, get the shot, take in the beautiful countryside, and decide to head down. As I ease over the edge I grab one of the beautiful carved flames that are on the four corners of the top of the entry gate. It breaks off in my hand. I panic because now all my colleagues are staring up into the night worried that I am going to fall. I am far enough up that they cannot see what has happened so I carefully place the flame back and continue down. Once on the ground everyone is relieved. I start to brag that it was no problem and everything went fine. And as soon as I utter those words the broken flame lands with a large thump right next to my feet.
So after the temple incident (and with the contributing factor alluded to earlier of 8 days in 100 degree heat in the same shoes) that night I come down with grade A, number 1 foot rot. Buddha’s revenge for messing with the temple. ‘No problem’ I say because I am traveling on the last day back to Vientiane with doctors. They will know what to do. Eight in the morning one toe affected. Nine in the morning 2 toes affected. Doctors talking a lot amongst themselves. Roadside pharmacy stop. Ointment applied. Eleven AM 3 toes effected- it’s aggressive. Ointment is suspected of being counterfeit which is often the case in developing countries. Noon second ointment applied. Three PM 4 toes effected and itching. Six PM on the plane with two tubes of counterfeit ointment for the 38-hour ride home. Not much sleep. Counting toes every few hours to make sure they are still attached. If anyone is worried I can still count to 20.