All adventurous travelers seek to escape their everyday reality and get swept off their feet by the unusual and the exotic — but sometimes it happens in ways they don’t expect. For example, when you’re having a perfect day at the beach and some unknown creature decides to sting your foot, which starts swelling up like a balloon, with the nearest hospital 50 kilometers away. Eddie recounts how his concept of ‘first aid’ changed for good during his trip to Sri Lanka.
I’m pretty sure I’m not a hypochondriac. Really, I’m not. Of course, when I travel, I take some basic medicine with me, just to make sure I don’t run into problems that could slow me down. It’s usually just a bit of Ibuprofen, Aulin, antihistamines, paracetamol, something against mosquitoes (to prevent a problem), tablets against malaria (to treat said problem), arnica for inflammations, sunscreen (to prevent a problem), Aloe Vera cream (to treat said problem) — and that’s most of it, really.
I’m just a control freak who lives up to the name — as well-organized as can be. Everything necessary has to be packed for the trip; you can never be prepared enough. But, as my grandmother told me, you’re never prepared enough anyway — and it’s true. Something always happens that I hadn’t foreseen, thwarting all my careful preparations, so I have to stock up on some new medicine or remedy. And this, of course, becomes a necessary item on the packing list for all future trips.
But sometimes, mainstream medicine simply can’t cut it. Especially when your survival kit doesn’t cover exotic animal bites, and there isn’t any pharmacy or hospital within 50 km. Times like these are perfect for unconventional medicine to come in and do the job the other couldn’t. Sounds great — but where can you even get alternative medicine if you’re stuck on a faraway remote beach?
Fortunately, in Sri Lanka, Ayurveda, which for us would be a form of ‘alternative medicine’, is simply the mainstream one: pharmacies are nothing but small-town shops full of herbs of local and ancestral lore. And the hospitals in smaller towns are nothing but the homes of the doctors themselves, whose job is to care not only for the body, but also for the balance of body and spirit, according to the holistic principles of this ancient practice.
In a country with a social fabric untouched by time, where traditions have deep roots, and where the beaches are small paradises blessed by bountiful Nature, it’s not hard to get a bit distracted. How distracted, you ask? Enough for some mysterious creature — I still have no idea what it was — to stick some sharp body part (I still have no idea what that was) in the sole of my right foot. Two minutes later, I realized I had to kiss my idyllic sunset at the beach goodbye, as my foot started to change its shape and size. A dozen children abandoned their cricket match to come help, and to offer me ideas and remedies.
But these ideas and remedies sadly remained a mystery to me, due to a slight communication problem: I don’t actually speak any Sinhala. Frustrated at not being able to express myself, and in the grip of a growing pain, I found some solace in the company of two Spanish lifeguards on their holiday, who had happened to be on the same beach. But still, I had no luck — their first aid seminar hadn’t actually covered treating bites from mysterious exotic animals. It dawned on me that the only solution was to get myself to a hospital. Sure, but where?
First thing to do: figure out where was the nearest hospital. Second thing to do: start praying that it would be in decent condition, clean and with English-speaking staff. As I frantically tried to piece together bits of information from the various bystanders, all looking on with curiosity, sympathy and concern at the spectacle of my deformed foot, the realization struck me that my only hope of salvation was located 50 km from the beach. It seemed just a little too far away, given the unpaved roads, the tuk-tuk as the only means of transport and the foot infection that was already spreading up to my ankle.
Just as the bystanders were helping me climb the rickety three-wheeled frame of the tuk-tuk to start me on my long and bumpy journey, an elderly gentleman, looking eerily similar to my grandpa (or how he’d look if there were a Sri Lankan version of him, of course), gave my foot a quick look and insisted on taking me to see a friend of his who’d be able to help me. What to do?
With my leg already reminding me of the Elephant Man, the runaway infection and the possibility that I wouldn’t arrive at the hospital in time to save my suffering limb, I decided to trust in the kindness of my Sri-Lankan grandpa, who was offering me the quicker solution. After a mercifully short two-street tuk-tuk journey (as walking was all but impossible), we arrived to see the man I can only call ’the village sorcerer who saved my life’.
I call him ’sorcerer‘ not because he was covered in the plumage of exotic birds or had a goat ready to slaughter — he wasn’t, and he didn’t — but simply because what he did to my foot was so far removed from our familiar notions of Western medicine, that I couldn’t help thinking it was closer to magic than to science. But facts are facts: with his Ayurvedic medicine, he dealt with my swelling and stopped the spread of the infection in what felt like the blink of an eye.
Calm and professional, as if treating limb-threatening bites from mysterious insects was something he did every day, he soothed my pain with fragrant incense, washed my foot thoroughly, applied a very pungent ointment, made of God knows what, that he prepared before my very eyes, mixing in fresh herbs from his garden, then bandaged me up with white gauze (a fashion faux pas if there ever was one), and told me I should wear only sandals for a week, to let the wound breathe. He did it all with kindness and a smile, like someone who knows exactly what he’s doing, and with a calm that made my growing panic melt away and restored my mental balance — which, according to the holistic teachings of his medical tradition, was essential for speeding up my recovery.
I still have no idea what stung me. Nor what the ’sorcerer‘ put on my foot. But I do remember the pain, the helpless feeling of being unable to walk, the cold fear of not knowing where I’d end up and what would happen to me. And I remember that the pain was gone in short order, that my swelling disappeared in just a day, that I had no side-effects and that my ‘sorcerer’ made me keep the bandage on (which, between the strange ointment and being worn with sandals, was soon a slightly less white shade of pale) until my return to Barcelona.
And I also know that, had I not decided to entrust myself to the care and kindness of strangers, with their strange language, their barely-there English and their ancient medicine from another world than that of the proud industrial products of the West that I’d crammed into my travel kit, I might have arrived too late at that hospital. And I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the rest of my wonderful holiday in that amazing land — or, maybe, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy having two legs, or even being alive. Instead of my leg, that land took a little piece of my heart — not only for its pristine beauty, but also for its ancient and marvelous traditions, which were there for me and restored my foot as I’d always had it. I can’t say that I ever came across Ayurveda again — but I am infinitely grateful to the Universe for having made sure it was there right when I needed it, right where both of us needed to be — 8590 km from home.
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