I imagined myself Sir Richard Burton, staggering through the Arabian Desert to an oasis of penicillin. Light-headed and weak, I stumbled past rows of manicured palm trees, no longer able to see anything but the health center.
When I arrived, I found the state-of-the-art facility in a perplexing state of disarray. Women in scrubs walked past disheveled men who appeared to be doing nothing but leaning against countertops. I walked with nothing but the strength of self-preservation to an Asian woman who appeared to be in charge, and was curtly told to sit down before being asked my name or anything else. I obliged with a sense of defeat.
Twenty minutes of sitting up unnaturally straight later, the searing pain in my chest making anything else unthinkable, I realized I had clearly gotten lost in Egypt’s bureaucracy. I learned early on that the country has few concrete rules — if you can unobtrusively glide through situations, you can do almost anything. Lines are figments of your imagination; the person at the counter gets served, period. It’s all about gliding past aggressive, black-robed women or foul-smelling men, finding the experienced individuals who take you under their wing, and getting to that counter.
Without acknowledging the cold receptionist who told me to sit down 20 minutes prior, I got up and wandered towards a doctor’s office and was promptly waved in by a kindly, middle-aged woman. As though she had been waiting, she tsked, “Come in, come in!” As I seated myself she asked, “So, what exactly is wrong?” glancing at the clipboard of papers on her lap.
I looked at the open door to my right. More accurately, I looked at the attractive Arab sitting just outside the open door to my right.
“Well, every time I breathe, there’s a sharp pain right here,” I said, indicating my ribs. She applied pressure to the area, leaving me breathless, and nodded.
“Is that all?” she asked. “How are your bowel movements?”
I opened and closed my mouth several times, carefully choosing the word as though I was Emily Post writing my masterpiece. Looking purposefully at nothing in particular, my cheeks hot, I selected “spontaneous” and relayed the word with little vocal inflection.
She nodded. “This is not uncommon, for Americans in Egypt…”
Feminine vanity had preoccupied me for several minutes, but I soon began shaking weakly again. I had a perpetual layer of cold sweat on my face, and was terrified by the failing state of my body. What the hell was happening to me?
“…prescribing you with unpronounceable, gibberish and crap. You will take the unpronounceable thirty minutes before every meal, the jibberish with every meal, and the crap before you go to sleep. If you are still not feeling well, when your stomach is unsettled, you may take more unintelligible words.”
Huh? I began feeling faint, thoughts running rapidly through my head. What was all of this? Didn’t she want to take my blood pressure? Listen to my chest with a stethoscope? Ask me if I was allergic to anything? I don’t claim to have an MD, but these things seemed pretty elementary.
I felt tears of frustration and desperation in my throat. “What,” I asked with a small cough, “what do I have, exactly?” None of the words she said made sense to me. “Like…a lung infection? Stomach infection? The flu? Cancer?” I probed.
“Yes, sort of,” she replied. “If you don’t want to take the medicine, we can give you shot, and you will feel better when you walk out.”
I made a face, but as she said it, she seemed increasingly convinced of the logic of the proposition. “Yes,” she concluded, “you take the injection.”
Aware that I was rapidly losing control, I endeavored to regain my composure.
“The medicine will be fine,” I said clearly. “I’ll take the medicine.”
Brushing me off, the woman began writing on her clipboard and said, “they will give you the shot now.”
Seeing my look of panic, she stopped writing and looked at me. “Trust me, you will feel much better! It will be very easy!”
Then she she got up and handed me over to the cold woman who had summarily dismissed me not 30 minutes prior. Without a “hello” or “we’ll take good care of you, honey,” the woman brusquely motioned me into another doctor’s office across the hall and followed me in. I sat in the chair and offered my arm like it was going to the chopping block.
“No, no” she said with the first semblance of a smile I had seen on her face, purposefully grabbing at the back of her scrubs.
My eyes widened with understanding, once again unwilling. But she offered me no time to prevaricate, pointing at the padded bench and telling me to lower my jeans. Grimacing, I lowered the right side and felt a needle go in the top-center, and then the weird tightness you feel after a shot. Thinking I was done, I suppressed a cough and adjusted my pants.
“No, no…” she said, “another.” My eyes widened with helpless outrage, but I did as I was told and felt another needle go in the exact same place.
Not one moment after I had buttoned my jeans, the awful woman whisked open the door and led me to another room in the corner of the building, where she pointed at a narrow bed before exiting with a soft slam of the door.
The events began replaying themselves in my mind in a jumble of mental photographs before I realized, I just had shots in AFRICA. AFRICA. Where people have AIDS. Jesus, I thought. What was I thinking? What if my life is over?
The sobs rose again in my throat, but this time I couldn’t stop them. I scrambled for my Egyptian cell phone, dialing my home number.
Normally I feel bad at the frantic “What! What!” my mother exclaims, looking around in panic for her children, when she is roused from a deep sleep. This time I felt it was warranted, and relayed the story through exhausted sobs.
The orient isn’t all romance and adventure, though that’s certainly what drew me in. It’s also full of mysterious ailments and defeat. But if you’re determined to do more than visit a third-world country, if you are determined to immerse yourself in it, you’ve got to endure it. It’s like Saharan hazing. I’ve accepted it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish I had a Z-Pac.
Author’s note: I wrote the post above in 2010, when I studied abroad at The American University in Cairo for a semester. Despite my panicked concerns, there was no harm done by the shots. In fact, I recovered shortly thereafter.