I’m in India. Coughing my lungs out. I came down with something on the flight out of Melbourne and its been two days of searing headache, overheating body and gut-wracking coughs. Luckily we’re booked in to the second fanciest hotel in Cochin so I’ve spent the last 48 hours lying in the direct spray of the air-conditioner and ordering room service curry.
On the first morning we call in a doctor from the local hospital. He arrives in a pair of plastic Crocs and a business shirt, accompanied by a moustachioed nurse in a neat blue one piece uniform who carries an oversize briefcase. The nurse puts the briefcase down on the bedside table and it pops open, spilling papers and medical implements across the floor. He picks a thermometer off the carpet, wipes it off on his sleeve and gestures for me to slip it into my armpit.
The consultation is a comedy of misunderstandings. I’m new to India. New to the time-zone. New to the Indian head-wobble which answers every question. Are there any foods I should avoid? Wobble. Can I use the hotel pool? Wobble. Do I need any medicine? Wobble. Later I ask the hotel concierge what the head wobble means and he wobbles his head too. Mostly yes, sometimes maybe. The doctor writes down my weight as my age, then puzzles over how I can be seventy-one. We chuckle together when we realise the mistake, then I descend into a fit of coughing.
The doctor prescribes me six different medications and I’m reminded of Yemeni childhood, where doctors visits are deemed successful based on how much medicine you take home and how impressive the medicine looks. Where I’d probably recover on my own with rest and fluid, it’s assumed that I’ve called the doctor because I want results and I’m left with paper bags full of legitimate horse-sized pills in florid colours: extract of ginseng and garlic plus antibiotics plus paracetamol plus a mysterious looking cough syrup that tastes lightly of tea and slides deliciously down my throat, coating everything in a viscosity that I cough up a couple minutes later. Along with the medicine I receive a stern list of instructions: no showers, no milk, no swimming, no cookies, no spicy foods, and an admonishment to only drink hot water for the next five days. The culmination of my treatment is when the nurse receives a phone call and disappears downstairs to reappear with a nebuliser – a smoking machine attached to a face mask that he straps to my face. Breathe deeper, he admonishes as I puff out small strands of smoke. We sit in a silent circle for twenty minutes until he appears satisfied and then puzzles the tangle of cables, medicines and papers back into his briefcase.
Getting to India itself was a comedy of sorts, from a wild sprints to the wrong gate at KL airport and an attempt to pull myself up straight and not cough as I show off my boarding pass. When I was seventeen I almost got detained in KL airport. It was a thirty-hour transit from Kenya to Australia as part of my final year of boarding school and I came down with the flu in the airport. I wandered into the in-airport medical centre to wrangle some Panadol and was seen by a kindly Malaysian nurse who told me if she referred me to the doctor I’d have to skip my next flight and stay in a hotel until I was well enough to fly. I backed out of the medical centre and disappeared into the throng of flyers browsing duty free.
Indian immigration is a line of neatly coiffured moustachioed men seated in a row, making decrees on the plight of the foreigners before them. In a remarkably comfortable scenario each desk is fronted by a large lounge chair lifted straight from the 1970s and I laze back as my officer fills a stack of forms, questioning his colleague between every line. It’s a lackadaisical affair, made comical by the fact none of them seem to be working from the same playbook. Part of the process is scanning fingerprints and each officer approaches it differently. Mine accepts a thumbprint from each hand, while the guy next to me appears to be scanning both hands at once. A couple rows down the officer is standing up, leaning over the desk and physically pushing an old ladies’ fingers in to the machine, squishing them down with one hand and slapping his computer keyboard with the other.
An Indian man energetically taps my testicles with a metal detector. “Part of the job” he chuckles and stamps my boarding pass. He eyes me off as I step down from the wooden box all airport attendees are required to mount as they pass security clearance and then asks: “Australian?” I nod and he responds, “oh the fires, very sad, so many animals dead.”
It’s a weird talking point, one that pops up constantly through this trip, from the hotel concierge to the taxi driver to the man who serves up steaming muttar paneer on our final dinner. At first I’m amazed: the news of the Australian bushfires is particularly current in India (cue giant billboards on the drive from Cochin airport depicting crying koalas and flaming trees), but it’s the loss of animal life that every conversation settles on. I wonder at the media landscape that pushes this part of the conversation to prominence. Maybe it’s the Hindu conception of the sacrality of life and the concept of losing millions of animal lives in one month of natural disaster seems to resonate.
Then its days of floating. Free from commitment. Free from worry. Free from the rigour and routine that flood my daily life. I can afford to float between an early lunch and a late dinner with no real plans. Everything is a brief taxi ride away and if you’re hungry on the way there’s delicious food adorning every street corner. There’s a beauty to the break in routine. There’s a beauty to the chaos of traffic where two lanes fit five streams of traffic. There’s a beauty to walking home each night to find the same white cow pulling rubbish from the same street side bin. There’s a beauty to the clamour and the brief moments of calm.