#12 Collecting Tropical Diseases
June 21, 2011 § 1 Comment
Expats in any country are often want to gather things distinctly representative of their time in foreign countries. The special purchase afforded by residing in an arena of cultural or environmental displacement bestows upon expats access to a myriad of foreign objects otherwise unavailable that may act as evidence of time spent integrating oneself in a unique cultural context. To other expats or to friends back home such collections may demonstrate an experience of something inimitably indefinable to those who have not lived so deeply embedded in the community. In Timor collections can often include local woodcarvings, tais, photos of kids, T shirts with strange English translations or a staggeringly large amount of pirated HOUSE DVDs.
No matter what the preferences for their (post) colonial personal museum, something that most malai enthusiastically enjoy building a collection of, are strange tropical diseases. Malai love to talk about the myriad of exotic pathogens that they have contracted at some point in the past that have wrought destruction upon their immune system.
For many malai, little conveys real hardship and core development values like being struck down by a tropical disease. To come away from a year living in timor without getting malaria or dengue fever leaves little by way of bragging rights and in some cases betrays an overt sensitivity and fear of entangling oneself in day to day rituals of local community life. In general most long-term expats consider dengue a right of passage, demonstrating a fearless zeal to “get one’s hands dirty”.
As the first defense against ill health, the malai’s medi-kit is an interesting signposting device that betrays a host of enmeshed expat ideologies. In some malai circles the larger and more extensive the medi-kit, the greater the stature commanded as it signals a person with extensive need for a wide variety of medical emergency equipment in areas remote from proper medical facilities. Amusingly, many people who seem to have such kits live in Dili no less than 20 min drive from the Australian or Portuguese doctor and the kits look more appropriate for conditions resembling a late 19th century remote Congo ivory outpost over run by the plague.
This is in stark contrast to those malai that swear by local remedies and advice such as papaya leaves or 2 bottles of tua sabu to keep the malaria at bay. Such malai may tend to chastise their dili brethren visiting them in their remote community for not drinking the water from the pump. As much as these malai like to extol the virtues of pristine mountain spring water in the districts, they often seem unaware of the high rate of dysentery amongst the local children living near them.
One of the interesting aspects of health in Timor is how full disclosure of personal health details become much more accepted amongst malai. Groin fungal rash, severe yeast infections, cripplingly unpleasant diarrhoea – such things become much more commonplace as discussion pieces amongst friends. Inevitably such re-occurrences will lead to competitive boasting about how much one’s immune system has endured. Interestingly such conversation seem to regularly commence about the time one is going to begin dinner and often leads to topics akin to the experience of their worst case of amoebic dysentery narrated in alarming detail.
Once the conversation turns to experiences of ill health, hardened malai will revel in the opportunity afforded them to demonstrate their “life experience”. It is not uncommon for such malai to cut other people off mid–story to explain that while malaria is distressing “you probably haven’t experienced Japanese encephalitis and bilharzia at the same time while stuck in a remote camp 2 days walk to the nearest humanitarian clinic.”
It is such competitiveness amongst such groups that establishes pervading sentiments regarding where one has sought health assistance. To wait out an emergency room at the local hospital shows mettle. But to really show your development credibility one needs to have been Medivacced out of country for life saving surgery. This is the pinnacle of reverence in regards to suffering for the betterment of those less fortunate.
Though not quite as exotic, motorcycle accidents are also well used to flaunt “extensive life experience” in a developing nation. Encountering a malai who has endured a road accident entails a fair chance they will soon indulge in an exhibition of their scars. Newly arrived malai are sometimes puzzled that people who are marked permanently by bad driving will so readily display such skin disfigurement like a trophy. However over time new expats will begin to fathom an accident on a motorbike as being attributed to the wild road conditions, erratic Dili drivers or the unpredictability of weather and not reckless self endangerment through drink driving or sheer incompetence.