As a child, I never went to school.
I grew up in the midst of a small mountain range where the winter frost used to paint the landscape a glittering white even as it exploded your copper water pipes and killed your summer garden. The gullies were steep and rocky, and in summer the baking hot air shimmered with eucalyptus oil vaporising from leaves of applexbox and whitegum. There was no town, there was no school; there were no neighbouring children.
And so I read a lot of books. Once a fortnight we would drive to town, and my mother would do the grocery shopping, and I would harvest the public library. By the time I was eight or nine years old, I’d exhausted the children’s section. The adult section was vast, and I attacked it with gusto. My mother, horrified at the lurid sex scenes presumably concealed in those pages, directed me towards the canon of classical literature. Anything more than a hundred years old, she figured, could not be too scandalous in content.
In retrospect, it’s probably more psychologically healthy for your child to learn about sex from Mills & Boon than from reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles; but the result was that I read a great many old books. And one of the things that you can’t help noticing, as a first-world child reading those old books, is the proliferation of incomprehensible deaths. These days, people die of things with names like leukeamia or coronary artery disease or typhoid fever; in those days, in those books, people just got sick, and sicker, and died. What tiny thing could have precipated their demise? – Was it a miasma, creeping through the London streets? Or that time they were caught in the rain? Or that time they scratched their finger on a thorn while cutting roses from the garden, ending in black putrescence and lockjaw and death?
It was all quite gory and morbid, and as a child, I have to admit to a particular fascination with the bubonic plague. However wasn’t the pandemics that struck me as relevant to modern life – although perhaps they should have. What made the more lasting impression on my youthful mind were those rose thorn deaths: I knew why those people died. Bacterial infection. And I knew that when you got an infection these days, you went to the doctor and got antibiotics and – almost always – you didn’t die.
Antibiotics are freaking awesome.
And so years later, this is why I’m riding around Indonesia with tears in my eyes because my ear hurts but I don’t want to take the antibiotics JUST YET because maybe I don’t really need them yet because heavens forefend that I should contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance through my own lackadaisical overuse….
This is the sort of stuff that goes through my head.
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Also, as a side note, I see all the kids and parents freaking out about the closure of schools and having to do their lessons at home and I want to say guys, you’ll be fine! It took a full 13 years of distance education to cause this level of anti-social weirdness in me; you’ll survive 6 months without lasting damage.
* * *
So I took my anti-inflammatories and some painkillers, and got back on the bike and hoped my ears would stop hurting. I had emergency antibiotics in the bottom of my first aid kit and each time I stopped, I would conduct a brief self-evaluation:
– super feverish?
– nearly dead?
– okay no antibiotics.
And I would carry on. It was going brilliantly, another morning of glorious sunshiny winding roads, all to myself, when I reached a small picturesque bridge and felt suddenly faint. No worries, I could see a warung on the left; they seemed to sell coffee, food, cigarettes. I could see the eponymous trucks of the cigarette salesmen parked off to the side. I would rest here, I decided.
So I pulled into the rocky parking area and turned to face up the slope; I went to position the sidestand and dropped the bike on its side. Fuzzily, I peered down at the bike lying between my feet. How had it gotten down there?
I wasn’t feeling too sharp.
Some people ran out and helped me to haul the bike upright. They were asking, are you okay? Are you okay? And I was saying yes, but I really wasn’t.
They walked me over into the shade. Sakit, they were asking me. Yes, I finally agreed. Yes, sick.
So they gave me some water and told me to lie down and take a nap and it was good advice, and I did as I was told.
About half an hour later I woke from my nap to find another vehicle had pulled up. From out of the five seater station wagon I watched nine people alight; there were packages everywhere and it was hot. Were they a family? Were they on their way to a wedding, perhaps? I was too fuzzy to ask, but they certainly noticed me and soon the warung lady was filling them in on the excitement of the day.
A middle aged lady from the car came over to me with a massive fake Gucci handbag, and plumped herself down beside me. From inside the handbag she pulled out an entire blood pressure monitor, and proceeded to take my vital signs. Was she a nurse? Maybe. Maybe not. I was thrilled by the incongruity of the blood pressure monitor emerging from this outrageous handbag somewhere in rural Sulawesi.
The lady determined that my blood pressure was low, but my temperature was fine. She advised rest and plenty of water; same as before, but I was cheered by her concern for me. Soon they piled into the car and continued on their journey.
Now the warung was quiet. The shopkeeper had gone out the back. It was just me, a cigarette salesman, and another lone traveler with striking cheek bones and a real physical intensity. She and I talked a little; she dressed like a man, moved with the confidence of a man; travelled alone like a man. She was not feminine, but definitely woman. I was attracted to her energy. She told me that she was a practitioner of traditional Indonesian massage – pijit pijit – which is used for healing purposes. She told me of traveling to different islands to work. I sense that, like me, there were both push and pull factors that had set her wandering over the years.
Her humour was dry and she wasn’t one to fuss over the pallid foreigner. But when she smiled, there was wicked fun in the corners of her eyes.