“You look tired,” the man said from behind the coffee counter.
He was lying. I looked dead. Coiled in fever for the last three days, I’d arisen from a serious lung-infection only to cough-up blood.
Certain I’d be killed by the airborne pollution I’d inhaled across Bangladesh, I’d made a pact with myself. If I was gonna die, I’d do so in a civilized fashion: with a newspaper in hand, and caffeine flowing freely through my bloodstream.
Crawling across the street to what seemed a suitable final resting place, (a large leather chair in the back of a Bangkok Starbucks), I was hoisting a grande’ house blend, and flipping through a copy of the Bangkok Post when a banner headline caught my eye: “Urban Asia choking to death: 750,000 die a year from pollution.”
“Seven-hundred-fifty-thousand and one” I corrected, then followed the article down the page. It highlighted a recent study by the World Health Organization that concluded pollution had reached “serious” levels in Asian cities – up to 70 micrograms of particulate per cubic meter. Safe levels hover around 20.
It had been five years since the contingent of dimwits in the highest halls of my homeland had dismissed themselves from the ratification of the Kyoto accords – choosing cash over clean air.
And now, as the black-clouds of their in-action gathered and spread, atmospheric poisons crept their way to a city near me and you. With that thought burning in my head and lungs I staggered to my feet and hit the streets in search of antibiotics.
A week later, as a testament to modern medicine, I was back on my bike and pedaling north. Having cycled Thailand previously, it was hard to resist riding a bee-line straight for the coast. But there was something more important calling. Something deeper. Something closer to the heart.
Winding my way along a farm road on the outskirts of Lopburi, I was pedaling through a patchwork of sunflowers when I rounded a corner and came upon my destination: the Phrabatnampu Buddhist Monastery.
Founded in 1992 by monk Alongkot Dikkpanyo, he converted part of the temple into an eight-bed hospice for those suffering from HIV-AIDS.
Now, some 14 years later, it had grown into a 400-bed complex.
I parked my bike and entered the administration office where I met the secretary.
She looked over-stressed and underpaid.
“Are you here to volunteer?” she asked, lifting her eyes momentarily from a mountain of paperwork.
“Uh…yes,” I replied nervously. Without a word she gathered a clutch of papers and a key, then placed them in my hands. “Here are your instructions, and this is the key to your room. Breakfast is at 8 a.m.”
That was it.
I stood outside the office for a moment and skimmed the paperwork. It stated that Thailand now ranked as the fourth-highest country affected with AIDS in the world. Conservative estimates put the number of HIV-positive Thais at about 1 million – a number quickly approaching one in 10. Every day 600 contract the HIV virus, and nine die of AIDS every hour.
Of those 1 million, 10,000 wait to get into the Phrabatnampu facility.
With that in mind I made my way through the complex until I came to a bleak concrete structure that would be my quarters. I turned the key and creaked open the door. After entering I stood for a moment and looked over my new surroundings – four blank walls, some cobwebs and a hospital bed.
“Merry Christmas,” I mumbled to myself, then laid out my bed sheet.
That night I had a dream: I was walking through an empty house filled entirely with sinks when I noticed one of the faucets stuck on. When I turned it off on came another. Then another and another. Eventually, unable to keep up, a hundred faucets began to pour, and the house began to flood. When the room filled neck-deep I woke up.
I got up that morning and wandered around the grounds, then stood for a moment in front of the glass doors of the hospice. I took a deep breath then walked in.
First came that classic hospital smell – the odorous mixture of urine, antiseptics, medicines and cleaning fluids.
Then I heard the thin-distant moans of a woman, her suffering voice from another room. I glanced around. In each bed were those in the final stages of the AIDS virus. Although a few sat upright, the majority were laid flat. Most of them impossibly thin – their coppery-skin covered in spots.
As I walked to the center of the ward, all eyes turned.
All except one – a man sitting in a corner holding a small plastic bucket beneath his limbs. I watched for a moment as he obsessively itched, scratching-off flakes of skin.
Wandering nervously for the first few minutes, I approached the nurses station to ask how I could help. The nurses spoke little or no English.
I wandered around the room fidgeting, feeling entirely useless and out of place. Then someone shouted from behind. “Hey! what is your name?”
I turned to meet the eyes of an elderly Thai man dressed as if he were going out. “My name is Moam” he said smiling. “Rick,” I returned and I shook his hand.
When I relaxed my grip he did not let go. “Have you eaten,” he asked, the Thai equivalent to “How are you?”
When I answered yes, he patted a place on his bed for me to sit. As I took a seat, he was still holding my hand – and a profound comfort washed over me – the comfort that stems from human touch. I’d experienced little or none of it during the last year of my journey.
And as we sat hands clasped, I wondered just who needed it more, him or me.
“I’m going home today,” Moam informed me. “My family is coming to get me.”
Sadly, I would learn later that going home is what he’d hoped for, but the reality was the opposite.
The Dying and The Dead
The truth is that in Thailand, AIDS strikes mostly at poor rural farmers and their families. Because their education is poor, most complete only four to six years of primary school education. The majority have little or no idea how to protect themselves against HIV and AIDS – and even less have knowledge about the disease itself. As a result they approached it with a fear just short of superstition.
More often than not, when a family member is struck ill, they are instantly abandoned.
After several minutes with Moam, my attention turned to a woman in the bed next to him, her shrunken body in the last painful throes of the disease. Staring at me with a haunting gaze, I looked upon her thighs as they protruded from her waist. They were barely thicker than my wrists.
“Her name is Niramon Eiamsaad,” a woman informed me in perfect English. The woman was a random visitor passing through. “How did she get here?” I asked the woman.
The two spoke in Thai for a moment, then the woman turned her head back toward me. “She contracted AIDS from her husband, who died last year. Her family dropped her off when she became critically ill, and told her they’d be back when she got better – she hasn’t heard from them since.”
Then, the bed-ridden woman’s eyes turned to me almost pleading. She spoke to our impromptu interpreter.
“What did she say?” I asked the woman.
“She said she doesn’t want to be here anymore. She asked if you could help her return home to be with her two children.”
I had no idea what to say.
I spent the rest of the morning wandering listlessly around the room – pouring a patient a glass of water, or handing them things they couldn’t reach. Sometimes I steadied them as they walked, or helped lift them as I changed a bed sheet.
To be honest, I was a fairly in-effective volunteer. Then came lunch.
“We need help here,” someone called to me.
Then a man handed me a stainless steel tray of food and pointed to a separate room.
“She needs to be fed,” he said, pointing to a woman.
Like a Child
The Tuberculosis Room was a place I’d purposefully avoided all morning. Reluctant at first, I pulled on a mask and walked in. Then I approached her bed with the utmost awkwardness. I lowered the rail and set the plate near the young woman’s head.
She rolled her face from beneath a blanket. When my eyes finally met hers, she gazed at me with a look I will never forget. It was like that of child – still fully alive, but filled with a torrent of pain as if hurt. Her face expressed fear, suffering, confusion and desperation.
When I grabbed the plate and filled the spoon, my hands shook.
I lifted the first small bits of noodles from the stainless steel plate, then poured it from the spoon, over her lips, down her chin, and all over the sheets. I felt like a bumbling idiot.
“If you think this is messy you ought to see me feed myself,” I said. It was a statement more for me, then for her – a chance to lighten the heaviness of the moment. Her eyes urged me to press on.
After a few spoonfuls I got the hang of it, and she ate heartily until she finally turned her head the other way. She was full. When she turned her head back, she stared at me for another moment, her eyes looking deeply within mine.
As she stared, I could see that she had once been a beautiful woman, and could not have been more than 24 or 25. I tried hard to choke back tears.
“We could use some more help in here if your done in there,” a voice called from the other room.
I set my hand on her shoulder and again looked into her eyes.
“OK then,” I said, as I got up to walk away.
Then I noticed something else in her eyes. Call it self-serving projection, but I swear she was projecting traces of appreciation and hope.
Before I knew it my day at the hospice was done. I tossed my mask and walked outside to a small shrine where I paid my respects to the thousands of souls – those represented by neatly arranged bags of cremated remains stacked nearly to the ceiling.
Then, as I had many times on this journey, I stood for a moment and wondered just how long this group of fellow human beings would have to suffer before we collectively began to care – and in that caring – enacted the appropriate solutions.
When the sun began to set, I climbed a small hill and took my place beneath a 30-foot statue of a sitting Buddha over-looking the monastery. A place where I’d hoped to find some peace. Sitting cross-legged, I began to watch my breath – following it slowly as it moved in and out. As I did, I reminded myself gently, “just this, just now …”
Then, when the thoughts in my mind finally stilled, my defenses fell, and the dam finally broke into a flood of emotions. Deep emotions that took the form of tears. Tears that flowed freely to the corners of my mouth. They were tears of sorrow, tears of confusion, tears of pain. Tears that reminded me that deep inside I was not a traveler, a volunteer, a cyclist or photographer – but still, in fact, very much a human being.
How to help
For those interested in donating or volunteering,
the Phrabatnampu Buddhist Monastery desperately needs
your help. Please call: 66-661-831-3441, or e-mail the
temple at email@example.com or go to www.aidstemple.th.org.
Dec. 12th-30th, 2006
Mileage log: 12,798-13,202
Elevation: Sea level-800 ft.
Bangkok, Lopburi, Nong Phai, Lom Khao, Phu Rua, Chiang
Khan, Nong Khai
“But if anyone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help — how can God’s love be in that person?”
– John chapter 3:17
“He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self…”
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
– Leo F. Buscaglia, American guru, tireless advocate of the power of love (1924-1998)