Debbie and I were not in the peak of health. Despite a determined training programme in New Zealand of preparation including walking through our bush (forest) with heavy packs on our backs, I had only just recovered from a persistent intestinal upset and Debbie had to fit in our trek around rabies vaccinations after being bitten by an unfriendly dog. Undaunted, we prepared for departure by sorting out the homeopathic remedies for travel in backpacks and shopping for food. Due to our influence a large quantity of nuts, seeds and chocolate were made into trail mix and added to the load, meaning that we were unlikely to starve. We set off from Spero and Robin’s house ready for our adventure. Our party consisted of two porters (one carrying food and tents, one medicines), our interpreter Roshan, Debbie and I, Spero and Robin.
We arrived at Billing in time to see paragliders preparing to launch themselves off the mountain top at Billing. This was a good omen because the paragliders had been previously grounded due to unpleasant weather. The unseasonal fog and rain was claimed by the locals to be due to the malefic influence of the Goddess of the mountain who was unhappy because the paragliders were being disrespectful by dangling their feet over her temple during their descent.
Our first leg of the journey stopped at the Misty Mountain bistro, where we had our much anticipated smoky cup of chai and were able to take the case of the chai shop proprietor, who had some minor health issues.
We arrived at the home of the man who had been shearing sheep the previous week, and had said that he suffered from headaches. We asked for him but were told he had left the mountain. Fortunately for us this was precisely as a thunderstorm launched its attack on us. Torrential rain and thunder and lightning would have been somewhat unpleasant walking the trail, but there we were standing outside a substantial house with a large, sheltered porch. Permission to shelter was granted, and consequently we were able to serenely eat our lunch of peanut butter sandwiches while the storm raged around us.
When the rain had abated we carried on and found our camp site – a piece of flat land above a sheer drop down to the river. Inveterate sleepwalkers should take ropes to tie themselves to their tent! Here we watched as Roshan went through a yoga routine to restore his back to its perfect alignment. He put down a tarpaulin and promptly achieved a perfect head stand. That not being a yoga move I have gained mastery of, I was not tempted to join him, despite his kind invitation to do so. We set up camp, with three tents; one for the food and medicines, one for Debbie and I and one for Spero and Robin. We had the food tent close to ours so that we could keep an ear out for untoward activity in it during the night. When I asked what the standard procedure was should we suspect that a bear was raiding our food, I was told that the protocol was to allow the bear to continue!
We sterilized our water with Steripens, and made a meal over an open fire, which cooked slowly due to the altitude. Our own efforts to ignite the dripping wet firewood were ably assisted by another patient, who turned up for help with his illness. Roshan was absent (unfortunately this was setting the trend for many of our consultations) so a detailed case taking was postponed until he was present, but the would-be patient quickly breathed life into our smouldering heap and a nice fire resulted. Then off to bed, but not to sleep much due to scary sounds of wild animals outside lasting much of the night. Somewhat bearlike, but sounding somewhat human as well, the sounds were unnerving, but were explained in the morning when we found Spero in a sorry state. He had been violently unwell in the night, and had been the source of the noises. When his rebellious stomach finally allowed him to rest, no rest was available due to his further misfortune – he had forgotten a sleeping mat and had the choice of either bare, cold ground, or to lie over Robin’s backpack as his couch.
Consequently he was in no state to set off to the potato farm, which was the anticipated destination for the morning’s consultations. The workers at the potato farm have to start work at 9am sharp, they stop for an hour for lunch, then work through to 5pm. They have to hurry back home at 5 to prepare meals, etc, so our only opportunities to treat their problems were either before work or at lunchtime. Consequently Robin, Debbie and I set off leaving Spero to try and rest. After setting up our medicines in the porch of the overseer’s house a steady stream of customers arrived. Unfortunately there was no sign of Roshan. Later we learned that he too had suffered an uncomfortable night, although not as bad as Spero’s. He had slept in a guesthouse and his roommate had been sleep talking loudly until 5am. Roshan said that he could not perform adequately without a good sleep. Consequently he slept from 5am until just before 9 and turned up just in time to help with the last client. Prior to his arrival we had to struggle along as best we could. Fortunately we had Robin with us who had enough language ability to enable us to take very simple cases. Our patients were all totally impatient – apart from the fact that we had insufficient language to ask complex questions, they weren’t in a frame of mind to answer much anyway. Confidentiality was non-existent as the waiting line leaned in expectantly to hear questions and answers better – or to make comment. We saw two skin cases and one cough which we treated very empirically with sulphur and phosphorus. Our last case, who had the benefit of Roshan’s presence, had a severe injury some months before and was in serious pain. We were able to obtain modalities and confidently gave him rhus tox.
When the patients vanished to start work, we set off up the mountain to find a cooked lunch in the guesthouse Roshan had been staying at. We needed to be there early because they wouldn’t start cooking until there were customers visible. A verbal booking was inadequate. Also they were reputed to be painfully slow. Spero was able to borrow a sleeping mat from there, which proved to be a mixed blessing, as he spent his second night being quietly devoured by small occupants of the mat (and then he shared these very kindly with Robin, who was bitten subsequently). The identity of the hitchhikers in the mat was never discovered, but they had been waiting for a meal for a long time, judging by their numerous bites.
After a meal of dhal and rice we returned to the potato farm for the lunch break, and saw a stream of patients, with the benefit of Roshan’s presence and Spero as well. After dispensing various remedies we headed back to our camp site for more food and water preparation and another early night (due to the early nightfall).
The sleep was much better for all but it seemed very cold in the morning due to the sparkling white topping of snow visible on a nearby mountain. More eager customers arrived at our campsite but Roshan was absent and case taking therefore minimal. One shepherd gave Debbie and I a very minimal case via Robin’s interpreting, but on Spero’s return to the campsite he was taken aside immediately for a private discussion. Using a mixture of spoken language and gestures, it transpired that our shepherd was suffering from an STD due to visiting prostitutes, and the information he had given us (three women) had nothing to do with his real reason to seek help.
Roshan arrived in time for breakfast – porridge with a liberal sprinkling of our chocolate laced trail mix. Fortunately he was there for the arrival of our two last shepherd patients. The shepherds are a hardy bunch, living up in the mountains with their flocks and seeing off leopards with nothing but precision stone throwing. The first shepherd had rheumatism and received rhus tox. The second suffered from stomach troubles and from anxiety about his daughter’s health (of course he saw her infrequently because he was up the mountain, so this added to his concern) and also about robbers and leopards taking his sheep. When it was his turn to watch the flock he was unable to sleep at all due to these worries. We gave him arsenicum album.
We then packed up our campsite and departed along the same route that we had taken on our earlier group trek. We lost Roshan early on as he was waiting for the guest house man and we continued on our way, losing our porters with the remedies fairly quickly (they travelled faster). Consequently when we met a man who had been crushed when his horse fell on him, Debbie volunteered to race after the porters to bring them (and the remedies) back. Meanwhile in the absence of Roshan, another great interpreter stepped into his shoes. This man had just had his morning bath in the river (remember there was snow on the mountain that day – it was fairly chilly!). Standing comfortably on the path clad in a damp towel and jandals only, he was a good example of how tough these mountain folk are – there were no goose bumps and he seemed very much at ease as he efficiently interpreted for us. Arnica and rhus tox were given and we continued on our way. As we approached the bridge over the river Roshan reappeared – he was carrying a large pack and yet was bounding like an antelope over that treacherous path of rocks and pot holes. Yoga is obviously good for the balance and coordination!
At the next village everybody was working and nobody could stop for consultations. We refreshed our water supplies and continued to the chai shop at the end of the trail. Here we were besieged by patients, including a garrulous but good natured drunk who had pursued us down from the mountain. Roshan reported that this man was rolling drunk at 10am, but had decided that if others got consultations, he wanted one also. It was unclear exactly what he needed the consultation for, but after receiving his life story we gave him lachesis for alcoholism and finally were able to dislodge him in order to attend to others.
We saw a 70 year old man who had his cute little granddaughter with him, carrying her on his back. He had very large warts and on being questioned about dreams of falling (those leading questions again) he became very animated and said ‘every night!’ Treatment was fairly obvious – thuja of course.
While we were busy with a lovely calc gentleman, Spero was taking the blood pressure and pulse of an 87 year old amputee. This was a shepherd who had lost his leg 2 years previously (at the age of 85, note) while chasing a snow leopard away from his flock with the obligatory rock throwing. Our hero slipped on the ice and broke his leg badly. He came to see us because he thought he might have high blood pressure. Spero reported that his blood pressure and his pulse were perfect and he was in perfect health (aside from his missing leg).
When our supply of patients ran dry, we continued on our way and caught our waiting taxi back to Bir. That last day on the mountain was my birthday and was certainly a memorable one! Debbie and I had a truly unforgettable experience and are very grateful to Spero and Robin for making this possible and for making it so much fun.