The day had finally arrived. I was asked to meet the Work the World project co-ordinator in the confined lobby of the Sacred Valley Inn hotel in Kathmandu. It must have been about noon, and I was upstairs packing my bag and bracing myself for a dressing down. Gavin(friend) was out for the count, lying face down on the bed, shoes still on. It was a heavy night to say the least. I was on my own with this one and I headed for the stairs. I was met by a clutter of luggage and potted plants. Beyond the busy desk, all wearing the same blue t-shirt and huddled quietly in the corner sat three or four dental out-reachers daring not to speak. Ironic, considering the hotel staff had just had a busy night quietening the troops. I was greeted by a smiling man named Prajwel. He quickly introduced himself and informed me that the cars were en-route and to be ready. I agreed and stood there while he continued to smile. Unsure of what to do next I turned to the on looking hotel staff stationed at the front desk, bad move on my part. They proceeded to stare me down and I soon faltered. I tried to smile my way through an apologetic quip about the noise the previous night but I had already handed them the baton. I stood there for several minutes nodding in acceptance and absorbing the obvious disgruntlement. I watched as the smiling Prajwel disengaged himself from the situation and slipped out the door smiling his good byes at the girls in blue. I went back upstairs to find Gavin showered and packed with lashings of Nivea shine on his face. Let’s go he said, so off we went.
We packed ourselves into two white Toyota vans. Bags were either put on the roof or wedged between our legs. We drove for hours. It was hot as anything. When we finally arrived we were shown our new accommodation and handed a glass of diluted orange. The girls on the team stayed in a lodge, elevated, dry, airy and cool. The boys were given a tent, pitched out the back on the roughest ground I’d ever laid eyes on. The camp was half way up a mountain called Dhading, a long way from any sense of civilisation as I knew it. Outside, we came across a road sign that looked like it said “No Langers”. Langer being a rather famous word in Cork to describe a person of less than adequate intelligence. As a Corkman, I was beginning to admire the broad sense of humour of this rural Neplaese community. It was only after a few days of dental screening that I realised this was in fact a signpost for a neighbouring community across the valley called Nalange-5. Not quite as humorous as my original assumption.
The first day was spent assembling a dental clinic at St Mary’s medical centre run by Korean nuns and funded by German and Dutch charity organisations. How Germany or the Netherlands ever came across this remote cluster of villages at the foot of the Himalayas was beyond me! We were greeted by the many helpers and translators of the nearby communities and a ceremony began with the handing out of floral neck chains before we were given blessings with symbolic red powder anointed on our heads.
The work began the next day and despite the monsoon rains the local people came thick and fast. We alternated between the screening room and the treatment room and by the end of the second day we were ably discussing the nuances of extracting teeth. A few days in and the treatment grinded to a halt. There had been a strike in one of the villages and nobody came. Prajwel called a meeting that night after dinner in the camp. We were going to awaken earlier the next day to trek to a school several miles away to set up an emergency clinic. At 6am we stocked up on a breakfast of pancakes, curried kidney beans and lentils before setting off across the vast hillside that could easily be mistaken for JRR Tolkien’s middle-earth. After a busy morning and late lunch we finished the day tired and sweaty with a long trek home still to come. Two of the young translators approached me and asked if I like to run? It wasn’t a wind up. They tightened their sandals and took off. It must be 6 miles I thought. And at this altitude? Madness….but I would be back in under an hour. So I went for it. I caught up with them and they skipped around me pointing the way and laughing every time we undercut the journey with a shortcut unknown to the rest of the group. The air was non-existent. I walked the last half mile absolutely drenched in sweat and fit to keel over. Worth it? Absolutely!
The next day came and the strike was over so we resumed working at St Mary’s. We crowded out the rooms but worked like a well-oiled machine. Calls for materials were met with rigorous mixing of mercury and amalgam with pestles and mortar. Clear strips were effectively used as matrix bands. With no proper lighting, removal relied heavily on natural light, headlamps, the use of an inverted cone bur and a thoroughness with the spoon excavator. Patients were quiet and respectful and generally opted against the use of anaesthetic for restorations. To our amazement, few complained with pain during use of the hand piece. Rampant infection was rife among both young and old. Clearances of permanent and deciduous dentitions were not uncommon within the community, which had an admirable overriding tolerance for chronic oral discomfort. We met villagers who had never brushed in their entire lives. Amazingly, on occasion such enormous lack of oral hygiene awareness was inversely proportional to treatment required.
One night at the camp we awoke to noisy commotion from the fields nearby. A wild leopard had abducted a lamb and killed it. The farmer’s family mourned the loss and while much was made of the financial implications, it couldn’t go unnoticed that we were all of a sudden in the company of wild leopards as we slept. Lucy, a colleague, didn’t like it one bit when I told her there was a wild leopard behind her after her dinner one evening. Most evenings, we would play board games that involved the interaction of the whole group. Gavin introduced these board games to us and just as the local shop sold us cold drinks that weren’t cold these board games had no boards. Gavin dished out the instructions, handing us pieces of paper with celebrities’ names on them and the game would go on all night! After 2 weeks, it was time to leave and we said our goodbyes and packed up. We headed for a lake district in a place called Pokhara to wind down the trip. The rain stopped and we took a boat out on the lake. The sun came out and for 2 days we thought we had found paradise. Then it started lashing rain again and we went home. Despite the rain, the wild leopards, the poor conditions and the monotonous food I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
Hope you enjoyed.