Traveller's tale

Beau Donelly finds laughter is the tonic for a bad diagnosis in Indonesia.

The man squats in Jakarta's sweltering midday sun, skewering chicken just centimetres from the road no fridge or ice in sight. A clove cigarette dangles from his mouth as he uses a rusty butcher's knife to prepare my lunch.

Is this the man responsible for my unknown illness and hastily arranged trip to a medical centre?

An Indonesian doctor greets me with an engaging smile and a polite nurse records my blood pressure, height and weight.

The doctor examines my abdomen and bursts out laughing. "I think," he says grinning at me, "you may have typhoid!"

He can barely hold it together as he scribbles a prescription. "It's very common," he assures me as he continues to laugh. Overwhelmed, I too begin laughing.

Blood and stool samples are taken and less than an hour later I have my test results.

"Now," he says, pausing for a smile, "it looks like you had typhoid."

"I actually have typhoid? Are you serious?"

The laughing begins again. "Kind of. You see, you had typhoid. And you also had E. coli. But the antibiotics you've been taking killed them. But, they also killed all the good bacteria and now you have a fungal infection in your stomach. And you're dehydrated, too," he says, somehow finding humour in the diagnosis.

In Indonesia, $250 goes a long way. You can rent a clean room in Jakarta for a month, fly to and stay at the Gili Islands for the weekend and even hire a maid or driver for half a year. For the same price, you can visit a doctor for an hour. I later learn that Indonesians deliver bad news with a smile (or laugh) to put the listener at ease. The smile-to-laugh thermometer increases with the severity of the news.

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