In nearly fifty years of work, VSO has sent tens of thousands of volunteers to placements around the world, and inevitably, there have been accidents and some fatalities. Typically these are road – related, although someone did die of Rabies a few years ago. It’s not something we ever really think about; but at the same time you don’t want to add to the statistic. However, I’m not sure how it would look if ‘fell down a waterfall’ got included in the VSO ‘deaths during service’ book. It might be hard to be sympathetic, and an observer might rather just wonder what a total moron that person must have been.
But whenever there is an opportunity for idiocy, I tend to be near the front of the queue, and last Friday I managed to get away with possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life. As a treat to my friend Kobir and a thank you for all his help to me over the year, I said that we should go out of Sylhet and visit the Madhabkunda Waterfall, which is famous as one of the few natural wonders of Bangladesh and something that would be a shame not to see given that I was only three hours away from it, and not exactly spoilt for choice in terms of things to do.
However, I woke up on Friday morning with a streaming cold, and was not in the best of moods when we set out at 8am in a little CNG towards Madhabkunda. I then got badly sunburnt on the left side of my body which was sticking out of the CNG and facing East the whole way down, so when we finally arrived, I muttered to myself that it had better be worth it.
And it was. The waterfall lies about a ten minute trek through the foot of a steep jungle valley, filled with dense lush plants and insects buzzing around, the air thick with fresh oxygen. It was a fantastic break from Sylhet, and when we turned the final corner to see the source of the rising roar of water, it was nothing less than spectacular. Under a brilliant blue sky, the waterfall dropped about 150 feet down solid rock, taking up about a quarter of a narrow horse-shoe shape, which framed at the bottom a nice pool which just away from the turmoil of the water was full of about fifty Bangladeshi tourists messing around and enjoying themselves, and inevitably one poor ‘guard’ who was hopelessly ill-equipped with a whistle and a long twig to try and stop thirty kids from getting to close to where the water was hitting.
I went for a bit of a wade, and then got rushed by almost 20 young guys who scrummed over me, standing barely ten inches away and blocking off the light as they peered closely at my white skin as if they’d never seen it before. It took almost ten minutes of ignoring them before they finally left, and a few well placed sneezes, and I realised that this was one aspect of Bangladeshi culture I’m definitely not going to miss.
I then had to wait around an hour in the hot sun gently burning up whilst Kobir’s dad Mockshed prayed at the mosque, but in that time I was able to observe that at the very top of the waterfall, some people had climbed up round the back somehow and were able to stand almost at the lip of it. I thought that having come all this way and paid quite a lot of money, it would be a shame not to try and get up because the view with such good weather must be fantastic. So when Mockshed finally came back I announced that I wanted to get in to the jungle.
The five of us (including the two drivers) set off first up some steps which took us maybe two hundred feet up the valley, and I initially thought that this was going to be relatively easy. However it was oppressively hot and humid, probably around 35-40 degrees and because we were in thick undergrowth it wasn’t the most comfortable of walks. But I started to get my ‘bus-stop’ mentality, as in the longer you wait the more likely it is to come, so you might as well keep waiting regardless of how late you’re becoming. So the further we went on, although it was becoming more and more difficult it would have been even more stupid to turn around, particularly as we were theoretically very close to the waterfall and the view, if there hadn’t been quite so much forest in the way.
A small boy came out of nowhere and said that he could guide us a long, and after about twenty minutes of slipping around very narrow muddy paths, we met the river, which was obviously a good sign. It wasn’t cold at all, so we waded in to it and followed it along for about half-an-hour. It was never more than about waist deep and the current wasn’t too strong, so I actually, in spite of feeling dehydrated and sun-burnt and ill with the flu, began to really enjoy myself. I slipped at one point on a rock in the water (barefoot by now) and hurt my toe and knee a bit, and it occurred to me I should be careful given that I was supposed to be going to Tibet in a few weeks. But everyone else was ok and enjoying the beautiful scenery and sense of adventure; the little boy kept on telling us we were close, so we pressed on.
Eventually we could begin to hear the sound of the waterfall again, and the shrieking from the people at the bottom. We were practically at the highest bit of the hills, and in a brief clearing you could see maybe thirty miles, right across India (all the hilly areas in Bangladesh denote border territory). We were so close now to the actual waterfall itself, and as we turned the last corner I could see it, and the mounds near the lip that people earlier had been standing near.
I was only maybe 10 feet away, but to get there you would either have to scramble through very dense vegetation, or climb along a large piece of exposed rock that was rising up out of the river, at an angle of maybe 50 degrees (or imagine a clock face pointing to about 10.30). The rock looked pretty wet, and I was feeling pretty rough and unsteady, but I was also so near to my goal, and having got that far, I felt it would have been ridiculous to not even try. My conscience then reminded me of a day about two years ago when I was climbing a structure without a rope and got 30ft up before realising I was in trouble, and had to make a small lunge to get to the final hand-hold. It had been a very smelly ten seconds, and I’d sworn to myself never to take risks like that again. But I tend to think it’s better to regret something you did, than something you didn’t do, so displaying the kind of attitude that has possibly got me to Bangladesh in the first place, I thought ‘fuckitttt’ and reached out along the rock face.
Within thirty seconds, I was about two yards away from the safe ground, and totally stuck, feet sliding around for a foot-hold, the rock being like glass. I was gripping on to two hand-holds by the ends of my fingers, which weren’t secure, so I tried to stretch with my right hand for a better one. And my left hand slipped. I cracked my face against the rock. And slid down two and half metres and dropped in to the river.
Miraculously, the river still wasn’t deep and so I dropped off the rock like on a conveyer belt and landed on my feet, and I didn’t get swept by the current over the edge. I also hadn’t been knocked unconscious, so I didn’t drown in the water/then get swept over the edge. I looked up and saw my glasses and hat slide down the rock towards me, so managed to grab them, and raised my hands and shouted to my alarmed companions that I was ok. And then my vision on the left began to turn red, and I realised that actually I was in a spot of bother.
I waded around the rock and found a place to lift myself out, and then Kobir’s dad pushed some overhanging branches down for me to grip on to and haul myself up to firm ground, where everyone immediately rushed to make sure I was ok and check the cut on my face. Mockshed found some leaves which he squeezed up to make a sort of dressing, so I held that over the cut and then, establishing that everything else was more or less alright we set off back towards the main path at the bottom of the valley. The little kid was still with us and said he knew a short-cut so we made a rapid descent, which was a bit unnerving on my now shaky legs, but in 15 minutes had made it back to where we’d set off from an hour earlier.
The Polish side of me takes great delight in bitterly complaining about the most insignificant things, but my English side, after numerous youthful escapades with my Grandfather along the lines of ‘just because it was in the fire it doesn’t mean it will be hot’ or ‘just hold it there whilst I chop it with the axe’ and ‘during the war we didn’t complain’ has taught me that the worse a situation is, the less use there is making a fuss about it. So at this point, I thought it best to sit down and have a cigarette and to take a few minutes to work out what the best thing to do was; and whilst we all got our breath back, another party of Banglaeshi tourists came along and peered at the foreigner sitting on the ground in sodden, muddy, bloody clothes holding leaves over his face and a Benson to his mouth. The party were all very smartly dressed and incredibly, one of them was from New York and had a first aid kit. So he immediately offered to try and clean me up, I accepted and we spent another five minutes getting through a few bandages and swapping our stories. He advised that although the cut, just above my eye wasn’t too big, it was deep and would definitely require stitches. It turned out my Good Samaritan was also a tax accountant, so I ended up being saved by cigarettes and financial service providers. Let no-one speak ill of their kind ever again.
With a clean bandage on, we made it back to the main gate and the CNG. After a quick cup of tea for everyone we set off back to Sylhet, and I had three hours to think about how monumentally stupid and phenomenally lucky I’d been. By the time we got in to the city, it was Friday evening and private medical centres were closed, so we had to roll up to the main government hospital. It was huge, crowded with people and very dirty and dilapidated, but Mockshed and the two drivers bustled me about, and trading on my white skin – now it being a definite advantage – and liberal amounts of small bribes to porters and registrars, I managed to get admitted and sent up to one of the main wards.
It was like an air-craft hanger, just a big floor space full of rickety beds with people lying on them looking sick and depressed under the dim lighting. The only noise was from the fans and people groaning, but at one end of the room was a table where four youngish doctors were sitting taking down details. They said, via Mockshed that they would try and see me as quickly as possible, and told me to wait on a bed. A porter got me a sheet from a ‘special’ cabinet, as in a clean sheet, but it was still stained and tattered. I hadn’t been able to wash even my hands all day, and was really feeling filthy so found the toilets but they were abysmal and didn’t even have any soap, so I just had to sit and wait and again feel lucky that I wasn’t in for anything more serious.
They had sent the drivers off with a list of the things they would need to do my stitches and drugs to give me, saying once they arrived I could then be treated. I had a look and saw there were several pain-killers, so asked why they were there, because I don’t like taking anything unnecessarily and wasn’t really in an unmanageable amount of pain. “Yes, but you will be”, came the reply, so that began to make me feel a bit unsettled. Once the materials came back, I was then taken up pretty quickly to an operating theatre. I had assumed I would just get some stitches applied by a nurse, but this was a far bigger deal, and I was led through some doors, to progressively cleaner surroundings and was met by a full team of doctors in their green surgical outfits. No-one was really telling me what was going on, but they let Kobir come in with me which made a slight difference, although we were both still filthy; I had a mixture of snot and blood and river water still all over my hands and clothes. I had to lie on a bed and they switched huge over-head lights on me so I could barely see, and the doctor told me to lie with my arms outstretched, “like Jesus Christ” he laughed. “And look what then happened to him” I thought, but instead wanted to know the doctor’s name, just to make me feel a bit less of a test-dummy.
The doctor, who spoke broken English immediately asked me why I wanted his name, and wanted to know if it was so I could sue him for negligence. This alarmed me even more, because when you’re lying flat out under lights with someone holding you down and someone else about to start putting needles around your eye, you don’t want them to talk about things going seriously wrong before they’ve even started. But they told me their names, then told me to close my eyes and they switched to speaking in Bangla.
Minutes after I could hear someone else be wheeled in, who was obviously in a far worse way than me so they moved to anaesthetise him and while he began to heavily breath away I focussed on being in a peaceful place. I couldn’t see even if I opened my eyes now because the lights were too strong, so just had to try and listen very carefully for when they might start doing something, and not flinch when something touched my skin. I was also concerned that I wouldn’t sneeze, so I lay there sweating away whilst the doctors stitched me, for what seemed like an age, and was certainly long enough for me to consider my all-time top five favourite cheeses.
The doctors didn’t say any words in English apart from the phrase ‘severe pain’, which made me a bit more tense but in fact the guy doing the stitching was perfectly skilled, and I never really had any doubts over his technical/medical competence. I just wish he had some sense of bedside manner. However, as he stepped away and I opened my eyes, another young female doctor came forward with a syringe. I asked her what she was doing and she looked irritated, said it was for tetanus and then injected me in my left arm. That was a shock, and pretty sore, but before I could ask her if she wouldn’t mind not hammering it in so much, she switched sides and then gave me another one in my right shoulder. This time it was agony, the most painful thing anyone’s ever done to me on purpose.
I was lying there gasping for breath, and could feel the vaccine swimming in to my arm and around my shoulder and back, hurting all the way. It was a shock, and finally when she tried to stick one in the vein of my arm, I was too staggered to protest whilst she messed around with it. It turned out she was a trainee doctor, but I wouldn’t let her practice on a cushion. So when I finally left the theatre I felt a lot worse than when I went in, and I forlornly trudged out of the wards looking a sorry site, not the best advertisement for those waiting to go up. I then had to get a translation of the drugs they’d given me and proscribed, which took a while so eventually in another flurry of small bribes got discharged.
I made it back to the hotel at 11.30, desperate to finally be able to wash myself after a long, long day. I gave the drivers an appropriately gigantic tip for all their help, and assured Kobir and his Dad that I was in their debt forever, as without them in the hospital I really would have been in trouble.
And ultimately, after a long shower and a meal of antibiotics, I was able to stare at my bandaged face, masking an extremely embarrassed and fed-up volunteer. The plus side to the day is that I got to explore not just some beautiful scenery but also the Bangladeshi health service, which operated pretty much as quickly as the English one, and I’m sure as competently, although something to do with making the patient feel human should be in the training manual. Moreover, the people I was with, and the people who helped me on the way really went out of their way to do everything they could for me, despite the situation being entirely my fault. Their total kindness to a relative stranger I’m not sure you would necessarily receive in England, and it made me feel really lucky to be surrounded by such caring people. Sometimes I find the lack of personal space and privacy here frustrating, but it also means that a problem is always shared, and that’s no bad thing. In the West, increasingly problems tend to be shared only once celebrities think they can resurrect their careers promoting it.
Now a week later I’ve got the stitches out and I’ll just have a scar to remind me of a very stupid accident. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I’ve certainly gained more than just a scar from my Madhabkunda experience. I think you can learn a lot about a society by how it treats its sick, and how it treats its outcasts. I’ve now needed some care from the Bangladeshi state and its people, and I’ve certainly got it, and I feel really grateful and a bit more appreciative to ‘Bangladesh’ than perhaps I did earlier – they’ve directly helped me, whereas sometimes it seems with all the power cuts, the weather and various other petty frustrations that the place is against you. So whilst I wouldn’t recommend climbing close to waterfalls or needing healthcare, there has been a positive aspect. All I need to do now to complete my learning is end up in a Bangladeshi prison.