The Mystery of the Immaculate Herpes
It was a miracle—a horrible miracle—that turned my pleasant morning tinkle into a heart pounding free-fall into nightmareland.
HERPES!!! I diagnosed (even though I’d never actually seen herpes before). For several minutes I stood there frozen outside my yurt, staring down at the hideous mass of red bumps with an expression of horror reserved for Halloween masks and volunteers in Darfur.
I imagine most people in this situation would feel regret and humiliation, but instead I was just completely flummoxed—for the previous six months, I had been adventuring through the South Asian chastity-belt of Pakistan, India, and Burma. I might as well have kept a bear trap in my underpants. My dick could have been stored in a jar of formaldehyde.
This was an act of god.
These must be ~*~*~immaculate herpes~*~*~, transmitted to me by a holy angel in my sleep.
I had never considered the profound psychological impact that contracting (or believing you’ve contracted) herpes might involve. You suddenly see yourself as damaged goods. Meaningless hookups become an ethical impossibility. A relationship becomes a crisis of guilt. You feel like you are, forever more, un-wantable.
From my dusty outpost of Tashkurgan, Western China, I planned to travel ten days across the Great Taklamakan Desert to reach the nearest hospital in Urumqi, which—I planned—would be sterile and staffed with English-speaking doctors, who could accurately diagnose my wonder-herpes and give me the proper medication, so that for once—just for once—everything wouldn’t nose-dive into absurdity and get horribly, unimaginably worse.
I suppose I’ve always been a wishful thinker.
It looked like a dead sea turtle, but that didn’t make any sense in the middle of the desert. Yet there it was, clear as day, hovering very casually from the ceiling by a rope—an enormous, foul, decomposing sea turtle.
I was standing in the lobby of the Urumqi hospital, a hideous, marble sprawl of Communist architecture, so austere and silent that it would have made Stalin nervous.
My gaze was locked in between the crowded check-in counter and the tiny pharmacy window, where a long, wooden service desk segmented the lobby from what could only be the lair of a serial killer. Aside from the dangling sea turtle, the low ceiling was decorated with at least fifty lizards and snakes in various stages of disintegration, strung one after another on cords like a sick child’s popcorn necklace. The walls were lined with dusty bookcases cluttered with jars of herbs, roots, and twigs, and scattered on the floor were piles of animal parts, odd buckets of powders, and rusty scales. Also: cash registers.
In retrospect, this should have raised a big red flag, but I shrugged it off and took my place in the long check-in line.
When my turn came, the receptionist stammered in Mandarin. I stalled for a moment—my travel phrasebook lacked a handy section on venereal diseases. There were only two ways over this language barrier: I could try to communicate my herpes via a humiliating game of charades, or I could quickly flash the receptionist.
First, I attempted the phrasebook Mandarin for “I need an English-speaking doctor”—which prompted a groan from the line behind me.
Then I drew a bunch of tiny circles on a scrap of paper.
Then I frowned and discreetly gestured to my crotch.
The receptionist stared in alarm.
I slowly repeated the charade.
She raised an eyebrow and barked something in Mandarin, perhaps demanding to know why I wanted a doctor to blow bubbles in my pants.
I was about to make a red-faced retreat when the people waiting behind me started stepping forward to help decipher my problem. I tried to wave them away, but they insisted.
So, very shamefully, I performed my routine once more, this time drawing tiny hairs around the bumps.
More stares of alarm. The receptionist picked up the phone and started dialing extensions.
I tried again, except this time I drew a big frowny-face next to the bumps, and (as if this was the crucial clue) one older woman threw up her finger in a Eureka-moment and bellowed something in Chinese.
To which everyone else cried, “OOOOOHHH!!!” and a long, excruciating silence ensued, in which everybody avoided eye contact with me, except for one guy who seemed to find this all endlessly funny.
Eventually I was escorted upstairs by an “English-speaking” nurse, who seemed as though she’d fallen out of an awful Anime cartoon and landed hard on her head. She had creepily-disproportionately large eyes, a contrived squeaky voice, and one of those nervous, incessant schoolgirl giggles that’s popular with young Asian girls (the kind that requires you to daintily cover your mouth with both hands).
“Will the doctor speak English?” I asked.
“I only speak little, little English. Te He He He He!”
“Yes, I know. Will the doctor speak English?”
“Te He He He He!”
I couldn’t tell if she was flirting with me or if she was actually retarded.
The young nurse ushered me into the doctor’s office—which was inexplicably swamped with a dozen other patients (mainly women and young children). Their voices fell hush as the tall, lanky, white boy entered. Some of them smiled and waved, their eyes brimming with novelty, as if a birthday clown had arrived.
“Ni hao. What is problem?” croaked the grandmotherly Chinese doctor.
The nurse cheerily announced my affliction to the room, which caused the air to change and for some of the parents to stare at me as if the birthday clown had just done something unforgiveable.
“Let me see,” snapped the doctor, gesturing for me to unzip my pants.
I glanced at all faces. “What?”
“Quick, quick!” she gestured again.
“Really?” Most of the parents averted their eyes, but nearly all the children leaned forward inquisitively. I reached for my belt, but stopped.
“Quick, quick!” she roared.
And then I exposed myself to a room full of children. Some of them looked puzzled. Others dropped their jaws and their eyes seemed to gloss over in despair, as if their childhoods had just come to a crashing end.
I quickly pulled up my pants and the doctor nodded pensively. She thought for a moment before declaring, “Chuanran Xing Ruan You.”
“Ahhhhhhh,” nodded the nurse in agreement. “chuanran xing ruan you.” For the first time the nurse didn’t giggle, which scared the shit out of me.
What is chuanran xing ruan you!?! Is it fatal? Is it Chinese for herpes?? My heart pounded.
“I don’t know in English,” shrugged the doctor apologetically, and suddenly the nurse was escorting me back downstairs.
As we crossed the lobby, she paused briefly in front of the pharmacy counter, before proceeding to the terrifying dead sea turtle chamber. She slipped behind the counter into the mess of boxes and bell jars. I watched curiously as she picked through the shelves of oddities, until I was overcome with a horrible surge of realization—this nurse was going to treat my miracle-herpes with expired woodland critters and foliage.
“I work in Chinese Medicine,” she giggled, and I watched in horror as she plopped a handful of grey twigs on the counter.
Every time the term ‘medicine’ or ‘science’ is affixed with a qualifier, like ‘Chinese’ or ‘alternative,’ somewhere in the world a school full of books burns to the ground. There’s no such thing as “Eastern” or “Western” science, because science is a universal concept. It’s a way of critical thinking, an objective method of challenging everything we learn in the pursuit of evidence, which yields truth, which yields progress. While some traditional Chinese medical treatments have been proven to work (like acupuncture for the treatment of migraines and osteoarthritis), the majority of its remedies remain unsubstantiated and controversial. Chinese Medicine was developed over 2,000 years ago, when knowledge of the human body and its anatomical functions was almost zero—diseases were thought to be caused by spirits, the body was believed to be governed by invisible energy channels (qi), and eating a big, soupy bowl of tiger penises was thought to cure infertility.
I held my breath as the nurse picked up a jar of dried sea horses, wobbled her empty head, and then swapped it for a small, yellow brick. She placed it before me on the counter. I was about to raise my voice in protest, but stopped myself. Perhaps this was a facet of traditional Chinese culture worth exploring. To be fair, if Chinese Medicine has helped hundreds of thousands of people around the world (and has been doing so for over 2,000 years) it would be arrogant to dismiss it outright, even if we’ve yet to uncover evidence or logical explanation. As much as we hate to acknowledge our ignorance, science has yet to uncover all the answers.
The nurse prescribed me with two very expensive, different powdered root pills, as well as a yellow block of sulfur soap, which prevented infections and made my skin smell faintly of eggs.
“Chinese Medicine so good!” she chirped.
“I’m– I’m sure it is,” I offered.
An awkward silence followed as she cheerfully calculated my bill. Then suddenly she blurted, “You’re so dirty!! Te He He He He!”
The prescription required that each day I take the two expensive root pills and shower three times with my sulfur soap, which meant trudging all the way back to my guesthouse at the hottest part of the day, every single day, which was a colossal inconvenience to say the least. But for three weeks I remained diligent and positive. I knew that Chinese herbal treatments are often reputed to be placebos and that I might as well be eating tiger penis soup, but the human mind is unimaginably powerful and a simple placebo effect can move mountains. If you want a treatment to work and believe that it will, it has a surprisingly good shot at doing so.
Unfortunately however, positive thinking won’t always pay the bill and sometimes you can’t kill an infectious virus with optimism, no matter how many happy hopes or shining star wishes you throw at it.
By the end of the month, my miserable privates looked as if I’d doused them in hot oil and then tried to get lucky with an electrical socket.
After slogging across the Gobi Desert and following the Silk Road to its terminus in Xi’an, I finally found an urban, clean, modern hospital staffed with fluent English speakers (except for at the check-in counter, which meant another round of public humiliation torture by means of Pictionary).
“Please, let me see the infection,” smiled the young, female doctor in crisp English. For whatever reason, her office was also packed with a dozen staring patients, but she held up a cloth room divider to offer me privacy.
I lowered my jeans. Her smile faded.
“Oh…” she said flatly.
She stared. Really stared. Got closer. Squinted.
Finally she shook her head. “Why didn’t you visit a hospital when this started?”
“I did,” I replied, removing an empty packet of root pills from my pocket.
“You’ve been taking Chinese Medicine,” gasped the doctor.
She leaned forward. “You… You know you’ve been taking Chinese Medicine?”
She stared at me as if I’d pooped in the bathtub. “Chinese Medicine is bullshit. You have chuanran xing ruan you. I don’t know it in English.”
I let out an angry squeaking noise.
“Wait,” she said, and produced a medical dictionary the size of my torso. She riffled through the pages then pointed, “Molluscum Contagiosum.”
I’d never heard of such an illness and I later learned why—it has been mostly extinct in the west for several decades. It’s a highly contagious, non life-threatening, curable relative of chicken pox. It was referred to as a “Pool Disease” because it was usually transmitted by sharing infected towels—or in my instance, infected bars of soap (my shameless habit of swiping soap from hotel and hostel showers had finally caught up with me).
“You should have had taken care of this earlier. Now you need treatment,” sighed the doctor, before shouting orders in Mandarin to a mousy, younger nurse, who then gestured me to follow her.
Instead of taking me back downstairs to the pharmacy, the tiny nurse led me down the hall to a private room with an examination bed covered in bakery paper.
I blithely sat on the bed, smiling politely as the nurse put on her gloves. “Take off pants, please,” she asked, turning her back to rifle through a drawer. She must be looking for some soothing cream, I thought, or perhaps some antibiotic ointment.
Out came a gigantic fucking pair of steel tweezers.
I stared in horrified disbelief.
“Please lie down,” she asked.
I didn’t move. I looked at her. Then to the tweezers. Then the door. Then the tweezers again. Surely she wasn’t planning to do what I was imagining. Not without anesthetic.
I eased onto my back. The nurse then leaned over me, placed the tweezers over one of the bumps, and before I could scream for help or kick her in the chest, she ripped the bump off with gruesome force.
“WHAAAT,” my eyes flew open.
I caught my breath just as she tore off the next one.
I later read that if I’d taken a Tretinoin ointment a month earlier, this wouldn’t have been necessary. Each molluscum bump contains a highly contagious viral “core” (imagine a tiny white lentil) and the nurse was determined to extract every one of them.
“Very bleeding,” she informed me, ripping off another piece of flesh with sadistic zest.
Three down, eighty to go.
For twenty minutes I flopped around on the table, whining and pouting like a petulant toddler. I wanted to punch every ancient Chinese doctor in the face. I wanted to punch every spacy hippy who’d ever told me an encouraging word about alternative medicine. I wanted to punch myself for willfully denying facts and evidence. Hey, instead of basing this important medical decision on scientific method, wouldn’t it be a big bag of fun to indulge unsubstantiated anecdote and blind faith instead?? Yeah!
Every piece of flesh that treacherous little gnome removed became a reminder that placing my trust in unproven medicine was no more sensible than believing in the Easter Bunny or King Neptune or the Brady Bunch.
Perhaps alternative medicine does work for some people—and if it does, fucking super, it’s totally their prerogative to keep at it. Live and let live. If they really think it will cure heartburn, they can stick those acupuncture needles wherever they can fit them.
Before I awkwardly waddled out of the hospital, the nurse offered me a prescription.
It was a small tube of antibiotic ooze, made of unpronounceable ingredients from a laboratory, clinically tested and approved for human application—and which wouldn’t make my skin smell of omelets.
To read more about Chinese Medicine and the traditions of China, check out the Photo Travelogue “Going South on China: A Panda Hunt“
To hear a misadventure involving wacky, whimsical Indian healthcare, have a go at “Laughing Yoga in Calcutta“
To see what I was doing in Western China, check out the article that landed Backpackology on WordPress.com’s Top Ten Editor’s Picks, “Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, and The Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo”