The Cactus Patch
Volume 8       December 2005      Number 12


A Letter from Lynn McDonald

The first chance I had to write was from Bangkok. The E-mail was blocked in China. Some could get through on Yahoo using a special code, but I have forgotten my yahoo password & anyway, would rather be in town looking around & shopping than sit in Internet cafe! We were in a college area in Bei Bei & the Internet cafes were filled with young people, all gaming.

Anyway, here I sit in Bangkok. My friend Jane is playing her recorder & Ben (aged 9) is working on learning the violin. Arrived here last night late. The flight here from Chongqing was fun, talking with my interesting seat mates, being helped to the correct line in Hong Kong airport by an Ethiopian man whom I began chatting up. I said something like "my, you have some fabulous succulent plants there" & he replied that they have quite a few social problems. Then the Chinese man behind me (sewage specialist) who wanted to practice his English. Today we have been to the British Club (sounds so civilized!) for breakfast while Ben had a tennis lesson. Then shopping at a favorite store & lunch. We have come home early because my Thai friend (Jane's husband) Kittisak's mother died today. She has been ill for years. There will be five nights for the funeral activities and I feel lucky to be able to attend some of the services at the local Wat (Buddhist temple)

It would be so difficult to describe this trip (and who is really interested in hearing it all anyway!!) But, I will try. Our team all met up in Hong Kong. It was an experienced team with 3 Mandarin speakers. We could not have done without them. Lots of varied personalities, but we all seemed to work well together. It was the first trip ever to this city & the second in China. This was the cleanest hospital I had ever seen in China & have ever worked in on such a trip. Two large, bright ORs, and the supply room, recovery room all so close. We saw 100 patients and 72 had surgery. The others were ill or whatever, but most were great candidates & the children healthy with really no anemia. There are 600 more cleft patients in that district alone to be seen. Those little babies with cleft lips are so adorable, trying to smile with those funny little faces. So sweet. One looks at normal babies now and think they look a little odd.

We had two wonderful nurses in the OR I worked, Ran Su Fang & Chen Xiao Li. Besides being good nurses, they also demonstrated other excellent qualities some of my coworkers (and friends) could learn from. They massaged my back and hands a lot, wanted to carry my backpack for me, and generally showed me the respect I am due at my age! The nurses on the ward were wonderful & absolutely loved our team leader/pediatrician Janet. Since white is the color of mourning, the nurses on the ward wear pink (and look so cute).

We worked from about 0730 until 1800 more or less. In the evenings we walked to dinner in town from our hotel. Lots of good food & some suspicious. Some spicy & some not. One night we did goto a local hot-pot place -- said to be one of the city's famous dishes, summer or winter. Groups sit at these big tables with a gas burner in the center. Then you are brought these huge divided pots that get to boiling & one adds a variety of things to them, some take longer to cook & so you sort of have to watch your area so things cook enough & others do not disintegrate. One group had the real HOT pot & ours was not. Somewhere in between would have suited me. Lots of the stuff was good. Our Chinese team members wanted to give us a good variety & so included plates of bloody eel, pork brains along with more standard fare meat, tofu, noodles & vegetables. Once we were served cooked duck blood. Not for moi.

Other nights we shopped & always strolled the streets because so much is always gong on -- street vendors, shops, all manner of activity. The most popular physical activity is done on the local downtown parks in the evening. People all gather & there is a leader & music. More or less like low stress aerobics. A couple of us joined in for a bit. Also, in the hospital front parking lot every morning is Tai Ch'i, save for the last days when it was raining. I wish I could just walk to the neighborhood park to exercise in the evenings.

This time of the year it was always foggy, misty. The sun tried to peek through the first week, without success, It was cooler week #2. We even left the city on the weekend, but no sun there either. And Chongqing is one of the Three Ovens of China, very hot summers (like home?) The change was just amazing since I was last in China in 1992. People more friendly, less spitting in the streets, women much more colorfully dressed with chic pointy shoes; hair colored & styled. The only folks who stared were some of the elderly, not so accustomed to western faces. The countryside did not seem to have changed much. Still very funky living conditions. The people may have more clothing and food, but it still seemed pretty bleak. Back in the city, there was so much building going on. Huge tall apartment buildings going up everywhere. Shopping malls & big fancy department stores, like any large city. We were a little wrong in our initial figures of population. Chongqing (pronounced more like Chong Ching) has 13 million. We were in suburb about 40 min. away of Bei Bei which has 6 million. The entire region of Chongqing has 32 million. It is a hilly/mountainous area & so there were very few bicycles. Also, gas there is about $5 for 4 liters, so there are not so many cars either. One does not feel one is in such a populated area.

Some trip highlight for me were the traditional Chinese opera in a wonderful old style theater in Chongqing -- fabulous costumes and little vignettes of singing, dancing, skits. The Foot Massage place. What a blast with thirteen of us in group rooms. First they soak your feet in hot water. The first time it was so hot I thought the plan was to remove the first layer of epithelium to get us clean enough to even touch. It was amazing and they spend a lot of time on the feet, but do one's back & limbs as well -- 90 mins to 2 hours, all for $5. I only got there twice, sad to say. One of the neatest parts was watching the guys at our feet, it was almost choreographed, their movement, the slapping sounds. Since I lost my digital camera in Sweden I did not take so many photos, but think I got some of this activity. Also, we were working in the Chinese Traditional Medicine Hospital. Some of us were seen by a well known traditional practitioner. I was deemed basically healthy & given a 5-day treatment withe herbal infusion. The last work day we could have more massage or acupuncture. I chose acupuncture. That was great. He was able to go exactly to the painful areas.

Another treat was going to the tea departments. What an array of green teas -- from all the regions, first & second places in competitions, etc. Diligent young women there to measure it all out & place into lovely boxes. We did get to take an evening boat cruise at the confluence of the Chang (Yangtze) & Jaling rivers. It was fun, thought we could not really notice the merging, watching instead city lights & spectacular neon displays.

I saw only a few succulent plants, in some small gardens. Sago palms were common. There were a lot of small golden barrel cacti potted in white with blue printed pots to be seen decoratively in department stores & on hotel lobby counters.

Usually Interplast gives a farewell party. But the Population & Child Welfare Foundation insisted on giving it for us & paying. Someone came to the hospital on Tuesday to measure us all to make us each a beautiful jacket, which we all were to wear for the party. It was a lively event. At some point we heard the nurses were not to be invited, but we seemed to be able to change that, but we could not invite the woman housekeeper who helped us. A myriad of rules & traditions. Anyway, the party was amazing with food, video of our trip playing, funny games, many gifts for us (too many) a chance to do some calligraphy, some disco & waltzing too. The morning of departure I had to go along to the hospital for a meeting & to secure the boxes. Then we went to the ward for the last clinic checkup -- to discharge the last couple days of patients & to see the others still hanging around. Many of the children had written letters to the group & drawn pictures. It was very touching. The pink nurses were really hugging Janet (she is about their height) & crying. I started crying & then they hugged me too. A bonus for me to have been there. More sadness when the group went their separate ways at the airport. Two flew to Chengdu. One flew to her hometown in northern China. Three to Beijing for a few days. The rest to Hong Kong for overnight & I came on here. I always say this is my last trip, but after such an experience, it makes me change my mind.

PS: It was pretty cool the entire time in Bangkok, never hot at all. I went for the first time to the home built after WWII by an American officer/business man -- Jim Thompson. He helped develop the modern Thai silk industry (& his family continues to benefit from sale of upper-end products & clothing) The traditional Thai style (modified) home & garden along the klong (canal) is an oasis in the city. Also attended young Ben's ice hockey lesson (ex-pat & Thai kids both) As we were leaving, the distant future's women figure skaters were preparing for their lessons. I was able to attend one more prayer vigil for Kit's mother. The cremation was to have been the day I left. It was interesting to be at a working wat, instead of ruins of or really fancy ones. There were lots of funerals going on, both Thai & Chinese ceremonies. Also there is a kitchen, and food like a bowl of soup, is cooked there & given to mourners between periods of prayer.

It is good to be home & to find that I did not miss all the autumn color. I see that Christmas is in full swing!

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