Knock Knock – Dengue Chic in Burma

“Knock knock,” says my door in two gentle syllables. I roll over in my bed, the sheets so soaked with sweat there is an audible squelching sound.

“Knock knock KNOCK,” the door repeats more urgently. I know from the soft light filtering through the flowered curtains that it is morning time, and therefore on the other side of the door there will be an elderly woman holding a tray with a soggy fried egg, a banana, and a cup of instant coffee. It is breakfast time at the YMCA Yangon and from the screaming pain in every joint and muscle in my body I can tell that the dengue fever has not yet passed.

Knock knock knock. Pause. Knock knock knock knock knock. I know from experience that this will not stop. I have been to the front desk three times to request that I be taken off the breakfast list, and each time they nod earnestly and tell me it will be done. I have said the same thing directly to the women who bring the food as well, and they give me the same nod. I have been staying in the same room for a total of two weeks now and have refused the breakfast every morning but one (the first), and yet they persist.

Knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock. My head is throbbing and I slept for perhaps two hours the night before, so intense was the pain from the dengue. I attempt to say “no” as loudly as possible, but all that comes out is a pathetic guttural moan. The knocking continues with renewed vigor, the little old woman in the hallway emboldened by the sounds of life from within.

I drag myself out of the bed with herculean effort. Since I the fevered sweating began I have been sleeping naked in an effort to conserve the three pairs of underwear I currently own, so I drunkenly grope in the semi-darkness for something to cover myself. I find a towel and tie it around my waist, and then swing the door open. I know for a fact that I looked utterly insane at this moment because I looked at my reflection soon after. My hair, uncut for three months, is matted to my head in damp curls and my eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep. It has also been three or four days since I’ve had enough energy to shower, so I almost certainly smell horrendous.

To her credit the woman doesn’t flinch in the slightest. She simply extends the try towards me, sad looking egg forward, and says “breakfast!”

I am furious, livid, raging. I want to scream obscenities at her at the top of my lungs and ask her what makes continue knocking after the first twenty-five go unanswered. I want to smash the tray out of her hands and slam the door in her face. But instead I say “No thank you.” Despite the fact that I have had the same interaction with this woman for approximately thirteen consecutive mornings, she looks confused. Unsure of what to do she extends the tray towards me again, hopefully.

“No thank you. Very sick. No breakfast tomorrow. No breakfast next day. Breakfast never, OK?” The fever makes it difficult to take anything more than a very shallow breath, so I have to speak in measured tones to avoid using too much air.

“OK, bye-bye!” she answers brightly and moves on to the next room, occupied by a French girl who hates the breakfast service as much as I do. This encounter will be repeated tomorrow, I have no doubt.

I close the door and take stock of my room. I have refused the cleaning staff entry since the dengue set in and things are beginning to deteriorate. The bed sheets are twisted from my fever induced squirming and the pillowcases have circular yellow stains from where my sweat has seeped into the cotton fibers. A vomit crusted waste bin sits beside my bed. Empty water bottles litter the floor, and several of them are filled with a yellowish liquid.

I started peeing into the water bottles on the second day of being ill when I lost the strength to walk down the hall to the bathroom. I stack them in rows against the wall and wait until it rains, at which point I dump them out the window onto a tin roof, and watch the rancid liquid run into the gutters.

There are empty wrappers from all sorts of strange Asian junk food items. It’s a shame, since there is so much good food to be had on the streets here, but I don’t have the energy to walk more than a hundred meters. The effort of climbing the three flights of stairs to my room leaves me gasping, and my head spinning. I am subsisting almost entirely on the kinds of foods I refuse to eat normally; I spent the whole of yesterday slowly picking at a foot-long cake, dubiously named The Strawberry Cream. It’s strange to me that I can be so sick and yet still be hungry. If someone had put a McDonald’s cheeseburger beside my bed in the night I would have eaten it for breakfast.

I have been living like this for six days now. It began very suddenly while I was out making pictures of a traditional Burmese martial art, my temperature soaring wildly over the course of an hour. I barely made it out of the taxi on the way back without throwing up. That night was a hellish combination of sweat, nausea and retching, and the second night was no better. The third morning was promising; I felt fine, if still below average, and went out for tea and lunch to celebrate my victory over what I assumed was a stomach bug. But later in the afternoon the true evil of dengue began – the physical pain. It’s as if all of my bones were trying to twist themselves apart and no bodily position, sitting or lying, offers any relief. Each breath feels like my lungs are expanding into fractured ribs. This lasted most of that day and through the night. When I woke up the next morning, I again felt fairly good, though a headache persisted. And then, by the evening, the pain returned. Up and down, peaks and hellish troughs.

This is the glamorous state of life at the moment. According to the doctors I have spoken to, both in Yangon and abroad, I could be out of commission anywhere from a week to three. This means that the trip to Burma is essentially a write off photographically as my visa expires in a week. Perhaps I will miraculously recover and get a few more days of shooting before then, but it seems unlikely I will produce anything of substance. This is extremely disappointing, obviously, but maybe an important lesson about the nature of this work. Definitely this is an exercise in patience and humility.

Note: I wrote this for three reasons, the first being that I spend so much time exposing other people’s private lives that I thought it was important to be honest about myself and my situation. Secondly, to show just how decidedly unglamorous and unromantic this experience is. The idea of some globetrotting loner, with everyday filled with adventure and exotic experiences, is so very far from reality. And thirdly, and most importantly: I have been lying in bed for more than six days now and am desperately bored.

Stay healthy!


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