Good Energy

The guys at Good Energy have been really supportive and excited about the expedition, so much so that they have made a contribution which allows me to keep the blog regularly updated during the expedition, so they and everyone else can follow the journey. Good Energy supplies 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind, water, sun and sustainable biomass. CO2 from coal-fired electricity generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Switch your electricity supply to Good Energy using this link and not only will you be supporting the pioneering community of independent green generators, but for every sign up they get they’ll make another donation to help get the bus around the world. It helps you cut your personal CO2 emissions, helps them grow a great business, and helps me get round the world.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Without Prejudiced Eyes

I’ve just bought my first pair of cheap US$2 sunglasses and I’m over the moon about it, despite the fact they’ve effectively cost me $1500.

I’ve been recognising faint hints of bigotry in myself and some foreigners that live in South East Asia towards “the Locals”. At one of the schools I visited the English teachers talked about their diligent student with disdain, forgetting what delinquents they probably taught back in the UK.

At the BTS metro I witness a couple of foreign girls lose their temper with the gentle Thai clerk who can only dispense change, not a ticket, and tries patiently to explain this to them in his broken English. Not too long before, I’d done the same thing in frustration at not understanding how to buy a ticket.

I hear an American girl frustrated by staff at the internet cafe’s inability to repair an interruption with her connection mutters “I need someone white”.

Allegedly and tourism breaks barriers by bringing people together. But the evidence suggests it frustrates and confuses people by bringing them close enough to see they don’t understand the other, and that they don't have much in common.

But more than the language barrier, there’s a condescension from Westerners about these diminutive foreigners and their funny accents, which smacks of imperialism. And perhaps it’s mirrored in the Thai psyche, who seem to play along, affording much more respect to Western visitors that we deserve.

The Thai economy is trouncing the West’s, the levels of professional pride and competence are doing the same and so is the quality of life. I’m struggling to see what Westerners have to feel superior about. The balance has shifted since the 1940s. The big cities of Thailand and Malaysia are far from 3rd world.

Tom, a psychologist friend, says everyone harbours racist sentiments.

So wrestling with my own imperialist tendencies I decided there was no reason why I shouldn’t trust my precious eyesight to Thailand’s health professionals and I signed up for LASIK corrective eye surgery. I first thought about it 5 years ago in South Africa, but spent the money on a microlight pilot license instead. Then again I wanted to do it in Iran but didn’t have enough time. I was almost thwarted this time too as the Thai-ger economy growth here means that my hard currency is worth a third of what it was last year, so cheap medical treatments are correspondingly more expensive. However, by a stroke of luck I found a hospital doing a promotion for the month of February which meant I could afford it.

But the price was so cheap, I imagined some dingy backstreet one room clinic with a flickering neon sign over the door, and a cockroach scuttling across the reception desk.

I’ve never been to a private hospital before, so I’ve never known a level of care and thoroughness like it. Endless nurses bowing with praying hands, every surface spotlessly clean and leisurely consultations giving me time for every question and explanation. Even biscuits in reception. Yes, when it comes to trusting someone to slice you up, a few custard creams all it really takes to win me over. I can’t even begin to compare this with the “care” the NHS dispenses along with the faint scent of urine and infection.

Downloaded from a US medical association website, I started to ask the Doctor 50 questions to assess the clinics ability. By question five I was supposed to ask the Doctor if they were drug or alcohol dependent, how many malpractice suits they’d had filed against them, and if they were a convicted felon. I looked up from the list of questions at the impeccable professional demeanour of the Doctor, another 2 pages still to read in my hand, and smiled embarrassed “This all seems fine”. I folded the papers away.

“The lady’s done over 800 operations using this machine” I told Chris, realising that if she’d been a man I would have said “The Doctor’s done...”. Another example of my subconscious bigotry no doubt? Her reassuring manner mixed diligence with the confidence of experience. I instantly felt comfortable. Zap me I decided. I signed the waiver.

In Pre-op the nurse handed me a sealed envelope with the results of my compulsory HIV test. Before I could open it she told me they’d all read it assured me it was fine. Checking my heart rate and pulse on the monitor she announced with a grave smile “No Mor Blood Pressure”. It must have been the stress causing failure I assumed, I prepared to feel the life drain from my body.
“Is it bad?” I said weakly, with my last gasp.
“No.” She grinned confused “It’s Nor-mor”
“Normal!” I repeated a little too loud feeling my grip on life returning.

The day before, the doctor had explained everything she would do and how it would feel, then reminded me of it again before I went into theatre, and then talked me through it again as she performed each part of the operation. Following her instructions from the previous day I’d been practising staring at a spot. In essence this is all I really had to do while the laser guided missiles melted the surface of my cornea. I hadn’t been that good at it in training but thankfully my performance on the day was drug enhanced with a weighty Vallium slipped to me before kick off, by the nurses.

The first part of the operation involved the machine pushing down on my eye with the force of a Sherman tank in order to position the blade and slice my eye into Papaya salad strips. Next a laser from a 1970’s sci-fi movie performed a scatological light show to the smell of roasting flesh, and I just had stare back. “Excellent, you did really well” the doctor congratulated me as I slowly sat up from under the laser, surprised to discover that I’m better than the average person at staring at a spot while my shredded eye burns. The fact she undoubtedly says this to everyone did nothing to undermine the reassuring effect.

For the rest of the day and night I slept off the Vallium, waking every now and again to the sensation of having opened my eyes face down in a golf bunker. What have I done? What if it hasn’t worked? What need was there?

Before the operation the doctor explained the risks; 5% chance you get less than 20/20 vision and need to do it again, a 1% chance you might never grow back the nerves that stimulate tears. And 1 in 10,000 you get an infection and go blind. As I lay there listening to my anxieties wrestle with the diminishing level of tranquillisers in my body, I was more concerned that it might not work than the thought that I might go blind.

At one point I got up and stared out of the window at a skyscraper across the way. Through the cracks in my protective eye shields and the darkness of night I could see it clearly. The rooms, the balconies, even the air conditioning vents on the roof, surprised to discover that this laser thing might have worked. I held up my specs in front of my eyes. Holy crap! The world blurred into an indecipherable fug. Is that what I’ve needed to see straight?

I like my specs, I think I look better with them on, but I hate being totally dependent on these crappy bits of plastic. Every morning I have a full on panic attack if they aren’t exactly where I thought I’d put them. If they take a knock, a scratch or a dent I’m in a state of panic. Without them I can do nothing. I can’t even find my way to an optician to make a new pair. I resent the dependency I have on them for everything I see.

This morning however, the nurse peeled off the protective shields and the first thing I saw in glorious Technicolor was her beaming smile, the wrinkles in her forehead, the hue of her teeth, the creases in her lipstick, streaks of blusher on her cheeks. I looked out at from the clinic 18th storey window over the skyline of Bangkok, and I could see it all. Every last detail of this enormous city. Like an eagle. In the optometry room I easily read the line of numbers next to the label “20/20 vision” and could partially make out the line below. 3, 9, something, 4, 6. “20/16 vision” it said alongside the line. I don’t know what that means but that’s better than 20/20.

Back in the waiting room I was almost high-five-ing the cardiologist who’d gone under the knife just before me. The day before we’d both reappeared from surgery beaten and traumatised to our loved ones and hadn’t said a word. But today elated by sight we shared every nuance of the experience.

The doctor says I’m not allowed to wash my face for a week. For a soap dodger like me it just gets better. And now I can buy all the $2 sunglasses and I'm no longer petrified I might lose or damage them.

I’ve not been to a hospital as clean or as caring before. The professionalism of the staff goes beyond pushing the buttons on the laser. It was the reassuring psychology they used throughout, recognising my concerns before I did. On the way out they stuck a little heart-shaped badge on me to wish me good health. They’ve been calling me every day to check if I’m having any problems putting the eye drops in. I’ll be back later in the week to get my teeth done, and am trying to develop complexes about other body parts just so I can get them fixed too.

I have grown one healthy inferiority complex in Thailand. I’ve always believed that (although everyone in the world is equal, and all that), essentially Western European is the best race to be. We had The Greeks, Romans, and the Renaissance, the Alps, the Mediterranean, the best cars, the best looking and cleverest people, the tastiest food, and the best economy. Lately I’ve been having a big rethink, and although it’s too late for me now, I wish I was a bit more Asian. They have the best manner. I can see that quite clearly now.


  1. That's pretty much my thoughts exactly, except you seem to have gift with words which I lack! Glad you got around to getting Lasik

  2. hehe :-) No Mor Blood Pressure :-)

    Fun to read this story! Good luck with the eye drops & keep on writing!


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