How and where I spent my coming of age by Roger Knight
Sometimes events that occur in our lives, even though they may have been long ago, are worthy of writing about, because of their impact that reverberates over time, and writing about our experiences can reframe them, making them even more meaningful than what they might have been at the time.
Recalling them is to relive them again, as the memories come flooding back in cinematic detail which the passing years have not dulled.
In 1972 I was a first-year university student and eager to see the world. How I ended up that year in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea is another story but suffice it to say it was the worst place in the world to become ill.
This was mostly due to its limited health care structure and the number of potential hazards that existed there, not the least of which were the Rascal gangs renowned for their kidnapping and murder sprees. Most expatriate homes had guard dogs and emergency exits, so that when the gangs came calling you had some chance of survival. They were known for literally smashing their way into your home, so you had very little time to make good your escape. Out of the blue though quite apart from this threat, I succumbed to some tropical malaise. I developed a raging fever and the salivary glands in my neck became grossly enlarged. At night I would sweat profusely, and as if to add to the nightmare of not knowing what was wrong with me, the flying foxes with their saucer like eyes would stare through the mesh window screens that they clung on to as if to taunt me.
Back then Port Moresby had no general hospital, the only facility available was the leprosorium which had an out-patients department. And so, my girlfriend and I went along reluctantly, took a number on a card which was a repurposed morgue tag and waited our turn on the outside benches. Alongside us sat several lepers with their disfigured faces, some with missing body parts as well as women suckling piglets from their bare breasts. I felt by this time that I had stepped into a scene that Hieronymus Bosch might have painted which only increased my sense of dread and fateful resignation. Having just turned 21, this was far too young to be felled by some tropical disease. On a table where the nurse sat was a jar full of thermometers sitting in what I presumed to be some sort of disinfectant. She proceeded to place a thermometer that she had withdrawn from the jar into my mouth. I remember recoiling in horror pleading with her to see the doctor while still clutching my morgue tag which had become sweat sodden. Eventually I got to see a young Australian doctor, who on examining me pronounced some differential diagnosis which included TB, which made me shudder. He recommended that I return to Brisbane, but as a student I did not have the means and anyway I was ticketed back to London.
After a rather daunting and disappointing visit to the leprasorium, which I had no desire to return to, my girlfriend's father took me to see a private Chinese doctor who prescribed what may have been antibiotics. Whatever those little red tablets were, my enlarged glands began to subside, and I eventually became afebrile and thankfully made a full recovery.
After a three month stay which had included several close calls with stonefish, crocodiles, spear holding tribesmen, though fortunately no Rascals, I considered myself extremely lucky to have survived this ordeal as well.
It was not without some relief then, boarding that Qantas V jet to Hong Kong that my PNG adventure was over. In hindsight this experience may have been an example of my nascent resilience being put to the test, a test that I would hope has stood me in good stead ever since. I was reminded of that quote by Abbe Sieyes when asked afterward what he had done during the reign of terror during the French Revolution, famously replied, J’ai vecu [I stayed alive] at least that was the exaggerated comparison that came to mind as we hurtled down the runway and we began to leave PNG behind as we became airborne.