The nurse gave me a sympathetic look over her glasses. I was in the clinic of a remote atoll trying to figure out a chronic ear infection. Unfortunately, my next step was to go see a specialist in Tahiti – an hour away by plane. The next morning, I walked to the local airport, a cozy one-room house next to a strip of runway. There was no security. Walking straight from the ticket counter to a set of glass doors, I found myself on the runway facing a tiny plane.
An hour later I was in Tahiti. Rain streamed down the windows, and a large bucket of umbrellas waited at the foot of the airplane steps. The clinic was a forty-minute walk, so I tied a trash bag around my backpack, and threw a rain jacket over the whole ensemble. Despite the drizzle, I enjoyed the journey. Compared to the remote villages I’d been exploring lately, Tahiti was bustling and colorful. I found the hospital easily and squished my way into reception. The room was tiled and dead silent. Four or five people sat waiting, but there wasn’t a whisper of sound. My wet shoes squeaked on the tile as I began to untie the trash bag from around my backpack. Each crinkle echoed in my ears. Draping the wet bag over my sodden jacket, I eased myself into a chair to await my appointment.
A nurse led me down a corridor and into another reception area. Several hospital beds were pushed up against one wall, the occupants staring dully at the ceiling. A round counter in the center contained a few nurses. I was shown into a small room and left alone. After a few minutes, the staff from the desk began taking turns peeking into my room. I stared back at them, amused by our mutual desire for distraction. Eventually, one of them indicated that I should follow a nurse who was wheeling one of the beds out of reception. He didn’t glance behind him, and I walked a few steps back, looking around to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood the French instructions.
Nobody called out to me, so I tailed him down a hallway, into an elevator, and through a mostly unlit corridor. At a junction, the nurse passed off the bed to a college and turned around. Did I follow the bed, or the nurse? Catching my confused expression, the nurse indicated that I follow the bed. He gave me a smile, then disappeared back into the unlit corridor. The occupant of the bed was a middle-aged man. His bare feet curled underneath his body, and his face was impassively blank. I wondered if we were going to the same specialist. The new nurse drew me deeper into the maze and eventually deposited me and the bed next to a closed door in the middle of a long dark hallway. She instructed me to wait until my name was called.
Eventually, I was admitted to the ear specialist, who examined me with a complicated machine and gave me a happy diagnosis. He then shooed me out of the room, telling me to go back to reception. I waved goodbye to the man in the bed, then walked back down the corridor and almost immediately got lost. After a few minutes of wandering aimlessly through hallways, I ran into a security guard, who led me to another nurse. The nurse glanced at my papers and then made a call on his phone: “I have the American.”
The nurse led me back the reception area with the round counter. He handed me off, saying proudly: “Here’s the American!” Finally processed, I walked back into the light of day. The whole hospital visit, which included seeing a doctor, a specialist, and purchasing medication, cost under $200 without insurance. It was well worth the trip.