Late one afternoon, I twisted my ankle.
It happened whilst I was descending a short flight of stone steps in the temple at Karnak, just outside the city of Luxor. In the fading light, mesmerised by the massive stone columns all around me, the largest in the ancient world, I missed a step, stumbled and fell.
When I got up, my ankle hurt.
That night, back in my room, it began swelling up.
I was staying in a seedy end of Luxor, in a low budget hotel. It reminded me of Old Dehli; there was a maze of narrow streets thronging with people and traffic. I liked the area. It was boisterous, run down, and colourful. It was a place where one could get pleasantly lost in, especially in the evenings, when it was cool and everyone appeared on the streets.
But that evening, I couldn’t go anywhere.
The pain in my ankle was searing.
I hobbled to a small backstreet restaurant but half way through my meal, with the pain throbbing in my ankle, I realised I needed medical attention. It occurred to me that I might have broken my ankle and it that was the case, then my trip was over.
The owner of the restaurant ordered me a taxi and told the driver to take me to the casuality department of the nearest hospital.
All I needed was a doctor. But I was in no mood to argue the point. The taxi appeared and away we went ……
The taxi driver hurtled down a rabbit warren of narrow back lanes lined with small shops and cafes and milling with people. He seemed determined to kill me before we got to the hospital.
It was a surrealistic journey.
After what seemed like a prolonged tour of every back alley in the old part of Luxor, I was let out near the hospital. There were cars and people everywhere. There was a large mosque and a bazaar. I was completely lost.
Then I saw the hospital.
I hobbled towards the entrance and was accosted by a man who spoke English and assured me that he worked at the hospital as an orderly and was off-duty.
This might have been true but on the other hand it might have been complete nonsense. A westerner on his own, limping, lost, represented a golden opportunity.
I believed him in any case and thought that I had had a stroke of luck.
His English was reasonable, but he had a problem with his verbs. For example he told me that his wife died next year – I presume he meant last year – but then again, it’s also possible that he wasn’t married at all.
Inside the hospital it was pandemonium, a byzantine world of women of all different ages, dressed from head to foot in jet black, crowding the passageways with screaming children in tow or sitting next to aged parents or parents-in- law. The walls were grimy, the floors dusty, there was no equipment to be seen and no nurses.
He led me passed all these women and their kids and old people and I felt guilty; I was evidently going to the head of the cue.
This wasn’t right.
On the other hand, I badly wanted to find out what was going on with my ankle.
None of the doctors spoke any English. The only person who spoke English was my orderly and he kept on speaking to me in future tense.
‘You will break your leg’
‘I have hurt my ankle’ – pointing at my ankle and saying ‘er, this is an ANKLE’
‘Alright, yeah, ‘
‘You will break it.’
‘I have broken it’
‘You will need doctor’
He told me that the doctors at the hospital ‘will be his friends’.
They certainly would be after I paid the bill.
I was taken to an empty room lit by a fluorescent tube where black clad women tended old sick relatives.
Then I stood in a line for the x ray machine which looked like it might have been one of the very first models made.
Later, the ‘orderly’ led me to another room where there was a bed, a bowl and a desk. Nothing else.
In the corridors, kids wailed at the top of their lungs.
A doctor appeared with the x ray and announced that there were no broken bones but the ankle was badly sprained. It had to be put in plaster.
The ankle was wrapped in bandage. A white mixture was stirred up in a bowl and applied to the bandage. Whilst this was happening there was an ongoing conversation between the ‘orderly’ and the doctors – probably to work out how much everyone was going to get from the westerner.
My ankle in plaster, I was taken to the cashier, an old man behind a little counter.
The bill came to 110 Euros – an enormous amount in Egyptian pounds.
This was a gouge job, but since it was going on insurance I didn’t care too much. I made sure in any case I got a receipt. At this point I was relieved that nothing had been broken.
Accompanied by the ‘orderly’ who chattered 15 to the dozen in future tense, I went outside and got into a taxi and we went to the nearby bazaar to get a sandal to put my plastered foot into. After getting my foot into the sandal, we went out into the busy street to a pharmacy in order to buy an anti- inflammatory. On the way we passed a mosque where the call to prayer was going up and hundreds of men were prostrating themselves on the pavements.
We got a taxi back to my hotel; I paid the taxi driver way too much and gave the orderly 30 Euros. He had done well for himself (and he had obviously got his cut from the bill at the hospital).
Late that night, I dreamt that a mummy was knocking on my door and demanding to come in. I yelled out to the mummy that I couldn’t get up because my ankle was in plaster.
‘So am I!’ yelled the mummy, voice rich with indignation.
My experience in Luxor, whilst memorable and in hindsight, amusing, was soon relegated to the past. Over the following years, travelling in many different parts of the world, it vanished from my consciousness.
Then one day, out of the blue, it appeared before me vividly.
At the time I was lying on my back with my eyes closed.
Once again, as a casualty.
This time however in a very different place.