I only have eight days in London.
I have just returned from a grueling two weeks in Uganda for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, travelling the length and breadth of the country (over 2000km by car in eight days) visiting sleeping sickness treatment centres and control programs.
The trip was fraught with difficulties and now I’m home and those two weeks of working abroad seems like child’s play. Child’s play, because in eight days I leave for nine months in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan.
Four weeks ago I received an email from Brigitte in HR at MSF UK entitled ‘A possible interesting role for you?’ which was rapidly succeeded by my Googling ‘Pray tell, where is Uzbekistan???’
And now I have eight days to say goodbye to my family, friends and my partner of four years, Pete. Eight days to pretend I am finally going to finish a heap of overdue reports and papers and chapters. Eight days to pack for a climate that will range from -35°C in winter to +50°C in summer (when I possess the world’s most impractical wardrobe). Eight days to sort out all my subscriptions, prescriptions, vaccinations, visa applications, dentition, buy nine months supply of toiletries, sort out the mess that is my finances, remind the council to please fix my leaking roof, read everything ever published on multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, meet with potential research collaborators,… I take a couple of deeps breaths. I tell myself ‘everything will be okay’.
What on Earth am I doing?
And then I remember. Twice whilst I was in Uganda, the distinctive MSF Toyota land-cruiser, adorned with MSF flag and stickers and no weapons logos and giant radio antenna zoomed past me and I got butterflies in my tummy. Knights in white-shining-T-shirts, heroically saving lives against the odds and whilst being jolly nice and morally upstanding all at the same time. ‘That’s going to be me in a few weeks’, I would think, nauseated with excitement. I’ve wanted to work for MSF for as long for as long as I have wanted to be a doctor. This will be the experience of a lifetime. I plug Nukus (the city in which I will be based) into my smart phone weather app: a balmy -2°C. I pull on my flimsy jacket and head to my nearest outdoors suppliers.
The following day I get an email from Jessica – an American doctor who by coincidence worked for MSF in Karakalpakstan five years earlier, with whom a mutual friend has put me in touch with: ‘You won’t be able to buy tampons locally for love nor money’. 30 minutes later I’m standing in the middle of an aisle in my local supermarket with so many toiletries in my basket that I can no longer pick it up. I look at the three litres of hair conditioner I’m planning on purchasing and tell myself ‘think more Paul Farmer and less Victoria Beckham’. The cashier doesn’t flicker an eyelid as he scans through the 280 tampons. I arrive home to an email from Johanna, the Swedish current MSF doctor from whom I take over: ‘Last winter there was ice on the inside of the windows and the ink in my pen froze so I couldn’t write.’ I put my coat back on and head back to the local outdoors shop for more supplies.
That evening I’m sitting on the bathroom floor transferring a half-empty bottle of sun cream into another bottle of sun cream. Manufacturers are very inconsiderate for those of us who are frantically trying to pack as light and compact as possible and sell us bottles of product only half full. After three minutes there is more sun cream on my hands, face, trousers and floor than in either bottle. Both Pete and I have recently read ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’, Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ autobiography. I say to Pete that I feel like Sir Ranulph packing for an expedition. Pete points out that Sir Ranulph probably has people to decant his bottles of sun cream for him.
Pete tells me there are last minute plans for us to have supper at the house of Helen and Paul, good friends that live nearby. We set out and he receives a pre-planned and staged call saying that dinner is not yet ready and lets meet at their local pub to have a pre-dinner drink.
We enter the pub…
Friends from every stage of my life are there to send me off. They have come clutching useful and thoughtful gifts: an ereader, a Russian dictionary, books on the ‘Stans, a set of dominoes to befriend old men, a moleskin diary. Ant, a friend who spent a year working Kazakstan and whose emphatic stories about his time there convinced me to take the Uzbek mission, has carefully printed out key phrases in Russian for me:
My name is Emily
Menya zavut Emily
I am working as a doctor with MSF
Ya rabotayu doctorum s Medecins Sans Frontieres
No I do not have a work permit
Niet, u menya niet rabochniy rasresheniye
Oh, you are a police officer?
O, ti Polizeyski?
I am an intern with MSF
Ya prachazhu stazhirovku c Medicins Sans Frontieres
All my friends keep hugging me and say that they cannot believe I am going for so long and say that they are going to miss me, but they are so impressed and proud of me and I’m actually doing what everyone talks about doing but no-one actually does and that it will be the most amazing adventure… But I feel like they’re referring to someone else, surely this isn’t me they’re talking about? It just feels very surreal.
In the following days there are frantic last minute phone calls and meetings; visas, contracts and flights are sorted; copies of my passport and emergency contact numbers are circulated; goodbyes are said; and cheesy pictures of Pete and I hugging are printed for my new bedroom wall. It’s arranged that I will fly to Bonn for a week’s ‘Preparation Primary Departure Course’ before flying directly onto Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
And before you can say ‘independent and neutral humanitarian medical aid organisation’ I am at the check-in at Heathrow airport… Well here we go!