|Now, I don't know about you, but if I had to list the five ailments I'd least like to be afflicted with in South America, toothache would definitely be in there. A bad case of diarrhea on a 24-hour bus journey, infectious boils that required lancing, or foot rot might potentially give it a run its money in the discomfort stakes but I still maintain that it would proudly hold its own and justify its place in that top five.
As you may have by now correctly guessed, I got toothache. It began as a dull, distant thud on the overnight bus to Arequipa and quickly crescendoed to something akin to slow, tortuous, knife-twisting agony by the time we'd checked into our hostel. Luckily Paul had stocked up on painkillers, so I grabbed one of everything and hoped it would disappear. Of course it didn't - this would have been a very short entry on the web page if it had - so, in the afternoon we went to a pharmacy where I was willingly sold a course of antibiotics. I would normally be a little hesitant about taking prescription drugs that hadn't been prescribed by a doctor, but the first on of these was swallowed before we even left the shop.
The following morning, having woken up twice in the night, and the painkillers having an ever-diminishing effect on the ever-increasing pain, we decided it was time to visit a dentist. So, clutching the side of my face, we asked at reception and they recommended a clinic. Glitzy and worryingly empty of waiting patients, I was told to come back at 4pm and was given two super-strong painkillers. These didn't work and the antibiotics didn't appear to be doing anything, so by the time we got back to the clinic, I was just about ready to attempt tooth extraction myself. There didn't seem to be any dentists on duty, just lots of receptionists running around and tending to the giant water feature. Eventually I was taken to a consultation room where I was greeted by a man who obviously got his skin and hair colour out of bottles and looked like he'd had his game of golf interrupted to be there. I asked the most important question first: 'Hablas Ingles?'. 'Yes, speak English' was the response. My relief was short-lived however, as it turned out that these were the only three words of English that he spoke. Brilliant, I was now being thrown into a degree-level Spanish lesson.
He examined my teeth - I pointed out that it was a tooth with a crown on that was causing the problem - and then he took and x-ray. Looking at it as if it was the first x-ray he'd ever seen, he eventually uttered the words 'bastante mal', meaning 'quite bad'. I asked if the crown would have to come off, or the tooth be removed and he just laughed and pointed at his bum. Not quite the response I'd expected from a man who'd supposedly spent six years training for the right to prod peoples' teeth. I eventually gathered that he was prescribing a stronger antibiotic, one which had to be injected in your bum. And did I come back to the clinic for the injection? No, apparently Paul would have the honour. So, clutching my prescription and x-ray (he'd stapled it to a piece of paper and signed it so I could keep it as a souvenir), I went back to the waiting area to break the news to Paul. As you can imagine, he was less than thrilled at the prospect of performing a minor medical procedure, but we went to a nearby pharmacy to buy the injections. Now, as luck would have it, she didn't stock them and, on calling around, found out that there were none in the whole of Arequipa. I could see the relief on Paul's face, but it now meant we were in the same dilemma as before.
A quick search on the Internet secured numbers for dentists who'd been recommended by people, so we went to a payphone. There was no answer at the first place and when I dialed the second one, a girl answered. I asked if there was a dentist I could come and see and she said her dad was a dentist and if we came to her house she'd take us to him. I've no idea how we ended up getting through to her home number, but by this time desperate (it was 7pm), we took down the address and jumped in a cab. She was waiting outside her house, got in and introduced herself as Natalie. She spoke English but her dad didn't, so she was going to translate, so this was definitely a step in the right direction.
The two-room operation was the antithesis of the clinic. Moulds of teeth were piled up on tables, posters of teeth and dental problems lined the walls and Peruvian love songs played on a dusty radio in the corner. I was ushered onto the chair and, after a quick examination, Doctor Percy (his real name) announced that the first thing he'd have to do was remove the crown. Now, I'm no expert but this would have been my own personal diagnosis and I nodded in anticipatory relief as Natalie translated the happy words for me. The relief soon dissolved into fear as I saw the draconian-looking instrument he was planning on using to do this. A huge metal contraption, it was basically like an extending bar, one end of which fitted around the crown, and the other was pulled in and out, hammering it, until it came out. With no opportunity to resist, and before I quite realised what was going on, my jaw was being subjected to a fierce pounding, as Doctor Percy hammered away. At this point, I had visions of a Tom and Jerry cartoon outcome, whereby all my teeth would fall out and scatter over the floor, apart from the problem one, which would remain rooted in my jaw, refusing to budge. The hammering stopped and all teeth were intact, so he tried again and this time the crown fell out into his hand. I don't know if it was because I now had a headache, or whether the painkillers were working, or whether I just wanted to trust that Doctor Percy knew what he was doing, but the pain definitely eased after that. Until the injections that is.
No gentle treatment in Peru, that needle was going into my gum, so no point messing around. I think my gargled gasps and electric shock jumps off the chair alerted him to my discomfort but he continued. At this point a couple of family friends dropped by for a chat, so now there's me, Doctor Percy and a dental nurse, Natalie translating and Peruvian couple, all crowded into the tiny treatment room and I can't really show too much cowardice, so I smile and gargle 'hello' to the Peruvian couple as Doctor Percy chats and continues prodding about, and Natalie tunes the radio in to something a bit more lively. Next come the mini screwdrivers. He holds them up to inspect them, so I get a good look and can't quite believe that these are going into my mouth - well, into my gum to be exact. 'Screwdrivers' may give you a slightly exaggerated image, but they were metal and had threads on so they could be twisted and screwed into my gum. Luckily the injections were working and I couldn't feel much, but Doctor Percy obviously thought Paul might be feeling left out, so Natalie called him in and he showed him what he was doing and now the room was crowded.
I'm still not quite sure what the mini screwdrivers were for, but another x-ray was taken then he took them out, wrote me a prescription for different antibiotics and told me to return the next day. There were handshakes and kisses all round as we left, which was not something I'm usually accustomed to after a dental appointment, but then there were a lot of firsts that evening.
Seven days and six dental appointments with Doctor Percy later and I'm hoping that the end is in sight and we can leave here soon!
We whiled away the days between appointments by exploring Arequipa which, although a nice city (the second-biggest in Peru) didn't really warrant a week's worth of exploring. It's a colonial city, though most of the original buildings have been destroyed over the years by various earthquakes, which still affect the city - in fact we were woken up in the middle of the other night to a small earthquake lasting about ten seconds! It was quite surreal, with the room shaking and the windows rattling, but I guess it must happen all the time, as no one seemed too bothered and we just went back to sleep.
I get the impression that Doctor Percy is very much of the old-school dental approach, but really, some days I've had two appointments and Paul is getting through books like there's going to be an international call-back on all paperbacks to re-supply the world's depleting paper resources. Anyway, we're all like old friends now, and when Natalie isn't around, there's lots of laughing and semi understanding of what's going on, as he continues inserting the mini screwdrivers into my gums with, it has to be said, more nods and 'buenos' these days than sombre shakes of the head and 'mal, mal', so I think we're progressing slightly.
Tomorrow is D-day and we'll be seeing if his ancient treatments have done the trick or if I will lose the tooth, so it's fingers crossed all round. The thought of exposing a huge, ugly gap in my mouth every time I break into a smile for the next who knows how many months until I can get a tooth implant, doesn't sound like fun - time to practise the Mona Lisa smirk I think, just in case!