The Race for a Rabies Vaccine in Indonesia
“We don’t have rabies vaccine right now.” The words sting more than the bite did, and my stomach twists with anxiety. “You can try calling BIMC Hospital in Kuta.” My motorbike taxi driver hands me his cell phone, and I am promptly met with the same story on the other line. A dozen calls later, and the reality of my situation begins to set in — there are no rabies vaccines anywhere on Bali. If I don’t make it back to Jakarta by nightfall, I risk infection. When you’re dealing with rabies, infection is almost always fatal. I sprint down the street in search of a taxi to take me to Denpasar Airport. Time is running out.
Just hours before my day had started on the highest of notes. I woke up in a beautiful, $35 private villa in the center of Ubud just seven days into a solo trek through Indonesia. I’d spent the past week in crowded minibuses and hostel dormitories on Java, and decided I would live a little more lavishly on Bali as a reward. After a quiet breakfast on Monkey Forest Street in the center of town, I decided to go explore the thoroughfare’s namesake. It would be the beginning of the end of my trip.
The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud is one of the most popular attractions for backpackers and honeymooners on Bali, and one of the very best places to come face-to-face with the country’s population of macaque monkeys, if you’re into that kind of thing (spoiler alert: you should not be into that kind of thing). To make matters more enticing, the entrance fee is cheap, only 20,000 rupiah ($1.36 USD). I was too curious to miss my chance, returning as soon as it had opened for the day.
Upon walking through the gate I was immediately approached by one of the sanctuary’s many workers with a basket of bananas. For just 10,000 rupiah I could have a bundle, she told me, and with a bundle I could make plenty of friends here. How do you say no? Seconds later the first of many macaques leapt out of the trees and onto my shoulders to test my generosity. Just like that, I was king of the jungle. A whole forest of macaques were crouching silently across the forest, waiting for me to ring the veritable dinner bell.
Over the course of the next hour I explored the better part of the complex and enjoyed more than a dozen micro-interactions with the macaques. The place, to me, looked and felt like the set of a post-apocalyptic science fiction film— ancient stone temples accessible only to the local monkey population, and scores of (human) workers hard at work chiseling new macaque statues in tribute. It quickly became obvious that we were not in control here. In the monkey forest power rests in much smaller, wilder hands.
On my way out I checked my messenger bag and noticed two remaining bananas at the bottom. I took a seat near the entrance and waited for one last monkey to come test his luck. It didn’t take long. The macaque, one of the biggest I’d seen so far, immediately sat next to me and began fishing receipts out of my pocket. The experience was silly and novel, and I couldn’t help but gaze at the spectacle. Huge mistake. You never, ever look a monkey in the eye. Macaques view it as an act of aggression, and an aggressive macaque is dangerous in more than a few ways.
In the blink of an eye, the macaque grabbed my arm, bit down hard on my elbow, and ran off into the forest. By the time I registered what had happened, the damage was already done. My right elbow instantaneously turned a dark shade of purple, blood trickling out of a small open wound in the center. I rushed to the entrance, where the forest staff told me they’d fetch me some tissue paper if I waited a few minutes. Horrified by the proposed treatment plan, I ran back to my hotel and vigorously washed it out with soap and water before applying a fresh coat of Neosporin.
It was not enough, Google informed me. In Ubud there is a high incidence of rabies in the wild dog population, and while no one has ever (reportedly) contracted rabies from a monkey in the sacred forest, I was not going to be the first. In order to ensure protection, I needed my first doses of rabies immune globulin and rabies vaccine within 24 hours of getting bitten. Unfortunately, this was not going to be an easy—or affordable—endeavor.
I rush down a small alley I’ll use as a shortcut to bring me back to the center of town, where it’ll be easier to find a ride. Halfway through, a man with a plain sheet of paper reading “Taksi!” calls out to me. I don’t have time to weigh the risks of choosing his car hire service, which seems to be operating in the most undesirable of locations. So, I walk over to him. We do some quick negotiating and within minutes I am off to Denpasar Airport to find a one way ticket back to Jakarta.
My driver, I Made, ends up speaking great english, some of the best I’ve heard on the trip so far. I learn he has just launched a taxi company in Ubud, and is only allowed to advertise in untrafficked alleys until he works his way up to the more crowded streets. He’s visited Southern California before, too, he tells me, as a worker on a Carnival Cruise ship. We form an immediate bond, and I Made spends the better part of the drive making calls to try to find me a vaccine on Bali before I buy a ticket.
He is unsuccessful, but we arrive in Denpasar quickly. As I grab for my wallet, it hits me—I don’t have any cash. I haven’t had any since I lost my primary debit card back in Yogyakarta several days before. I’d brought another one on the trip to serve as a dummy card (thinking it would entice and trick street thieves), but my bank transfer hadn’t cleared yet, so there wasn’t a dime on it. I tell I Made my situation, and ask him if I can use his phone to call my bank. He graciously hands it over, and I get to work.
The next 15 minutes are a spectacle that seems stranger and stranger every time I think back on it. I’m in front of Denpasar airport, downloading Skype on a stranger’s phone to launch a three-way call between my banks to convince them that approving an emergency transfer could very well save my life. Somehow, someway, I’m successful, and the money clears instantly. I pull out some money from a nearby ATM and rush back to I Made, who has been waiting for nearly 30 minutes at this point.
My new friend wishes me well and hands me his business card. “You come back to Bali after your shot,” he says. “I can pick you up anytime.” I thank him for his incredible generosity, rush toward the entrance, and am promptly halted by a uniformed security guard. “You cannot buy plane tickets inside,” he tells me. “Okay, then where do I buy one?” I ask. He points to a plainclothes man leaning against a nearby pillar with a friend. The “scam alarm” in my head begins to go off once again, but I can’t afford to listen to it today.
I tell the man I need to get on the next available flight to Jakarta, that it’s a matter of life or death for me. He pulls out a prepaid cell phone, the kind you see criminals and fugitives use in fast-paced television dramas, and punches in a message. I’ve made a mistake. “Okay, there is a Lion Air flight in 45 minutes,” he tells me. “You pay me 1,000,000 rupiah, cash.” He can’t be serious. It takes everything I have to push my skepticism aside, but I am a desperate man, and I know my only chance of reaching Jakarta comes at the price of trusting these people.
I pull 1,000,000 rupiah ($68.40) out of a nearby ATM and reluctantly hand it to the plainclothes man. He passes me the cell phone, and tells me to bring it inside to the check-in counter. The absurdity of it all is almost enough to break my completely, but something inside me tells me it will be okay. The security guard from earlier motions for me to follow him through a backdoor, and within seconds I’m at the counter watching a ticket print out. This is just how things are done here, I remind myself. These people are doing everything in their power to help me, and this is simply what it takes.
45 minutes later, I am soaring over Java toward Jakarta. I’ll land at 6:30pm local time, I’m told, and the clinic I’ve pegged closes at 8. It’s going to be close. I arrive (surprisingly) on schedule and hop into a Blue Bird Taxi that will take me to Global Doctor Jakarta. I’m so close I can feel the intramuscular needle prick. As we crawl out of the airport parking lot my heart sinks. Traffic’s at a standstill as far as the eye can see. I remember I’m in the worst place on earth for emergency taxi rides — in Jakarta, you can’t afford to be in a rush… ever.
After a grueling 1.5 hours, we arrive at Global Doctor, just after 8pm. I sprint inside, but it’s too late. The receptionist informs me the doctor has just left for the night, and that I’ll need to come back tomorrow. For me, it is the K.O. I’ve managed to narrowly dodge all day. As I drop my bags and bury my head in my hands, a member of the janitorial staff tells me there’s another clinic nearby that may have the vaccine — SOS Jakarta. He offers to take me there by motorbike right away. Indonesia is coming to my rescue yet again.
We pull into SOS just moments later. I thank the driver profusely and force a 20,000 rupiah tip into his hands. I walk inside and feel a wave of calm rush over me. The clinic’s staff promptly set me up with a bed and prepare the immune globulin, five doses of it based on my weight, and the rabies vaccine. The bill will come to roughly $3000 USD, I’m told, but money is the very last thing on my mind. “It’s okay!” I tell them. “I have comprehensive travel insurance—I think.”
After 7 painful injections, the nightmare is over. As I wait for a taxi to take me to a nearby hostel, the doctor who administered my shots approaches me. “We are one of only two clinics in Jakarta that regularly stocks rabies immune globulin,” he tells me (Global Doctor was not one of them). “How did you find us?” I think back on the eclectic cast of characters who helped me get here, and my lips curl into a smile. “Trust me, I had nothing to do with it,” I reply.
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