medicine 202: bamboo and machete wounds in a Thai jungle

Jessie and I spent six months in Thailand from October 2011 through April 2012. (We did a six week winter camp in Korea in the middle of it all.) Most of our time was spent at The Bamboo School, located in the jungle just on the Thai side of the Myanmar border, where we assisted 50~60 children in doing their daily chores, learning English, driving them to and from the local school, and accomplishing many work projects. One of the many things we like about this place is that we get to live in a bamboo hut. It’s a pretty unique experience. We have salamanders crawling all through the thatch ceiling. We have a brisk bucket shower that could shake the sleepiness out of anyone! We also have floors that periodically give way when you step on them. Both of us have experienced the shocking sensation of putting our foot down and the next thing we know we’re planted clear to half-hamstring in the floorboards! Bamboo is a very strong plant. However, after it’s cut from the earth it ages relatively quickly.

When we arrived in October I found myself thrown headlong into a work project of replacing the entire floor of one of the visitor huts. Luckily, I had a skilled worker to help me. Porsue, one of the oldest children there (and by child I mean he was barely under 18) was my guide. Actually if truth be told, he did most of the work. I fumbled around with the machete and the hammer and the drill trying to replicate his work, while he effortlessly worked the bamboo from tree to flooring.

The most exciting part of this tropical Do-It-Yourself zero budget project was obtaining the bamboo. Porsue and I would hop into the old pickup, drop the gear into first, and crawl off through the crazy jungle dirt roads. Every time we went the roads were different, changed by perpetual flash floods that rocketed down the hill slopes and tore giant rips into the surface. Our truck clawed over them like a determined lion on the chase. But we could only drive so far. Eventually, we’d park and head up a steep hill (that’s where the best bamboo grows) with machetes, saws and rope.

Porsue would examine the bamboo and point to the ones we needed. At first I thought he was playing games with me. I’d say, “How about this one?” and he’d reply, “No good.” But over the course of several visits I started to notice the small differences between the variety of bamboos, and learned that each type had its own specific uses. We needed the strongest kind that could hold the weight of people walking on it month after month. The biggest giveaway for that type is that it tends to develop a white residue on its surface when it reaches a mature age.

In just a few trips I evolved from the tentative foreigner who walked in every one of Porsue’s footsteps to the annoying foreigner who thinks he knows everything there is about the jungle. I was hacking recklessly into bamboo, sweating profusely in the moist hot jungle air, and beating mosquitos off my back with a whip I’d fashioned from the undergrowth. Porsue would see a good trunk,  take four swings, and it would be on the ground. Meanwhile I’d be chopping at a trunk several meters away for over a minute before it cracked and fell. In two hours we’d have 25 trees lying in a pile on the crest of the hill. Then we’d measure out 15 feet in length using the ol’ fingertip to elbow ruler, and saw off the ends of each trunk.

I learned an unforgettable lesson on the very first log that I cut. I’d gotten through most of the bamboo but the saw was getting stuck at the last part. It was stubbornly holding on and the weight of the bamboo was pinching the saw, making it impossible to move. So I turned the log over and cracked it by stomping on it. But the break wasn’t clean, so I had to pull off a small tag that was sticking off the end. I grabbed it and yanked my hand up. And then blood started spurting out of my forefinger like a geyser.

Bamboo is very very very very sharp. When its edges are exposed, it cuts through skin like its jelly. I held the skin on my finger shut but the blood kept dribbling out. I was in a mild shock so I didn’t think to scream. I was just staring at my wound and thinking about if I would have enough energy to walk down the hill and drive myself to the nearest clinic. After several minutes Porsue looked over and saw my reddened hand. He laughed and shook his head. I felt so stupid explaining to him how I’d nearly sliced my finger off. He told me to wait a minute, disappeared into the jungle, and was back in no time with a handful of some leafy green plant. He wadded the bundle up in his hands, mushing it into a small ball. Then he squeezed the liquid from it into my cut and put the green poultice across the cut. Within a few minutes the pain was dulled and the bleeding had stopped.

I opened the cut to see how deep it was. It had gone almost down to the bone, but luckily it had missed the nerve. I was surprised at how well that plant had relieved the pain and clotted the blood. Porsue smiled at me and said, “It’s a medicine plant. It works better than a bandage.” I plugged the gash back up with a new poultice and we went back to work. After the bamboo trunks were all cut to the right length, we bound them together in groups of five. Then came the hard part: we had to hoist the end of a bundle onto our shoulder and drag it down the hill to the truck. The whole process was definitely a full body workout!

We finished the hut floor in a few days and I felt so accomplished that I’d learned tropical carpentry. As for my finger, it healed completely without any complications or scarring in just a few weeks.

The next time we went out to chop bamboo, I brought Jessie along because she really wanted to give it a try. I was prepared with work gloves that had rubberized fingers this time. They worked perfectly at keeping the bamboo from slicing our hands. But Jessie found the chink in their armor: she inadvertently chopped her finger with her machete. It was almost the exact situation I’d had earlier. I swung into action, combing the underbrush for that plant and fixing her a poultice. I was a hero! My days of jungle training had paid off!

bamboo 1