Welcome to Colombo!

Touchdown, and the journey here feels like a story on its own. It took me 33 hours in total by the time I outlasted my many connections and layovers. Singapore was full of heat sensors throughout the airport, and it seems like this coronavirus threat is starting to increase. Stepping off the plane, everyone had a mask on.

The wave of heat descends on you walking through the terminal at Bandaranaike International. I couldn’t help but smile despite feeling the sweat bead on my forehead. Having grown up in Asia as a kid, it felt more like home than anything. But that was a long time ago, and I knew I was in for a little culture shock regardless.

The gorgeous Uni of Sri Jayawardenapura medical campus

I dodged a few people trying to scam me with an expensive taxi, bought a SIM card, and jumped in an Uber. Next stop: My hostel! The first thing that hits as you drive into Colombo is just how frantic everything is. Cars take daring passes, swerving through rows of heavily customised tuktuks, and people fill every space of the street. My eyes jump from one thing to another faster than I can take it all in. It really is sweltering, and the driver told me that we’re currently in an unexpected drought that’s dragged on for months now. The feeling of swimming while walking would be easy to simulate from back home. Just step out of your shower and put your clothes on without drying off!

In Dunedin we wear shorts in snow; here you wear a suit in a drought

Looking out the windows, I’m surprised by how formally everyone dresses here despite the temperatures – no shorts, and hardly any tees in sight. I’m told this is the Buddhist influence, and that it’s not respectful to skimp on the formal pants and shirts. I’m conflicted, because I’ve been used to carefully ‘dressing down’ when overseas to avoid making myself a bigger target, but I need to be presentable for the hospital so there’s going to be no avoiding the formalwear. Although of it’s always wise to stay alert as someone who inescapably sticks out like a sore thumb here, people are incredibly warm, hospitable, and polite. I won’t go looking for it, but I don’t feel in any danger.

I kicked off in parasitology under Dr Shalinda Ranasinghe right on the University of Sri Jayawardenapura campus, who sketched out a big plan for my week here. It’s a short bus ride away from my room, so I’m sure I’ll get used to the pathfinding. Parasitology is primarily taught in preclinical years here, and it’s a welcome perspective shift to see things that would be considered ‘tropical medicine’ in New Zealand, being a minor part of our course, are here simply… medicine. I was initially concerned that I would miss out by getting less patient contact this week, those fears were soon allayed when I saw the huge library of samples available to study. I’ll be spending the week peering

Schistosoma, or blood flukes, which affect 200 million people worldwide

through slide after slide and flask after case of unique disease vectors and parasites I’ve never seen before, including tapeworms (Taenia spp.), nematodes (roundworm, hookworm, whipworm, pinworm, and Strongyloides), Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum, Wuchereria bancrofti and Brugia malayi, Schistosoma, Cryptosporidium, mydriatic flies, a variety of parasite hosting mosquitos (Anopheles, Aedes, and Mansonia), the deadly snakes found here (Russel’s vipers, green-pit vipers, saw-scale vipers, cobras, and Indian and Sri Lankan kraits) and many more. A fleet of the parasitology team has been dispatched to explain what I’m seeing, help me set up the microscopes, and even focus multiple slides for me at once so I can zip through the stations. It feels a bit over-generous, but I’m very grateful for the help. After graduating, the local doctors take up teaching positions until they start their work, and several newly minted docs have become my mentors, too. The junior doctors are very systematically integrated into the teaching process for the senior and younger students, rolling out MCQ guides and more which they all work on in a more formalised manner than I think we do.

The view from my window

I’ve never read about many of these diseases, so I have a lot of study to do. I’m doing my best to shoo people away back to their more important work, while I painfully make my way through ‘chapter one!’ I’m going through as much as I can; I’ve never enjoyed microscopy this much, but with the clinical context behind I’m looking at, I’ve found myself really enjoying identifying everything and (poorly) sketching them out.

So far so good at the lab, but they had a surprise waiting for me – an opportunity to visit the combined government Anti-Filariasis and Anti-Malaria Unit in nearby Werahara, and speak to people behind eradicating these diseases here. But first, I’ll have to figure out how I get there…