[ Pokhara, Nepal ]
It’s 11 o’clock on a crisp, chilly morning and I’m parked in a sunny corner of the local Coffee Culture—Pokhara’s blatant attempt to tease a cease and desist order from Starbucks’ legal department. Steamy wisps of piping hot espresso condense on my glasses, thwarting every attempt to decipher the KantipurDaily’s Nepali-language headlines. I’m awaiting a phone call—a summons to complete a dental procedure begun the previous morning—but having second thoughts.
During my fifteen-minute bike ride into the city’s center, a man named Datsu has called or messaged me thirteen times, warning me away from the dental clinic until further notice. Audibly shaken, he explains that his boss—who knows nothing of my ongoing treatment—has arrived at the clinic unannounced. “Big trouble if you show up !” he sez. It occurs to me that “boss” likely means “the dentist,” and I wonder again what I’ve gotten myself into. — Who is this guy? A dental assistant gone rogue, sneaking some experience? A junior practitioner looking to pocket some extra cash? A freelance sadist? — Yet here I sit, waiting, calmly amused, tongue reflexively probing the negative-spaced memory of yesterday’s lost crown.
I successfully translate “Road to the Next World Cup,” to my barista’s delight.
Message fourteen arrives; Datsu offering to meet me at Coffee Culture so we can “complete the procedure at my friend’s place.” Five minutes later he’s here, arriving on a black motorcycle, wearing black jeans, a black leather jacket, black helmet and boots. The whole thing reeks of something illicit, of a drug deal in progress.
Suppressing the discordant tintinnabulations of a thousand alarms, I climb onto the back of his motorcycle. We ride through a dizzying assortment of downtown’s major thoroughfares and back alleys, chatting along the way, stopping finally before a large, dull brown residential building—dirty, generic, anonymous. Inside, we wander a maze of unlit hallways and musty stairwells past an inner courtyard strewn with clotheslines and drying laundry. Datsu gives small, grunting nods of recognition to the residents, who eye me with unanimous suspicion. Eventually we turn a corner, halting in front of a darkened, dingy shop. A giant, hand-painted molar adorns the filthy window: “Dentist Office!” it announces helpfully, in peeling, faded Nepali script. Two men and a female receptionist await my arrival, surgical masks covering their faces. I’m motioned into an impossibly cramped patient area filled with a Cold War-era dental chair, a slowly dripping sink, a cabinet full of medical tools and supplies, and a gigantic battery nestled within an explosive riot of mad scientist’s wiring and gadgetry—protection from Pokhara’s frequent power outages. The receptionist remains outside (the words plausible deniability pop into my head), and I wonder if I’ll re-emerge with both kidneys. I’ve come too far to back out now. I take a deep breath and step inside….
DOWNTOWN POKHARA – 24 HOURS EARLIER
Surfing Mahendrapul’s bustling grid of street-level energies, TO-DO list in hand, chomping ill-manneredly on a wad of Karma Fresh Chewing Gum—The Reincarnation of Flavor®. Somewhere between stationer’s and supermarket I feel a strange clicking sensation. Oral. Left upper quadrant. My imagination? I attempt to reproduce the sensation immediately. (Chew—nope. Smack—nothing. Chomp—ahh, there it is!) Nothing painful, but something’s amiss; a tooth moves in its socket, ever so slightly, up and down. Loose crown? (Having hoped to avoid such scenarios in dentally ambiguous corners of the globe, I had replaced three before leaving the States.) I’m optimistic, imagining a bit of glue will return me on my merry way.
Turns out I’m standing directly across from the city’s highest concentration of dental professionals, diverse signage trumpeting qualifications far beyond my nascent linguistic abilities to evaluate. I stand looking, rhythmically smacking my gum so the tooth gets stuck, then creating a vacuum so it falls free and clicks back into place.
If the next car is BLUE, I’ll have to choose YOU,
If a RED car’s in sight, I’ll choose to go RIGHT,
If the next car is BLACK, I’ll turn and go BACK
This is not helpful. I’m stalling. So I choose a modern-looking storefront—i.e. a freshly painted sign partially in English, clean windows, the word “Root Canal” prominently displayed—and enter. It’s the middle of a rolling black-out. Classic Nepal. Without electricity, the reception area is dark, empty aside from a youngish woman sporting a de rigueur surgical mask and noticeably surprised to see a foreigner inside the shop. I show her my loose crown. Nodding, she leads me into a back room, where I vaguely see the twinkling, pristine outlines of a brand new, modern dentistry chair through the room’s darkness. Excellent. She then runs out of the shop, barking rapid-fire Nepali into her mobile, returning with a baby-faced twenty-something in tow. (Maybe thirty. Counting dog years.) Clearly not the clinic’s proprietor.
Unable to see anything in the diffuse sunlight leaking in from the antechamber, this young acolyte reaches into his pocket, producing an iPhone. He deftly switches it to flashlight mode and hands it to the assistant, who illuminates my gaping maw as this unknown gentleman of unknown credentials takes a look. He wiggles the crown, yanks a bit, pokes at tooth and gum with sinister-looking dental tools, and tells me he strongly suspects the underlying tooth is cracked. He needs to remove the crown to be certain.
I’m not thrilled, but what other option do I have, really?—I say “OK.”
[To the Apple engineer who long ago suggested adding an LED flash to the iPhone camera: Thank you. Heartily.]
He gestures for the crown remover, but the girl either doesn’t know what to look for or there isn’t one in the office. He sends her elsewhere, but she returns empty-handed. Still wearing surgical mask and latex gloves, he wanders off irritably, returning with an intimidating cast iron and stainless steel device resembling nothing so much as a hand-held pile driver. Using the iPhone for illumination, he fits the contraption snugly around the offending crown’s base and unceremoniously slams down the device’s handle—hard—delivering a correspondingly inverse, hammer-like upward blow to my tooth. There’s a horrid, metallic clank, accompanied by a sharp inhalation, followed by my startled, mangled, moaning gasp, “urrnnnhhhhgghh!!”.
I’m having flashbacks to Oldboy.
The Acolyte offers a local anesthetic. I ask how many more times he’s gonna hit me with the barbaric torture device crown remover and he assures me, “Almost finished.” I decline, and one Eternity and seven or eight Hammer Blows of Death later he’s holding aloft a beautifully crafted, porcelain bicuspid mounted atop a tiny, surgical steel post, exclaiming “I was right! The tooth’s broken!” (OK. Fine. But I have to wonder: broken when?) Naturally he needs “to do a build-up before it can support a new crown.” Naturally. In the United States (admittedly a poor role model) this procedure demands big money.
My jaw, or what’s left of it, is throbbing. The Acolyte sheepishly suggests “6000 Rupees?” Sixty bucks, including the crown. My pain tolerance miraculously bucks up a notch, and the room floods with light as the power switches back on. (It’s a sign! Like the Baby Jesus crying on a Belgian Waffle.)
“Go for it.”
A motorcycle roars to a stop outside, and three men walk into the room. The Young Acolyte begins his work as they gather ‘round, donning surgical masks and gloves, watching intently; occasionally grunting, pointing, offering advice. Or perhaps it’s encouragement. Who can tell? One of the newcomers—none other than Datsu—grows impatient. “A crown won’t hold up, there’s too little tooth left.” He’s insistent. “A bridge will last ten years, maybe more. But…we’ll have to grind away part of the good teeth on either side, to make room for it.”
All I hear is “waaa wah waaa grind away wah wah waaaa, wah good teeth waaaaaa.” An irreversible decision. A one-way trip down the rabbit hole.
Yes or no. In or out.
We talk money. He wants $60 per tooth in the bridge. Three teeth, $180. “Too expensive.” (Infinitely adaptable, I am.) “Fine,” he counters, they’ll do three teeth but only charge for two. $120. But I can’t tell their boss about it.
“Done.Let’s do it.” (Wait! Who said that? Me?)
There’s excitement in the room now, it’s just not mine. The Young Acolyte hands his implements to Datsu, who starts towards me, drill spinning. “Whoa!” For this I demand some anesthetic, which he provides, chatting until the old familiar numb & drooly kicks in. He handles the drilling, while one of the others offers advice. Datsu grinds away, measures the effect on my bite, glances at the other guy, who points here or there, grunts, nods; they repeat the process. (The Acolyte has disappeared and is never seen again. Plausible deniability, I’m thinking.)
In less than twenty minutes, they’re satisfied. They make some plaster impressions and tell me to return the next day to finish up—same Bat Time, same Bat Channel. Datsu repeats his admonition re the boss: don’t show up without calling him first. Sounds fishy, but for $120? I’m down.
Besides, at the moment I look like Vlad the Impaler.
Back in the present, I’m sitting in that rickety old chair, surrounded by peering, mumbling masked men. An underpowered halogen spot illuminates my mouth as Datsu reaches deep into his coat pocket and pulls out my new bridge, seating it loosely over my Impaler remnants. The hand mirror he produces is so grimy I can’t see my reflection until he gives it a thorough wash with soap and water. Somewhat (OK, a lot) to my surprise, they’ve done an excellent job: the teeth look great, the color matches, and it fits snugly against my gums. I nod approval. Twenty minutes later they have trimmed the bridge until my bite feels natural again, Datsu making sure I’m completely satisfied with the fit. Out comes some dental adhesive, then the mirror one last time, and suddenly I have a nice, permanent bridge that looks even better than the crown I just lost.
Just like that.
As he gives me a ride back to Coffee Culture, where my bike awaits, Datsu encourages me to call if I have any problems with their under-the-table handiwork. (“But not my boss! ”…“Yes, yes. I understand.”)
A grand adventure, and some nice new teeth, for $120 USD.