I wanna tell you a story. Trouble is, I have a split audience. Most folk who actually bother to read my trivial weekly musings probably do so because they know me, so they'll know some of the back-story of my life that puts this tale in context. If you're one of those then feel free to skip the next paragraph. If not, here comes the exposition.
I live in Spain on a low income, basically a pension I took early. I don't own a car and I live in quite a remote little village called Olvera. Olvera has a medical centre where I can visit a GP, but for more specialist medical treatment I need to go to a regional hospital, such as the one in Ronda which is featured in this story, which is about an hours drive away. There is only one bus that leaves Olvera at seven in the morning and returns from the hospital at two in the afternoon.
Back in September 2019 I had a fall, nothing serious but I managed to land on my eye-ball, which became bloodshot and rather uncomfortable. I visited A&E who kindly patched me up. Then I made an appointment to see my GP who referred me to the ophthalmologist in Ronda. I waited a few months and was assigned an appointment at the end of January. My vision had still not returned to normal. I was seeing floaters and each time I blinked I briefly saw a pattern in the manner of a Rorschach test, which was less entertaining than it sounds, so I was quite eager to get the problem looked at.
The day finally came. I'm an anxious traveller at the best of times, but the big worry here is, with only one return bus, I knew if I missed it I'd probably be sleeping rough until the next day, as I couldn't afford a taxi or temporary accommodation. I don't mind living on a low income on a day-to-day basis (it's good for both my dietary health and carbon footprint), but unforeseen expenses can force difficult choices.
So with some trepidation, I boarded the bus on a brisk winter's morning and headed off to the hospital. My appointment was 11:25 so arriving at eight gave me time to kill. I walked around the hospital to familiarise myself with it. This was a fairly new building which only opened in 2017 and this was my first time there. I noted there was a mortuary around the back a bit too near to the rubbish bins for my liking, but otherwise everything seemed clean and new. I just wished they'ed painted it a jollier colour rather than choosing the very depressing battleship grey.
I made my way inside and found the ophthalmology department. Many people were already waiting. If you know nothing of Spanish culture, one thing a person rarely does here is visit a hospital alone. These are deeply family oriented people and a hospital visit will rarely be conducted without a pack of three or four folk from several generations, often with an advanced party to reconnoitre the layout of the building, locate vending machines and to grab the best seats like Germans putting their towels on the sun-loungers. I'm not mocking this behaviour, well perhaps just a tad. I'm actually rather envious of it. A English lady of my acquaintance found herself in a dual room with a Spanish patient some years back, and the Spanish patient's family were so horrified that the poor English lady had nobody visiting her at all hours of the day, that they adopted her and brought her food and gifts, holding her hand and generally treating her as part of the family. This is one of the many tales that I've heard over the years that speaks volumes about the best qualities of ordinary Spanish society.
I sat down and pulled out a book. As the hours rolled by, the people milling about soon outnumbered the chairs, of which there were many. I reckon that more than a hundred people must have come and gone. The Coronavirus threat was still a distant problem exclusive to China at this point. Everyone was on top of everyone else, many with seasonal coughs and splutters. How I didn't pick up something nasty that day I'll never know.
The time of my appointment came and went. Then another hour went by. I attracted the attention of a nurse who double-checked I was in the right place and reassured me that they were very busy and that my time would soon come. Finally at ten minutes to two I still hadn't been called so I made the decision to bail. I went to the reception and asked to have my appointment rescheduled, then jumped on the bus back home.
Some months went by then I got a phone call saying a new appointment was available if I still wanted it. Then a letter arrived confirming the date of Monday 6th of April, an earlier appointment at 9:25 which should give me a better chance of being seen - yay! By this time of course, the world had changed thanks to a virus called COVID-19. Olvera was in lock-down. There was a one person per car rule and police were monitoring who came in and out of town.
Bus services had been reduced or in some cases scratched altogether. There was a lot of misinformation online as to which busses were running, whether one could still pay in cash or had to buy a ticket online or in advance from a ticket office. I spent a sizeable amount of time researching this in the week prior to the appointment. The bus company website had a link to a timetable that was dead, and the option to buy an advance ticket didn't work properly. I resorted to ringing the two phone numbers given on the website, and neither worked!!
Finally on the Friday I happened upon an obscure article in a Spanish newspaper saying the local 'urbano' busses in Ronda had to be pre-booked, and said that folk using Olvera busses that connect with them should ring in advance too. It seemed crazy but due to the lock-down, so few people are using the bus that they only run them if someone rings at least an hour before, signalling an intention to ride. I dialled the number and surprisingly it worked! I spoke to a chap who sounded equally as surprised as I was. I heard kids playing in the background suggesting it might be his home number. I explained my circumstances and he confirmed me a place on the Olvera/Ronda bus at 7 a.m. Monday 6th April returning at 2 p.m. He didn't express the need to take my name but this is Spain. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind donkey.
So Monday came and with the bus largely to myself I cruised majestically into the Ronda hospital car park, alighting at 8 a.m. I took my place in the waiting area. This time, the chairs, which were in banks of three, had the middle one labelled with a message saying "Don't use due to social distancing". I was the only one there. It was deathly quiet. I sat there reading my book and hardly a soul stirred save a grumpy looking chap riding a floor-washing machine. Then a masked nurse emerged from the surgery area.
"What are you doing here" she said, sounding so surprised she set my alarm bells off.
"I have an appointment this morning", I said and triumphantly thrust my document proving the fact into her rubber-gloved hand.
"All consultations were cancelled. You should have received a message last week. We will send you another one."
My heart sank as I recall those missed calls from an unknown number on my phone last Friday which I didn't see until the next day because I'd stupidly forgotten to turn off 'aeroplane mode' after my siesta.
"Bugger" I said, slipping back into English, and skulked off to find a dark corner in which to weep and spend five hours to wait for the only bus back home. Ronda is a pretty town, but it's not as though I could have gone for a nice walk and taken in the sights as the police would probably arrest me for tourism, such is the strangeness of the times. I finished my book, a cheerful tome (#ironyalert) called 'Feast of the Goat' by Mario Vargas Llosa, a novel about the final dark days of the Dominican Republic's fascist leader Rafael Trujillo. I pitted my wits against my phone and beat the little shit at Monopoly and Chess. I had a stroll around the hospital grounds and struck up a conversation with the gardener, who coincidentally, as I discovered, was born in Olvera. (Seemingly tending a hospital's gardens is an essential occupation conferring on him the right to escape lock-down. Who knew?) He turned out to be a conspiracy theorist who spent ten minutes solemnly confiding in me his view that Coronavirus was created in a Chinese weapons-grade bio-lab with the ultimate goal of destroying the Western economy.
Eventually two o'clock came and my driver arrived with the bus, which again I had all to myself. As we headed back, storm clouds were gathering, the sky over the sierras becoming black as pitch. Francisco the driver, whom I now considered my personal chauffeur, delivered me to Olvera just as the rain began to fall. It had to really. It had been that sort of day!
My wait to see the eye specialist continues, as does the lock-down. In both cases and in more ways than one, I'm unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel!