The world’s still a big place, full of surprises for even the most jaded traveller. Take my bone, for instance. Inside me this whole time, I’d never actually seen my own elbow bone – until one day, on the island of Sulawesi in rural Indonesia, there it was, greeting the world for the first time. Hello, bone.
If you’re quick to get queasy, you may want to stop reading.
The motorcycle couldn’t have been going more than 25 kilometers an hour when I wiped out on the road north of Rantepao, but that’s much faster than the human body is meant to hit the ground. I’d rented the bike from a man named Marcus with a hyperactive toddler; I’d found him through a local tour guide, Sabah.
My aim was to explore, at my leisure, the villages of Tanah Toraja, land of the Torajan people, followers of an ancient religion whose intensely colourful funerary customs involve gruesome sacrifices of pigs and buffalo.
People involved in accidents often describe time slowing to a crawl just before the moment of impact, but I went down in an instant. On gravely roads, the rear wheel slid out from under me when I applied the front brakes too quickly to navigate a massive pothole.
The impact itself lasted a lifetime, my body creating a blood-smeared skid mark as it let out a bellow of pain. No bones broken, but there it was: the milky translucent dermis of the outer forearm bone, visible amidst the gravel embedded in my shredded skin, along with a host of other abrasions.
The mind comes into sharp focus at such moments, and this, in the end, was my unexpected journey. Nuanced thoughts are amplified, and what would normally pass for fleeting emotions seem overwhelming. During months of Asian travels, I’d become too irritable and alienated for my own liking – perhaps the result of too many people shouting “Hello mister!” for no apparent reason, but mostly because I’m a natural grouch. The crash didn’t cure me of this completely, but it forced a broadened passage through a mind narrowed by cynicism.
When three local teenagers ran down from a crest on the road ahead and eased me to the side of the road, I could only repeat the words “terima kasih” (thank you) and “hospital.” The curmudgeonly traveler was now an incoherent fool, the helpless recipient of strangers’ kindness.
Good Samaritans started arriving in droves. First, a man on a motorbike offered a lift to the hospital. No sooner had the boys helped my helmet back on than the plan changed, with a man named Mathius appearing with his pick-up. The boys lifted the bike onto the flatbed, scraped me off the road and loaded me into the cab. Nobody, at this point, spoke a word of English.
On the way to the hospital, we deposited the bike at the hotel where I knew Sabah worked – for I was in no state to remember the location of Marcus’s shop, and could only point with my good arm – and soon, all of Rantepao knew of the accident. Two fellow tourists in my hotel, I later learned, learned of it from locals on a mini-bus.
The hospital was clean enough. On a later visit, I spotted a lizard on the wall – calm down, there are lizards on every good wall in I
ndonesia – and barefoot children wandered the emergency ward, sometimes peering over the nurse’s shoulders.
The staff, I noticed, were good at making do with what they had; treating another patient, I later saw one nurse crafting a makeshift container using scissors and a plastic soda bottle. I was in good hands.
Sabah soon showed up at my bedside. Finally, an English speaker. “They’re going to do a small operation on you now,” he explained. “Sorry, I’m going to have look away.”
Everyone has their own strategy to deal with pain. I yielded to it. “Do your thing, pain,” I said. “I’m all yours!” Rather than worrying about the pain to come – in five seconds, five minutes, five hours – I concentrated on the moment-to-moment sensation. I tried to catch it, to pin it down, but it moved around curiously like mercury.
Meanwhile, I chased away the twin ogres of regret and self-pity. I’d been hurrying, driving an unfamiliar vehicle over rough and unfamiliar roads; hence I crashed. On some level, I knew that regretting such an outcome would be as senseless as lamenting the sound of crickets at dusk or the smell of ozone after a heavy rain.
Marcus, too, appeared shortly, taking over translation duties, although I didn’t recognize him without the hyperactive toddler. He didn’t breathe a word about the damaged bike. Mathius, the pick-up driver, also stayed at my side for hours, both of them delivering me to my hotel room. At one point, while the nurses tugged at the threads they were weaving into my arm, I even spotted the man with the motorbike – the one who first offered to take me to the hospital. I guess he popped in just to make sure I was okay.
Looking up at the hospital wall, I managed a chuckle: This, I thought, is really a wonderful experience. Beats watching buffalo sacrifices, that’s for sure.
Bedridden for days, I convalesced at my hotel, a idyllic place called Pia’s Poppies, with rock gardens, flowerbeds and a fish pond. They catered to me at meal times, the owner, Paul, even offering to have his son sleep in the same room in case I needed anything during the night. Mathius and Marcus both stopped by the next day, the latter asking for a mere 100,000 rupiah, or $11, for damage to the bike.
Meanwhile, the hospital bill, including nine stitches in all, heavy-duty painkillers and antibiotics, came to a mere $32.50.
True, my old misanthropic self began creeping back even before the wound stopped oozing. But now, when I notice that tug of irritation – when I hear a tout shouting incessantly, “Hello, taxi? Yes? Where are you going?” – I tap into the lingering trace of the overflowing gratitude I felt toward humanity that day. And I ask myself if maybe a taxi isn’t such a bad idea after all.
If you find yourself in Tanah Toraja, do yourself a favour and hire a tour guide Buy viagra in hanoi – try Sabah, at the Indra Toraja hotel in the center of Rantepao – and by all means, stay at Pia’s Poppies (01161 423 21121). Tell Paul and his wife, Nobe, that the American invalid sent you.
Click the images, top right, to launch a photo album about my trip to Sulawesi.