Monday, 29 August 2016

The side of Penang most tourists don't see

I went for a walk.

That's all I did, and you'd think that wasn't a terrible crime, deserving of punishment. But as has been said in quite a few movies: "Deserve don't mean shit."

I went for a walk.

And then I fell.

This post has been a long time coming.

In late April 2016, I moved from London to Singapore with the aim of doing a lot of travelling in the region.

And in early June, I went to Penang for a long weekend. Thought I'd have a look at the art trail (as it hadn't been there when I last visited), eat a lot, and maybe burn off some of the calories by going hiking in the National Park.

I went for a walk.

My friend Katie was visiting with me, and Katie isn't really an active type (her idea of the perfect holiday is sitting poolside), so we picked the shorter, easier walk in the National Park, going out to Monkey Beach.

The view from a safer part of the path

The trail cuts along the hillside, a packed dirt track about 2-3 feet wide. Sometimes there's a lovely view of the sea, visible through the trees of the jungle. And sometimes there's a steep drop off.

I'm still not really certain how it happened. One second I was stepping over a large log that had fallen across the path. The next second my foot is sliding, and I'm starting to fall. I tried to catch myself and arrest my fall by sitting down onto the log. I don't know if the log rolled out from under me, or was too slippery, or if I just had my weight wrong. All I know is suddenly I'm falling, backwards, down the drop off, head and back first and my legs up in the air, trailing behind me.

That thing people tell you about time slowing down in an accident? It's true. I had time to think all sorts of thoughts as I fell: that I didn't know how deep the drop was, or what surface I was falling towards (was it jagged rocks? Soft moss?). I hadn't been looking over the side of the drop off before I fell, as I'd been sensibly keeping my eyes on my footing.

Then I hit the ground, mid-back first, shoulders and head second.

That slowed time effect meant I had enough time, after my back hit, to think: "Oh, crap, here comes the head!" right before my head hit the ground.

I remember my legs coming down on top of me, and I remember thinking that the landing hadn't been as bad as I'd feared: I could tell my head was still in one piece.

I remember my friend screaming my name, and looking up, to see her peering over the edge. I even remember calling up to her: "I'm okay."

What happened next isn't much fun to remember. I managed to get back on my feet, and climb back up to my friend (about 10-15 feet further along the path, the drop was less sheer, so I scrambled through the underbrush to that point and used tree trunks to help pull myself back up to the path). By this time it was obvious that I wasn't up to hiking back out of the park (we were several km from the nearest road), and neither of us could get a cell phone signal. So my friend left me there to hike out and get help.

With the help of some locals and another tourist, we eventually got me out of the park and into an ambulance. I was diagnosed with an unstable spinal fracture and related nerve damage, spent 2 weeks in hospital (a side of Penang I never thought to see), and had some fairly major surgery to screw steel rods into my spine.

I went for a walk, that's all.

Not the Penang food I was looking for: hospital food
(yes, that is copious amounts of mayonnaise)
Hospitals wards are not good places to sleep. Voices from the other rooms, the squeak and rattle of the meds cart as the nurses do the night rounds, the light streaming into the room from the corridor. Add in pain, and a tonne of tubes coming out of my body, and I spent a lot of time lying awake, staring at the dim ceiling, thinking 2am thoughts. What had I ever done to deserve this? Why did this have to happen to me?

The truth of the matter is: it was a million to one accident. That's all. But with more than 7 billion people in the world, one in a million must happen all the time, to someone. On 6 June, it was my turn.

There's no life-lesson here, I'm afraid (apart from this: always, always take out travel insurance).

I haven't found Jesus or my purpose, nor has this ordeal made me a better person (although I'm a big enough person to admit that I was lucky, in many ways. The injuries could have been much worse). So sorry if you were reading this, expecting a satisfying ending.

There isn't one.

It's now 12 weeks after the accident, and I'm healing, slowly. I still have to wear a massive brace, so support my spine (happily that comes off soon). I spend up to an hour a day doing physiotherapy. I'm not allowed to travel, yet, so all the adventures in Asia I had planned will have to wait.

And I don't know what shape my future travels will take - hiking has always been something I've done a lot on my travels, and I don't know if I'll ever strap my hiking boots on again.

I still get scared anytime I'm near a height, even if it's only a couple of feet. I hold on for dear life when I go down the stairs, not because I'm unstable on my feet (I was for the first month, but that's now passed), but because I'm too scared of falling again.

But I am walking. And I'm back at work, living a (relatively) normal life. And that's something.

And that's all I really wanted to say.

Take care of yourselves.

(And trust me about the travel insurance).

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