It was our last day spent in Savanket on the Laos/Thailand border, we were wondering out amongst the humid evening air and the thickening traffic to have dinner. Just as I’d paused to note, inspired by the pretty Laotian example in front of us, how crazy I thought it was that people ride motorbikes and scooters while using their mobile phones, CRASH. No sooner than I had shut my mouth was there a horrible grisly, gristly sound of person and vehicle slamming into the ground: the simultaneous scraping of Tarmac and face.
The motorcyclist hit the ground hard and the car who might have hit him, knocked him or swerved in front of him pulled to a sudden pause – it took a moment for it all to be real: three seconds of inaction from the man hurt, and the people around him. I remember it being quiet for those three eerily long seconds and then, seamlessly, the scene came back to life. The fallen picked himself up, limping and contorted like he was protecting himself against another onslaught by looming concrete fists, and staggered toward the curb. His face had immediately swollen and was puckering with blood; a fracture of the face, a broken cheek for certain. His shoulder was roughed up and his shivering was visibly moving the air and the people around him. Al lent to pick up his twisted motorbike and I scraped his thongs off the very still road. A couple of bystanders were on phones – I hope and suppose to contact a hospital, because clearly this man desperately needed medical attention. Unfortunately, he wasn’t wearing a helmet, nor any protective gear or clothing at all. Thongs, a singlet and a full head of sky-black hair aren’t enough to protect anyone from a fall.
Al and I felt shaken afterwards and lamented the lack of vital education about the importance of helmets. How is it that in neighbouring Vietnam 95% of riders are capped (the helmets may not be of great quality but at least they’ll break before your head does), and yet here in Loas, just a hop, skip and a smash away, it’s not even one in ten people who don the life-saving head protection?
Why don’t people wear helmets?
I am reminded my own tussle with death’s crude beckon via a motorbike crash. Years ago and the first time I’d ever sat astride any motorised bicycle alone before (and I don’t even think my five-year-old experience sitting in front of a cousins’ friend’s dad as we zoomed around his farming property counts), despite the fact I was with two boys who’d grown up riding dirt bikes and their mum who could hold her own, I wanted to have a bike of my own! We were in Bali, on Lembongan Island, a tiny slice of heaven surrounded by kelp farms and, with its own shaman to boot. Upon rather unlawfully procuring four motor scooters without a single motorcycle licence between us, we were all given the option of taking helmets and the boys’ mum and I both did. After ten minutes, the sopping wet, forty degree heat was getting to me in my full-face helmet, plus, now I’d got all this experience under my belt, safe to say I felt ready to throw caution into the deep blue sea beside the road and ride with the wind in my hair instead of safety. Boring old safety.
I met up with one of the boys and gestured that my helmet was cumbersome, then spent a few harried moments attempting to affix that big heavy blessing-disguised-as-a-burden onto my bike, onto his bike and even onto his bag; all unsuccessfully. I decided: bother it, I’ll just wear it and keep on being a helmet nerd until we get back and then watch me, I’ll be awesome and wind-blown after that. He zoomed off and some minutes or seconds later, zipping along at probably a few kilometres per hour above the limit, there was a rock, lying innocently at the crest of the road. Sitting at the curb side really, but there were also nets set out with seaweed drying atop them, flapping and gently encroaching onto the other side of the road. Not difficult to navigate if you didn’t over think it, but, being the overthinker I am, I overthought it and tried to break so as to not hit either slight obstacles.
My bicycle at home, Vogue, the one I pedalled around on predominantly at the time had only one break – on the right hand side. Unfortunately, in this motorcycle breaking pickle, I grabbed a handful of what my brain attempted to project would be the break; it turns out the throttle on motorbikes is also on the right hand side and, even if you touch the hand breaks while wrenching the twisty handle around, it seems the ‘go’ option overrides it all initially.
Careening out of control I sped faster toward the hunk of rock. Crash!
Up and over the front left handle, landing straight slap bang on my head, the rest of my body acting as a sack of potatoes behind my spear-head face and lodging me firmly into the gravely ground. Watching the Laotian fellow K.O. was almost as visceral.
I lay still, completely motionless and my consciousness hovered somewhere around the very back of my head, near my ears. It felt like I wasn’t my body, it was just something still that I was perched on top of in a meditation of pain, the brunt of which was yet to come. It was probably only five seconds of total stillness, but in that time I watched on quietly as I had a highly rational conversation with myself.
‘Why am I down here?! What’s happened?’
‘I fell off, and I’m not moving. Maybe I should move? What do I think?’
‘Ah, yes, can I move? I think I should move, it’s been quite long enough that I’ve lain here’.
With that I was suddenly, bracingly present in my body again. And it hurt! I moaned, or at least meant to moan but instead a guttural, hearty animalistic notice issued from deep within my chest, a sound I didn’t know I was capable of producing. I moved like I had sandbags atop every limb, I couldn’t alter my position much.
One of the boys had rushed to my side and was asking me over and over, ‘are you ok?’ in between saying, apparently to himself, ‘I saw the whole thing’, although I’m sure he can’t have done, as he had motored off in the opposite direction from me.
It was then that I noticed just how many people I was surrounded by. The other brother and their mum had both found us, somehow. I mean sure we were all riding somewhere on the island, but we’d been motoring separately for a good whack of time by this stage, but yet there they were. And too, about twenty Balinese people had come out of the cracks in the surrounding jungle. Before I’d crashed there was not a single soul near me, the dense flora and dreamy cerulean feel to the whole island had pocketed me well – but apparently I hadn’t been invisible.
I was turned over by the first brother and one of the Balinese men who’d stood guard, a move I don’t thank them for in hindsight; I mean what if my spine had been fractured? With their impetus afforded to me, I tried to sit up and everything cried out in resistance, a chorus of ‘don’t!’. I sat up anyway against my own wishes and dragged the cumbersome perfection of that helmet off my enormous head. I’d though the fish bowl feeling was due to the scoop I had round my ears but upon removal, the sound around me continued to boom and waver, as if blotted by swathes of rubberised cottonwool. The sound was cushioned but nauseating, there was a pressure on my ears like the first brother had his baseball glove-sized hands cupped around my hearing organs with a perfect seal of suction. I may have even attempted to bush his hands away but the action was disconcerting – like stepping on a stair that isn’t there.
This upright foetal position didn’t last long, I was swept up, plonked unceremoniously behind a Balinese man astride his own scooter and the first brother slopped in behind me and copped my leaking red face blood for our whole cramped journey. Twenty minutes away was the local hospital where the resourceful Balinese man delivered me, just in one piece, and retreated to more standard daily work. What a champion.
The hospital left a lot to be desired. Nothing was vacuum-sealed or sealed at all, there was old blood caked everywhere; the bed, the floor and the roof, this place didn’t know the meaning of hygienic. My jeans were yanked off me, as if by a very impatient lover, and thrown aside. It was when I realised it wasn’t just my head that had hit the ground: my knees and shins were open wounds, filled with grit and dirt, my left shoulder hadn’t a skerick of skin left on it, and a few of my fingers were swollen and raw clawed like rigor Morris was trying to set them in place. The nurse gave my bloodiest injuries a clean worthy of the most fastidious Hollywood maid, it stung like bee stings left in the skin and biting your tongue while eating. She attempted to relieve my jewel-encrusted fingers of their silver and gold chokers, but the knuckles are tricky enough hinderances at the best of times, without angry pillows of aggravated, skin-coloured meat to contend with. Instead, she scrubbed everything until it gleamed and bled afresh, and remarkably was free of most of the rubbish I’d done such a good job jamming underneath it: my largest, fleshy organ.
Then the doctor came in. My face was mostly free from harm, save the one gash above my left eye. Another thing I have my lucky stars (aka the helmet) to thank for: the cut could easily have sliced into my eyeball and I would have been blinded for sure. The poor heroic helmet was a sight to see, the left side all scraped to smithereens, the thick plastic visor had done its job almost perfectly and had taken the brunt of the smash. If I hadn’t been wearing the helmet I’d be dead or certainly suffering brain damage; if I didn’t have the visor down I’d be Two Face, only I wouldn’t need CGI or make up to enhance my fear-mongering yin and yang.
The doctor wanted to sew me up, then and there no nonsense, all action but surprisingly enough, I didn’t want those unfreshly opened scalpels and needles anywhere near my person. I resisted for an hour or more, but the wound was deep enough to continue weeping, long after I’d finished with all of that. The first brother, no he was outside having a man cry, it was the second brother who might have told the doctor that I was a model and didn’t want my money-maker to be damaged; the doctor seemed to find this unremarkable, but possibly took it at face value and went about his efficient sewing with perhaps a little more care than he would have otherwise.
I was released with copious amounts of prescription medicine in my pocket and hopped on my third motorbike for the day in order to be driven back to the guesthouse we were inhabiting to recover and kiss my helmet. In the days and weeks afterwards, I spoke to many Westerners in Bali who were seemingly trapped in their own South East Asian nightmare: a couple who’d had to learn to walk again after being pulverised by a rolling truck, a woman who’d had full hand reconstructions to both extremities and was only now, years later, beginning to have any real dexterity, and a few more lucky like me, who looked banged-up but had escaped from the ordeal missing only a few sections of skin and their pride. Shatteringly, most of them had been slugged with massive fees due to lack of insurance and options: if you’re going to die, it doesn’t matter how much the surgery costs; it’s only once you’ve survived that the pain becomes one centralised at your hip pocket rather than in your damaged body. People were working in Bali to pay off their debts or simply hiding and wringing their hands (of they could) wondering what their best option was. There are many lessons to be learned here.
Helmets are a vital piece of equipment for every cyclist; motor or pedal. We Alleykats wear them every time we saddle up whether riding 100 kilometres or 1, they’re always necessary. We are advocates for helmet wearing because even if you’re not an unlucky clutz like me, there are simply too many unknowns on the roads to take the risk: cars hit cyclists, motorbikes hit cyclists, cyclists hit cyclists, pedestrians walk out in front of cyclists – you don’t have to be at fault to need a helmet.
Wear a helmet and you’re more likely to live. Fact.