August 14, 2007

look out for thwacks

I have felt mortal twice in my life.
And both times I've had to be convinced.

Once was a couple of weeks ago as you may be tired of reading - but it did put me in mind of the other. Five years and a bus ride ago.

I know that for those who freeclimb (without ropes), BASE jump, skydive, eat organ meat, or raw milk cheese, to feel mortality only twice in four decades is frankly disappointing.

But I am risk averse. Yes I've dived on shipwrecks, yes I've been near a Zairean soldier as he fired his automatic rifle, yes I've flown with an aerobatic team, yes I've eaten canned potato chips - but no, I've never been on a grown-up roller coaster, no I have never seen a horror film (okay Alien, but it took two weeks of convincing), and no I have never made a souffle.

I think what risk junkies crave is the thwack of mortality. They like that knife edge that feeds their senses. It doesn't envelope you like a philosophical blanket with a snifter of warmed brandy, easing you into mortal epiphany - no. Both times for me it's just been a thwack to the head with a big stick - after which the heart and soul argue about who will have to pick up the pieces.

I was in Pokhara, Nepal. And I wanted to be in India. Not fond of flying, I bought a bus ticket - one way to the Indian border. This was a tourist bus - meant for touring - hence the name. This was not a local bus, many of which littered the bottom of gorges, many of which you got to see as you careened around switchbacks.

Which probably accounts for the typo in the billboard I came across for local whisky - it probably wasn't a typo.

I had been in Nepal for over a month and it was time to move. That morning I was happy to throw my pack on the roof, climb aboard, and settle in by the door. It was cramped and the driver and conductor kept trying to get people to sit more to the back. The bus was over two hours late, the dawn bus had never showed, so we climbed on this one.

Off we went heading out into the valleys, twisting our way to India. I made friends on the bus, one guy on his way home to England pulled out his collection of gurkha knives to show us, John, a Kiwi, and I were heading in the same direction and made plans to meet up in Rajasthan, and I had just organized a group of us to hire a jeep taxi to take us to the birthplace of Buddha.

The bus driver pulled out to pass a car.

And the world went into slow motion. He couldn't pull the bus back into our lane and suddenly there was no road in front of us, just a palm tree through the front windshield. I said out loud, but very quietly, "oh no".

We were falling. We were rolling. My eyes closed (which my mind later confused with being nighttime). My fingers were pinched above my head in something (it was the conductor's folding seat in front of me as we rolled). My eyes opened only briefly enough to see shattered glass fly past me on the left. And then there was a splash. The world stopped turning. And all I could hear was the bus engine, still in gear, grinding away.

By this point I had been tossed to the other side of the bus. The bus was on its side and it was half full of water. I was on my back looking up at the sky through the open side door. I bent my arms. Yup working. My legs. Ditto. And then my head screamed at me on the inside, "Get out!" And I started scrambling, clawing toward the sky above me.

Tony, the Spaniard who is the first man I have ever come across who oozed sexuality from every pore, yelled, "DO NOT PANIC. Everyone calm down."

And we did.

We got a human chain going - those who weren't hurt helped those who were. Others climbed down into the river and pulled all the backpacks off the now vertical roof. Another guy dove under the water to pull the keys out of the ignition so the back wheel would stop spinning as we guided people along the now top, formerly side, of the bus. I pulled my first aid kit out of my day pack and started cleaning bloody, river-soaked wounds. Locals came to help pull us all up the steep embankment to the road. And the ambulances started arriving.

Nine people went to hospital. A few with broken bones, the most serious with a ruptured spleen. We got everyone bundled into the ambulances including Tony and John who both had bruised ribs, and yet had stood on the riverbank as I handed them more passengers. I stayed behind - I had an unreasonable, unfathomable sense of responsibility for making sure everyone was okay. I couldn't stomach the thought that any of those people who were now in the hands of the Australian medical team at the clinic in Pokhara would die. I couldn't take it.

My head had a couple of goose eggs, a couple of scrapes, but that was it. I was hugging people, almost euphorically, telling them we had just survived the stereotypical Asian story - a bus accident. We were alive.

Someone said it was incredible - his life had actually flashed before his eyes. He said, "I thought we were dead."

I was appalled at him. How could he let that thought in? I couldn't die that way. I just couldn't. My brother was killed in a car accident 30 years before. There was NO WAY my Mum was going to lose both her children in a road accident. NO WAY.

And then I felt mortal.

I grabbed a ride with a couple who stopped to see what the commotion was about. They were headed for Kathmandu. I had lost my taste for buses and had regained some courage for flying to India instead - so I bargained that if he drove carefully and slowly I would take the ride back to the capital. On the way they shared their packed lunch with me on the side of the road, near a waterfall. I'd love to say I remember what it was - but I was still a bit stunned.

And that's how I met the General and his wife, Sita. On the way they invited me to their country house to stay for a few days. They knew I held a British passport and they had lived in England while he studied at Sandhurst - she argued in favour of tea, he argued in favour of I got both. I don't like brandy - I drank it.

And the sense of mortality passed. I stayed with these kind, generous people for a couple of days and then headed back into Kathmandu. And there on my first evening I ran into Tony in a bookstore. We hugged like old friends and he caught me up with all the injured - they were all going to be fine. He was having dinner with John that night, so I joined them. And John and I confirmed our plan to meet in Jaipur, Rajasthan a few weeks later.

Thwack. I headed on with my journey, feeling blessed - because as I think Carrie Fisher wrote (and I've said before) - bad reality...great anecdote. I'll hang on to that idea over the next few months.


SusieJ said...

I parachuted -- I was scared -- but I can understand the high people gain from danger and risk. But, I must say, if I had any of that inclination within me, I put it aside when I became a mother. It makes me a tad sad that I put that aside for motherhood -- because you know it means there are other things I've put aside that I'm not even aware of... anyway. Thinking of you, and loved reading this story of near-death, love, and fear.

Julie said...

Good lord, you've had an exciting life! You also seem to have a very broad definition of risk averse :) You seem pretty darned fearless to me.

Great story!