For six months I wrote about how India pushed me to my limits. But in the end, it was the small, gentle nation of Laos that finally broke me.
Allow me to backtrack for a bit of context.
Tal and I landed in Bangkok thoroughly exhausted, our minds a heavy stew of sadness, relief, confusion, excitement. South East Asia, as we knew from our month in Thailand back in 2013, is not India. In India, you can hit the tourist trail and lay on gorgeous beaches with coconut shakes, or you can immerse yourself in maybe the weirdest, wildest, most insular culture in the world. In South East Asia, it’s a lot tougher to skip that tourist trail. It’s a far smaller region, and the trail is much more worn-in. It may not even be fair to call it a trail… it’s more of a paved sidewalk. And the sites on that sidewalk are built with you, the traveler looking for a good time, in mind. In short, travelers head to India to go deep, freak out and get lost, and head to South East Asia to bum around beaches, drink beer and take cooking classes.
Last chai in India, Feb. 27, Kolkata
Though we often complained about the difficulty of down-and-dirty travel in India, we also learned to love it. And we knew that – no matter how stupid this sounds – adjusting to the relative ease of backpacking in South East Asia might be an uncomfortable transition. In Bangkok, we spent a few days revisiting our favorite spots from our first trip there: the absolutely massive, 40,000-stall open-air Chattachuk Market; the futuristic Siam Square neighborhood. The taste of fresh Thai pineapple, watermelon and papaya was wonderful, and we quickly found our favorite fruit-slicer in the neighborhood of our guesthouse and threw money at her to keep us well-juiced.
From Bangkok, we bused overnight to the edge of Laos, skipped through the border, paid for our visas and hit the country’s capitol, Vientiane. We knew Laos would be different; everyone we’d spoken to used words like ‘laid-back,’ ‘super-chill’ or ‘the exact opposite of India.’ But we spent exactly one day in Vientiane before deciding it was time to head out. I was excited to find a place to relax, but a city moving the pace of a sleeping cat wasn’t exactly my scene. The next day we were back on a bus to Luang Prabang, Laos’ cultural capitol and biggest tourist hub.
Welcome to the Jungle, Luang Prabang
In a stroke of luck, the owner of a local LP guesthouse saw us cruising from hostel to hostel to find the best deal in town and invited us back to his place, which happened to be, in fact, the best deal in town. Air conditioning, free breakfast, unlimited coffee, tea and bananas, a large television in the room, a strong, hot shower and a huge, fluffy, white bed. Any given place we’d rented in India had no more than two of those things at any given time, but usually had none.
Laos, we quickly learned, wasn’t India cheap, but it was definitely global cheap, and for a few solid days and nights we enjoyed the town’s charm: sandwiched by two slow-going rivers, Luang Prabang was a lush mix of golden Buddhist temples, bamboo bridges, French-influenced bistros and little, flower-strewn corners where we brought books and lazed away afternoons. A 650ml bottle of BeerLao costs just over a dollar in Laos, so the lovely lethargy was all too easy to sink into. Though ‘lovely’ certainly is the word for Luang Prabang, the clientele of tourists, as it does all over South East Asia, still leans heavily towards #SPRINGBREAK! It was an odd mix with the natural, calm sway of the place, as if a bunch of bros looking to score stormed through a library screaming “Let’s fuck shit up and take shots!” So after a few days we were again ready to move on.
Paradise found: Nong Khiaw, Laos
As our pre-purchased Vietnam visas allowed us entry in just over two weeks, Tal and I decided to spread our days out in a few tiny villages in Northern Laos, working our way towards the border. We left Luang Prabang for Nong Khiaw and found a cheap bamboo hut on the river. The village was quiet, fully surrounded by imposing limestone mountains shooting up impossibly high, giving the whole place a hidden, secluded feel. For five days, we woke up each morning, practiced yoga on our balcony before the sun dialed up to ‘melt,’ then spent the afternoons walking dirt roads, reading in our hammock, collecting BeerLao bottles and writing. We ate dinner each night at a family’s house-turned-restaurant up the road where the electricity always flicked off but the food was astounding: salads, curries, tofu, noodles. And the service was excellent (see photo below). In short, it was the Laos I’d been looking for – not a place where I’d immerse myself, but a place where I could fully relax and recover from the previous six months of immersion.
Youngest in the family business during the nightly blackout, Nong Khiaw
I also spent time every day planning the rest of our trip. In Northern Vietnam, I wanted to take Tal on a 4-day motorbike tour across HaGiang, one of the most out-there regions in the country, zooming through what I hoped would be jaw-dropping scenery on the border of China. I was nervous, but the thought wouldn’t leave me. I messaged bike rental spots in HaGiang, talked to friends who’d done the loop before and, naturally, rented a motorbike in Nong Khiaw to prep myself for our big two-wheeled journey.
Tal had been feeling ill for two nights prior, so she hit the hammock while I biked mountain roads for a while, and I planned a pit stop back at our hut to pick her up if she was feeling better. My solo ride felt amazing. Skyrocketing mountains, ever-smaller villages with Lao kids running after me, their arms raised. It was my best Laos afternoon yet. After a few hours of exploring, I parked at our guesthouse; when Tal smiled at me I knew she was up for a ride. We walked the bike to the rental shop and picked her up a helmet to match mine, she hopped on the bike and we took off.
Public swimming pool, Nong Khiaw
We crossed the town center (or, the river splitting Nong Khiaw in two) and drove along one of the village’s two roads, limestone peaks jutting towards the sky just to our right. We began singing Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” and Tal wrapped her arms around my waist. Laos, or all of South East Asia for that matter, would not be India, I knew. But that was OK. To still wake up every morning next to this beautiful redhead in this beautiful paradise and decide together whatever we wanted to do that day – no matter where we were – was an amazing privilege that we simply couldn’t take for granted. “She fell in love with the drummer,” we sang. “Another and another…”
Then we watched a silver truck attempt to pass another motorbike and swerve into our lane.
“Oh my god,” I whispered, and then the truck slammed directly into our bike.
The crunch of metal was distinct and loud. A rude sound, an ugly sound. When I opened my eyes I was sitting in the ditch on the side of the road. Tal was screaming. I arched my neck to see her behind me and immediately pain filled the right side of my body like I was being inflated by hot air. Tal was still screaming. It took me a moment to process the words being formed, passing along the 15 feet of still air between us. I had no idea which part of my body was broken but pieces were on fire, muscles and bones and skin screaming louder than Tal, directly in my ear, echoing in my head. Tal screamed again and this time I caught it.
“Jus, are you OK?” she shouted.
“Yes!” I yelled back, not knowing if that was true. “Yes. Tal, are you OK?” The words vomiting out of my mouth without my control.
“Yes, but are you OK?” She repeated, and we volleyed back and forth for a few long seconds. We were both speaking. We were both saying words.
Neither of us was dead. Then Tal was standing and then she was leaning over me and then she was crying and saying more words that I couldn’t understand. I was propping my body up with my left foot, and my left arm was gripping the ground. These parts didn’t hurt. These parts felt alright. But my right arm and leg kept pumping me full of blinding pain. I took in a shallow breath and the air stung; I howled and shot it back out. I tried to move both limbs and neither would budge. Both my sandals were gone. I could feel the nasty sting of missing skin up and down my right arm.
“I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK,” I repeated to Tal, each utterance separated by a taut suck-in and release of air.
Tal stood up and walked past me towards the truck. It wasn’t until then that I put a few basic pieces together: this pain was not from nowhere; we’d been smashed by a truck; we’d flown off our bike; we were not dead. The last one, of course, returning a bit more forcefully now to my chaotic mess of short thoughts. I looked over my right shoulder. The bike was now facing the opposite way we’d been driving, meaning, I reasoned in a short snap, that it had completely flipped over. I turned my neck to the left, where Tal was walking towards the truck. The driver had stepped out. It occurred to me then, for the first time: the truck was driven by someone. Another person. A person who had just hit us.
“What the fuck?” I screamed at him. My eyes caught his. His were small and his brow furrowed. He was standing still but moving, wobbling on his two feet. He was staring through me. He was wearing a green uniform; he was slightly hunched over. His hand was on the open door of his truck, and then he was getting back inside his truck. And then I watched Tal approach him, her left hand gripping the door where his had just been, but she was pushing the door open again. Her right hand shot past him and I watched the top half of her body disappear inside the truck. Then she was standing upright again, but in her right hand, a set of keys, jangling for a moment before her fingers snapped shut tightly around them.
I watched the man’s eyes squint tighter, and a tiny moment passed encasing a hundred questions of what would come next. And then Tal dropped his keys into the front of her shirt and they vanished inside her bra. She turned definitively from him and moved on to the next task at hand.
“Water,” she screamed,” I need water!”
My head turned back towards my steadily swelling knee as Tal disappeared behind me, her voice an alarm. There were people around now, standing listlessly on the road, on their porches, in their yards.
“Water!” she called again, and I tried to breathe a bit deeper but to no avail. The air would not stay with me, rushing to escape the moment it entered my lungs. Then Tal was standing behind me. She was pouring water out of a green plastic bottle onto my shoulder, the cold sensation running the length of my arm. Flecks of asphalt and drops of blood joined the stream down towards the ground, runoff from the thick, hot mass of flesh that’d been torn open. I let out a short bark, the sensation at once startling and soothing.
Tal stood up again and returned to wherever she’d found the water, and I heard her voice rocket into the crowd, “Police! Someone call police! Police! Call Police!” The growing group of Lao villagers just stood there. While the relaxed nature of Laos people had been refreshing that morning, now it was infuriating. Tal’s voice began to crack and tremble as he begged for help, until some man said, “Yes… poh-lice. We call.” Minutes passed, long, unrelenting minutes and breaths that couldn’t be deepened, and blood that dripped onto the road and blistering pain radiating from my knee and shoulder, and no police arrived. The crowd didn’t move. The driver was changing out of his uniform and into a yellow shirt; he was handing something to a friend who’d just pulled up in another car. But he wasn’t driving; he was stuck in this mess with us. Through the hot, murky swamp of my thoughts at that moment, one floated to the top just then: Fuck. This. Guy. Then another bolt of pain struck my knee and shoulder and I was back in the trench where my only focus was not passing out.
I'm the guy in the ditch...
A few minutes more passed and a flatbed truck arrived, backing up slowly towards me. Tal had, unbeknownst to me, orchestrated a ride for me to the local clinic, including two intrepid Lao guys to help pick me up. They quickly, quietly stood behind me and bent down, their hands around my waste and under my arms. The immediate pressure was poison and I screamed in pain. There was no way out of this; I had to move or be moved. I pushed my left foot into the warm soil and my body budged an inch. Another push, an inch more, until I was in the grip of these two dudes, who lifted by body upright. I couldn’t stand to put any weight on my right foot; the leg hung there lifeless but lit up in pain. I leaned my full 130 pounds (yeah, I lost a lot of weight in India) into the guy on my left and he drug me towards the pick-up truck. One-two-three-push and I was sitting on the open bed, this guy’s arms around my waist to keep me from flying out as the truck started moving… for about 30 seconds.
Remember, we were in a tiny Laos village. This place has two streets that run parallel, and that’s it. So in less than a minute the truck pulled into a small clinic and I was unloaded into a makeshift wheelchair (a plastic lawn chair with wheels) and rolled into a white-painted room. An older woman immediately insisted on giving me an injection. When I asked what it was, I learned that nor she, or any of the other people now crowding the room spoke a word of English. Except, it seemed, “injection.” The woman thrust a bag of pills in my face, which I also declined. Out of breath, I gasped, “Want… to wait… for wife,” knowing that I was in no condition to decide what I should or shouldn’t take. A man in the corner must’ve understood that one, because he laughed heartily and directed the rest of the staff to leave me alone.
A few minutes later, Tal arrived in some other guy’s truck and the room was whipped back into activity. She has a way of figuring shit out that will always keep me in awe: suddenly a nurse was holding tweezers and picking the bits of road out of my arm; another handed me what Tal deemed to be Tylenol-ish; another put my arm in a make-shift sling. The older woman held the arm gently and said, “No broken.” So at least we had that expert medical opinion.
A police officer showed up then, as well as a young Lao guy who spoke some degree of English, and together we established… just about nothing. The officer was racing through questions too fast for the guy to translate, and in frustration he just yelled them faster and louder. Tal and I looked at each other, and without a word knew what needed to happen next: We had to get the fuck out of Nong Khiaw.
“I’m going to get the bags and pay and we’ll get out of here,” she said, somehow confidently. “All you need to do is stay here. You promise you’ll be OK? You can do this?”
I didn’t have a choice; our stuff was strewn across our bamboo hut a few kilometers away. My passport sat at the bike rental office as collateral. The guy who hit us was at the police station. There was shit to take care of. So I nodded and watched Tal leave with the police officer. The room emptied out, and I sat there, my body shaking and began to focus on my breathing. That’s the first step towards meditating, and though I was worlds away from any inner peace, counting my breaths gave me something to hold on to. And I needed something, because I sat in that room for the next two and a half hours.
After the first hour, the searing strikes of pain had blended mercilessly into a steady flow of pain, a bit less intense but unceasing. I tried looking behind me but my neck ached. There was no clock in the room. Just white painted walls and my breaths, finally deeper now, struggling to slow down. A cast of locals came to see me, but I couldn’t bear to speak to any of them: some Indian guy who, from what I gathered, saw Tal talking to police and wanted to see the accident victim for himself; the women from our guesthouse, to say a brief bye and collect money; assorted clinic staff to make sure I wasn’t dead. Those hours were some of the worst of my life, which is funny in retrospect, because I had no idea how much worse the following hours would be.
Nightfall in Nong Khiaw
Tal returned as the sun was setting, on the back of a motorbike driven by a familiar face. It took me a moment, but there he was: the motorbike rental guy.
She rushed towards me in a hurry, panting. “Jus, you have no idea how amazing this guy has been,” she said, her hand outstretched towards him. “The police showed up at the bike rental place, and it was a fucking mess. But he helped me talk to our guesthouse; he drove me to the police station; he took me back here.” I smiled up at this guy the best I could. “And he said he’ll help us get a ride out of town.”
“Yes, hello. I talk to nurse. See where ambulance,” he said and walked off.
Tal then described her misadventures: at first, motorbike guy wouldn’t return my passport and wanted to see his (now destroyed) bike. When police arrived shortly after Tal, he realized it was serious and began to cooperate, as he stood to make money off the drunk driver in insurance. Tal packed our bags in a manic (but amazingly organized) flash and, realizing she hand’t taken any cash with her (it was all in my pocket) had no way to pay for our room. Motorbike guy told our guesthouse women he’d take care of it, and paid off our 5-night stay (meaning that, of course, they two-timed him when they came to the clinic to collect my money). Tal and motorbike guy then cruised to the police station, where the driver had been stripped to his underpants and was handcuffed to a table. He was completely shitfaced and had trouble standing still. They were grilling him about that (so they said) fake police uniform.
After lots of yelling in Lao, they wrote a police report and handed it to Tal. We have it, but we can’t read a word of it. The police requested that Tal and I leave our passports with them ‘for a few days’ so they could sort the matter out, but hahahahahahah no way in fuck was that happening. The police then, through motorbike guy’s translation, said that the driver would pay for any and all damages we incurred due to this incident. This, she was OK with. Then Tal punched him square in the dick. I’m just kidding, but that would’ve been awesome.
Back at the clinic, motorbike guy introduced himself as Kaen, and told us that there was an ambulance on the premises, but the driver was eating dinner and there was no way to speed him up. So there we waited as evening faded into night, me without any painkillers and both of us without any dinner. Kaen stuck around, pacing nervously, apologetic each time we asked him what another spurt of ‘everybody speak at once’ was about and he couldn’t properly explain.
“Ambulance coming,” he reassured us each time. At 9:00, five hours after we’d been hit, a large, rickety pick-up truck pulled up to the clinic, the word ‘ambulance’ emblazoned on its windshield. Kaen and our ambulance driver, a skinny Lao guy who spoke no English because of course he didn’t, suggested that I lay down in the back of the truck, tied into a bare stretcher. But I couldn’t straighten my leg or move my arm, so no, that wasn’t going to happen. I had to sit up front, as did Tal and the driver. With my good arm, I pulled myself into the seat as Tal crawled across the drivers seat, followed by the driver. She was straddling the gearshift, which was uncomfortable for everyone. We thanked Kaen again, took down his phone number and soon we were moving. Destination: Luang Prabang hospital, 3.5 hours away.
What happened in those hours was, I can say without a doubt, the most painful experience of my life. We didn’t yet know the extent of my injuries, just that they looked and felt terrible. But to take my body and drive it over the dirtroads of rural Laos for almost four hours was sadistic. Every bump was a bullet, and the road was nothing but bumps and holes, the biggest of which sent us flying four or five inches off the seat.Through the whole trip the driver kept popping in cassette tapes of kitschy, sometimes warped, Lao pop music; usually a man and a woman singing together, always to a hop-along rhythm. I’ve always cried more at sad episodes of “Parenthood” or Ryan Adams songs than from physical pain, but holy fuck was I weeping during that ride.
After midnight, we pulled into Luang Prabang’s hospital parking lot. The lights were on, thank god, and soon I was in a wheelchair in their small, quiet emergency room. The driver unloaded our bags into an empty ER corner and was on his way; we weren’t his problem anymore. My body still moaned from the road, but I heard Tal telling the head doctor, “No, we won’t be paying. Here’s the number of the Nong Khiaw police station. They’ll sort it out for you,” before two attendants rolled me into a lo-fi X-ray room. I had a hard time conveying the point that I couldn’t straighten my leg or move my arm, but these guys did the best they could and rolled me right back out.
Before I knew it my leg was wrapped in gauze around a long plastic piece the shape of a water slide and we were moved into the room where we would stay the night. The X-rays, said the one doctor who spoke English, showed that my collarbone was broken but my knee was not. He also said that with a week of bed rest, I should be up and walking. What a pro! A nurse put an IV in my arm for some reason then and they didn’t talk to us for the rest of the night.
This all happened so quickly that it took a few minutes to realize our sleeping situation: across from my bed was another bed, in which a young Lao girl was also hooked up to an IV. Her mother sat at her feet, staring at her chest rising and falling. But in between our two beds was the rest of the girl’s family. All 10 of them, and as Tal and I got our bearings we watched every one of them preparing to sleep on the floor in a jigsaw puzzle arrangement. They mostly ignored us and within a few minutes they were all asleep, the room more packed then an Indian train. The only space for Tal was on the hospital bed with me, so she crawled on up and we tried to sleep. The keyword there is tried.
We were now 9 hours from the accident and without any painkillers of substance. The wounds on my arm had received no attention since that village nurse picked at them with tweezers and I thought the pressure in my knee would cause it to explode in a bloody mess all over this poor Lao family. Tal was without any obvious injuries, but she had still just suffered a major car accident; she was covered in scrapes and bruises, which were rapidly becoming aches and soreness. We looked like shit, we felt like shit and we absolutely smelled like shit. We were the definition of fucked up. But tomorrow would be a brand new day, right?
The night’s sleep was more a random assortment of 10-minute segments when I drifted off due to sheer exhaustion, then woke up with a start and tried not to scream. I don’t know how long I actually slept, but by the first hints of daylight, there was no way I could close my eyes again. The pain, which I’d hoped would subside overnight, had doubled down in my stillness and was raging. My knee was absolutely on fire; I felt like I was being stabbed in my shoulder. I wanted Tal (and the Lao family) to sleep, but I couldn’t hold my shit together any longer. With a touch she was awake and knew from my near-sobbing that we needed help. The morning unfolded like a fever dream. I don’t know what came first. I don’t know how long it took. But from daylight until about 10 a.m., the following events took place:
Tal vowed to go find a doctor.
Tal returned without anyone, nearly in tears that every hospital staff member she approached looked at her with a blank stare.
The Lao family woke up and began pacing around the room. All goddamn 10 of them.
Tal asked a doctor where there was a bathroom with soap. He laughed and muttered, “No soap.”
I screamed in pain.
Tal asked the Lao family members for a phone, for any phone. A teenage family member gave her one, and she emailed her family the situation. Tal’s parents emailed back immediately: “You need to get to Bangkok.”
Tal found a conference room in the hospital, broke into it and somehow called international to speak with her parents, who quickly vowed to book tickets from Luang Prabang to Bangkok for later that morning.
I asked for a nurse to give me painkillers. She promptly turned around and walked out of the room.
I begged the mother of my roommate: “Please. Nurse. Pain.” The mother left the room and returned. “Doctor coming.” The doctor never came.
I tried to move and screamed again.
Tal returned. “We need to get the fuck out of here.”
A doctor finally arrived. “You should stay here for the next few days,” he said. At this point, no one had come to check on us since we’d arrived . “We have tickets to Bangkok. We need to get out of here,” said Tal. The doctor laughed. “Why going to Thailand?” asked the doctor. “Because no one has spoken to us in hours, and no one here speaks English,” said Tal. “I speaking English,” said the doctor. “Exactly,” said Tal. The doctor then promptly left. There was still an IV in my arm, though the bag of saline fluid was still full from the night before. It had never been opened. A nurse walked by and Tal called her in. “Can you please take this IV out of his arm?” she asked. The nurse turned and walked away.
I screamed in pain.
#13 was repeated at least twice more. Tal and I began screaming. We had to cause a scene. Most of the Lao family and three nurses came into the room. “I need you to take this IV out of his arm. We are leaving. We need to leave the hospital,” said Tal, sternly. The nurse smiled, shook his head and began to walk away. So Tal walked to my bedside and quickly pulled the IV tube from the bag with one firm motion. Saline fluid began to spray all over the room and the poor Lao family.
A nurse rushed to reattach the tube and stop the waterfall of saline fluid. Tal stood over him, making sure he couldn’t leave my bedside. And you better believe that punk took out my IV.
The nurses understood we meant business. A wheelchair appeared, as did a few guys who lifted me out of the bed and into said wheelchair. I screamed so loud that a woman’s water broke down the hall. After the actual accident and the ‘ambulance’ ride, this was the third worst pain of the whole ordeal.
The nurses, the wheelchair guys, the Lao family (several members of which were carrying our bags) and now the doctor followed as we wheeled towards the hospital entrance. We officially had a posse.
Tal was a woman possessed. We had a massive stroke of bad luck, but we were not about to stay in this shit hole hospital in the least developed country in South East Asia while I had as-yet-unconfirmed injuries that were causing me to contemplate how much nicer a knife fight would’ve been. Nothing would stop her. The adrenaline pulsing through this girl could’ve killed a smaller mammal. There were no taxis in the hospital parking lot. The doctor kept mumbling about how I just needed bed rest and this was a bad idea.
So with all of our bags in the hospital entrance, and me slumped over in a wheelchair, Tal just ran. She ran right out of the parking lot and into the street, where I saw her wildly waving her arms, and then she vanished. I looked up at my present company: a few Lao teenagers and a whole lot of confused hospital staff. I wanted to make a joke. The whole thing was fucking absurd. But so was the pain, and so I just sat there, a tiny miserable ball, already sweating in the morning heat.
And then Tal was riding back through the parking lot in yet another pick-up truck. This time, a look of confidence on her face. The truck pulled up to the ER ramp where I sat and Tal bounded out, grabbed each bag and threw it in the back. She looked at me briefly. “This guy is going to drive us to the airport.” I cracked my first smile in nearly 24 hours. As I was wheeled to the truck’s front seat, then pulled myself into it, I stared back at the weird, infuriating crew assembled before me on the hospital steps. What a strange experience we’d all shared! I imagined they’d tell their friends about the insane white woman with wild red hair who screamed at nurses and sprayed IV fluid all over the place. I imagined they’d smile and wonder about me, the tiny, dirty young man who cried every time someone touched him. But there wasn’t much time to get nostalgic; we were on our way to the airport, where Tal’s parents said we had tickets waiting for us.
We arrived in less than 20 minutes, and the driver parked right out front. Tal darted out of the truck to find a wheelchair, and I sat there. But in a moment I noticed some familiar faces out the driver’s side window; not friends, but people out of a dream. No, they weren’t from my dream. It was the Lao family. They’d followed us to the airport. As I put this all together, a young man crossed in front of the parked truck and poked his head into my window. He smiled.
“Hello. I know you not know me. But I member family who speak best English. How you feel?”
I stared at him blankly. I couldn’t do small talk. It just wasn’t in me.
“We very worry about you today, go flying,” he said. “But I am very sorry, I tell you. We cannot come with you to Thailand.”
At that, my eyes widened.
“You what? No, no, of course you don’t need to come to Thailand,” I stammered.
“And so, we thinking, we will give you this money for you to see hospital in Bangkok. This 200,000 kip,” he said, and reached his arm into my window with a large wad of Lao money. Now 200,000 kip is less than $25, but I was not about to let our poor family of 10 (or 12? or 15? Maybe some of them had to feed their pets?) give me any money.
“No, no, no, no, thank you but this is totally not necessary,” I choked out. “I promise, I promise. We will be absolutely fine. We just need to get to Thailand as soon as possible.”
He looked dejected, and the little piece of human being in me that wasn’t drowning in pain said, “Listen, thank you. That’s really, really nice of you. But it is alright. We can’t take your money.” With that, he nodded to me, then to his family, and the whole crew dispersed. Laos culture: Unwilling to help at the scene of an accident, but quick to throw money at a problem. Very confusing.
Meanwhile, Tal returned with good news and bad news. She’d found a wheelchair for me, but the airline was refusing to let us on the plane without a ‘fit to fly’ certificate from a doctor. We didn’t have that. We’d left that hospital like we were breaking out of jail; there hadn’t been time to collect the proper paperwork. I climbed out of the truck and into the chair, and what followed was another hellish few hours in which, much like that morning in the hospital, I watched Tal dart from unhelpful Lao to unhelpful Lao, trying to solve a crazy problem.
This time around, the airline staff insisted we would be better served returning to underfunded, woefully under-qualified Luang Prabang hospital, not going to Bangkok, an actual city where there are actual hospitals and actual people who speak English. This was unacceptable to us. We needed to board that fucking plane. So Tal, borrowing yet another phone, was soon talking to her parents and sister at what was, for them, the middle of the night, and an hour later Susan Kassutto, a pediatrician, had written a doctor’s clearance note and sent it to the airline’s international office with one simple line: “Justin Jacobs can fly.”
And yet even with this official note, the staff refused to let us board without the flight captain giving his own, clearly not-medical clearance. So we handed over the previous night’s X-rays and hoped for the best. The clock ticked by agonizingly slowly, and then it was 15 minutes before take off and we were still sitting at the airport entrance. Things looked fucked. We had no options left. So Tal wheeled me up to a different check-in desk than before and smiled big.
“I’m so sorry, but we’re afraid we’ll miss our flight! Can we check in now?” she said. And, well, somehow that worked, because the world is a weird fucking place. Tal leaned down to me and whispered, “My dad said you should downplay your injuries and smile. They won’t let you on the plane if you seem too injured.” So that’s what I did. I smiled and nodded and cursed to hell every idiot we’d encountered since the accident. We got our X-rays back, the flight captain apparently had signed off, and in a second we were being wheeled to the plane. The plane which did not have a ramp, and only steps.
“Can you walk up these steps?” asked the Bangkok Airways crew member pushing my wheelchair.
“… with help, I think I can,” I said, trying not to cry like a small girl.
So he and another staffer wrapped their arms under my arms and half-carried, half-pushed me up the steps. And I smiled so big, even though I was being lifted by my arms and I had a broken collarbone and I hoped the entire country of Laos would burst into flames as we flew to safety.
Once on the plane, I struggled to maneuver myself into the seat. Still writhing in pain, I adjusted my swollen leg as best I could in my window seat (the aisle would be too dangerous, said the flight crew, because in case of an emergency I’d effectively be trapping Tal in the plane; it was much better if she could escape and left me to perish), ordered and drank a beer and two glasses of wine and fell asleep – for about an hour, as the Luang Prabang-Bangkok flight is 90 minutes long.
We arrived back in Bangkok and I knew the worst was over. The city is a huge, bustling metropolis with a larger population than the country of Laos, and its medical services are top notch. I made it off the plane less painfully then I’d boarded, and soon a nice Thai porter was carting me around the gigantic airport and into one of the cabs lined up outside. Tal’s dad had recommended we head straight for Bumrungrad International, one of the best hospitals in Asia, and once I’d shuffled my way into the cab’s back seat we were cruising towards first world medical care. Our driver was either a drug addict or had a severe tick, because he was bobbing his head so violently that he couldn’t have been watching the road. His cab was full of stickers showing stick figure women being sexed by stick figure men, and he was sweating profusely. Had this been any other time, we would have politely gotten out and hailed another cabbie. But we were now 24 hours out from the accident, and I was yet to swallow any real painkillers. We needed Bumrungrad, now.
The cabbie, of course, tried to drop us off at a hotel nearby ignoring my pointing towards the large “ER” sign down the street. Regardless, 90 minutes after landing in Bangkok I was wheeled into a squeaky clean emergency room, where a staff of gorgeous Thai nurses took my blood pressure, inserted a (working) IV, took my temperature and hustled me off to get new X-rays. And to each of those gorgeous Thai nurses, I apologized for my smell, which, due to one coating of blood and countless feverish sweats, was bordering on grotesque.
Bumrungrad International was the sexiest hospital I’d ever seen. All hardwood floors, uber-modern facilities and a staff who could’ve been models in an all-Thai GAP catalogue. Everyone had different sexy uniforms, including the porters who pushed us around the huge place from building to building. Wow! Were it not for the still awful (but finally decreasing) pain, it would’ve been so much fun!
With new X-rays in hand, we were wheeled to see an orthopedic surgeon who finally told me the news: I had a deep fracture in my knee, and another in my clavicle. I wouldn’t be walking for at least six weeks. I wouldn’t be carrying anything for months. I wouldn’t be running, or rock climbing, or playing any sports for god knows how long. It was all bad news, but being delivered in what seemed like a set from the show “House” softened the blow a bit.
Note: collarbones should not be Y-shaped at the end
“Before we discuss surgical options for your shoulder, we need to drain the blood from that knee,” he said. That sounded disgusting, but without protest a few minutes later I was laying on a table watching the doctor tap-tap on a syringe the size of a chop stick, which he promptly plunged into the flesh of my knee. And good lord! He sucked out about a pint of blood. It hurt like a bitch, but the pressure in my knee released and I was able to unclench my leg muscles for the first time in over a day. Then came the cast, for which the doctor insisted I straighten my leg, to which I insisted I could not.
But he was a patient, steady-handed guy, and even through a few high-pitched yelps and howls I was able to unbend my leg. His two sexy nurse assistants were on standby, and as he wrapped the layer of cotton, then began the hardening shell of the cast, he would hand my leg over to one of them. But each time, they’d just barely support my still-throbbing leg, I’d scream “Stop! Stop! Stop! Fuck! Stop!” and the doctor would reapply his grip and the pain would go down. The doctor and the nurses would look at each other and giggle. I think they were all high. All in all, it was great having such slim, sexy and smiling Thai nurses, but I would’ve been better off with stronger ladies or just a room full of dudes.
Blood drained, cast on, arm sling applied, painkillers gobbled, it was now time for the really fun stuff: talk about insurance and surgery. I’ll keep this part short: surgery is expensive, insurance pushed us to come back to Israel, we opted to wait a day in a hotel across the street to weigh our options. While the first full day of this fiasco was extremely stressful, what came next was just fucking frustrating. Tal and I were stuck in a way-too-fancy hotel room, as it was our only option close enough to the hospital, making phone calls to our travel insurance, the hospital, any medical connections back in Israel and our families, who were in turn busy making their own phone calls to help us find Israeli doctors, sort out a place to stay when we returned and running my case by their own medical contacts for a second opinion.
When we turned down the option of surgery in Bangkok, the doctor refused to write a ‘fit to fly’ certificate without us paying for a medical escort. Our travel insurance, after many niceties and back-and-forth emails, revealed themselves as evil demons, refusing to pay a single cent for the procedure in Bumrungrad or our evacuation back to Israel due to a vague clause in the contract regarding what type of drivers license I had. We were completely on our own. Aside from the free breakfast each morning, the whole experience was a black tarpit of stress for both Tal and I. We needed to get the fuck out of Bangkok, but we couldn’t figure out how.
And all the while I was slowly, slowly learning how to operate with a wheelchair. Using the bathroom felt impossible. Standing up alone was an uphill battle. I still hadn’t showered, though Tal rubbed me down with a wet towel. There were a lot of tearful breakdowns from both of us, thankfully at different times, and more than once I accidentally peed all over myself. These were not our best moments.
In the end it took 48 hours to finally breakthrough: the El Al (Israeli airline) office in Bangkok miraculously cleared me to fly without an escort, negating the surgeon’s recommendation and told us they’d save us two Economy Plus tickets (so I could actually fit) if we got there to buy them… in the next 30 minutes. So in exactly half that time we (meaning Tal) packed up all our stuff, checked out of the hotel and hailed a taxi across town to buy our escape route.
But the flight, of course, wasn’t until after midnight that night. And we’d checked out of our hotel around 1 p.m., meaning we’d have just under 10 hours to sit at the airport before our flight. There are worse things in the world. When our taxi pulled up to the Bangkok international airport, Tal jumped out, as was the trend, to go find a wheelchair. And she didn’t come back. I sat in the back of the cab, watching the driver nervously check his phone, then pace around the car, then open and shut the windows, over and over again for 45 minutes. Tal finally did return with a wheelchair and promptly told me we couldn’t keep it.
“Of course not,” I said.
“No, I mean I can wheel you to a seat then we need to give this wheelchair back. Like in 5 minutes,” she said.
Turns out, the El Al desk wasn’t open for another 5 hours, and at this airport, only airlines could issue wheelchairs to passengers. Tal had run around the airport looking for help, asking every information desk, and in the end she hijacked one from “Lost Property,” which airport workers demanded she return immediately after moving her immobile boyfriend. So after the workers kindly allowed me to pee one last time, we sat near the closed El Al gate – my casted right leg propped up on our bags – for almost a quarter of a day. But fuck it! We were going home! This nightmare would soon be over!
We passed the time talking to our still very shaken parents, trying not to cry at the notion that our trip ended this way, and had one last Thai dinner – obscenely expensive, naturally, because we were in an airport. When the El Al desk opened that night, a porter was assigned to help us along and he wheeled us through the special needs lines and security. Our gate was full of Israelis wishing me the best, saying it’d all be better once we returned to ha’aretz and gawking at how utterly awful we looked. We looked especially bad as the wheelchair-bound woman and her husband in front of us looked fresh from a shopping spree. The woman, nails done and in a tight sweatsuit, carried a gigantic Hello Kitty doll. And the man wore designer jeans and faded, platinum blond hair, but his gut hung awkwardly over his belt. He looked vaguely familiar, Tal and I agreed. It didn’t take long to realize others thought the same thing. People all around us were whispering, “Is that him?”
“Is that… Kobi Peretz?” asked Tal. And indeed it was! Formerly huge Israeli Mizrachi pop star Kobi Peretz, everyone!
Officially the last photo of our trip: Bangkok airport
The seats were by far the best I’ve ever flown in, by necessity. We were the front row, and I had about 3 meters of legroom. Sitting next to us, because of course, was Kobi and his wife, who “felt faint in the taxi cab to the airport.” Kobi, ever the gentleman, doted on her the whole flight as if she were a small, hemophiliac child with the flu.
“You want something sweet, my sweet?” he asked.
“Yes, bring me the Mentos,” she replied weakly.
And so Kobi took out the economy-sized Mentos that you can only find at Duty Free, fed her exactly one, and waited for her to chew for 20 seconds and spit it back into his hand. At one point, Kobi laid down in the middle of the aisle so he could look at her better, until a flight attendant said it was dangerous for passengers to sleep on the floor, especially as they were attempting to roll the dinner trey through. Celebrities: they’re just like us!
We landed in Israel 11 hours later. Tal’s cousin Ami picked us up, and he and his family graciously agreed to take us in as I begin the long process towards recovery (note: gracious is not even the word. These guys are completely saving us, and we owe them the world). Over the next few days, I spent time in a hospital, saw assorted doctors and began to make a plan for rehabilitation.
But the heavier part of the first days back in Israel is accepting what has happened.
Our trip, this incredible, life-changing experience that Tal and I were so lucky to share, is over. Or, let’s say ‘on hold,’ because it’s less depressing. Listen, I know the obvious thing for people to say is, “But think of all the things you got to do! Most people don’t get to travel in India for months at a time! Don’t be sad you didn’t get to finish the trip. Now get back on your feet and you can return to the real world.” But it’s not that simple. No one wants their best laid plans to go to shit. And to think that our wild year of independence and travel went down in flames because some stupid jerkoff drank too much BeerLao and decided to go for a joyride is just upsetting.
So instead of telling myself, “Well, it was good while it lasted,” I’ve begun to look at this accident as just another chapter in this year of ever-weirder and more surprising chapters. These few months that I’ll be laid up in a wheelchair, then the weeks I’ll be relearning to walk and hold things, are just another piece of this unexpected puzzle. We’ll get back out there. We’ll travel more. We’ll see more of this beautiful, mesmerizing world. But for now, our adventure will just take a slower pace, in a more familiar place.
And without all our time on the road this year, I don’t think I’d be quite so OK with where we are now. Life’s got a flow to it. You just gotta float.