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How I Kicked Trauma's Ass and Got Back on the Bike


If you've visited my blog before, chances are you're familiar with this post: Why Your Parents Don't Want You to Travel, or, Getting Hit By a Drunk Driver in Laos. While my site is mostly visited by friends and family, that post rippled surprisingly far—to the point that people in Tel Aviv would stop me on the street and ask if I was ok. For the TL:DR crowd (and it is long, I admit), it goes like this: Tali and I spent 7 months backpacking through India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos. We had plans to continue on to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Japan, but the trip was cut short. Brutally short. We were on a scooter ride in a tiny village in northern Laos, just shy of the Vietnam border, when a drunk driver in a truck swerved into our lane and hit us head on. Tali stood up from the crash site more or less unscathed. I didn't stand up at all. I landed on my head and shoulder, tumbling into a ditch with—we would find out after a 2-day epic trek to Bangkok—a broken knee and collarbone. Journeying from the side of the road to a modern hospital in Thailand, and then back to Israel a few days later, was one of the most harrowing, painful, and emotionally disturbing experiences of my life. At times, I was weeping out of pain or frustration. At times, I was screaming, because riding in a truck down a dirt road with broken bones and no painkillers is fucking terrible. And through all of those times, I was endlessly grateful that Tali was there with me, as she quite frankly saved my life. No bullshit.

Here's the scene where it all went down. That's me in on the side of the road.

Even after months and months of recovery, I vowed never to get back on a motorbike. Ever. No fucking way. My two legs worked (luckily—it wasn't guaranteed) and were enough to get me wherever I needed to go.

But here we are now, 2 and a half years later. It's a Saturday afternoon, and I'm sitting a cafe in Ubud, Bali, about 3km from the house we're renting south of town. And we got here... on a scooter. Without a thought in the world of getting here any other way. What happened? What changed?

In short, everything.

After the accident, I spent two months in a wheelchair. With a broken shoulder, I was unable to push myself around even the shortest distance. The isolation and dependence was earthshaking to me. I'm often unable to contain all my energy—I want to move and plan and do, constantly. But I couldn't even shower myself (again, thanks Tali). Using the bathroom at night was a multi-person production. I felt jailed inside my own body.

The metallic squawk, that sudden-impact crunch, of the truck smashing into the bike hovered in my brain all day. Crossing the street in the wheelchair felt like diving underwater. One deep breath, inhale a little more. Go. I pictured every car that passed ramming into me. Full on. No slowing down. I gasped every time I reached the safety of the sidewalk.

Indoors, I was a bit more relaxed. My collarbone began to heal first, and with 1.5 arms at my disposal I began standing up and hopping around the apartment, pivoting on one foot around corners and even down steps. What an idiot, but I couldn't help it. I graduated to crutches a few weeks after that, and in time the full-leg cast came off.

Inside that hard, blue casing was my right leg. Withered, the hair matted firmly down to the skin. Slowly, patiently (or so I told people), and gently, I began to take steps on two feet. Each one was a conscious decision. Left. Right. Left. Right. Bend the knee. Lift the foot. The six months following the accident were a practice in extreme, force-fed patience—I had no other choice. But it was depressing as hell, when all I wanted to relieve the stress was go for a jog or bike ride. Tali and I booked a short trip to Thailand—with me still on crutches, and with her sister Maya in tow—to ease the blow of our big trip going off the rails. South East Asia with one leg, my friends, is no joke.

Fast forward even more—I edged back into my yoga routine, underwent knee surgery to repair my torn meniscus, slogged through months and months of physiotherapy, began swimming in the sea. I crept towards a full recovery, but never arrived. Slow-jogging for a few hundred meters would leave me laid up in bed the next day. The knee wouldn't fully bend or straighten. Year one of this new existence proved frustrating to no end. Through year two I finally found some light, and began healing. It took therapy. And time. And acceptance. And my surgeon telling me that, in his opinion, I should stop holding out hope of ever running again. I can't tell you how much of a relief that was.

But through it all, one discussion simply wasn't on the table: riding a motorbike.

It became a trope that I internalized and no longer questioned. I was ready to travel again. I'd ride a bicycle—and embracing those wheels was a huge part of my recovery. But those motorized death machines? No thanks.

Then Bali happened.

Every time Tali got a job offer from an international school, we ran through a short checklist of what our life in that country would look like. Was there an expat scene? Was there decent healthcare? Was it somewhere we actually wanted to live? Was there delicious food? Was there public transportation? Was it accessible from other parts of the world?

In cities, the answers were almost always yes. In more remote places (like Goa, in southern India, or Chiang Rai, Thailand), we'd get some yes's and some no's. In Bali, literally every question was a glowing, neon YES! HELL YES! Except public transportation. As we read, the island was very accessible—most expat hubs were within an hour's drive of each other—but in taxis. Cars were expensive to rent. And there was no public transportation to speak of. So how would we get around?

Walk. We would walk.

That was the plan going into the move. We would live in Ubud, which is the more compact of the expat hubs here in Bali, and hoof it everywhere. But talking about walking is different than actually walking.

We landed in Bali and set up shop at a guesthouse smack in the middle of Ubud. The most centralized section of Ubud is essentially three main streets stretching in parallel a few kilometers, uphill. But it's also absolutely swarmed with tourists. Eat Pray Love has not been kind to this town, in truth, and we've arrived in Ubud's afterglow. The main streets are completely lined with beautiful cafes and boutique shops, but the places where people actually live—for more than a week or two—are outside of town. Expats here leave 'downtown' Ubud to the tourists, and populate a huge number of excellent, more secretive spots a few kilometers from the center.

After a few days at the guesthouse, we found a sublet in Nyuh Kuning, the expat-heavy, extremely photogenic village south of town. It is quite literally the closest village to the center of Ubud, but Ubud is one long, skinny patch of jungle—and it's always a million degrees here. But for a solid few weeks we walked. I made each trip into an adventure—I'm walking to the nearest grocery store! I'll be back in 2 hours! Or, let's go meet some friends in town! Tell them we'll be there tomorrow!

Going anywhere outside of Ubud was a nightmare. We'd make plans to head down south to meet friends at the beach, leaving ourselves with two options. A taxi would cost upwards of $40 USD. Uber exists here, and is a much cheaper option, but the taxi drivers are vehemently, violently against it—meaning our Uber driver would likely cancel if he approached Nyuh Kuning and saw a taxi sitting on the street. Balinese Uber drivers are a whole new brand of daring. Some get dragged out of their cars and beat up.

We both knew walking wasn't sustainable. We just needed a solution. And a car wasn't it.

Driving a car in Bali is an exercise in extreme caution and patience. Balinese roads would be one lane in any Western country—here, they often fit a car or two, with motorbikes passing at any possible chance, leaving the cars to humbly, slowly creep along, the drivers dreaming listlessly that they will one day reach their destination. To drive a car here means to arrive in nearly twice the time of a bike. And, unsurprisingly, finding parking is a lost cause.

It was on a walk to lunch one day in early August that the subject crept up again.

"I have to be honest. I'd be open to at least trying to drive a scooter again," I said to Tal, as I wiped the sweat from my face about 200 meters after leaving our house. "We can't walk everywhere—too far, too hot. And this is winter weather."

She knew. Of course she knew.

"But do you think you could?"

I thought I could. The truth was, the trauma of the accident felt far away—a different trip, a different me. The crunch of that scooter only occasionally echoed in my mind. And it'd been that way for months, but I'd so ingested the fear and pain that it had become an accepted reality. A truth that, when I actually let it sweep over me, no longer felt true. It felt like a cop out. Hi, I'm Justin and I'm afraid of riding motorbikes. But these accepted truths we tell ourselves about our traumas are, so often, I believe, just living passively. When I actually took a moment to reevaluate how I felt right then—not how I felt in general, but how I felt at 2 p.m. on a Saturday in Bali—the accident in Laos and the fear associated with it were far in the distance.

"Yeah, I'm going to try."

The next day was my first experiment. I used Grab (just like Uber) to order a ride—a motorbike ride. A short one, just to the local grocery store that, by foot, took upwards of 45 minutes.

"You have helmet?" I messaged the driver. He did. They know their clientele.

When he braked in front of my alleyway, I awkwardly strapped on the helmet.

"Ok," I said. "Let's go."

The ride was less than a fleeting thought to the driver. Of course it was. He was making less than a dollar to drive me down the street. But for me, it was a game changer. I felt my weight naturally shift as we rounded corners. My legs grip the seat, my eyes scan the road automatically. I couldn't help but smile as wind blew against my face. The ride was over in 3 minutes. I hopped off, and felt lighter.

The next experiment, though, was bigger. To actually drive. Thankfully, there were no shortage of friends around Ubud willing to let me take their bikes for a spin. But it was Thabo, an Australian Green School teacher living in Nyuh Kuning, who made it real.

"How about now?" he said one night, when we saw him walking home. "Seriously, mate. Take it around the block."

"I mean," I stopped. There was nothing standing between me and getting back on the bike—nothing unless I put it there. "Yeah," I said to myself more than to him. "Yeah, let's do it."

I put on his helmet and arched my legs over the seat. I sat down into the bike, let my weight rest firmly on its frame. I pushed my feet into the pavement and felt the bike beneath me. Key in ignition. Engine on. Wrist rolling back, bike creeping forward. The bike rolled into motion almost without my doing, and I wobbled a bit as it picked up speed. One loop around Nyuh Kuniung—sum total of about 3 minutes driving—and I pulled back up in front of Thabo's apartment.

"How was it, yeah?" he asked.

I thought a moment. It felt great. Liberating. A bit uneven turning corners, but that would fix itself with time.

"Great. It felt great."

"So have another go at it, off you go."

And off I went. This time around Nyuh Kuning and on into an empty lot that's filled with local fruit and vegetable sellers each morning. I eased over speed bumps and up around the edges of the pavement. The sun had already dipped out of sight; an orange dusk settled in the air. I drove back to Nyuh Kuning just before dark to find Tali sitting, drinking wine, with Thabo and his wife Jo—the two of them a truly perfect synthesis of badass world explorers and down-to-earth, comforting parents.

"Not so scary, right? Now come, let me get you a glass."

In a matter of minutes, this hulking fear that had camped out on my shoulders for two years shrank down. I could fit it in my pocket, tuck it away. The next day I rented a bike of my own, at first teasing myself with the idea that I would slowly, elegantly wade back onto the road. First a trip to the grocery store. Then a trip to a coffee shop just out of town. But after a few of these incrementally longer trips, the idea just seemed stupid. If I could ride, I could ride. A minute or an hour, on Bali or on an island nearby (see below), the idea was the same.

Biking in Bali is far more interactive than in rural Thailand or Laos, though. Here, the traffic is in constant communication. And the more I ride, the more I've grown to love the conversation. Scooters and motorcycles act as fish, zipping around the much larger, slower cars on the road. Most roads are seemingly the width of a car, but fit two lanes of traffic—so anytime two cars come head to head, the whole system shuts down, with bikes impatiently weaving in between vehicles, up on sidewalks, on Balinese front stoops.

Intersections are a circus. Cars lumber along, inching, inching to make their turn, while groups of bikes build up behind them. Then a tipping point is reached, and the bikes overtake the car, surging free like a popped water balloon and shooting every direction on the road. It's madness, but it works. You learn to swim with your school of fish, to understand the rhythm of the chaos.

But don't get me wrong—I didn't come this far to ride free, carelessly into the sunset. Tali and I are suited up with the latest in helmet fashion, meaning full-face and heavy duty. Balinese bikers tend to look at us and giggle at intersections, because helmets are not the way of this island. And there is no way to wear one of these human fish bowls and show up to a party with your hair looking good. But as Thabo said the day I rode his scooter: "If you're gonna wear a helmet, why not go all the way?"

There are two giant bobbleheads in the picture above, of course. How did Tali get back on a bike? It's an equally long and complicated story—she certainly didn't just hop on the second I rented one of our own. Her journey involved riding with a choice few experienced drivers (also just for a few minutes at a time, at first) before she was again behind me, singing as we drove across the island.

For more than a month now, I've been in love with my scooter—a bright red and black Honda Scoopy. I've all but forgotten that we used to walk everywhere in Tel Aviv, and wore that choice as a badge of pride. We're living in Bali now, and doing as the Balinese do.

I still do think of the accident from time to time. It's not gone. It'll never be gone. It's just not so loud anymore. Just today, riding back from the beach, I found myself humming "Heavy Metal Drummer" by Wilco—the same song I was singing just before we got hit by that truck. And for a second, I shivered. A bad omen. A terrifying sign. But, no. The past is the past. And signs only mean something if I assign that meaning. So I kept humming, and we got home safe.

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