Saturday, July 22, 2017 will henceforth be known as the day I could have died, but didn’t.
I could have died from a head injury when I was thrown from motorcycle on a treacherous mountain road, but I didn’t.
I was lucky, that’s for sure.
I had been asked if I wanted to do a trip to Cao Bang, for Word — the magazine I write for. Cao Bang — a mountainous area the north-east of Vietnam, near the Chinese border — is just starting to open up to tourism, and there are a number of NGOs working in the area, supporting local people with homestays and community development initiatives. An NGO had approached the magazine wanting media coverage. Word had sent a writer to Ha Giang with the same NGO some time ago, with no problems.
Of course, I jumped at the chance because a) I went to Mu Cang Chai the previous weekend and it was a fabulous trip, b) it seemed like an awesome thing to do and c) it was free.
The road was steep, uneven and extremely rocky. The bike flipped sideways, and I was thrown backwards and hit my head on the road, missing a large rock by inches.
Cao Bang is a seven or eight-hour journey from Hanoi, give or take toilet stops and meal breaks. I was travelling with project leaders, 15 experienced tour guides and trekkers and a lovely young lady from Vietnam News — all Vietnamese. I was the only foreigner on this trip, but it wasn’t an issue, because English-speaking ability ranged from excellent to ok. And I got to practise my Vietnamese.
The brief indicated there would be lots of trekking, but I was fine with that. Hiking through idyllic mountains, view breath-taking scenery, it read. After all, I was a trail runner in Australia – how hard could it be?
We arrived in Cao Bang, had lunch and drove to the start of the trek, which was scheduled before we checked into our homestay in a nearby(ish) village.
Remember I asked how hard could it be? Well, think Kokoda Track, and you’d be somewhere in the ballpark. The terrain was extremely steep and rocky, and it alternated between ankle-deep mud covering slippery surfaces and jungle that had to be cut through with a machete. I kept saying: No wonder the Americans and Australians lost the war.
It was clear very early on that the “media girls” (as we were called) were struggling. We were inappropriately dressed for the terrain (I was in jeans, t-shirt and sneakers), and totally unprepared. We had hardly any water, nothing to restore sugar and salt reserves (it was hot and humid), no sunscreen, no insect repellent and no walking sticks. No wonder the Americans and Australians lost the war.
We were last and were left behind with a couple of other trekkers/guides. It was clear early on that there was no exit strategy. None.
Some of us get to the end and are full of regrets, deeply saddened by what could or should have been, but never was.
After a few phone frantic calls between the trekkers/guides, the exit strategy was telling us to keep moving — with the plan being to get us to the main road and then call for a xe om (motorcycle taxi). We walked four kilometres of pure hell: I couldn’t catch my breath even though I have never been asthmatic, and we were exhausted. We even had to backtrack a couple of times because was the trekker/guides who were with us weren’t sure where the main road was, despite making more phone calls (I found out later this was the first time this trek had been done). At one point I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to give up and die on that mountain, or just sit down and cry. In the end it was neither.
When the xe oms came, there were no helmets. I never get on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet, but in this case I had no choice — there was no other way back to the homestay. And we were exhausted. There was no way we could have walked the last few kilometres.
My driver lost control of his bike about 1 kilometre into the journey. The road was steep, uneven and extremely rocky. The bike flipped sideways, and I was thrown backwards and hit my head on the road, missing a large rock by inches.
I crawled to the side of the road, dazed and confused, wondering what I had done to deserve this.
And I thanked God I was still alive.
At the insistence of friends back in Australia (one who said a colleague of hers had died days later after a similar accident and who can forget Natasha Richardson’s death?) I had a CT scan when I got back to Hanoi. I was very lucky. I ended up with a huge lump and a very sore head (and it’s still sore some two weeks later), but no concussion or bleeding into my brain.
I’ve always believed that you have a finite number of days on this earth. Limited time. Some of us don’t make it out of the womb, some of us only last days, sometimes only a couple of weeks or just a few years after we are born. Some of us live long, happy lives. Some of us live long, miserable lives. Some of us are dogged with ill-health and misfortune and addiction and godawfulness. Some of us live large and loud, others small and quiet and little. Some of us get to the end and are full of regrets, deeply saddened by what could or should have been, but never was.
You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go. ~ Captain Mike, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
For some unknown reason, a reason that I am not privy to, it was not my fate to die of a head injury on a mountain in Cao Bang, Vietnam on Saturday, 22 July 2017.
It makes me wonder why not?
What does the universe have planned for me?
What is it that I am yet to do that hasn’t been done?
Time will tell, as it always does.
This is the 17th essay in the #52essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’ll be writing (or trying to write) one personal essay a week: 52 in total. And I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! And if you are interested and want to join the #52essays2017 challenge, you can find out more information here, and join the Facebook group here.