I Could Have Died Abroad

April 22, 2013

Don't fall off a cliff whilst taking a photo

I’ve faced many dangers and near misses in my travels. Some of my own creation. Some of circumstance and environment. But regardless, it’s pretty amazing I’m still alive and in good health given what could have happened and what I didn’t do to avoid placing myself in those situations. Let’s take a look back over the years, shall we?

1. Washington DC, 2002

First year of college. I was having difficulty coping with the loss of my high school friends, so I decided to do a crazy road trip – 4000 miles in 9 days – to visit their respective campuses across the country. From Austin to Missouri, to Tennessee, through the northeastern states, and back again.

I have been and will always be an angry driver. It’s one of the reason why I prefer not to place myself in that situation by not owning a car and choosing to travel by bus, train, and on foot. Where some people are able to shrug off heavy traffic, I start yelling, accelerating and braking repeatedly, and feeling my heart nearly jump out of my chest.

On occasion, though, I do something so stupidly sobering I question my driving behavior. DC was one of those times. I had just left Georgetown after crashing with a classmate and was trying to escape across the border and get to NYC. Unfortunately, DC is a mess if you’re not familiar with all the one-way streets and exits. I almost ended up by the Lincoln Memorial before I found what I thought to be the turnoff to the highway… it wasn’t. Completely tired, frustrated, and just wanting to get back on track, I took the car off the paved road into the rocky, gravelly median at over 60 mph (100 kph). Didn’t hit the brakes until I was nearly on top of a tree… close call.

What should I have done differently? Actually thought about what I was doing. Calmed down. Used the brakes. Done my research on how to escape DC.

2. Austin, Texas, USA, 2004

I was a pretty strong and cocky runner when I was going to The University of Texas at Austin. Junior year, I was living in West Campus. Although there were plenty of places to jog around the 40 acres, I was in training for a marathon and needed longer stretches of trails, so I would usually run through downtown to reach Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake), where I could have 16 km of uninterrupted running.

This particular evening, I had just finished studying for a propulsion exam when I decided I needed a break; my legs were restless and I needed to get my mind of memorizing equations. Rain blanketed most of Austin in a light drizzle as I took to the streets. I was on top of my game, accelerating for the fun of it, darting through crosswalks. As I approached the intersection of two one-way streets, I slowed slightly to verify that the light was indeed red and would allow me safe passage. And then it all went wrong.

No sooner had I put one foot on the street than the car to my right decided to make an illegal left turn (on a one-way, so it’s questionable). He didn’t hit me head-on, but once I ran into him, my legs lost all traction from the slick street and slid right under his tires. Not only that, but the driver, somehow, hadn’t noticed he had just run over a human being and kept driving, giving my legs the weight of his rear tires. Eventually, he stopped and called 911.

The curb was right there. My body had been flung around from being spun by the tires. All it would have taken was a few more inches in any direction for my head to hit a post, or be slammed onto the unforgiving concrete.

Fortunately, none of that happened. My legs took the brunt of the damage (nothing broken), and I was so full of adrenaline I refused medical treatment. That changed later that evening when everything swelled up and I found I couldn’t walk.

What should I have done differently? In this case, I don’t think the accident was my fault, but I could have avoided running at night in the rain (I generally don’t now); I could have been a little more patient getting to Town Lake.

3. Nakanoshima, Japan, 2007

DSCF8891.jpg

I considered myself beyond invulnerable while living in Japan. Not only did I have decent health insurance, but I constantly engaged in high risk activities. It wasn’t until I shattered my wrist in that I finally slowed down.

Before that, however, I was going on weekend trips to different islands in southern Kagoshima Prefecture. Ioujima, with its natural seaside hot springs. Amami Oshima, with its rich history surrounding Saigo Takamori. Nakanoshima was only accessible by a twice-a-week slow ferry whose schedule rarely lined up to fit my days off. In November, however, I noticed that it would be departing Kagoshima late on Friday and returning Sunday evening; a perfect match if ever there was one.

After disembarking early Saturday morning and dropping my things off at the ryokan, I decided to explore. There were no guides, no major attractions. Just me, a very undeveloped island, and the surrounding ocean. Intoxicating doesn’t even come close to how excited I was to be away from work and to have the opportunity for adventure. So I took full advantage, getting off the paved road and heading right to the rocky coast.

No one was around. I hadn’t told the obasan where I was going. And on the eastern side of the island, I couldn’t even see any signs of civilization. Totally alone and no chance of being interrupted. When I had traversed as far along the rocks as I could before reaching a stretch too dangerous to try, I had to make a decision: go back the way I came (perfectly safe), or try and climb back into the forest up the “cliff” (only about 15 meters high). I opted for the latter.

Using the roots of a tree that had grown into the cliffside, I started to climb until it was apparent I had to be very careful: not only were some of the roots rotten and falling out of my grip, but I couldn’t safely descend at such a steep angle. More than once, I thought I was going to slip and fall onto the rocks, but I managed to get back into the bamboo forest and eventually find the paved road.

What should I have done differently? Tell someone where I was going at the ryokan. Send an email to my coworkers and friends back in Kagoshima to look for me if I didn’t check in Sunday night. So many injuries and deaths are the fault of proud people who want to think they can do it all themselves, and don’t need a safely net. I think Aron Ralston would agree with me.

4. Suratthani, Thailand, 2008

After I left Japan, I went to Thailand to volunteer for a month. Upon discovering a university friend was teaching in Suratthani, the gateway to the islands, I decided to spend most of my weekends over there with the expat crowd.

Let me clarify: Suratthani is NOT a happening place. Its bus terminal is laughable; most people are out to cheat you; and tourists merely use it as a stopover to Kou Samui and Kou Phangan. However, I had friends there, and it was still a new experience for me in Thailand. Because the town in which I was volunteering lacked anything like nightlife, I spend Saturday nights in Surat enjoying Sangsom Cokes and dancing.

One particular evening, as the seven of us were about to order another round at the bar, a few older Thai men started up a conversation, no doubt looking for a free English lesson. After a few casual remarks and whatnot, one of them asked me where I was from. I was feeling a little cheeky from the alcohol, and wanted to use my Thai, so I said “ญี่ปุ่น” (Japan).

Obviously, I’m a white boy. But I felt like challenging everyone’s perceptions about race; I had just left Japan, and concocted a story about how I was born in Tokyo and attended an international school. I planned to weave this intricate tale and capture the attention of the Thais, making them aware that you don’t have to look Japanese to be from Japan, and hopefully getting a few looks of astonishment.

I never got the chance.

One of the men stiffened in his chair and said quite sharply “YOU LIE!” before talking with his friends. My friend living in Surat spoke briefly with one of them, then turned to me, saying they were off duty police officers, they were armed, and they had been drinking quite a bit. In other words, it wouldn’t have taken much aggravation for one of them to pull a weapon on me, and I was tempting fate with my cheeky response. I survived.

What should I have done differently? Not try and teach others a lesson by lying. Be aware my sense of humor doesn’t necessarily cross cultural lines. Don’t tick off a cop. The police are not to be trusted in any country.

5. Wellington, New Zealand, 2009

The six months I spent in New Zealand were amazing. I managed to explore most of the North Island, but as my departure date approached, I still hadn’t seen Wellington, rumored to be one of the most beautiful urban areas in the country. Taking the early morning train from Auckland, I arranged to go WWOOFing in Paekakariki, a short ride on the rails north of Wellington.

I had been having a mixed bag of WWOOFing hosts in NZ, but fortunately my host here was welcoming, laid back, and an excellent provider of good food. I had my own private room in her converted garage and the chores were simple. Save one.

I should have known better. Even recalling the incident and how close I came to really hurting myself is causing me to wince. I was just using a hand axe and chopping up some wood on a block. Then I missed, causing the axe to come straight down into my leg. Fortunately, and I really don’t know how – it might have been a fluke – in that split second between it missing the block and touching flesh, I managed to turn the tool so that the flat end struck me in the shin instead of the blade slicing through the bone.

I was lucky. I was stunned, in a lot of pain, but nothing was broken or bleeding. I easily could have required hospitalization, and it wasn’t exactly a short drive away for a missing limb.

What should I have done differently? Accidents happen, of course, but I should have been more mindful. Not have been in such a rush getting things chopped up. The same attitude caused me to nail gun my hand in Haiti (also a near miss; just a flesh wound).

6. San Francisco, California, 2011

After my repatriation from South Korea, I settled in San Francisco. To anyone who’s tried to make a fresh start in this city, you know: it is hard to find decent housing. Even if you have some money, there is simply too high a demand for rooms, apartments, studios, etc. Many first timers have to settle for the East Bay in lieu of the city.

I was fortunate to make contact with a Couchsurfer who was giving up his roommate. I was unfortunate in that he lived in Bayview. Along with Hunter’s Point and the Tenderloin, Bayview is one of the worst neighborhoods in San Francisco. It also happens to be one of the cheapest. I was trapped. I had no choice. I took the room, and ended up staying for the better part of year.

I’ve complained about the roommates I had over there, but I failed to mention the worst thing one of them did. One lazy weekday morning, as I was enjoying a cup of tea and using the Internet in my room, I heard the doorbell ring. I just let it go, but I heard someone else answer it and sets of feet walking up the stairs. When I heard my door open, I knew something was up; no one comes in my room, especially without knocking.

A man and a woman charged into my room with guns drawn, asking questions and expecting a straight answer from me. I just couldn’t think, couldn’t comprehend why they were in my house, and why my roommate had let them in; they had no search warrant, and certainly no right to flash guns in a docile situation. I wasn’t sure if they were cops, bounty hunters, or just people with guns who could pretty much do anything they wanted. Eventually, after realizing I had no clue for whom they were looking or any other information, they left.

What would it have taken for them to fire on me? I’ve never had a loaded weapon so close to me in such a precarious situation. What if I had been angry and indignant instead of scared and compliant? What if I had jumped up when they first charged in, yelling “GET OUT OF MY ROOM!”? Maybe nothing would have happened.

What should I have done differently? Not accept idiots as roommates. Choose a better place to live, regardless of cost.

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