Thursday, June 18, 2009

Not Hitting Your Head

I was going to write about something serious, but thought it would be funnier to write about accidents.

One story that always worried me was that brain cells don't grow back if they get damaged. I was running this past a scientist friend, worrying about the number of times I bang my head. It turns out the scientific lowdown is that I should stop falling down stairs. As if! Here's a day-in-the-life-of during one of my travels, based in the Sino-Western tourist village of Yangshuo on the superbly picturesque Li River:
Today I woke up, breakfasted, broke the restaurant's sign leaning on it going down a step, had a calligraphy lesson, fell down the stairs going out, got a discount on the lesson, walked away bruised and laughing, ate lunch without anything going wrong, had an exceedingly painful massage, ate dinner with taiwanese sisters. It's unclear where the evening will take me now. I think a second dinner might be on the cards
The wonderful thing about falling down these very uneven concrete stairs was that I landed first on my shoulder, only afterwards hitting the rest of me. Which means that there was no blood, and none of this going to the hospital to get stitches business - hence my nervous relief. My teacher, who hadn't accompanied other trips I've taken down stairs was really quite unsettled by the affair. From then on he was even more generous than he had been to start with.

A few months earlier - on a different set of travels - I'd just met some Spaniards, we'd had a drink, and decided to roll on to dinner. While sliding on to the fairly high seat of their 4x4, I slid straight off; landing on my back and head. A dismayed voice tells me that the latter is bleeding, and this writes off the rest of the evening. They're very kind, and I decline their offers to take me to a hospital, and we say our good-byes. In the bathroom of my hotel room, I try to rinse the blood off my coat: in the cold (no heating, or other warm clothes) I look at myself in the mirror above the sink and feel intensely lonely. Not unhappy, lonely, and not telling or wanting strangers to know or to notice what was going on.

There are many many more of these incidents - I'll trouble you with just another, more recent. About a month ago, a few of us had got back off the ferry from Niteroi after some beer to celebrate a fellow-anthropologist's birthday. I'm campaigning for the next party, but some go straight home by bus, a girl walks me to a taxi waiting in a side-street and then goes home herself. The taxi-driver doesn't like my ideas of a party either (Lapa is too close) and wants me to pay above the metre. I say no, ask the other taxi whether he's keen, and the pair of them play a little game to pretend they don't know where the place is (they do). Fine. What's the problem? I stride off to the main road to find someone less of a jackass.

And happily stride off I do. About half of the way, when on one of the uneven bits of the road my foot gives out. Well, shit. There's no one around - which I had been worrying about because I might get mugged, and now I'm worry about because I won't get helped. Perhaps it was imagined, but maybe I see one of the taxi drivers looking my way - but I'm certainly not crawling back to him. I'm not entirely sure what my plan was, or where my confidence came from. I do remember looking across the road - there are two steps as an entrance to a house. I decide not to go for them because I'm not sure if I'm able to use them, and don't want to crawl across a side-street. So I go for it, all a'crawling. I don't crawl on my hands, I crawl on my elbows (because my wrists aren't strong enough). Head down, off we go! Even (especially?) now lowered pavements are useful and I crawl from the road onto safer ground.

I take a pause to look up and work out where I've got to. A man is passing! I try the 'I'm disabled' line that I boasted so much about in a previous post. This was the line that always works - it doesn't this time. He wags a finger at me, and doesn't come even close. Sod all my clean clothes and presentably middle class aspect, crawling has ruled me out, and I'm not surprised. I call out after him that I really am disabled, and he sensibly ignores me. Fine. In what looks like the distance I can see a low wall that's the edge of something (steps?) and the main road. Head down, and it's that way we're going. My elbows are hurting, I can smell piss, carry on. Thank goodness the wall is sloped! It's not really a wall at all - I can sit on the lowest bit off it, bottom shuffle up to a higher bit, turn around and I'm standing up again!

I'm a bit dazed by the affair, and I walk gingerly towards the road. My jeans are very bloody at the knees, and so are my elbows: the first being due to falling and crawling, the latter just due to crawling. I don't wave for a cab because I don't have the confidence yet, but before I need to one has seen me and slowed down for me. It surprises me to realise that I'm a citizen again, and that someone might treat me as such. I complain to the driver about being refused a ride, and am soon in the centre of thriving night-life and have met my English friend who's having going-away drinks.

All of this is after my first two blog posts. In the first one I'd cranked out the phrase about 'private celebrations of athleticism and cunning' and by this stage of the evening I'm even more enthusiastic about this philosophy, describing briefly what's happened and rounding triumphantly off with 'I've won the olympics while you've just been drinking beer'. 'What do you mean, just?' Dan retorts, leaving it pretty unclear whether he accepts my disabled-champion thesis. He remains pretty skeptical, and starts getting pedantic with questions about how far I crawled - I gesture confidently at a distance, but really have no idea. I was too busy on elbows-and-knees to know, after all. Maybe 20 metres? Maybe not. The night carries on, we sit down and drink beer - I've refused to go into a show. (A story about a different night where I was dropped on my head by a friend and went on to the a nightclub regardless doesn't need to be told here.)

So what? The question that remains is what role these little accidents have in my life, apart from scaring my parents. As you can see, falling down the stairs or breaking things in restaurants in China was something that I could easily write home about. It's something that fitted into the scheme of my life as I perceive it, and if I tell it the right way, I might come out looking brave and adventurous. But the other two - apart from on the evening itself, after having arrived in Lapa, I don't think I've told anyone about before writing this. After the falling-out-of-car, I felt a lasting regret and incompetence; the day after all the crawling I felt hungover and pretty stupid. The people who'd gone home early asked me how the party had continued, and at no point did I tell them about this all-fours business. Neither of the incidents fit into my individual project: yes, I want to make new friends easily, yes, I like to stop people ripping me off. And here we are - 'Look what a keen negotiator I am: they can't overcharge me. Whoops, fell over afterwards, perhaps I should have just gone along with it'. I need a form of dignity that better accommodates physical fragilities, and I'm not sure if I have one.

Life goes on, eh? Especially for other people. These fluctuations and rude punctures of my reality don't make other people's realities any less strong. As Dan pointed out, what happens to me doesn't make other experiences weaker: there wasn't any 'just' about the amount of booze he'd been drinking. These little hiccups in my life where I am jarringly broken out of normality are followed by uneasily breaking myself back in: carrying on with the rest of the day or the evening, probably feeling weaker, often with bloody knees, perhaps resting the next few days. It's no coincidence that I've not told you about things that ended in hospital (as I say, there are more stories). Medical discourse, while bringing different complications, imposes a formal structure of Visits, Treatments, etc. If I had let the Spaniards take me to a doctor, then I wouldn't have been alone - I would have been transformed into a medical object to be treated or not according to the competences of the local system. Which would have then been very easy to verbalize.

I don't know if there are any snarkers in the audience being puritanical about alcohol: if there are, I'm going to tell them the same excuses I tell myself (and for this discussion we are not including anything that happened during the first year at university). I felt pretty/relatively sober in both of the incidents that involved drink before; certainly merry coming from Niteroi, but no more. I've drunk a lot more without incident, and soberly hurt myself a lot more. And it's certainly not just alcohol that makes my knees a bit weaker: so does carrying a heavy bag, or being tired. Fortunately, most of the time I know to be a lot more careful on, say, stairs if I'm tired or excessively 'cheerful'. But certainly worrying about this responsibility is something else that made the incidents harder to talk about.

An argument along the puritanical lines, or one that says that if I didn't travel in the developing world then there wouldn't be so many dodgy staircases to fall down are both saying that the way these accidents should relate to the rest of my life is as a guide for what not to do - that I should embark on a full-time restraining of my behaviour as a prevention. I feel very fortunate that I have had the chance and independence to make these mistakes (have these mistakes happen to me?). It is a liberty that someone trying to be too nice to me might want to take away.


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