THE DAY YOUR NUMBER COMES UP
It happened to me six weeks ago, at around 10:00 pm on a road leading into Saigon. I pulled out to pass another motorbike, and the rider decided for no fathomable reason to pull out at the same time. The next moment I was sliding along the road at 60 kph, with my bike sliding alongside me.
Now I can’t claim that it was unexpected. You know, you just know, that sooner or later your number will come up. The statistics prove it. In Asia, more traffic fatalities occur daily (most of them involving motorbikes), than the yearly tally back home. Most of my fellow teachers have had their dings; lots of grazed arms and knees, one with a broken collar-bone, one comatose for three days. You can drive slowly, you can drive ultra-carefully, you can drive defensively, but whatever you do there comes a time when your slow, careful, defensive driving just isn’t enough. Then, blam, you’re another victim. You just hope that your accident will prove to be minor, and you’ll end up in hospital with a scrape or two, but not on the mortician’s slab.
Back to my predicament. I’m sliding along the road and thinking “Oh God, is this it? Is this Goodbye Cruel World? Even if this contact with the hard, unforgiving road doesn’t kill me, will I become a pancake under the wheels of the truck hurtling along behind me?” But my slide did eventually come to a halt, the truck behind me did manage to stop in time, and I’m left lying on the road in a daze. A crowd quickly gathers around me. There are lots of loud opinions being voiced, but nobody seems exactly sure what to do next. I try to stand, but can’t, and roll back onto the road. Two men help me to my feet, then to the side of the road. I’m hurting. My shoulder, my elbow, my knuckle, and my knee are throbbing painfully and dripping blood.
Oh fuck, what to do next? Getting away from the scene is probably a good idea. Before the police arrive and things like driving licence, negligence, and payouts become unwelcome issues. Some onlookers have uprighted my blood-splattered bike and wheeled it to the side of the road. “Can I still ride it?” I ask the man beside me. He shrugs. I swing my leg over it. Ten minutes previously this would have been an effortless, automatic move. Now it’s a slow, painful feat that requires all my concentration. The handle-bars are slippery with blood, the seat, speedo and frame are splattered with it. I press the starter. The bike starts immediately. That’s one small compensation at least. Now, where to go? Hospital? Doctor? No, it would take an age to track one down, especially at this hour. A chemist shop, to get something for the wounds. There’s one nearby, so I park in front of it and with great difficulty ease myself off the bike and limp into the shop. I hold out my trembling hand to the pharmacist, showing her the bloody knuckle. She tut-tuts and nods, then reaches for antiseptic cleaning fluid, iodine, bandages, and band-aids. “And some Panadol too,” I say. “The strongest you’ve got.”
I pay with blood-stained banknotes, and ask where the nearest hotel is. She waves a hand down the road. “Near or far?” I ask. “Very near.”
Once in the hotel room I get my shirt and jeans off and check my wounds in the bathroom mirror. Shoulder, like a red, oozing tennis ball. Knuckles, a mish-mash of raw flesh, dripping blood onto the tiled floor. Elbow, more red meat. Knee, twice its normal size, stiffening fast, and hurting like hell. I dash antiseptic fluid onto the wounds, gasping with pain as I do so. I gingerly towel the wounds dry, leaving the towel damp and red. I apply iodine to all four injuries, bandage the knee and elbow, and put three band-aids on the knuckle. I take two Panadol and get myself onto the bed. I sleep fitfully for four hours, waking intermittently to take more Panadol, then get up at 7:30 am. I check out of the hotel, and drive – slowly, carefully, shakily – to my town 140 kilometers away.
I count myself lucky. As motorbike accidents go, mine was minor – trivial almost. My head and face were undamaged. My glasses and cell phone were undamaged. The bike was unscratched, and working as well as ever. The aftermath of my accident was a mere four weeks of painful movement and daily applications of ointment. And a few scars as a reminder. Yes, very lucky indeed.
The odds of getting killed on the streets of Asia are changing in your favor. Road fatality statistics, though still hair-raising, are slowly diminishing. For example, the Ministry of Transport in Vietnam recently announced that in the first nine months of the year road deaths fell to 6,940, as opposed to 8,440 in the same period last year. So that’s down to 19 a day. Progress, indeed. (In my home country, New Zealand, the tally is around one a day.) China has 68,000 traffic fatalities a year, and Thailand 11,000.
In my new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon), I have related some other anecdotes from my roller-coaster life in EFL, along with teaching tips, and a description of the plusses and minuses of a career in EFL.