Saturday, June 27, 2009

Update on the motorcycle victim and the da-da-da-da guy

On the motorcycle accident victim:

"You'd need an entire team of microvascular surgeons to repair that leg," our medical-student friend declared. It was true: the muscles, tendons and ligaments had been ripped apart. Bone was visible.

"These doctors just stitched up a flap of skin over the wound. They didn't repair the torn muscles," our friend said. "He's going to have serious problems with that leg for the rest of his life. He might not be able to use it again."

On the driver:

Hermanns, the driver of the car that hit the motorcycle, was still at the police station a full two days after the accident. Through the grapevine (Flores is a close-knit island), we learn that his fate is dependent on the whim and discretion of the officers, and on the severity of the victim's injury.

On the da-da-da-da-da guy:

Allegedly, this 21-year-old guy was perfectly healthy until 7 months ago, when he fell down during a drunken brawl and hit his head. He isn't mentally retarded, as we presumed. He has a severe head injury. And with no way to properly treat it, he now spends his days chained to a bedpost, flailing his arms and repeating the sound "da-da-da-da-da."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shattered silence ... and window

Video of the "da-da-da-da-da" guy.

We heard his voice the first night we slept in Labuanbajo, and we couldn't believe what we heard. We thought it was a one-time affair.

But we heard his voice again the second night, and the third night afte
r that. And we heard it during the day, sunrise to sunset. His tone never changed. Nor did his words.


He repeated that phrase, day in and day out. We asked around; we discovered that he is a mentally handicapped 21-year-old man whose affliction causes him to be handcuffed to a bedpost. And from that bedpost, day and night, night and day, he repeats the sound, "da-da-da-da-da-da-da."

By the time our Group of 8 finally left Labuanbajo, we agreed on two things. One, we felt sorry for him and his family. It must be awful to be, or to care for, a mentally handicapped person in a country where resources are practically nonexistant. Second, on a more selfish level, we agreed hearing his incessant "da-da-da-da-da" was driving us bonkers. We were glad to have a peaceful night's sleep in the next town.

When Sara and I returned to Labuanbajo -- a small port town on the western coast of the Indonesian island of Flores, an island which rose to fame as the archeological site where the the three-foot-tall "hobbit" was discovered -- we checked into the same hotel and didn't hear his voice. One night passed, then another, without disturbance. Silent night.

Then the sound of "da-da-da-da-da" shattered the day. Sara was in the room when the sound started, but she felt confused. The sound wasn't coming from its usual direction. She went to the window to look out, to see where the sound was coming from. She spotted the guy. It was the first time she'd ever laid eyes on him. He was standing shirtless by the water, flailing his arms, chanting "da-da-da-da-da." Strange, she thought. How did he get untied from his bed? She looked away for a minute, and then, fortunately, looked up just in the nick of time.

He was standing 10 feet away from her, outside her bedroom window, swinging a stick through the air. She watched as a split-second later, he reached his arm back and hurtled the stick toward the window. She covered her face with her arm as the wood shattered her bedroom window. Glass shards flew everywhere.

She caught her breath. Except for a few minor scratches on her back, she was uncut. But glass shards were covering her room, her belongings. It would be a long, cautious afternoon of cleanup and moving.

By the time she looked out the jagged hole where the window had once been, the man was gone. But his voice carried through the distance.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Trauma on the Trans-Flores Highway

If only we had left the hotel five minutes earlier. If only lunch had taken 1 minute longer. If only we hadn't pulled over at the drivers' aunts' house to get a pair of pliers. If only we had to pause for a bathroom break.

If the timing had been 1 minute off, we wouldn't have rounded the blind corner at the exact moment the motorcycle came barreling downhill in the other direction, hugging the curve a little too far inside.

But our timing was perfect. All I remember is the crunch of plastic, the sound of headlights shattering. The thud of his body hitting the side of our SUV. The wide-eyed frenatic face of our driver as his neck whipped around to watch the motorcyclist flip over. My moment's hesitation before I opened the door and ran outside, to where the motorcyclist lay moaning on the ground. The blood spilling from his head and leg. The bone protruding near his right knee.

The medical student among us whipped off his t-shirt and used it as a tourniquet. I ran to grab our first aid kit, not knowing how far away the nearest hospital might be. Locals rushed from their homes to stare. Three Indonesian men grabbed the motorcyclist, picked him up by his arms and legs, and carried him to the backseat of our SUV. My friends scrambled to get out as the local men loaded the victim inside. Our driver sped off with the motorcyclist moaning in the backseat. Our medical student friend, still holding his t-shirt against the victim's leg as a tourniquet, rode along, elevating the motorcyclists' leg and not letting him see the wound.

We got directions to the nearest clinic. By stroke of luck, it was less than 2 kilometers away. We walked there, single-file. Taxi drivers and touts shouted at us during our walk, wanting to make a quick buck off the Westerners, as they always do -- "you want taxi?", "hello, hello, where you go?" "I sell you pearls?" -- but their words sounded especially hollow. How could they even think of goading us into spending money at a time like this?

The clinic was bare, empty, white. It had 4 rooms with not much more than a bed inside each room. When we arrived they were operating on the victim's leg. The injury wasn't as bad as expected. Nothing had shattered. His bones were intact. The gash in his knee was severe. He looked like a cadaver; tendons and muscle visible. A man in a green military uniform and flip-flops was sewing up a flap of skin over the gash. It fit together like a bad jigsaw puzzle, leaving a border of visible muscle around it. The room had no lightbulbs. The man in flip-flops was operating by the light of the afternoon sun streaming through west-facing windows.

A Muslim woman in a white headscarf and flip-flops was swabbing at his superficial cuts with cotton balls. She placed a blue trash can under the operating table, where his blood was flow into. Sometimes the blood barely dripped into the trashcan; other times it gushed like a broken dam.

The motorcyclist kept moaning and groaning, his voice low like a dying animal. He never screamed, never yelped in pain, never raised his voice. He seemed to be in shock. Occasionally he'd lean over to vomit off the side of the operating table. I later learned that was a symptom of head trauma. All I could notice at the time was that he was regurgitating mostly rice.

A crowd of children with dirty clothing and bare feet stood in the open double-doorway of the operating room, watching the gory sight with passing curousity. They were all boys, around 8 years old, distracted from their football game. None of the adults paid attention to them.

A man with glasses and good English came to speak to me. He said he'd seen Michael Moore's movie "Sicko" and asked how much this operation would cost in the U.S. "I don't know - $10,000?" I said. He asked for $16 for the ambulence that would come transfer the patient to a larger hospital.

The driver told us he'd have to stay in town for at least 2 nights, sorting things through with the police. Apparently under Indonesian law, when a car and motorcycle collide, it is always presumed to be the car's fault, even if (as in our case) the motorcyle had crossed over into the wrong lane. Ultimately the final arbiters are the police, and our driver was now faced with the task of convincing them of his innocence. He told us to catch a bus to the next town and be on our way.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The G8 Summit

Sara and I have now met up with 6 -- that's right, 6 -- of our friends from Boulder. Now we're traveling around Indonesia as a group of 8. It's like a party on wheels; a group of friends, all from Boulder, all who have known each other for years and years.

We reunited on Gili Air, a small island off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia. Gili Air is a storybook-perfect location: it has no roads, no pavement, no streets of any kind. It's small enough that you could (and often do) walk in a circle around the perimeter of the island in 1 hour. The water is crystal-clear. If you're standing in the water you can see your toes below. The water is filled with coral life, with makes it a great snorkeling location (perfect for spotting sea turtles, barracudas, angel fish, parrot fish, or just swimming through the seaweed).

As a group of 8, (I've started calling us The G8 Summit), we rented out an entire small hotel (actually, there was one French guy staying there alone, and he quickly became our new friend and an Honorary Coloradoan.) Each of us were staying in wooden bungalows with large front porches that opened out directly onto the sandy beach. We'd gather each morning in a gazebo for complimentary breakfast, where we'd sneak bites of our eggs to the hungry stray kittens who always knew when we were eating, but who cuddled with us and played with us even when we were food-free. Then we'd spend the rest of the day swimming, snorkeling, reading, and going on walks. The restaurant next door served the world's best vegetables-with-peanut-sauce for $1.50, and mixed fruit smoothies for $1.

We befriended several local Indonesian guys living on the island, who told us stories about the year or two that they lived in Saudi Arabia as restaurant servers (many of them have worked in the Gulf temporarily, because the pay is better, but most returned because they missed their families). They were sad when our Group of 8 left, but even paradise gets boring after a few days. It was time to move on to bluer waters.

After 2 solid days of interminable bus-ferry-bus-ferry transit, we've now arrived on the island of Flores, which in my opinion is far superior to Bali. Bali is the place you go if you're either 1) an avid surfer, 2) interested in seeing temples, temples and more temples, or 3) a 16-year-old Australian on Spring Break. Bali is so over-developed that it's turned into a maze of concrete and big-box retailers, and its narrow roads are congested, even at midnight. Flores is the island to visit if you're interested in getting back to nature; it's the island of coral reef life, lush forests and mountainous terrain.