Life and death and travel

Life and death and travel

I’ve been fortunate with my travels. Apart from a few small inconveniences—falling for a timeshare scam in Bali and being abandoned at the side of the road, having a camera stolen in both Cancun and Los Angeles (you think I would have learned the first time), suffering food poisoning in Veradero, sitting in a Florida ER after breaking blood vessels in my right eye—I haven’t fallen prey to serious injuries or other dangers while roaming the globe.

Sure, I know they’re out there. But it’s easy to forget how lucky I am for my health and well-being while travelling. And when a reminder of my own vulnerability comes, it’s not pleasant, and so I prefer to play the role of ostrich with my head in the sand. But sometimes, you just can’t look away.

(Before I get into the story, let me preface it by saying he’s okay. There is a happy ending.)

That reminder hit me last week, while I was in the Dominican Republic. It was the afternoon of December 31, and we were sitting poolside, mingling with new friends we had made in the previous days of sunning, swimming and drinking shots of the DR’s potent mamajuana rum concoctions.

Then we heard the scream. I looked up to see one of the guys we had met just a few days prior being hoisted out of the pool, his body limp, his face a shade of blue that caused my insides to turn cold. We watched as the crowd gathered, as someone called for anyone who knows CPR, and as two of our new friends pounced atop him, one giving mouth-to-mouth, the other chest compressions, while the entire resort stared in silence, apart from the cries coming from some of his family members just a few feet away.

As the minutes or seconds, I don’t know which, ticked by, my stomach churned and flipped up into my throat. It was New Year’s Eve and we were watching someone die.

He was travelling with family—a large group of 20 or 30 people, all parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters. In the brief moments it took to revive him, when we didn’t know if he would wake up, my mind flashed to his family, and I wondered if it was better for them all to be here, in this moment, or if it would be better if they were thousands of kilometres away, like my own family would be if it had have been me.

When word that he was conscious again worked its way through the crowd, it took a few moments for my brain to register that he was alive and okay. It was more than just relief that washed over me. It was a lingering horror that still needed to be shook off, mixed with happiness and fear to create a new feeling I’ve never experienced in my life and hope I never have to experience again.

No one knows exactly what happened. We suspect he fainted or slipped, and hit his head and went under. We don’t know for how long he floated facedown until a stranger spotted him and called out, “Hey, is your buddy okay?” while his hat drifted away from his body. He was fortunate in that his father is a doctor and three of our new friends—the ones who revived him—were military men well-versed in first aid and CPR. When I think what might have been if those weren’t the circumstances, I shiver.

Of course, this wasn’t an accident limited to travel situations; it was something that could have just as easily happened in my parents’ backyard swimming pool. But when you’re in another country, where the medical care may be vastly different than you’re used to, or where your knowledge of the language may be limited, an incident like this hammers at your sense of safety.

As travellers—especially those of us who have been solo travellers—we’re at the mercy of life, fate, everything. Sure, I know the rules to keep myself safe from pickpockets and con artists (even if I have fallen victim to them in the past), but the incident in the Dominican Republic reminded me of the things I can’t prepare for. And it made me appreciate the faith we need to have that others will come to help when we can’t help ourselves. I know it’s naive to live life that way, but when it comes to travel, it’s the only way to live.

Maybe it was the champagne filling my head that night, but as I stood surveying the dancefloor at the disco hours later, I felt like we weren’t just celebrating the arrival of 2013. I had a sudden feeling of celebrating the fact that we were all here to see it arrive—the new friends I had made and the strangers who were nameless faces but who had witnessed the same horrifying afternoon just nine hours earlier. He was alive, and we were alive, in all our vulnerability and humanity. And I tilted the last of my glass back and headed into the crowd of people, all of us toeing the line, and all of us in it together.

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7 thoughts on “Life and death and travel

  1. What a great post! Really does make you appreciate things. Reminded me a little of the story last night on the news about the guy from Bracebridge who pulled a guy from the subway tracks! He said he was from a small town where people are used to helping each other!

    “And it made me appreciate the faith we need to have that others will come to help when we can’t help ourselves” – Love it!

  2. A very well-written piece, Tammy. You’ve handled difficult subject matter with the right mix of reality and tastefulness.

  3. That gentleman was so lucky! A friend’s brother-in-law died this past summer while vacationing in the Dominican. The workers found him in the pool in the early mornings while preparing for the coming day. He was only traveling with one friend and without insurance. His family went through hell back here in Canada, trying to get details of what happened and to get his body released to come back home. The poor friend who was left there alone to deal with everything at the resort had made friends with a group of Americans (prior to the tragedy); these guys were amazing and really helped him get through the days (he was not allowed to return home until he was officially released). They got my friend’s details and frequently emailed and texted him to let him know how he was doing, making sure he had support around him. When I heard that, it really warmed my heart knowing that these strangers rallied around this poor man, taking the time out of their own vacations to make sure he was okay. We really do need to have faith that others will come to help in times like these. Glad you came home safe and sound!

    • Oh my god, Brianne, that’s terrible! Such a tragic story, and my heart goes out to your friend. I’m so grateful this situation turned out as it did – even though we had only known him for a few days, it hit us really hard. Easily the most frightening thing I have ever witnessed.

      As for your friend’s brother-in-law, words can’t even express how terrible that is. I’m with you, though, that it warms my heart to hear that the friend who was left there had support – even if it was from strangers. I think it says a lot about our natural instincts to help one another in situations like this – because as crappy as humans can be sometimes, I do think that we have an innate urge to help.

  4. Good points, Tammy. It’s great to travel solo n all but travelers should look out for each other. And buddy up especially near water. Recently in Grenada we unofficially and quietly kept an eye on an intrepid water-loving guy who kept snorkelling alone out real deep even when the red flag was up. Really, in an increasingly anonymous world, we need to watch out for others even when just traveling around our own city. Glad to hear the story had a happy ending!

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