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.