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Over the last two weeks I’ve tried coming up with different ways, none of them quite right, of setting out to tell the story of how I ended up where I am at this very moment, on an aerobed in my cousin’s living room in Sydney, nearing midnight, an oxycodone, a glass of wine and a sleeping pill under my belt and still awake thinking about the fact that soon I will be in the hospital undergoing skin graft surgery.
My first ‘mental writing’ of the blog post started with my throat, and went something like this:
The day after the accident I woke up with a sore throat and thought, ‘Great, just what I need now is to be getting sick on top of everything else.’ But it didn’t feel quite like the sore throat you get when you’re getting a cold or flu. Maybe it was from crying so much the night before, I thought. A post-nasal drip. It didn’t seem to last long, or perhaps my mind was too focused on the pain in my foot and getting myself on the 9:42 train that I forgot to notice. Later, on what turned out to be a 10:50 train, when I took a drink from my water bottle, I noticed it again and it hit me: it was from screaming. Twenty-four hours before I had screamed longer and harder and certainly louder than I’d ever screamed in my life. Surely that would have some kind of physical effect on one’s throat, right?
But that wasn’t it.
Not my screaming theory, which was, I believe, well…sound. I just couldn’t figure out where to go from there storywise.
Then there was the text transcription idea. As in transcribing some text messages I sent during and after my trip to Gunung (Volcano) Papandayan in West Java to my friend Marc, who had been living about 10 hours further east, in the city of Jogjakarta.
14-Oct-2009, 10:57:51 am
I am in the crater of an active volcano. The most active in indo. Fucking cool. Smelly tho. U should come here if u’ve never seen all the bubbly lava & shit!
14-Oct-2009, 01:03:38 pm
I’m in hospital w serious burn on foot & leg fr stepping in lava. Want 2 come 2 jog asap. Don’t trust docs here. Will try 2 go tomorrow. Can u talk to asheeth? Maybe u can meet me at train and take me 2 his place? Not sure how hard walking will be. Again. Can’t fucking believe this. I’m in so much pain.
14-Oct-2009, 08:55:52 pm
Injected pain killer seems 2 finally’ve set in. 2 bad it’s long after they drained my huge bubbleblisters, if u can even call em that, & cut off all my skin. Now waiting 4 hotel waitress 2 bring me back hosp receipt & change if there’s any, & drugs promised me by nice lady doc, including pain meds 4 sleep.
14-Oct-2009, 08:59:41 pm
Hurt so bad i screamed & cried like a baby. In fact screamed like i was having a baby & no doubt disturbed & perhaps amused others. These bules can’t take pain.
(‘Bule’ means ‘foreigner’ in Indonesian.)
But again, I wasn’t sure where to go from there. Too many blanks to fill in, and how to fill them?
Then there was the idea of starting way at the beginning. Like how I didn’t even know this volcano existed 48 hours before but was convinced by a hotel manager in Bandung and some older European tourists that I must see it (though I was skeptical, having seen a number of active volcanoes in different parts of the world and being therefore pretty volcano-jaded. Not as jaded as waterfall-jaded—which I totally am, as I never need to see another waterfall in my life—but still pretty jaded.).
Or how I set my alarm for 5:10 that morning but couldn’t get up and didn’t want to and snoozed until 7:30 and thought several times of just skipping the whole damned thing and going straight to the beach town six hours away, my original destination in West Java. And how something in my head told me maybe I wasn’t supposed to go to the volcano and something bad would happen if I did, which is not a normal type of thought for me so I dismissed it as silly, since I’ve never really been the type to have premonitions (well, except that time my backpack was stolen on the bus in Ecuador…but I wasn’t thinking about that in bed that morning when all I wanted to do was keep sleeping). I ultimately decided that coming all the way to this town, Cipanas, and not seeing the volcano was just too lame and I needed to get my lazy ass out of bed and go see the damned volcano, even though you are supposed to go early before the mist sets in and it was likely the weather would be crap and there’d be no visibility when I got there. (I also decided if that turned out to be the case it would be my own damned lazy-ass fault.)
But no, those things were really just tangents and would make the story too damned long. And, frankly, I’ve been tired from the pain meds and just haven’t felt like writing the whole story or writing at all (yes, even though I’ve now written all this, which is what always ends up happening when I get all Nike on myself and just do it.).
So, creative ideas now spent in the above half-assed ways, I will now just give you the facts as I’ve already related them a number of times in emails to friends and family. Plus photos, of course. I always have photos. Even in hospitals I have photos.
So, yeah, I went to this active volcano. My assumption was I would hike up the trail (about a half-hour walk, according to my guidebook) to the edge of the crater, look down, oooh and aaah, take photos and come down. But what I didn’t realize was that at this volcano you don’t look over the edge of the crater, you are basically in the crater.
When I saw the bubbling pool of lava (the still image below links to the video, which for some reason I could not upload) I thought back to my other volcano experiences and concluded that no, I had not, in fact, seen anything quite like this. So I was glad I dragged my jaded ass here after all. Hence that first text to Marc.
The nightmare started a short while later. I realized I couldn’t find the trail I’d come up on. It was basically all just rock everywhere (and lots of smoke, and lots of deep impassable crevasses in the rock out of which was coming lots of smoke). And it all looked the same. I kept starting off in different directions, each of which at some point ended up far enough out that I knew it was not, in fact, the trail.
On one of those false starts I stepped on what looked to be solid grey rock but turned out to be soft and hot and…lava-y? I pulled my foot out quickly but still felt the heat on my sock for several minutes and thought ‘Whew, that was close. It really is dangerous up here. I’d better be more careful.’ I even took a picture for the blog. Little did I know.
So, yes, on another of my false trails I ended up doing the same thing, except this time I felt my foot go down into what felt like burning hot quicksand (if someone wants to correct me and tell me what I stepped in was not actually lava but volcanic mud or something with a more technical name, please do. Since I am both ignorant of such things and lazy (lazy/traumatized? Not sure.), I have not yet managed to google it.). I pulled it out quickly as I could but it was too late. My leg and foot felt like they were on fire. I had no idea what to do. (Except scream.) I rolled up my pants leg and poured some of the water in my bottle on it, but didn’t take my shoe and sock off because touching them would burn my hands. And even after it cooled I knew I would still have to walk back.
And I screamed. I screamed from the pain. Then I screamed for help. I screamed like I never screamed before. And I blew my whistle (which is attached to the zipper of the daypack I carry). I was doing my best not to get hysterical, though. Trying not to think about how no one might hear me (it’s very loud up there, what will all the lava bubbling and geysers smoking). About how there might not be anyone coming up at all (since it was so much later in the morning than you are supposed to go), in which case I wouldn’t be found until God-knew-when. About how I could die up there and no one would know. Clearly my best was not successful enough, but I pushed those thoughts away as best I could. Like I said, I was managing thus far not to really lose it.
I knew the one thing I had to do was find the trail back, so thankfully the adrenaline or whatever enabled me to keep walking so I could attempt to do so. On yet another false start I ended up in view of a stopping point I’d been at on the way up, where three Indonesian guys had insisted on each taking a separate photo with me (in Indonesia being a foreigner is kind of like being a celebrity in that for some reason strangers want their photo taken with you). I saw three people and assumed it was those guys and started waving my arms and screaming like crazy. The moment I saw them begin to move up the trail in my direction is when I finally cried and started, frankly, to get a bit hysterical. When I knew I would be rescued. Both makes sense and doesn’t at the same time, eh?
So I walked back toward the crater sign once again (my only marker). The three figures turned out to be two of the young guides I’d met when I’d paid my entrance fee (and whose services I’d refused because, well, I was sure I didn’t need a guide for a half-hour walk up a marked trail to a volcano and back) and an Australian guy who was clearly much, much smarter than me.
If you can believe it, the guides felt the appropriate thing to do at that moment was to lecture me repeatedly with their fucking ‘I told you so’s—‘that moment’ being while I was in excruciating pain and getting more and more hysterical and begging them to take me to a hospital.
I shouldn’t complain, of course, since one of them ended up carrying me down on his back—for which I am, of course, forever grateful. (He mentioned several more times on the way how I should have taken a guide. Jesus Christ, did he think I was not sorry I hadn’t taken a guide?) Near the bottom of the rocky trail another guide had come with his motorcycle, and took me the rest of the way down and then to a clinic about 20 minutes away where no one spoke English and the standard of care was, well, substandard. But at least the guy there used Betadine, put on a bandage and gave me some drugs.
Then motorcycle guy, a very sweet young guy whose name was something like Jaja, took me back to my hotel (about 40 minutes’ drive), where I managed to get them to find me someone who could speak English, who helped me book me a private car (driven by said guy’s brother) to take me two hours to the nearest city, Taksimalaya, where I knew (from Marc’s research) that I could get a train to Jogja the next morning.
That night the pain grew worse and worse until I could barely walk (when I saw the two huge brown blister-bubble things that had grown out of the sides of my ankle when they took off the bandage I could see why!), so I hobbled out of my room and asked the hotel staff to help get me to a hospital. A young woman from the restaurant spoke some English and asked if I wanted her to accompany me, to which I of course said yes. She turned out to be really helpful, so I was very lucky to have her with me.
So, yes, as I explained in my texts to Marc, they drained all the liquid and cut all the hanging skin away and it hurt like hell. But I was pretty OK the next morning and got the train to Jogja and got myself to Marc’s apartment. It was later that night that the pain got so much worse that I was no longer able to walk. For the next five days or so I hopped around the swelteringly hot room Marc was renting, and he drove me on his motorbike to the local hospital, where they gave me new dressings and new pain meds. By now I had amassed quite the collection.
During this time I had been showing my gruesome photos (which you can see if you really want to) to several nurse and doctor friends back home in the States to get their advice. Then I found out I could see a dermatologist at the hospital and did that. She told me the care I’d been getting from the ER and clinic staff (in her own hospital) had not been ‘adequate,’ and the bandage needed to be changed every day, not every two days. She also said that I was in danger of losing range of motion in my ankle because I had not been moving it at all (because of the pain) and the skin was starting to heal in the (unbent) position my foot was in. One of my nurse friends and one other doctor had told me this as well, so at this point I was very concerned about that and about my care overall, and realized that this whole situation was just really untenable. And basically just bad. I was scared. So I decided to get out.
The next day I was on a plane to Sydney, where my cousin lives and where I felt more confident in the standard of the health care.
When I first got here I went to a local GP who told me the burn would take three to six months to heal and that I had to change the dressing myself every day (unless I wanted to pay $50 to $80 a visit for him to do it). For three to six months. Wow. So my cousin bought me the supplies I needed and her husband helped me change the dressing for the first time the next day. From the time we did that the pain got worse and worse until during the night it had become truly unbearable. So, fearing something was still not right, the next day I went to the ER and was seen by several nurses and doctors who told me that the dressing I had was all wrong, as were the pain meds given to me by the GP, as was the prognosis and treatment. They said what I needed was a skin graft. Wow.
So they referred me to the burn unit at another hospital, where I went yesterday for my consultation, and now I’m scheduled for the surgery on Friday. They will be taking skin from my thigh and grafting it onto the two places (right where the ankle bones stick out) where the burn was the worst (3rd degree, as it turns out, though I’d been told it was all 2nd degree by all the other doctors I’d remembered to pose the question to). And, miracle of miracles, the surgeon (named Aruna…they seem to use only first names in the medical profession here) confidently and cheerfully assured me that in about a week it would be completely healed (well, the skin will always look different from my other skin there; that’s the only ‘scarring’ I can expect). Then I will just need physical therapy to make sure I get back my ankle mobility and range of motion—which my two cheerful and confident physical therapists, Rachel and Julie, have assured me I will.
So overall, though of course I feel unlucky to have had another accident (what is it with my left leg this year, anyway?), this time so much more serious, I am of course lucky in so, so many ways.
Lucky that it was not worse. (I’m here and ready to do the Merrell/Goretex commercial the minute they ask me. That shoe seriously saved me. If my entire foot had been burned, especially the bottom, well, I don’t even want to begin to think about how much worse it could have been.)
Lucky I had Marc (to whom I am forever grateful) to take me in and take care of me in Jogja.
Lucky I have a cousin living in Australia who was willing to take me in and take care of me (again, I am forever grateful to Tara and her husband Andrew and their 3-year-old daughter Scarlett whose smiles and laughter and general adorableness have also been helping a lot).
Lucky I was able to get somewhere I am finally getting the right medical care.
And lucky to be alive and for this to (hopefully) have turned out to be nothing more a particularly bad chapter in my travels (as opposed to something more permanent).
And now, of course, I’ve written a more detailed account than I’d planned to when I though I’d just spit the rest of the story out. But…yeah. That’s my story.
Thanks for reading it, and please send your best successful-surgery, speedy-recovery, good-healing thoughts, energy, vibes, prayers—whatever your brand of that kind of thing is—my way on Friday morning* (and during my week of recovery, too, if you remember)! Thanks!
And special thanks to my friends and family who’ve been checking in on me every step (ugh, sorry) of the way during this ordeal. It’s been so comforting to me to know someone was always (time differences notwithstanding) out there in cyberspace for me to ‘talk’ to. Thank you SO much!
Photos of Gunung Papandayan (including the bubbly lava video) are here.
For the morbidly curious (and strong-stomached), photos of my injury are here. But seriously, don’t look if you are not morbidly curious and/or strong-stomached. Seriously.
*Sydney is 15 hours ahead of EST in the States, so my Friday morning is your late afternoon/early evening on Thursday.