I have been wearing my helmet for thirty kilometers, enough time
for me to decide that this experiment is a failure. I have carried it for
the length of Vietnam, and now I decide to part with it at the next
opportunity. As I'm strapping it back onto my rack and digging for my
walkman, a car sideswipes a motorbike, sending it into a ditch. While I
stuff my things back into the panniers, I can see men gathering around,
anxiously fiddling with the motorbike. After verifying that it will start,
they turn their attention to the young woman who's squatting on the ground
nearby with her hands covering her face. Priorities.
When I walk over for a closer look, I see that the thirty year old
woman has had the worst of it. Dry grey dirt covers her face, which has
been forcibly dragged along the side of the ditch in the crash. Angry
lacerations rake like clawmarks over the side of her face, but she squats
impassively as her husband breaks open a cigarette and sticks tobacco to
her open wounds as antiseptic and bandage, ignoring the dirt which mingles
with the blood on her scratched up face.
Putting on my gloves convinces them that I am a doctor, and the men
step aside. The woman looks past me over my shoulder as I squat before her
with my first aid kit. Giving her a once over, I see that her mouth has
filled with dirt, but she does not complain. Cleaning her wounds and the
area around them seems to take a long time, and a crowd gathers on the side
of the highway. The edges of her wounds are black with ground in dirt, and
I try to scrape as much of it away as I can. I curse my inability to communicate.
She won't go to the doctor for a cut-up face, will she? Will
she? Unable to decide if I am her first aid or her primary care, I scrape
at the black edges of her cuts with alchohol pads. She doesn't even wince.
But when I turn aside for a moment, she leans unsteadily on her husband's
We sit in a construction zone. Bulldozers have leveled the
surrounding area to make room for a highway expansion. A concrete houses
sit shoulder to shoulder in the distance. Trucks rumble by. I have
melodramatic visions of war-era photos depicting wounded, steely eyed
A curious student introduces himself. "Please ask her if she will
go to a doctor," I say. He nods happily. I repeat my request several
times before he says something to her and gets an affirmative response.
I hurriedly finish bandaging her wounds, a stopgap job. After a
round of thanks, the couple rides off. The crowd mills around discussing
the incident and watching me prepare to ride off.
Then I think, of course she can't afford to see a doctor for a
cut-up face. In the glow of softening eyes and effusive thanks, I took her
word for it and didn't even think to send her on her way with some fresh
bandages and antibiotic cream.
The helmet dangles from my rack until Vientiane, where I swap it
for a shortwave radio.