What Breaks the Camel’s Back

It all started with a sip of orange juice.

The wonder of international travel is enjoyed even by microscopic organisms. If they could, bacteria would rejoice about the proliferation of intercontinental flights. These days they can spread overseas within the bodies of humans hurtling through the skies.

One strain hitching a ride inside a British fellow wound up infecting me after a polite gesture of sharing. The sickness caught up to me in Ahmed, Bali. Sore throat. Slight fever. Stuffed up nose. But it was no problem. Be the Camel. I was there to lie around anyway. One straw.
Besides the English patient, I was traveling with an Australian girl named Camille. She and I drove to the beach on our first morning in Ahmed. The tropical sun boiled the atmosphere making it feel like airy broth. It was the wet heat that everybody who visits the tropics comes home and complains about. But discomfort is my ally, the heat only a minor burden. Two straws.

Camille rented a mask, snorkel, and fins. I laid down on a bamboo platform in the shade of a thatched roof and embraced my lassitude. I chatted with the locals. They fed me rice balls and fish. And at my leisure I went skinny dipping in the crystal ocean.

I’d re-injured my back a few weeks before, herniating the L-5 disc. Over that time my physical prowess had been reduced to the level of a geriatric. But my broken back loved the perfect support of buoyancy provided by the sea water. It felt great, so of course I pushed it too far. I felt fine leaving the water. The immobilizing stiffness and shooting pain would bide their time. They’d rear up at night like a pair of coked up Jehovah’s witnesses. They made walking up stairs a hilariously prolonged effort. Three straws.

Camille recommended a restaurant nearby. She liked it. I was down.

Nearby is a relative term that couldn’t be near enough for my throbbing back. I could feel the searing resentment building in me as we drove, and drove, and drove. Over hill after hill, through village after village. I had to actively forgive her for subjecting me to an extended motorbike ride along crappy roads for a two dollar dinner. But I did.

Because the universe doesn’t stop the bus just because you’re in a little pain. Sometimes you can’t even squeeze a little consideration out of a good friend. That is reality. So I sat up straighter, smiled with gritted teeth, and focused on dodging potholes. I am the Camel. Four straws.

I felt like I was teetering on the edge of calm like a tower too tall for its base. All I wanted was a nice bland meal to relieve my scorched throat and sick body, but my plate came out covered in those mean red chilis. The ones that sting even after a month in Bali. So it goes. I picked them out as best I could. Five straws.

That night’s sleep was good. I felt better, so we decided to take the scenic route.

The drive started great. After a few kilometers we were cruising at 80 clicks on roads as smooth as a tuxedo’s inseam. Google maps said three and half hours. I calculated two, and felt grand about it. Hubris is a blinding influence.

The sun was shining heavily on my shoulders. I didn’t mind. The burn would tan. A crusty shell of sweat and dust coated me as we drove. I didn’t mind the grimy feel of Bali road tripping. A cold shower awaited me. The stench of exhaust clung to my nostrils. I was fine. It was all part of the game. I was the Camel. Six straws.

Then everything went South as we turned that way. The road bent upward, narrowed, and shattered. The bumpy road crumpled my delicate comfort, ratcheting my spine stiffer and stiffer with each jarring shot of pain.

I began squatting above the seat of my bike like a hypochondriac over a public restroom toilet, using my legs as shocks to spare my poor, wretched back. Seven straws.

I started to feel the skin on my shoulders cook. Eight straws.

The hot, mephitic exhaust from Camille’s heavy motorcycle sliding down my lungs gave me a headache. Nausea boiled up in my stomach. Nine straws.

The layer of grime became a disgusting burka. It stung my eyes and congealed behind my elbows and knees. I felt foul. Ten straws.

Finally, finally I topped out the volcano. My legs were marshmallows. My spine wasn’t dominated by pain anymore. It had been replaced by an immobility that no stretch could relieve. The terrible, numb stiffness was almost worse than the limber pain because at least the pain was familiar. I didn’t know what the seizing up would cost me later. Eleven straws.

The tip of the volcano stands above an enormous lake surrounded by quaint Balinese villages. The scene would have been breathtaking, mesmerizing, a scene of splendor, were I capable of perceiving it at all. Titanic survivors didn’t have as much gratitude as I did when I learned the rest of the trip was literally all downhill. How embarrassingly naive I was to think that that meant it would be easy.

We drove on, and the road was indeed downhill. But it got rougher. It got steeper. And sand joined the party.

For those unaware of motorbike physics, this will be a brief lesson. On steep, rocky, slippery terrain there is a natural intuition to drive slowly. On the other hand, and this is what rookies who tip their bikes fail to grasp, is that driving too slowly may lock the wheels, cause a skid and a crash.

My body wasn’t in such a condition to handle the speeds necessary to keep the wheels spinning. Still in that awkward squat, my weight was too far forward. The wheels locked up, I skid, and tipped the bike. I landed on my feet but in a horrendously painful running gait that shot spears through my right leg. Twelve straws.

The nearby locals rushed to my aid, asked if I was alright, walked my bike to their shop. I was alright. I was alright in the sense that they were asking. No road rash. No skinned shins or bruised elbows. No exhaust pipe burns. No concussions. I wished I only had those things.
And I was alright. I was the fucking Camel. I wasn’t happy about my condition, but I wasn’t consumed by it. Between waves of agitation I centered myself on the hilarity of how terrible everything was. I was still smiling.

I laid down on the locals’ shop bench to attempt some relief of my crippled state. Camille came up and I told her she shouldn’t have to wait on my ailing back. She should go on.

Regret rarely touches me because I understand that the poor decisions made in emotional states cannot be avoided. But splitting up is one decision I do regret. I regret being too weak to compose myself. I regret breaking team. We should have stuck together.

She went away. And I laid there.

Eventually I sat up. Nothing had improved. Nothing had changed except the position of the sun in the sky. I just had to get out of there. But the worst part of the road was yet to come. The locals told me this. I didn’t believe it could get any worse. Ha!

It got steeper.

Less than a hundred meters from the shop, I tipped the bike again. Thirteen straws. …and SNAP!

I lost it.

I tore off my helmet, and the tears started pouring down my filthy face.

I yelled and yelled, sobbing over the cliff, out over the lake, at all of Bali. I wish I could’ve yelled louder, but even shouting at the top of your lungs requires back strength. I let it all out. I broke down while Indonesian locals looked on in worried bewilderment.

Eventually I broke that boundary between tearful sob and manic laughter. While the tears kept flowing I began laughing. And laughing. And laughing. I laughed at all the pathetic people taking their healthy spines for granted. I laughed at all the healthy people bitching about sore legs and mosquito bites. I laughed at how deep in the world I was, stranded alone atop an island volcano with a broken back and broken bike, sick, dirty, and drained. My comfort zone was on another planet. And I gave one more trembling chortle for how little I cared, even then, to go home.

It was wonderfully cathartic. I settled into an emotional stupor, a drunk serenity.

After some time I hobbled over to my miraculously functional bike. I climbed on while other locals drove past. They caught a big look of a bleary-eyed tourist having trouble on the fractured road. What a laugh they’d have. I didn’t care. I’ve been the fool before. I’ll be the fool for them. I just wanted to leave.

What cruel comedy it was that after only another hundred meters the road leveled off and paved up. It was as smooth as glass all the way home. I remember driving under a shroud of mental numbness. For those few hours I was not a human capable of compassionate empathy, critical thought, comedic wit, or distinct memory. I was an automaton steering a bike to a destination; home.

Home was an air-conditioned hostel where the staff took care of me. They carried my bag up the stairs and fed me soup. I spent the next month in that place recovering.

It turned out Camille had tip her bike a few meters past where I had my episode. It turned out I drove right past in that tunnel-visioned stupor. For some mechanical reason, she’d had to drain her bike of fuel, refill it, and carry on. The story of her plight made me feel ashamed of myself. We should’ve struggled together.

This is the story of the single most terrible moment of my travel career. Yet with keen awareness, during and retrospectively, it has proven itself a source of strength. This experience revealed in me a capacity to endure, but also the devotion to a perspective: Being The Camel.

It is that devotion which has fostered optimistic sentiments in regards to a miserable day.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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