After filling my stomach with mee (noodles) for breakfast, I bought a bag of steaming red bean buns from a typical cart on the Penang streets. They smelled so good and felt so soft, I thought about scarfing them down then and there. But they were piping hot. I was done burning my tongue, though that seems to be a lesson one can’t truly learn.
This day was beautiful. The sky was bright blue; the sun was beaming. It was my 22nd birthday, and I’d planned to spend the morning alone on a nice strip of rocky shore I’d found while exploring the national park a few days prior. Very few days have been spent alone since leaving the States, and as a true introvert, I was really looking forward to spending time with no one. I caught the 115 bus from town and was dropped off at the park in over an hour. After a short walk through the jungle, the wide open shoreline greeted me. I had the whole place all to myself. As I lounged, I stared into what looked like forever and thought about having to wait until tomorrow to know what tomorrow would bring.
Slow, deliberate movement caught my attention. It was a monitor lizard! They walk in a hilarious way. All strut and gloriously slo-mo. I think their size, this one was over four feet, hard lumpy bodies, and proud faces really add to the curiosity of it all. The monitor lizard paced around, craned its neck, and slithered out its thin forked tongue. Then the water shuffled out a second lizard. I was shocked by how fast the first lizard was able to dart, no fly, to the edge chasing the newcomer away. It used its tail, which comprised half its length, the way a snake propels forward. But imagine the mechanism on a giant lizard with its arms and legs raised high off the ground. Guessing this was one way to do things, I chuckled into my red bean buns.
Around noon, I picked up the remnants of my picnic, but midway out of the park, at a fork in the trail, a troop of long tailed macaques were doing cannonballs into the river. Some leaped onto low hanging trees and clung to thin branches or other macaques until the whole lot of them plopped into the water. I stopped to watch. I felt the simple satisfaction of seeing something on loop. Into water, out, and into the water again. There’s this thing that’s unique about solo traveling. I’m constantly not getting any confirmation on things I'm seeing or experiencing. My mind is firing, “Look! Am I really seeing this? Did that just happen?!” I glance around, and there’s no one around for feedback. It’s often not from a lack of witnesses but witnesses who share in my sentiments of surprise. Though admittedly, jungle noises require isolation to enjoy them.
Maybe I should have continued on the path out of the park as I had intended, but the macaques had sparked my curiosity enough to lead me down the other trial. The trees were thicker here and the ground uneven. I could see root systems cropping up and around boulders and mixing with oxidized silt. The light peeking through was sparse but more than enough. It didn’t look like this trail was used often or at least people came and went lightly. Minimal destruction occurred in the clearing process, and as I leaped over features and swung over fallen trees, I wondered if it was maintained at all. This is exactly how I wanted jungle trekking to be, wild and untamed. The humid air wrapped around me like a hot, damp towel, and I went along merrily with much pep.
It happened instantaneously, but swept me far. Somewhere along all that pep, and maybe another hour or so in, I lost balance on a slight slope and came crashing. One second I was thinking about my good fortune, and in the next I was sprawled on my stomach and gripping the rock above. Feeling intense pain in my right foot, I rolled over quickly to release the pressure. I had landed hard on a new reality. The swelling began, and all I could think was “No, no, no, please not this.”
This absolutely could not be happening right now, so I got up and walked a few steps. Each one was sharper than the last. I’ve taken many falls in the past, seemingly always drawing blood, but this time was different. Swelling had turned my foot into a useless hoof. I quickly became annoyed and angry. I scolded my foot for not being a team player and myself for being too confident in sandals. Backtracking became increasingly difficult. Everything was a hazard. Below, jagged rocks created a balancing puzzle. The trees I had effortlessly dodged or swung around became a nightmare of leaning, sliding, and swearing. Dragging my giant foot around was draining my will. I needed composure. So, I laid down on the ground multiple times, all the while, bargained with promises so long as I made it out.
Somehow, I did. Pride was absent, but relief was a welcomed change. The sun was setting as I approached the main paved trail and the park entrance where I encountered people again. Not daring to complicate things more than they already were, I refused to relinquish my newfound control over my pain by introducing variables at this stage. I did not know how to ask for help or even what to ask for. Gritting my teeth, I boarded the 115 back into town, sprang for an Uber from the bus stop to my bed, and went directly to sleep, hoping that all would be well tomorrow.
I didn’t know how my foot could get any more purple, but through the night it did. I sighed at the monster and went to the hospital. There I waited around to be seen by an orthopedic surgeon. X rays and some more waiting resulted in a diagnoses of a fractured fifth metatarsal. In the lingo, it was something between an avulsion fracture and a jones fracture. The doctor nonchalantly suggested penciling me in for a screw that evening, but, without a second opinion, I was not exactly going to commit to surgery. Nevertheless, it looked like I wouldn't make it to Nepal in four days as I planned, but I didn’t want to stay in Penang for another second [I’d later find out this was an insanely good call, because the following week Penang would drown under floods that were meters high leaving the city without power and drinking water for weeks. At the time no one had the foresight or preparation.]
Since I was on my own way out of town, the doctor was hesitant to outfit me in a boot and crutches. Losing the use of my hands would make me even more clumsy, if that was even possible, and things potentially more dangerous. He promised there was always the option of screws if further damage occurred during transit. Either way, recovery would take six weeks at a minimum once I stopped weight bearing. That news hurt more than all of yesterday. He sent me on my way with a bag full of painkillers and a smile made of pity.
As I returned to the hostel waiting for the night bus to take me to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, I explained my diagnosis to a stuffed room. I embodied a scenario we all feared—immobility. They offered their condolences. On guy—I think he was German—said something along the lines of, “We all carry a broken foot around with us. You just have a real one right now.”
All laughed nervously in agreement. When we have something holding us back from our dreams, it’s pretty much always ourselves. On the bus I dug around for those painkillers and then stared at nothing. I wondered how far I’d slip into this whirlpool. After months of hurling ahead, exploring the next place, chasing after the next adventure, all I wanted to do was completely shut out the world. I had learned to expect the unexpected, but not quite in this way.
Upon arrival to Kuala Lumpur, fate had something else in store. I got off the bus at the metro station and tried to orient myself to the city. Assistance came in the form of a 25 year old Malay woman curious of my situation and eager to help. She suggested I skip AirBnB and opened her home to me. Admittedly feeling increasingly hopeless, I jumped on the opportunity to not take on the challenges of the days to come alone. I am forever indebted, but also inspired. A reoccurring theme in my travels had been kindness, and her and her family was certainly not short of it. Her mother, whom I call Auntie, whisked me away to see another orthopedic surgeon who outfitted me in crutches and confined my giant foot in an even larger boot. I would come back for another x-ray in two weeks. In the meantime, I was to be strictly non weight bearing. When I was finally shown my room in the family’s home, I slept for nearly two weeks. Bedrest was not simply necessary for the swelling to subside, but necessary to prevent psychosis.
There’s no denying all the nights I laid awake staring widely at the ceiling demanding an answer to why. But why is entirely subjective, and answers lead to the gaping mouth of demons. My foot had rendered me physically useless, a nightmare for an adrenaline junkie. Online forums on metatarsal fractures listed horror story after horror story of rehabilitation taking months. It was as if the greatest opportunity had been withdrawn. But there was so much left to see and do. I was not ready to pack my bag and go home. I repositioned the pillows under my foot, and refused to let self-degradation settle into my bones. Inner apathy kills, not physical limitation. At least, that was a theory worth testing. After all, people have accomplished much more with far less.
My own discovery of how to make the most of time came largely in part by being fortunate enough to recruit some help. I wasn’t out of luck. A testament to trusting the process, somehow I was under the care of this wonderful Malay family. Auntie was a retired medical doctor pursuing interests in meditation and hypnosis as preventative care. Uncle just so happened to be the secretary general of the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology, and Water here in Malaysia. I don’t think I could have found myself in a more stimulating environment. Trying to fill the void between my travel encounters thus far and my limited understanding of them, I spent my days in the huge home library consuming all interpretations. I flipped through everything from global power dynamics to sustainable economics to self improvement texts. When Uncle returned from Bonn and the COP23 conference, I was exposed to the state of international climate policy. Then every night was a briefing on the order of events in Malaysia’s energy and water sector. One day, I even met Jeffrey Sachs, an author that helped spark my interest in sustainability many years ago when reading The End of Poverty.
I could count the times I left the house in those three weeks on one hand, but I was not nearly as limited as I’d imagined on the night bus to Kuala Lumpur. There was always something to do. When I wasn’t uselessly contemplating the state of my foot, time really flew by. Over and over again, I rediscovered happiness with every shared meal. Auntie and Kalilik whipped up dish after dish of Malay foods and even veganized them for me so that I could get a taste of Malay flavors. I was stuffed full of nasi lemak, sambal, peanut sauce salads, and noodle dishes. I’ll dream of apam balik, pancakes filled with corn, peanuts, and cane sugar, for a long time to come. I was grateful to be alive and a part of experiences that would happen under no other circumstance. I was gifted a lot of time, free from the pressures of constant travel, to reconsider what is valuable and see it for myself.
Fast forward four weeks later, and I am once again standing on my own two feet. As I trade in the aircast and lace up my familiar hiking boots, I know this trial by fire is mostly over. I'm awkward but feel so free. I want to jump up and down! I know there are many steps in between here and that point, but simply practicing walking feels like a whole world of opportunity. As I gingerly advance forward in the room using crutches to support body weight shifts between strides, it’s confirmed my right foot has been turned into a sponge from weeks of paralysis and wholly incapable of supporting my weight. Doc thinks it’ll take two more weeks to wean off the crutches. This means things are on the right track. It’s great news.
I leave his office with a strong recommendation to celebrate tonight. That won’t be a problem. It’s Thanksgiving day, and I will absolutely be hosting dinner. It’ll be small and humble, a gathering of new Malay friends in my rented studio. Some things are harder to find, so no cranberry or pumpkin. The bird of choice in Malaysia is chicken, so I’m convinced someone will bring some chickens. Over American Malay fusion, people will be brought together. I'd say the important Thanksgiving traditions are more than upheld.
I’m eternally thankful for the people whose lives have intersected mine; each one blessing me with their compassion, human sincerity, and lessons in giving. It is increasingly clear how our own growth is dependent on the amazing people—be it strangers, old friends, or family— that no doubt surround us all and never fail to surprise. In no way are we alone in our struggles. The good times we share heal all wounds. These days have been about cherishing the small points not the winning goal. It has made me realize, more so than ever, that we are never paralyzed if we see every moment for the opportunities they offer. Unfortunately, spectacular opportunities that lie in each moment are so often blurred by speed or passivity. We'll miss everything if we aren't looking. I don’t ever want to stop being the obnoxious parrot repeating how happy I am. Looking around, how could I ever stop?