Lessons Learned from a Crash in the Dunes

This post is Episode 1/3 of the Great Camel Odyssey of 2018, whereby I traversed 3 countries over the course of 3 months in search of one perfect camel ride.


It is the second week of my study abroad program in Dakar: early January, dry season, seventy degrees and sunny. During class on Thursday, my professor hands out itineraries for Saturday’s day trip. I don’t expect much—our last excursion involved a terse and vastly unremarkable fifteen-minute walk to a museum, which was closed, and an ensuing terser and even less remarkable ten-minute walk back. So I am pleasantly surprised when I see an abbey, pink lake, and free lunch listed on Saturday’s itinerary.

Then I almost fall off my chair, because immediately following “free lunch” is “camel ride.” I haven’t thought about camels for the past, I don’t know, ten years. In fact I’m pretty sure I forgot they even existed until this very moment.

Camels are cool, but when you unexpectedly remember that they exist for the first time in ten years, suddenly they are THE COOLEST thing to EVER exist, ANYWHERE, for WHATEVER REASON.

I am suitably impressed. I zone out for the rest of class and don’t zone back in until Saturday morning, when we pile into a dinky little bus and totter our way across the Cap Vert Peninsula, taking a pit stop at the Abbey of Keur Moussa. The abbey is mildly interesting but not a camel. I take some blurry iPhone photos, purchase a bottle of hibiscus wine, and hop back in the bus.

 

2.1

We arrive at Lac Rose—the Pink Lake—a little before noon. The lake is pink because it’s inhabited by algae that release red pigmentation as a byproduct of light digestion (I don’t know why I typed “light digestion” instead of “photosynthesis;” it remains unclear how I was allowed to graduate from a school for science). It mainly looks brown now, thanks to pollution. Which is, by the way, thanks to humans. In case you forgot . . . or haven’t even realized it yet (?).

The lake is nearly 40% salt in some places. Here is an action shot of some Lac Rose salt:

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Here is another action shot of some Lac Rose salt:

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Very exciting stuff.

On the itinerary, slotted in between “arrive at Lac Rose” and “free lunch,” is “tour sand dunes on buggies.”

Now, I would much rather tour the dunes via camel, but I am not picky. As long as I get my camel one way or another, I’m happy (foreshadowing). So I trot obediently up to the idling buggies, pick the one that looks least likely to fall apart into its constituent parts (FORESHADOWING), and get in. I completely miss the 29340823 red flags attached to said buggy (not foreshadowing, but might as well . . . FORESHADOWINGIGJKGGSG!!!).

In my defense, this is a school trip. There’s no reason to question safety on a school-sanctioned trip, right?

Note to posterity: “Waiver” is just a euphemism for “if you get hurt and it’s my fault, it’s not my fault.”

4

The buggies are contraptions of loosely attached car parts. Seven of us crowd into the back, an open space where canvas drapes loosely over sparse, criss-crossing metal beams. It’s like loose skin over robot ribs. An eighth passenger, a tall man in sunglasses and a denim jacket, hangs off the back, one hand grasping a beam with all the nonchalance in the world. Typical Senegalese move—it’s all over the roads, even the highways, back in Dakar. Dudes just swinging nonchalantly off the back.

We start off slowly, stopping at the salt mounds to snap photos and purchase souvenirs. I buy a gift for my parents, a picture of a woman made from dyed, multicolored salt from the lake. Remember this souvenir.

Then, we hit the “tour sand dunes on buggies” leg of the ride. And before I can react, we’ve left the idea of “slowly” behind us in great, roaring clouds of sand. Katrina’s in front of me; her hair shrieks about her head in a manic halo. Lois sits behind me; she grips her camera with tense hands and shoulders. Across from me, Hannah asks Naomi to take a photo of her. She has to yell, and even then, her voice is almost engulfed by the chaos of wind, motor, and rattling car parts. Soulet’s filming with a queasy look on her face; Hester’s nodding to herself, though I’m not sure if she is actively nodding her head or if the vehicle is jouncing it up and down against her will.

I’m spitting Katrina’s hair out of my mouth. My left hand’s formed a claw around my souvenir. My right hand snatches wildly for my own hair, which Lois is probably spitting out of her mouth.

Meanwhile, our driver’s having himself a grand old time. He’s got his earbuds in. He’s nodding to some bumpin’ tunes. Abruptly, our buggy veers away from the others. We surge up a hill that emerges from nowhere, cresting over the top at a speed which feels weightless.

I’m clutching my precious souvenir in both hands. Sans seatbelt, I am untethered. I wonder fleetingly, Should I maybe grab on to something?

And in the split second it takes for me to compose that thought,

CRACK

I’m on the floor (??!?!)

My souvenir (!(!)!??)

It’s safe!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yes. That’s my first thought.

By pure primal instinct, I scoop into a fetal position. My right hand’s glued to my temple. I don’t know when, how, or why it got there. In hindsight, I probably thought this would prevent any brains from oozing out. Don’t ask.

There’s no pain. Instead, a dull, swimming sensation. My skull is occupied by a living, pulsing, rapidly decomposing piece of cheese. Suddenly I am convinced that, when this cheese finishes decomposing, something terrible and catastrophic will take place. Fear emerges. It’s faint, a nearly imperceptible prickle in the very back of my mind, separated from my conscious thought by a sentient cheese and a violent, numbing, red-black buzzing. Gradually I begin to hear a discordant mess of moaning and groaning all around me, and I keep my head tucked soundly between my knees so I don’t have to look, because if I don’t look and see, the brains won’t come out of my ear, which means that everything will be okay, everything will be okay, everything will be perfectly good and fine SO LONG AS I don’t move or breathe or take my hand off the side of my head, and the cheese will be okay, and I will be okay, and everyone is perfect and good and fine.

It feels like five minutes before I gather the wits to look up and say, “What happened?” (In reality, according to iPhone footage, it is only ten seconds.)

Someone replies. I don’t understand words and the world is oozing. It’s like when the air gets too hot, and you can see it distorting like scrap metal in flame. I put my head back between my knees.

Lois and Hester are sitting in the sand. Later, I’ll find out that Lois fell off the back and Hester fractured her pelvis. Soulet lost her hearing for ten minutes; Katrina bumped her head. And over the course of a frame-by-frame iPhone video, I’ll unearth the origin of that CRACK. I got launched bodily off my seat and pitched—headfirst—into a metal beam. But that’s not half as bad as the fate of our friend in the denim jacket, the nonchalant dangler. Apparently he flipped up, ricocheted off the roof, and flew off into a dune several feet away.

Here is an action shot of some Lac Rose salt:

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We wait there; our vehicle has come apart with the force of impact. Sometimes we talk, but there’s that confused, numbing buzz in the background. Inevitably we fade to silence. And the ride back to the parking lot, the switch to our dinky little bus, the gaping trip to the hospital—they’re all steeped in silence.

At the hospital we wait in plastic chairs along a dim hallway. Hester, who can’t walk, has been sequestered to some invisible room in the building. The rest of us take turns seeing the nurse, who takes our vitals, and the doctor, who speaks only French.

I am 200% incompetent when it comes to French. When I say “bonjour” it sounds like Pig Latin. I sit down, struggle to find the right words, and proclaim that my skull feels like an aquarium with lots of tiny fish swimming around inside. Really fast. Lots of fish. Tiny fish, maybe with stripes.

My TA, who is translating, is at a loss.

“Or like mold,” I try to clarify. “Like little tadpoles squiggling around in a hunk of mold. And when I touch it I feel like my head’s going to explode.” Yes, the pain’s there now, tendriling from my temple in a fractal network. The doctor comes over, brushes aside my hair with the pads of his fingers. I can’t tell whether he’s being gentle. He could be smashing my brains with a baseball bat, and it’d feel the same.

“Aquarium?” I say. I’m tearful. I feel like a wuss.

My TA waves his hands and says some words in French. This time, it’s me who’s at a loss.

The doctor schedules me for a brain scan the following Monday, prescribes a junkie’s load of painkillers, and ushers me out. I am terrified. Sometimes I hear rapid fluttering in my right ear, like someone’s shuffling cotton pads at the speed of light. At night I wake up in pain but can’t sit up, because in the dark, the sound of shuffling cotton pads becomes the whispering of a demon, or Satan, or the ghosts of p-sets past. I start having anxiety attacks. I try to work on my final presentation but can’t concentrate.

Tuesday, I am shuttled in and out of a radiology lab, where no one speaks English and I find myself constantly re-Googling how to say aquarium in French. The procedure takes two minutes. I get some bomb-ass pics of my skull, but to this day, I don’t know what “brain scan” entails. A two-minute X-ray? A two-minute MRI? Questionable.

IMG_9909

I return to the doctor, who promises I don’t have a concussion. He prescribes more painkillers, a stack of slim boxes in French packaging. Three times a day. FIVE PILLS per go.

On the instructions, it says to consult a doctor if you weigh under 50 kilos. I do some Googling. I am 46 kilos. I am pretty sure that if I ingest that many pills at once, I will either die or develop a genetic mutation that will pass on to my children and turn them into man-eating lizards with superpowers and a weakness for kryptonite. So I toss the pills and wait it out.

Meanwhile, the other girls who rode out the crash with me suffer quietly, by themselves. Occasionally we trade symptoms to ward off the anxiety. But it’s always there, that gnawing concern of undiagnosed pain, the compulsion to check Google every once in a while to make sure we’re not secretly broken beyond repair, because we definitely don’t feel like our doctor tells us we do.

Today, it’s been about three months since that first time I failed to secure myself a camel ride. (Episodes 2 and 3 to follow. As you can probably infer from this post, it was a long and pathetic odyssey.) If I apply pressure to my head, there’s still pain. My temple’s tender. There’s a little knot embedded there, just under the skin above my ear.

Ultimately, I’m now stuck with an Achilles skull. I also predict getting hooked on Ibuprofen several decades in the future. And every time I’m in vehicle that speeds up a hill, my heart skitters into my throat and screams bloody murder. YET . . . inexplicably, I’m grateful. (Note: said gratitude only occured after I was sure I’d recover. In the first month or two after the accident, I was not a fan. I could not have been ANY LESS of a fan. I would’ve chucked any fan within a ten-mile radius headily into the seventh circle of hell.)

First, I’m lucky. It wasn’t bad.

Second, seatbelts. They’re nice. I wear them now.

Third, guts. Now, whenever I get nervous before meeting someone or speaking during class, I smack myself in the face and think, You were in a car crash in the sand dunes of Senegal, bitch!

Fourth, accidents. I never thought I was invincible, but I was under the impression that accidents happen in slow motion. Dear Hollywood: please stop filling the minds of America’s youth with slow-motion car-crash imagery. It results in stupid young folk like me thinking that, should a car crash ever happen, they’d be able to react and protect themselves. Grab on. Duck. Dodge. Swerve. Whatever.

Here is what happens:

  1. You are in a car.
  2. CRACK.
  3. You are on the floor.
    • Or somewhere else.
      • Perhaps in a tree.
        • Or in a windshield.

Time does NOT slow down. It doesn’t even speed up. It just disappears.

#1, #2, and #3 are instantaneous events that occur in sequence. There is NO transition between them. No causality. You register nothing until the accident’s over.

Just something to mull over this fine Monday morning. If a bridge falls on you, or the bus you’re riding flips, or the sidewalk beneath you opens up to the chomping fiery jaws of hell, you won’t have time to react. So there is no reason for fear or anxiety. Focus on right now: you are here, you are alive, you are breathing and seeing and hearing, tasting, sniffing, hot, cold, talking, laughing. You have.

At any given moment, life retains the privilege to make us not have. But that’s out of our control. Fortunately for us: right now, in this moment, we do have. And frankly, that should be all we need.


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