Sunday, November 28, 2010

Disaster Strikes Midway to the Namib Desert

I have always hoarded past written work of every variety.

Several years back, I spent a lazy afternoon rifling through my childhood bedroom when I discovered an essay I wrote in the 6th grade entitled “Vacations and Holidays: How Bad Things Always Ruin Fun.” Such a young skeptic, disappointed by altitude illness on ski trips, poorly timed bouts of the flu, and one horrific car accident that practically wiped us out and unquestionably ruined Christmas. And yet I continued to travel, developing into a sort of modern-day vagabond. Someone who lives everywhere and nowhere, both prisoner and beneficiary of my own stream-like memories.

Still skeptical, less superstitious, and extremely enthusiastic: this was my frame of mind when I departed for Namibia this November. I arrived in Windhoek and shot off the following day, back to Harnas, a place I’ve lovingly written about during the past 15 or so months.

Thanks to new management and a horrible attack by vervet monkeys, my volunteering experience was drastically different this time, leaving me exhausted rather than revitalized. I left Harnas so physically and mentally depleted that I almost changed my flights to return home early, but I decided to stick it out for the sake of adventure. With a few days to spare before starting my next project, I joined a short tour to the Namib Desert, where rust-colored dunes encircle dead acacia trees and long desiccated riverbeds.

Our motley crew—2 American and 3 Japanese tourists along with a Namibian guide—all pile into the white 4-wheel drive vehicle early Friday afternoon. Besides two of the Japanese women, none of us knows one another, so we drive in relative silence, idly chatting about our African travels and how we all envy the Europeans for their 5-weeks of annual vacation.

We’ve been driving for almost two hours when we stumble upon a ghastly scene, the type normally reserved for big screen blockbusters.

A man furiously waves at our vehicle, some 50 yards ahead of us on a minimally traversed gravel road. To his right is a flipped truck, the cab of which is crushed to the bone.

We pull to an abrupt stop, discovering that he’s not alone. Under the shade of an acacia tree rests a young woman, who seems to be in decent shape apart from a broken leg. Beside her is a large male body, face-down in the dirt. We quickly surmise that he’s still alive but bleeding heavily from several head wounds. This man needs medical attention ASAP or, more precisely, a half hour ago when the crash occurred.

We are in the middle of nowhere, all but one of us incapable of communicating with the injured passengers. No one knows the location of the nearest medical facility. Interestingly enough, the other American in our group is a doctor, a neurologist to be exact. But he’s not a surgeon, doesn’t have the requisite tools, and is understandably worried about getting too close to an open wound in a country with one of the highest HIV rates in the world.

I alternate between feeling useful and paralyzed by exhaustion and fear, all the while thinking that events like these don’t occur in real life. These scenarios only crop up on law school exams. My inner lawyer can’t help but wonder: what duties and protections are created by Namibian law? Legal systems vary on these so-called “Good Samaritan” scenarios, with distinct rules reserved for physicians. Some countries require them to intervene. Most hold no requirement; rather affording the passerby physician increased protection should he decide to administer care.

I snap back from my philosophical digressions. We’ve no time to waste on legal what-ifs and discussions about the long-term. We haul the three into the car and drive like mad towards anything resembling civilization. Many wrong turns and confused conversations later, we find a medical facility where we leave the injured passengers. A local nurse assures us that she will arrange transport to the nearest big city, one that promises a staffed hospital (although the American-trained neurologist doubts that such facilities will have the expertise and equipment needed to prevent further injury to the man’s brain).

Leaving seems unfair, callous even. Like it or not, we’ve been roped into this situation, and I don’t feel comfortable just walking away. But we have no further assistance to offer, and I'm not calling the shots. We wind down the road, through the small town we’ve stumbled upon until we hit the poorly paved road leading to Sossusvlei, driving much more slowly this time.

Connecting with strangers has always been easy for me, customary now that I do so much traveling on my own. Experience supports the possibility of speedy bonding. But certain traits are naturally withheld. Challenging situations, the sort that force people to come together under unwelcome circumstances, may not arise for years, if ever. The effect on human relationships—we often don’t know how a person will react when the tough gets going until it does—would have been devastating to our ancestors. Survival depended on strength and the ability to respond to near-constant turmoil.

The relative safety of the modern era means that we rarely anticipate or prioritize someone’s propensity for fight versus flight or their ability to stay calm and productive in these difficult situations.

Perhaps we should. There’s nothing more revealing or crucial, particularly when you’re the one dependent on a Good Samaritan.

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