By Michael Hoffman
The fall off the new bicycle is a surprise, but I expect to get up immediately. Instead, I keep on slamming straight downward against the mountain; my feet are caught in the toe clips of my bicycle and I’m still attached to it. The terrain is rocky, with protruding rocks from the surface. As the crashing against the sheer mountain face continues, I wonder if this could possibly be a dream, but the repeated visceral body slams assure me it’s not, and I realize that if I don’t stop falling soon, I will smash to my death.
It’s the night before Galungan, around 10;30pm and I have just been to dinner. As I ride back home to my hotel, I am in awe of the new bicycle I bought a few hours ago, thinking of the old saying, “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy a bike”. It has a terrific rockshox fork system and nice shimano components, sweet wheels and tires, and the frame is beautifully balanced to both fly, and then stop and stand still like a well-trained dog. Also, I brought my state-of-the-art lighting system from California. I’m feeling full from the wonderful dinner and am thinking I’ll burn some calories before bed. “I’ll bike across the rice fields.”
I did it earlier in the afternoon and thought I knew the area fairly well. You need to carry the bike occasionally because it’s too treacherous to bike across some parts of the rice fields – the road is attached to a cliff, and one step means a fall into the river below. There are no signs, let alone a fence, so you really need to be careful; but as a guy who’s been mountain biking for 25 years, I figure it isn’t that big of a deal. I tell myself it’s no more dangerous than commingling with Ubud’s scooters, motorcycles, trucks and cars coming dangerously close to me on a constant basis.
So far so good. The lights are super bright and illuminate everything perfectly and the bike performs amazingly well on the uphill. I am loving the solitude and warm night while focusing on the road. I see some people who stare at me, and I wave at them. They don’t wave back, which should be a clue of the folly of what I am doing. I can see road clearly, and I am negotiating the turns. I pick the bike up and walk it through the parts I remember are close to the edge of the road and the cliff-drop. I get back on the bike and feel very steady and confident.
When it happens, the fall happens in slow motion.
I’m tumbling down, and all I can hear are the sounds of my own body crashing against the rocks, unprotected by clothing except a pair of shorts. The plastic bike helmet is smashing repeatedly against my ears. The bike and I get detached somewhere on the way down. It’s impossible to gauge how far I am falling. Then the fall stops as suddenly as it started. My shoulders and ribs take most of the fall.
I’ve landed about 3 metres (10 feet) away from the river. I’m relieved to find that I can remember my own name, but I can’t remember the President of the U.S. That’s when I panic. I am bloody and battered, I’m coughing up blood from my guts and my nose is bleeding profusely too, and I don’t care about the bike’s condition; as any cyclist knows, when you fall off and aren’t instantly concerned about getting back on, you are in trouble. Then it comes, “Obama”. The vice-president? I ask myself. No answer comes. I move away from the bike, which has landed next to me, and am ecstatic that I can stand up. I hope immediately to scramble back up the mountain, but find I can’t even move an inch up the mountain face: I promptly fall down.
My iphone is cracked but it’s still on. I think of who to call. I don’t know anyone here in Ubud, and because I have Face-timed reliably with Chad Pradmore, an employee of mine at the law firm I operate in San Francisco, I decide to call him in the U.S.
“Chad, I am in trouble, you gotta help me.”
I can see his face on the FaceTime, and he is smiling at first. Then he sees my image and gets very serious. I tell him I turned by the Starbucks into the rice fields, and fell into the river. This is all the information I can think of, the only clues I can give him to my whereabouts. He tells me he’ll get help.
Spiders are crawling over me, and I hear rodents scurrying by. I tell myself not to sleep, though I just want to pass out. I am too dazed and injured to shake the insects off. I get cold. I reach into my bag and find an undershirt, which I wrap around me. But I’m still shivering – on a hot Ubud night. I think I could die here pretty soon, and wonder what I have done with my life. I feel shame at how I lived mostly for my own pleasures. I feel I have not stood for anything and anyone but myself. I think of my children and how they will never know the man I could have been, the father I never was. It occurs to me over and over that with no help soon, I cannot make it. It feels odd to need people to survive, as I never felt I needed anyone, and that I was self-sufficient. I think that I may as well be on the moon as it will be very difficult for anyone to find me here.
Several ribs are broken. I can hear them cracking as I spit up blood. My nose is probably broken too; I am constantly coughing up a mucous-blood mixture. I am still not able to remember basic historical facts about things I know. I want to sleep, but I try and stay awake. My cracked phone tells me it’s after 12.30 am. I panic and try to scream for help but the crippling pain in my ribs won’t let me yell. The lights work on my bike though. I put them both on flash mode and marvel at the brightness of the flash and get some hope. That hope fades fast as I see the foliage is too thick and I am too low down off the rice field for it to shine through it all. More thoughts come as to what I have done with my life. I shiver again. The insects and spiders multiply. The rodents get more brazen but I kick at them and they run, their hungry little eyes lit up by the lights. Chad calls back and assures me help is on the way. I try and get warm and focus on not passing out. I wonder if have a concussion. Blood is pouring into my eyes. I look at the phone, and it’s 2:40 am. I’m glad for a moment that the time goes by so fast, but wonder how this could end.
I get colder and colder and listen to the river rushing by a few feet away. I look around and can’t believe how in trouble I am. I think of my childhood and realize the chances I had and instead confront the wreckage of my life in general and now in particular. I see the bike: it seems to be in perfect shape. It seems to mock me.
I was in trouble emotionally and spiritually before I got to Bali. How and why I got to Indonesia runs through me like a movie. I am grateful for my yoga practice and think that it has helped me to survive until now. It’s now after 4 am. My body is beyond pain, I’m numb with cold, and get close to passing out several times. Then suddenly I hear motorcycles. I try to get up, but am unable to stand and immediately fall back down. I try and scream, but can’t make much noise. I renew the light flashing from my bike. The sounds of the motorcycles fade away. All I can hear is the river. The pleasant sound of the water distracts me from my ordeal. I know I can’t last much longer. More blood comes up. I’m very thirsty, but can’t make it to the river. Three metres is too far to move. I feel more sadness at how incomplete and wasted my life has been. I sketch out a different future. I cry at how messed up things got.
It’s after 5am when I hear the motorcycles again, but again, the sounds pass and all I can hear is the river. The spiders are all over me now, and the river rats are scratching around nearby. I resign myself to the real possibility of passing out and dying. It’s getting harder to keep my eyes open. I realize it’s been about 6 hours down here. Then the motorcycle sounds come again. This time they stop close by. I can hear someone.
“Mike”, a voice yells. I can’t believe it, getting a jolt of euphoria. I respond with “Yes,” mustering as much strength as I can. He asks how I am. I say, “The worst is over”. He says his name – Nik [Mang Nik of Toya Medika Clinic who Chad had found on Google -ed]. He tells me not to talk or move and that help is coming. I wonder how I am going to get up out of here, even with help. He says, “Stay awake but don’t move”.
I try and respond. He tells me to stop talking, to conserve my strength. He asks if I can see his light. I can’t. He asks where I am in relation to the river, to plan the evacuation.
We wait. It’s after 6am and daybreak is coming. Nik reassures me a team is on the way. I ask how he found me. He tells me to stay quiet.
It’s around 7am when Nik announces they are here. Someone is rappelling down in a harness. As he descends I see he is short, but his upper body is enormous, with huge shoulders and powerful arms. He is built like a soldier. When he reaches me, he asks how I am and if I can stand up. I try and as I start to fall, he props up my 6″2′, 200 lb frame as if I was a child. I marvel at his power, as he fits me into the harness. He asks if I can abseil up the mountain, using my feet – with help pulling me up. I say I will try.
I kick up my way up the mountain, hugely helped by the men above who are pulling me up. At times my legs don’t get any purchase on the mountain. I miss, and my body crashes into the cliff-face several times before I’m lifted up to the top.
The feeling of being back on the rice field is euphoric. I am ecstatic. Several hands offer me cigarettes. I take one, and draw in the smoke. I’m not much of a smoker but that cigarette is so good I’m still smoking two weeks later as I write this. After the cigarette, Nik puts me on the scooter and I hang on to him. After about 5 minutes along the path, we get to a waiting ambulance which takes me to the emergency room at Toya Medika. The nurse and doctor are clearly competent and concerned. I see my bicycle helmet now, smashed and dented everywhere.
They stitch up my nose, clean up the nasty cuts and scratches on my face and body, they take X-rays, and tell me I have three badly broken ribs, and a nose fracture. I need to stay overnight, but I don’t want to. They discharge me around 10.30 am. As Nik and I leave to return to my hotel, I see the bike parked out in front and can’t believe he pulled the bike out after me, and am moved to tears.
I get to the hotel and feel bewilderment and shock. I feel grateful to be alive. I pass out.
Michael Hoffman is a litigation attorney from San Francisco, who fights for employees against corporations for issues such as discrimination and wrongful termination. When this accident happened he was in Ubud on holiday, taking yoga classes at Radiantly Alive. Michael is recovering at home now, but coming back to Ubud in December.
Ubud Now & Then extends its heartfelt congratulations to Mang Nik and the entire Toya Medika team, who risked their own safety searching for hours in the dark through the night, in order to save Michael’s life.