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a visitor in your moment…

Your motorbike, young man, is on its side 3 meters from where you’re now laying. There are some plastic pieces of the bike that have splintered off laying between you, along with your helmet which must not have been clipped, but for those of us moving carefully around the accident, the distance between you and your Honda seems large. Another motorbike is laying nearer to it, with no plastic pieces splintered off and a girl who I’d guess is about your age picking herself up off the ground. Her helmet is on her head, and she seems shaken but…is standing as I get closer.

We’re in that moment, young man – you and I and the two people ahead of me who have already stopped to assist and the five bikes around me who are approaching – before there’s a crowd taking charge of the accident. We’re in that moment before the bikes have been moved off to the side, before those in the accident negotiate damages, argue fault, and even throw a few punches if the situation calls for it. To be fair, I’m only in this moment with you because I happened to have a relaxed drive to work instead of a hasty one, because my time at the bank this morning was simple instead of protracted, because I happened to approach this intersection thirty seconds after your bike and the bike of the girl your age collided. So I guess that makes me a visitor to the moment, instead of a real member of it.

My timing was such, young man, that I was watching her when she noticed you, on the ground three meters past your motorbike. I could tell because she went from the dusting-off of clothes and the checking of elbows and knees to running in that instant, as I watched, still approaching with my cluster of motorbikes. I saw her, young man, as she and the two people who had already pulled over to help, parking their bikes as a screen for further traffic to flow around, reached you. I have spent my afternoon thinking about this, and I’ve decided that it is beautiful in the most tragic of ways to witness what is quite likely one of the worst moments in the life of a perfect stranger. You were on your side in a very clear fetal position, and that baseball hat you were wearing under the helmet that must not have been clipped was still in place. The thing that made it quite clear that you weren’t ok, that you weren’t going to hop up and dust off or even gingerly stand and limp to the doctor, is the way you were holding your left arm. Your top arm was locked with both the elbow and wrist at a hard 90 degree angle, with every single finger splayed out, muscles tight. I don’t think someone could have closed your hand if they tried. The other thing that made it quite clear that you weren’t ok was the shaking. I realize I’ve never seen someone have an epileptic fit, but you were shaking from head to foot, most noticeably in that top arm and hand held away from your body at right angles. I’ve spent my afternoon thinking about this, about my time as a visitor in your moment, a moment that is a very bad one or even the last.

It’s been five seconds since I noticed your accident, young man, and I am now upon it. Ten people ahead of my cluster of bikes has pulled over, and they’re moving everything, including your rigid, shaking, form, onto the grassy partition to await the ambulance that will no doubt take 20 minutes to arrive. That puts my cluster of bikes very clearly in the “continue along, all is under control” category, especially for foreigners who generally avoid traffic cops. But driving by you, driving by the two men who had just been driving along on this beautiful day just like I was driving along on this beautiful day, men who are now bending from the knee to life you up onto the curb where you can shake in peace until the ambulance comes, driving by all of this is incredibly strange. It makes the accident that at the least has put you in the hospital for an extended stay, and at the worst has taken your life in the time between when I passed you and when I’m writing this…it makes your accident something I saw on the way to work. I saw you dying much like I saw women on bicycles selling oranges and construction workers stacking bricks.

I’m not sure what to say, young man, other than that I hope they can stop whatever is going on in your brain to make your body act the way it was acting when I briefly visited your moment. I can tell you that I spent the afternoon thinking about the invincibility of youth, about the reality of danger all around us, and the importance of both being wary and not letting the existence of death and destruction all around prevent you from living. I can tell you that if your accident and serious injury (or death) was that girls fault, the girl about your age in the sensible office clothes and helmet, it will change her life. I can tell you that your worst day is also hers. I can also assure you that if it was your fault, if you were to blame for your own serious injury (or death), the life of the girl about your age in the sensible office clothes and helmet is still changed, permanently. That moment in which I was a visitor will become a part of who she is, just as it has likely become a part of who you are. I guess, then, this moment is historic in the lives of at least two people, regardless of fault. So today, I witnessed a defining moment in your history and in her history. And because that moment is one I will remember, I guess the fact that I passed through the moment in the span of 20 seconds doesn’t matter so much. I guess you and the girl about your age and the two men who stopped first to help and ended up carrying you onto the grassy partition, and the next five motorbikes who also stopped to see if anything needed to be done, and the people who pulled over to watch, and those who kept going, and I…I guess that historic moment in your life is now a part of all of us.

* * * * * * * *

For the most part the written word is a tool I employ to convey experiences to other people; the idea of using writing to process an experience is a newer one. But today I saw what was either a very serious or fatal motorbike accident, and with only a few spare minutes before class, decided to jot down some things that were on my mind. I continued to think about these moments and the people in them, and to write, when I got home.

There are 17 traffic related fatalities in Hanoi every day, a number that seems quite high despite the city’s 7 million residents. Standing at a major intersection, one can understand where a lot of these come from – the first rule of the road is that there are no rules. The foreign community jokes about this, complains about this, rants about this , but at the moment it’s just part of life in Hanoi.

A decreasing number of bicycles, increasing number of cars, and an increasing number of electric bicycles that don’t require a license. Ostensibly this shouldn’t mean more people on the road that weren’t already, since theoretically people are switching vehicles, not really joining traffic… but I think it means that there are more minors driving themselves around. One can only get so far by bicycle, and it seems that if you’re going to a different district either a parent is driving you, or you’re taking the bus. Now with the electric bicycle phenomena, young teens (i’m talking 12-14) are out in traffic among the real vehicles, weaving around. The only difference is their vehicle has no weight, and so would be even more easily crushed in an accident than a motorbike. These electric bicycles can keep up with the rest of traffic, and so pose just as much of a danger. Even worse, having 12-14 year olds on the road driving themselves poses a risk to the rest of us, young people are brash, impatient, and generally less aware of safety hazards then grownups. Then there are the taxi drivers – the vast majority of which are young men from the countryside. Not only have they not grown up in Hanoi, they’re now in an automobile. Though these men have all passed the license test, that doesn’t mean that they have any real conception of the destructive power of their vehicle. They’re routinely the worst drivers on the road, crossing the middle line to pass other cars, honking aggressively at anyone who inhibits their breakneck speed to wherever they’re going. There are many people, young and stupid, that cut through intersections, ignore traffic lights, invincible…until they’re not.


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October 2013
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