I thought I was so clever.
Three months before embarking on my trip to Myanmar for a three-and-a-half week pilgrimage, I sat cross-legged on my bed, leafing through the finalized, printed itinerary my travel agent sent me. And I said to myself, and later announced to some friends as well, that I was going to pencil in a couple of “extra” things.
First, one night of homesickness/loneliness, perhaps even sobbing, facedown on my bed, in typical seventh grade I-guess-he-doesn’t-like-me-after-all style. Second, at least one night of being hungry, yet unable and/or unmotivated to find something good to eat, and no one else around to take care of it for me. I pictured myself in both of those possible future moments and reminded her (me) to recall that these were, in fact, listed in my itinerary. So, I could simply have a little chuckle and cross them off the list.
I did not add in a sprained foot. Perhaps I should’ve. Because that’s what happened on my first day out exploring Myanmar.
I had read about Myanmar’s roads and walking surfaces, and how incredibly important it is to remain mindful and cautious of where you walk in the streets, especially at night. A hole could simply appear out of nowhere and someone could fall right in, never to be heard from again. Yikes. Note to self: watch the roads when walking. Particularly at night.
But I hadn’t read anything about gaping crevices in the pagodas (Buddhist religious structures/places of gathering/praying) — crevices that in the US would be surrounded by orange cones, yellow tape and dozens of caution signs. But without the warnings, I walked right into a crack about two feet wide that ran along the perimeter of the building for no apparent reason whatsoever. In broad daylight. With a guide.
My guide had suggested we sit for a rest on a bench, and I simply followed. I should have been watching where I was going, but I was busy staring dumbfounded at the mountains of gold, gems, flowers and beauty that made up the hundreds of Buddha images and stupas (domed structures) all around me. This was my first pagoda of the trip and I was taking it all in. And I was trusting the floor would be under me where I stepped. My mistake!
My English-speaking guide, Tun, of course, felt horrible. The guides don’t want anyone getting hurt on their watch, in fact throughout my trip they regularly reminded me to “watch my step” and “watch my head.” But this was such a glaring crack in the walkway, I’m sure he thought I would see it and step over it. Just like I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the local kids so easily doing while I inspected the growing-before-my-eyes welt. I realized immediately: this wasn’t going to be good. After Tun brought me some ice and we sat for a while, I had to dig deep and rally up some potent I-can-do-this energy for the two-hour car ride, crowded ferry ride and another 20 minute drive back to my hotel. Not to mention the walking that still was required between these places on rough walking surfaces. Every step was excruciating over the uneven walkways, planks and roadways.
By the time Tun dropped me off at my hotel later that afternoon, I was experiencing severe pain and barely holding back tears. Seeing my face, he kindly asked if I would like to go to the hospital, but I said no: based on some things I had read, the idea of going to third-world hospital frightened me.
I opted instead to take advantage of the hotel’s “on-call doctor” service. That evening, a kind, 40-something female doctor arrived in my room, chaperoned by the hotel Duty Manager and my guide (who treated me like a sister during this entire process). While I didn’t understand everything that was said, I understood enough: the doctor did not believe I had broken any bones, but we couldn’t know for sure without an X-ray. And the only way to get that was to go to the hospital. She left me with anti-swelling and pain medication while the hotel reminded me to take advantage of their room service menu.
I was lucky to be staying in Yangon, the largest city and my first destination, for five full days. That’s actually unusual; most tours move on from Yangon within a day or two after visiting the city’s biggest attraction: Shwedegon Pagoda. While I knew this information ahead of time, I made no changes, trusting it would be a gentle way to ground myself and settle in. Since I had over three weeks total in Myanmar; I could afford to be leisurely. Little did I know how necessary these additional days would be. But the line item on my itinerary that read: “Client at leisure for full day” changed to “Tour the TV stations and the room service menu while elevating foot on a stack of decorative pillows.”
Being alone and in pain in a foreign country was for me a combination that triggered a fear thought parade. And once the parade started, it was nearly impossible to stop: “What if my foot is broken and I continue touring and then it never heals properly?” “What if I never walk properly again?” “What if I re-injure it?” “Maybe I should just go home.” “If I am going home, now’s the time before I travel to even more remote regions.” “Perhaps this is a sign that this whole trip was a bad idea.” “What was I thinking anyway, traveling alone halfway around the world?” “I miss my family already, how can I possibly do this?”
And so on. These are the moments I realize that all the meditation techniques for clearing or changing thoughts work best while grounded in a safe, comfortable room, but not always in the midst of crisis!
By the next afternoon the pain had increased significantly and my foot had turned into an unrecognizable appendage colored with shades of blue, green and purple. But even more potent than the pain, if it was possible, was a sense of loneliness and a desire to be around people. This surprised me. As a self-proclaimed introvert, I have immersed myself in silence on a number of retreats, chosen to closet myself into hermitages for days, been away from my family for a week or more with no pangs of loneliness nearly this sharp. But I decided to follow, rather than suppress this urge — it felt like Soul.
Tun had loaned me a cane, so I grabbed it, wrapped up my foot in an ACE bandage and headed down for the restaurant. But a cane is best in times when you can put at least bear some weight on the injured foot/leg. Admittedly, in my case what I needed was a wheelchair or crutches. It took me eons to reach the hotel elevator, but the urge to connect motivated me onward from within. It made no difference that the people I would be connecting with spoke little to no English; human bodies was what I craved. Laughter. Conversation. Simple things.
Once downstairs in the lobby, exhausted and in pain, two women from behind the desk saw me and immediately came around to assist. They had heard about the tourist with the sprained foot. To my embarrassment, I realized, everyone had. They offered room service again but I shook my head, “No, I want to come down for a little while.” I’m sure the look in my eyes told the rest of my story.
So, with one arm around each of them, I hobbled towards the dining area. Sweating profusely with my effort and embarrassed by both my sweating and my helplessness, I tried to move quickly, but these wonderful women who probably knew only a dozen or so words in English repeated, “Sloowly, sloowly” with a long, drawn out “o” over and over. Anytime I tried to speed up, they tapped me and repeated, “sloowly, sloowly” until I finally did just that. It was a little easier this way, anyway.
By that evening, back in my room, the pain continued to increase in my foot that now looked like a pufferfish. Finally, my fear of something being very wrong (i.e., broken) finally overcame my fear of going to a third world hospital (the battle of the fears!). I called my guide and asked him to take me for X-rays so I could know for sure if I was dealing with any broken bones. Only then, I knew, could I continue my tour (or go home, if there was a bad break). So he made an appointment at the Royal Asia Hospital.
I had a difficult time sleeping the night before my visit to the hospital. Images of a dirty, crowded, hot hospital, long lines and hours of waiting filled my mind. But to my great relief, when we arrived at the hospital, it was clean, bright and very welcoming. I was reminded that what we hear and read is more often than not disconnected from reality.
As I hobbled around on my cane, several people expressed concern, asking my guide what had happened. While listening to the story, they would nod consolingly towards me as I smiled back at them. As I slowly came out from behind the curtains of fear, I began to see the adventure I was having was, in it’s own way, quite fun. And funny. I laughed for the first time since I fell in the hole. This close encounter with the people outside of “tourist approved” areas was proving healing and enlightening.
I was placed in a private room to wait for the doctor. Soon a tall, thin, smiling and energetic man walked in and said, “Hello!” An English-speaking doctor, what a gift! The first thing he said to me after looking at my foot was, “I don’t want you thinking that this is bad luck! We are glad you have come to visit our country and hope you enjoy the rest of your visit!”
I could’ve hugged him for saying that.
Then I knew: my doctor was right. This incident was not bad luck. Instead, it was a gift. Yes, it was scary, but it instantly set the tone for the rest of my trip. It shook off any remnants of desire for a Western-style tour characterized by packing as much into my days as I could. It settled me into the “no-time” of Myanmar.
My doctor than turned to my guide and asked, in English, where I injured my foot and had he called and told the pagoda management about this incident because “we will be seeing more and more tourists!” My guide answered in the affirmative. This exchange between locals helped me understand a) They recognize that there are some issues they need to attend to to make things safer for tourists and b) I’m probably not the first, nor the last until these issues are indeed attended to. I felt less embarrassed by my klutziness, and more, perhaps, glad for my role in drawing awareness to an issue. I told myself that I fell in that hole so that some child doesn’t fall into it later on! It helped.
The X-rays showed that neither my ankle nor my foot was broken. “Can I keep these as a souvenir?” I asked my doctor. “Of course,” he smiled and laughed, and said, “This is your property, we do not keep your property at our hospital!” The unsaid “Not like your American hospitals do!” lingered humorously in the air after and we smiled conspiratorially at one another.
Fully relieved, the three of us lingered and laughed and talked about the upcoming weeks of my trip as if we were sitting in someone’s living room. I’m almost surprised we didn’t break out a bottle of some fine wine and make a toast. Before I left, I took my picture with the doctor (another fun souvenir) and journeyed back to my hotel with a smile on my face and a steady black brace to wear for support (and the cane) so I could continue my tour without needing two local women on either side of me. But their words, slooowly, slowly would stay with me.
Finally, seemingly absent and silent up to this point, I heard the wise voice of my Soul, that small, quiet voice I’ve come to know as the part of me that sees things in a much wider light than I might otherwise and the part of me that initiated this trip clearly say: “Experience. Like it or no, it is experience we are here for.”
Oh, now you tell me. I rolled my eyes at this late-coming wisdom from my Soul. Ok, well that made some sense, and I understood it in two ways. First, the fact that this sprained foot truly was an experience (and talk about immersion), and secondly a deep understanding that the entire trip was about experiences; not just the comfortable ones, not just the pleasurable ones, but the ones that my Soul is seeking…needing…craving. The ones that will contribute most to my growth.
So with the gift of the brace from my doctor and the wise words of the women from the hotel: “Sloowly, sloowly” as my tools, I moved forward with greater confidence in myself and trust in the people around me.
I decided to let go. And I slooowed down.