Lucky Escape in the Philippines
Hungry for adventure and bursting with passion for life itself, I always find myself drawn to the corners of the globe most tucked away from the common eye. I love to fully immerse myself in culture wherever I step foot and to consider what value I can bring to those I meet along the way. Here’s a story of a lucky escape I had while surfing in the Philippines.
The sound of skull crunching on jagged reef is something I never want to hear again in my lifetime. After surfacing from beneath after my first wave of the session, I recall not having enough time to get on my board, let alone duck dive the next wave of the set. Standing in waist deep water, I make a split second decision to throw my board and attempt to dive under the wall of water, which stands terrifyingly tall on the shallow reef beneath my feet. The lip suddenly strikes on top of my head and violently forces me under the surface, slamming my skull against the reef. I’ll never forget that shattering sound.
Coming up in immense pain, my lungs are grateful that the ocean produces no further waves in that set. I gently run my fingers over my skull, expecting the absolute worst but miraculously my head isn’t split open. I begin to paddle back out, fairly un-dazed but can feel a painful lump beginning to swell on the top of my head. Just before I can reach the safety of the lineup, I find myself caught on the wrong side of yet another solid set. I can’t believe my luck as I’ve barely had a chance to regain my breath after getting caught on the inside. I try not to panic at the sight of a solid train of waves ahead but before I know it, I’m caught underneath the lip of the first wave of the set. Once again I’m tumbled and recklessly strewn across the shallow reef by the powerful surges of whitewash. I throw my arms overhead, frightened to strike my skull again, but luckily I only feel the pain of the sharp reef slashing the soft skin on my legs and tops of feet. I once again resurface short of breath, hardly even having enough strength to scramble onto my board before riding the next solid wall of whitewash in.
I spent the next 16 hours sleeping, with what I suspected was heavy concussion. Having suffered concussion from a surfing accident years prior, I knew the symptoms but had not experienced them at this acute level. Unfortunately I was travelling alone on a remote island in the Philippines, which only amplified my biggest fear -that the medical services would be too limited to assist me, should the worst circumstances unfold.
After trying to bring myself out of bed multiple times, I eventually muster enough energy to slowly get up and attempt to locate some sort of food for my now rumbling stomach. I carefully scale down the timber stairs on the second level of my loft-style bamboo hut, to avoid any kind of head rush after lying in bed so long. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, I quietly say hello to some local Filipino girls braiding each other’s hair in a nearby hut. I suddenly feel light headed and take a seat on nearby wooden stairs, but before I can get there I collapse onto the dirt ground. My neighbour Matt happens to arrive home from a surf at the exact time I fall and rushes over to pick me off the ground. The local girls gasp in shock and also rush over to help. I recall Matt saying my name over and over until a point I never heard his voice again. I completely lose my vision and hearing, drifting in and out of consciousness, taking a good five minutes to regain both senses. Matt continually poured water over my arms and legs and encouraged me to take small sips once I was able to hold my own head up. I’m later told that my skin had turned a pale white, my lips blue and that I was sweating profusely while my head swayed from side to side between my bucked knees.
When I become strong enough to walk I was rushed onto the back of Matt’s motorbike, with one of the local girls Lualhati sitting tightly behind me to ensure I didn’t fall off the back in my weakened state. I had trouble keeping my head held up on my own and Lualhati constantly had to keep me awake over the hour long journey to hospital. The times I did manage to open my eyes seemed like some kind of surreal dream. My senses were strangely heightened, taking in the strong scent of smoke filled villages, wild buffalo grazing in rice terraces and the sound of local kids giggling while running after the motorbike in excitement.
I slowly walk into the hospital with assistance and approach a local lady sitting behind an old wooden desk. Matt begins to explain the state that I was in, however without so much as blinking an eye she said the hospital was for local admission only and that there was no doctor there who could help me. From here nothing much made any sense. Local girls who followed us on a separate bike tried to convince the woman that I needed urgent medical attention and had nowhere else to go. Finally she caved in to their desperate demands and called a “doctor” on the phone, but not without letting out a heavy sigh. After some time another woman entered the room and enquired of the situation to the lady behind the desk. She disinterestedly glanced over to me and asked me what pain killers I was taking. Luckily I had bought the packet of tablets with me. Handing it over she lazily read the dosage and rolled the packet between her fingers, taking a long pause before speaking once again. “Well you can catch a boat for two hours to the next island and they have a hospital there, but doctors don’t work on Sundays”. I thought as it was Saturday night it was too dangerous to make the rough trip over there in my unknown state, only to wait another 24 hours to be examined. The only other option was to catch a plane in the morning to another island, but I had no idea if I was even fit to fly, not wanting to risk it especially with a head injury and pressure within the cabin.
I was prescribed a strong pain killer “Tramadol” and sent on my way with no examination or further questions asked. I suspected she was not a doctor at all. We left the hospital and disgruntledly climbed back on the bike, driving to the nearest village where the local girls guided us to the pharmacy. Rusted iron bars guarded the windows of a small timber building where I presented my handwritten script to an old Filipino guy with a tobacco pipe hanging lazily from his lips.
Terrified would be an understatement. So many times when we’re critically ill we leave our lives in the hands of a doctor, but today my life was in god’s hands. It simply wasn’t mine or anyone else’s decision whether I was going to make it or not, I just had to keep faith that I would make it through alive. This would be one of the biggest tests of inner strength I had ever encountered.
The joy of travelling solo took a major turn that night as I rolled around in bed in pools of sweat, heavily hallucinating and regretting my stubborn decision to not have someone watch over me that night. The tropical heat blanketed the island and the electricity continually cut in and out, forcing my small fan to be rendered worthless. I had given up using my mosquito net weeks prior, as it seemed to catch more blood filled mosquitoes than repel them. Instead the strong scent of burning coils engulfed the room, preventing any fresh air from entering through the open door. Dehydration refused to leave me untouched and it seemed no matter how much water I skulled, my throat burned like a scorching desert. At one stage through broken sleep I was woken to a stabbing pain at the most tender point where I struck my head, causing me to grasp tightly onto the sweat drenched bed sheets, which once again left me scared for my life. Images of my family and friends’ faces flashed through my memory, causing tears to fall heavily down my cheeks, wondering if I would ever see them again. I feared suffering a clot on my brain and bleeding to death that night and struggled to force the worst thoughts from my mind.
As my flight out of the island was only three days away, I decided the best option was to stay and get as much rest as possible and pray that my condition would improve. It was a long journey home with three connecting flights. I remained in bed for those three days as I felt I didn’t have enough energy to come up with a plan. My sleep was constantly broken by nightmares and hallucinations. One afternoon I managed to get up to buy some food at a resort close by. I connected to the internet and decided to do some research on the painkillers I was prescribed. Just as I had washed down my evening dose with a glass of water, the words stood out like nothing else on the screen in front of me. “Do not take this medication if you have experienced any head injury as the risk of seizure greatly increases”. I was so angry and ripped the prescription note out of my pocket, reading the signature panel to see the woman at the hospital wasn’t even a doctor, simply an administration clerk. I figured I would have been better off not even visiting that dreadful hospital.
As the plane’s wheels left the runway I closed my eyes and focused on maintaining a calm breath. All I could think about was the taste of blood trickling down the back of my throat and the air hostesses in a panic trying to save me. Luckily the flight was only one hour to the next island and I had no medical complications aside from a mild headache and delirious from my ongoing concussion. A five hour lay-over remained at the next airport, located in one of Philippine’s top crime cities. I was happy not to leave the airport due to witnessing a body bag being loaded into a car on my overnight stay on my way over to the island.
A thought suddenly passed through my blurry mind as I made my way through customs, remembering that I had overstayed my visa by one day. I wasn’t concerned as I had been told by other surfers that all I needed to do was pay a $15AUD a day late fee. Approaching the immigration desk the officer scanned over my passport, with the stamp hovering close to the page before hesitating. “Excuse me ma’am I can see here that you have overstayed your visa by one day, are you aware that even a fraction of a day counts as one month over the date?”. I acted surprised and casually asked him what I could do to fix it. He replied that he needed to speak to his supervisor. By this stage my head was already pounding with a severe migraine but it became much worse at the sound of those words. An aggressive looking woman in immigration uniform appeared from a nearby door and signalled for me to step into her office. She asked me why I hadn’t left the country before my visa expired and I begin to describe the medical state I was in. She immediately cut me off and told me I’m to immediately pay one month of overstay fee which was $120AUD. I began defending myself but she said our conversation was now over and that I could leave. With no cash on me I ran to find the nearest ATM, scared of missing my flight as I was already running late. I find two ATMs side by side within the airport but both are out of order. Running out of the airport into the thick humidity I locate another ATM that allows me to withdraw cash.
I feel I am dangerously close to collapsing and once again the worst possible thoughts enter my head. Having to tediously cross the customs’ check-points again I have about ten minutes before my flight boards. I return to the custom’s office where the hardened woman I dealt with previously takes her time before serving me. Finally she begins filling out paperwork and it’s at this point I begin to break down as I see her smiling at her great accomplishment. Tears fill my eyes as I hand over some of the last of my money to allow me to book my international flight home. I think about what makes this woman so hard, just how many murders she has witnessed in her backyard and what she has dealt with in her lifetime, losing loved ones to violent drug entanglements. My tears become heavier as I feel more alone than ever, tears turn into loud sobs but all she can do is smile as she signs off the documents. I want to yell and scream at her and say the worst things that could come to mind but fear she wouldn’t allow me to board the plane. She arrogantly hands me the paperwork and once again I run, the worst possible thing to do with a concussion, to the boarding gate where my plane awaits.
The four hour flight back to mainland Malaysia passes as quickly as any flight I could ever remember. I sleep the entire way as I’m exhausted through sickness, stress and immense worry. Arriving at the airport my first mission is to book my international ticket home. I didn’t risk booking this previously as domestic flights out of the island are frequently cancelled at the slightest threat of a typhoon. I had also naively relied on a consistent freelance writing job to cover my monthly expenses but the contract suddenly ended shortly before I was due to leave the island. I clearly wasn’t in any state to continue writing for other clients and I realised that I had only left enough money in my account to book that flight home, pay for departure taxes and a couple of cheap meals on the side.
Being comfortable travelling without any kind of luxury this didn’t faze me one bit, but I was certainly taking a considerable risk. The biggest risk of all was that I let my travel insurance lapse for the last two weeks of my trip, which I had never before allowed in my years of travelling. With no savings left and after unexpectedly handing a large amount of money over to immigration, I simply didn’t have enough money to scrape through and purchase my ticket. To add to the seemingly never-ending hurdles and road blocks to get home safely, it just happened that the airline site had been down and my mum had tried desperately to book and pay for the only flight home for the past four hours before surrendering to bed.
I walked directly to the airline desk describing my deteriorating medical condition, a story which once again fell on deaf ears. I began to realise that my life held absolutely no value to locals in these third world countries. The assistant refused to book my flight where I only had handwritten details of mum’s credit card with no physical card in sight. With a growing line of travellers impatiently sighing out loud behind me, I simply didn’t hold enough energy to stay and plead with the assistant. I instead left the desk and rolled out my yoga mat on the ground nearby a check-in counter. I pulled out my laptop and spent the next five frustrating hours trying to book that flight and asked multiple friends around the globe to attempt to make the booking, hoping the website would somehow work for them. Just when I feared I would never make it home to proper medical facilities and as I approached the sixth dreadful hour, the booking miraculously went through. It came as one of the biggest reliefs I’ve ever experienced in my life. It was after midnight before I was able to search the airport for a suitable place to sleep prior to my early morning check-in. I once again rolled out my yoga mat, wrapped myself in a sarong, placed in my ear-plugs and drifted off to a much needed sleep.
I don’t recall ever being so excited to return home after a long overseas trip. I was able to sleep on and off for the majority of the eight-hour flight and each time I woke, a deep feeling of excitement arose within, continually checking my watch to see how far we were from touching down. My good friend greeted me at the airport with a warm hug and a hot pizza, a great relief after only enough coins for a cup of noodles on the flight. It was amazing to feel the warmth of a hot shower after one month of a cold tap running over a large bucket with scoop. After two days of encounters with authorities that had no regard nor value for my life, I was so relieved to feel the love and care of a close friend.
The emergency clinic was full of patients but after presenting to the triage nurse, I was taken in for examination almost immediately by a very handsome doctor. I began to tell my story and instead of being cut off as I was now accustomed to, he was intrigued by my tale of survival, eagerly awaiting my next words. I was taken through thorough medical examinations, eye tests, balance tests and an ECG. The doctor strongly advised against a CT scan due to the high levels of radiation but was happy to tell me that he believed I hadn’t caused any permanent damage to my brain. I was over the moon with the results and almost skipped out of the examination room. As I left the clinic I asked my friend, who just happened to be flying out the next morning to the Bahamas for six months, if she needed someone to look after her car. I had sold mine before my overseas adventure and had already surrendered to the thought of a further day on public transport just to get home. “Actually that could work perfect, just pay the insurance and it’s all yours”.
There I was leaving my friend’s house in her car, finally on my way home to the loving arms of my worried mum. I scratched around in the glove box and found my friend had some of my favourite CDs from reggae festivals we had been to over the years. I turned the volume up to the maximum level and don’t think I stopped smiling the whole two-hour drive home, in fact I couldn’t wipe my smile for days. Although I took a good month to fully recover from my injury, I could never be more grateful for making it through the whole ordeal stronger than ever. I was never bought up religious but understand many aspects of the spiritual realm and my faith was entirely restored after this experience, which was truly the most terrifying time of my life. The worst that my thoughts surmounted to was that I would be a brain-dead vegetable and never be able to see my friends and family again. I feel I’ve been given a second chance at life and cannot wait to return to my love of surfing.
Riding waves is one of the most magical and surreal feelings we can experience as human beings, so why not chase the best in the world, in the most beautiful destinations in the world? I thrive to inspire female surfers to truly take a step out of their comfort zone and jump into the thrill of travel without boundaries or fears. For stories of exploration find me at www.surfchickareta.com