The ice cold water rushed around my legs as I stood up a bit dazed and saw my broken flip flops floating away down the river. I pulled my foot out of the water to take a look. That’s odd, I thought as I noticed the fourth toe on my right foot was now pointing in a wholly unnatural direction, but it doesn’t hurt? I tried to push the toe back to where it should have lined up with the rest of its friends. It stubbornly refused to budge. Then it hit me, the familiar pressure – immediate swelling. I knew I just hurt myself. Dammit, what did I just do?
I looked up to see a face that was equally confused and impatient. The 14-year-old Panamanian boy who was my waterfall guide stared at me. He could jump from rock to rock with ease, and I was stumbling along with the gracefulness of a cow in high heels – and had just completely bailed on a slippery river rock. His face was a mixture of Ain’t no one got time for that and They don’t pay me enough for this shit. I tried to explain in my broken Spanish that I thought I just really hurt my toe. He wasn’t convinced, and said we should keep moving forward. I figured if I’d actually hurt myself, I might as well have done it for a reason and decided to keep pushing towards the waterfall cave. With the help of my guide, who was equally stressed but happy to help carry my weight through the waist-deep water in my bathing suit (after all, 14-year-old boys are 14-year-old boys no matter where you are in the world) – I made it to the end.
Luckily for me, the waterfall was gorgeous and powerful, and took my breath away. I soaked in the moment for a few minutes – before realizing I now had to focus on the hard task of getting myself back to the Lost & Found Hostel, while soaking wet, with an aching foot I couldn’t walk on and no shoes.
When you decide to travel the world most people will remind you of everything that could possibly go wrong. They will tell you all of the horror stories that exemplify the worst of human nature; from people getting mugged, cheated by taxi drivers, blackmailed by police, attacked, kidnapped. From my own experience, the opposite is usually the case. I’ve witnessed the best of humanity, its altruism, and the fact that we are all more alike than we are different.
I reached the main road and started limping my way back to the closest restaurant. In this moment, shoe-less along a highway in Panama, burning my feet on the hot asphalt, while my teenage guide runs ahead with my bags – which include my wallet and DSLR, I realize I’m at the mercy of those around me. The family at the restaurant – having heard what happened from my guide – quickly gave me an extra pair of slippers they had, gave me pain relieving gel to rub on my foot, and sent their son to flag down the next bus heading back towards my hostel. I couldn’t have asked for greater kindness.
Next, I had to ask for help at the fruit stand at the bottom of the hill to the Lost & Found Hostel. There was no way I could hike up the 20 minutes in the over-sized slippers I was gifted. The owner phoned up to the hostel, who brought me an extra set of women’s flip flops someone had forgotten, and another young boy to help carry my things as I slowly and painfully hiked up to the hostel with what I didn’t realize were two broken toes.
To end my string of examples about the kindness of strangers, of course, are my fellow travellers. Friendships in hostels are always unique; you become close very quickly because you are spending the day with the same people, having shared experiences, and realistically, if you travel with the same few people for a week – in that moment, where you are, they are your best friends. Those you’ve known for 8 days will give a shit about you – but not likely someone who just checked in 8 minutes ago. I definitely wouldn’t have made it through without the support of those around me.
Once I arrived up to the hostel, I proceeded to shove my swollen foot into my hiking shoes and take the overnight bus to Panama City. There was no use staying where I was because there wasn’t access to good medical care, and about 6 of us had already planned to take the bus. So toes be damned – I went on my way.
Most people who know me know I am an eternal optimist. I can’t help it, my default setting is to look on the bright side and find the positive in the middle of the absolute worst. However, trying to negotiate my way through the Panamanian healthcare system with my broken Spanish, and being holed up in my hostel for days on end, caught up with me.
Getting a confirmation of two broken toes really sent me under. Up to this point I thought I had just sprained them, or maybe dislocated one. I mean, how could I have walked with my big backpack and made my way around if they were actually broken? But there was the evidence, the doctor staring at me and telling me it would take up to 4 weeks to be back to normal. I instantly was angry with myself, Why did you have to go the waterfall? You should have just stayed where you were! The idea of staying in my hostel any longer, left me feeling depressed and trapped – cabin fever in a 6-bed hostel dorm is never a good feeling.
Not only had I spent a week in Panama City, I didn’t take a single picture, or get to visit a single site. I was staying in the beautiful Casco Viejo neighbourhood but even I knew walking around with my big camera while being obviously injured would be like stealing candy from a baby.What I did gain was perspective on the difficulties of dealing with institutions like hospitals and clinics when you’re not a native speaker. It’s something I will never forget, and something I will take home with me to Canada anytime I see someone in the same position.
Although I didn’t know it then, the lowest low on my trip was about to be followed by my highest high. One that would have never happened had I not broken my toes.
….More on that in my next post!