Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Charlie Blog


About a year ago, three friends of mine embarked upon an intercontinental adventure of high altitude endurance, Chinese border intrigue, yak butter, Pakistani telemarketers and some dick named Kyle. Spencer, Breckan and Charlie have spent the better part of the last year biking from Thailand through Western China and into Pakistan. And no, they are not those idiot journalism students that were imprisoned by the Iranian government.

Spencer and Breckan returned back to Utah a few months ago but Charlie had some more biking to do. He stayed back to venture into Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and a couple of other countries I have no idea how to spell on his own. Part of me is jealous of their massive balls. (Quite literally in the case of Charlie.) And I think to myself, "Man, I should have tagged along." Then I lose my breath while casually walk up a flight of stairs and am reminded of my perpetual state of pussiness.

I wouldn't have lasted a week.

I have posted a few links to Spencer's account of this epic tail. But I really wanted to relay this incredible story of Charlie's. The following are excerpts from his blog that recount a scary, crazy and down right amazing chain of events that happened to him over the last month or so. I have compiled this from several of his blog posts. It's a little long but it is such an interesting read, it really flies right by. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't be impressed by it. It beats wasting your time reading about churros, that's for sure.

I've trimmed it down a little bit but I kept most of the crazy details that illustrate just how foreign this part of the world is. Be sure to stick with it to the end.

When this incident occurs, Charlie had biked solo from Pakistan around the Caspian Sea to the former Soviet State of Georgia on his way to Turkey where he planned to meet up with his brother. This is where our tale begins. Enjoy.

(Taken from a post on Charlie's Blog. October 13, 2009.)

I got hit by a drunk driver in Tblisi, Georgia driving a black BMW, license plate “KKK 779”. The girl, my bike, and myself are all mostly ok.

When I got to Tbilisi a few weeks ago I saw a flier hanging on the cork board of an English book store listing the time and meeting place for the Mormon church. I’m a Mormon and I hadn’t seen a Mormon church since Bangkok, so I decided to go. At church I met this girl Armine (pronounced ar mee nay) who speaks English really well, so we hung out and she showed me around town. She’s Armenian, but has lived in Georgia her whole life.

Armine

20 km from the Turkey border is a town called Akhaltsikhe, Georgia. We ate dinner Saturday night and were on my bike back to the hotel. Armine was standing on the back of my bike like a skateboard when the BMW slammed right into the back of us. The crotch of my pants blew wide open to my knees, on both legs, though I didn’t realize this until about 20 minutes later.

Everything happened really quickly and really slowly at the same time. There was a really loud ‘POP’ and I thought “nuts, you’ve got to be kidding me?” It felt like my bike popped a wheelie, which would be really hard for a bike as long as mine. Maybe it happened, I don’t know. It felt like I flew through the air for a long time. Like in comic books when the super heroes are fighting or going really fast and the artists don’t paint the background, instead they paint red and black zebra stripes or swirling backgrounds with lots of colors, that’s what it felt like. Then I hit the ground and started sliding. It felt like I slid forever.

I kept thinking “when am I going to stop sliding?”

When the car hit my bike, it lurched forward. Because Armine was standing, she flew onto the hood. It took a second for the driver, who was drunk, and to whom I will refer to as ‘Bad Guy’ for the rest of my story, to stop.

I stopped sliding and looked up just as Armine flew from the hood of the car. After we were hit, Bad Guy swerved just enough to the left so that he didn’t run me over. He stopped just in time so that when Armine landed she didn’t fly into any parked cars.

Thanks, Bad Guy.

I immediately jumped up and started running towards the car screaming every bad word Spencer ever taught me. Bad Guy was starting to drive away, and because I felt fine, I figured Armine would be fine also. So I tried to stop him from getting away. I pounded on the drivers side window yelling ‘stop you *#*@*#@*, what the #@*#*@ is @*##&@ wrong with you, you @&*# piece of @*#&#’ and so on and so on. Mom, I’m glad you didn’t hear me.

I opened Bad Guy’s door and started punching him in the face screaming at him. I pulled him into the street and kicked him in the side a few times before hitting his face some more. He was choking on his blood saying things I didn’t understand. I think he was talking bad about my mom, so I just kept laying into him. When he wasn’t breathing anymore I. . .

OK, not really. This is what really happened:

Bad Guy stopped his car when I started yelling and pounding on his passenger side window. I think everybody who was standing around stopped. Armine later told me that she was feeling confused and really dazed and the only coherent thing she could make out was my incoherent screaming. Bad Guy stopped long enough for me to jump in front of his car. Once in the front I was slamming my hands onto the hood and yelling and pointing at him. His bloodshot drunk eyes locked onto mine, and he started to turn to the right and hit the gas. Bad Guy already ran me over once in the last 30 seconds, so I got out of the way so he couldn’t do it again. But I saw his plate: KKK 779.

Bastard.

I ran back to Armine and she was standing up with people around her. I just kept screaming the license plate number and that someone should call the cops or something or anything. It was so frustrating because nobody could understand me and everyone was just standing around. Armine was scared but she wasn’t bleeding anywhere really so the people standing around took her into the hotel.

The hotel people said they called an ambulance and Armine wasn’t into it. She thought she was fine. I had been running around so much that I must have been fine. I sat down and looked at my ankle.

I had been limping while outside, but didn’t even stop to look at it. I then saw that my right hand was really bloody and swollen and filled with gravel. This was the hand I pounded on Bad Guy’s car with, which probably didn’t help my hand at all. An ambulance came and decided they wanted to take us to the hospital. The ambulance was a marshrutka, which is essentially a van. This van was gutted and Armine and I sat on wooden benches that ran down the sides of the vehicle. The road was incredibly bumpy and the ride was very uncomfortable, but only lasted about 4 minutes.

We got to the hospital and I immediately regretted not bringing my camera. I knew the situation was very serious, but I couldn’t help but notice how strange this whole experience was.

The hospital was a Soviet era building. It was very drab and cold. Every room and every hallway had a single 35 watt bulb dangling from a wire, centrally located and visibly retrofitted. Nobody had given me any sort of crutches and at this point I couldn’t walk on my left leg anymore, so I had to hop everywhere. And everywhere I hopped I was followed. Not just by staff who were there to look after me, but by everybody in the hospital, which was about 15 or so people.

We went into an examination room and sat down. They started asking us questions: name, birthdate, address, etc…. Armine translated for me. I was a little nervous because we had already taken an ambulance ride, and I wasn’t sure what the cost was going to be. I’m an unemployed American, I don’t have any health insurance.

A couple of minutes later the doctor sauntered into the room….smoking a cigarette. I don’t ever think smoking is cool, nor have I ever thought anyone smoking a cigarette looked cool. But this doctor looked cool. Ignoring the fact that he was the one who was going to give us the care we needed, I was amused. He didn’t speak very much at all and when he did he didn’t take the cigarette out of his mouth, he just let it dangle between his lips. The brashness of his attitude was oddly cool, for some reason. And I realize I just used the word ‘cool’ too many times, but that is the best description I could come up with for my ‘doctor’.

Once the paperwork was finished they told me to get onto the examination bed and he looked at my ankle. They phoned the lady who runs the x-ray machine, she was at home, and then started cleaning up the blood from my hand. Then we just waited. Armine tried telling the doctor where she was hurt and he said “You look fine, besides, I need to fix the American first or we’ll never get into NATO….”

A 90 pound nurse came with a wheelchair to take me to the x-ray room. Every doorway has a 2 or 3 inch threshold and the men stood watching as this tiny nurse put everything she had into getting me through the doorway. Armine was doing a good job translating, her English is excellent, but there was so much going on and so many people coming into and out of the room, to gawk, that she was being asked millions of questions and couldn’t translate everything for me. So when they put me in the wheelchair, I had no idea where we were going.

When they opened the door for us to go into the hallway there were at least 15 people huddled around the doorway to look at me. I’ve never before been a pregnant woman, but I could only imagine what it would feel like to be wheeled out of a hospital room with a newborn in your arms to a huge crowd of relatives, everyone craning their necks to get a slightly better view. It’s exactly how I felt. I just waved.

The x-ray machine was down several very long, dark and cold hallways. It was about 11 pm and the place was empty.

The machine itself looked like it was out of a WW II movie. Large steel tubes painted in a cream color with a very uncomfortable table for me to sit on. They gave me no lead blankets to cover myself with when they x-rayed me. But the nurses jumped behind a large shield.

We got back to the examination room and the doctor said that my ankle was not broken. I laid down on the table and just stared at the ceiling in frustration. The next thing I knew, the doctor put a cast on my leg. A cast. ????? While we sat there waiting for the cast to dry several nurses kept coming and going. They all kept talking and laughing. The only word I could make out, which was said everytime anyone spoke was: velosiped – bicycle.

While the cast was drying two guys walked in. Bad Guys friends or cousins or uncles or something I’m not sure. Everyone is related in these towns. The cops had already caught Bad Guy. These two guys asked us to not take this to the police, Bad Guy was scared of going to jail, and they would just pay us whatever we needed.

I said (with Armine translating) “why should I believe he’s going to pay?”
“Oh, well, it’s a very strong tradition with Georgian men to be honorable. If we say we’ll pay, we’ll pay.”
“Your friend ran into us and drove away….how is that being honorable?”
“Oh, well, he was very drunk and he thought he killed one of you, so he was scared because he didn’t want to get into trouble, so that is why he drove away…”. Armine wasn’t really into talking to these guys so she told them to get lost and they started getting angry. As if them getting angry would help us change our minds.

A police man came and asked us some questions and then said he would get an official interpreter for my statement, because I was friends with Armine they needed a third party. So he would get my statement the next day.

The hospital then gave us the bill, $50, and told us we could go. Armine asked “why should I pay anything, you haven’t done anything for me?” So they sat her up on the table and cleaned her road rash. And that was all they did for her. She asked for some pain medicine because her head hurt.
“Oh, the doctor has left and I can’t tell you to take anything without asking the doctor.”
“Ok, I’ll just get something at the hotel.”
“Oh, yes. Just take anything…”.

I went to bed that night very frustrated. The police had taken my bike to their station as evidence, so I couldn’t inspect it. I did know that the rear wheel still spun freely and it didn’t look like the frame was at all damaged. But I just didn’t know what was going to happen.

Two hours before Bad Guy hit us I had spoken with my brother, Ben, on the phone. We were supposed to be meeting in Turkey in 4 days. FOUR DAYS. He bought himself a bike and we were going to ride through Turkey together for 2 weeks. I was so excited. 20 kilometers from Turkey, 4 days from seeing my brother. Now this.

For three weeks now I’ve had a round trip plane ticket from Istanbul to Las Vegas for the month of November. My little sister is getting married after Thanksgiving. She got engaged about a month ago and it’s my little sister, so I’m not going to miss the wedding. But I didn’t feel done with my trip so I bought the round kind of ticket. I’ll get back to Turkey early December and spend some more time there before heading south into Syria and Jordan. That’s been my plan. But when I fell asleep that night I didn’t know what would happen with my brother or Armine’s injuires, or the rest of my trip, or my ankle, or anything. I still don’t know what is going to happen with most of these things.

(Taken from a post on Charlie's blog. October 15, 2009.)

The police were supposed to come to the hotel at 10 am to get our official statements. They didn’t come until noon. The police station was only about 150 yards up the street, but I didn’t have my bike, and neither of us could walk. We could both hobble ok, but 150 yards was too far. Never in my life have I had to consider taking a taxi 150 yards.

Bad Guy and his uncles came to the hotel to see us, twice. Both times we told reception we didn’t want to see them. I later found out he brought us a chicken. But we never saw this alleged chicken.

The cops showed up and drove us to the station. Armine’s foot was hurting now and she was limping. I was limping. And neither of us had crutches. All the hotel staff just laughed when they saw us trying to move around. We were quite pathetic. I couldn’t help her at all, and she couldn’t help me, and neither of us could really help ourselves. If anyone did offer help it was always for me. A man would let me put my arm on his shoulder and help me walk down the hall, but nobody ever paid attention to Armine. It drove me crazy. They would offer me help and I would tell them to go help Armine, but they couldn’t understand, or if they did understand they were more interested in helping the American.

Of course the office where we gave our statements was on the second floor, no elevator. When I followed the officer into the office there was another cop gambling online on the computer. He played games on the computer for almost two hours while we were there.

The interpreter, Helen, showed up late. She is Georgian and is the English teacher at the middle school in Akhaltsikhe. So she was really good at asking me my name, where I’m from and what my hobbies are…..Armine did a lot of translating for the translator. I would say something to Helen, and then Helen would look at Armine so Armine could put it into Georgian. But I guess she served the third party stipulation.

The cop made me sign some papers stating that I would tell the truth and if I lied I could be punished and blah blah blah. The papers were all in Georgian, technically written and long, so Armine just summed them up for me. On all of them I wrote “I have not read this….” And then I signed my name. The cop didn’t like it too much, but that’s his problem.

My statement took forever because of the translating. Then Armine had to give her statement. We were there for 3 hours.

My bike was in the room and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. When I got hit I was going in the same direction as the driver, so really he just made me go faster. My bike is a tank and the only thing I’m slightly worried about is that my frame was somewhat bent. But I really don’t think it is. I made a list of things that needed replacing and it came to $208.

After we gave our statements Bad Guy’s uncle came in to talk money with us. Apparently the way it works is we tell him what we want, and if he gives it to us then that’s it. If he won’t give us what we want then it goes to court. Bad Guy is a commando in the military (he was in Iraq last year) and has been in trouble with the law before and really doesn’t want to go to court, so between him and his family they will come up with all the money to cover hospital bills and for my bike. This is what they’re telling us at least. We briefly saw Bad Guy the night before at the hospital. He keeps wearing this “I’m really concerned and sorry” pathetic face. He’s one ugly mope. I’m pretty sure he’s sorrier for what he’s going through than for what we’re going through.

Armine did not call her parents the night of the accident because they would have freaked out. She told them while we were at the police station, and they freaked out. Extended families are all really tight over here. She’s really close with all her aunts and uncles and with her parents cousins and their children and I don’t even know how far it goes. When she calls someone her uncle I ask if he is her mom’s or dad’s brother and she tells me that it is her grandma’s cousin’s grandson or something, I don’t even know. For the 4 hour bus ride back to Tbilisi she got a phone call every 3 minutes from a relative wanting to know if she was ok and when she was going to be home.

When we got to her house she had a few aunts and uncles there, along with her parents and brother. I felt like an idiot. Riding a bike isn’t necessarily risky, but it’s my decision to ride a bike in these places, and getting hit by a car is always a possibility. But Armine never made the decision to ride a bike; I was just giving her a ride. So it’s not fair that she got hurt too. Sure it wasn’t my fault, Bad Guy didn’t have his lights on and he was drunk. But I can’t help but feel responsible for Armine. Her family has been really nice about it, but I feel horrible that she’s hurt.

They’ve offered to let me stay at their house, since I can’t walk. They’re taking very good care of me. I asked Armine if I could have some orange juice. She texted her mom, who was out running errands and asked her to bring some home. Then her mom, her dad and her brother all came home with different brands of orange juice, in case I didn’t like one of the brands.

Armine’s brother, who is 21, wasn’t ok with the fact that Bad Guy just said he would pay. I didn’t really believe him either. So Varazdat got on the phone and got a hold of Bad Guy’s uncle, then his commander in the military and Bad Guy himself. He yelled at every single one of them. “If there is anything wrong with my sister…” “If you try not paying….” “If you don’t get that bike fixed….” And on and on.

It was cool.

My brother is able to change his ticket, with a fee. He’s not going to come out in 3 days….I won’t be there. But he’s going to try and come out and ride with me in December or January. It’s going to cost a little bit of money, but it will work out.

Bad Guy got hit with a $750 fine and his car taken away. I don’t know if anything else will happen to him or not. He’s really scared that I’m an American. Armine’s brother told him I have connections at the embassy.

I cut my cast off halfway through the night. It was hurting and I didn’t want it on anymore.

(Taken from a post on Charlie's blog. October 19, 2009)

Monday morning we went to another doctor, for a second opinion for me and for a first opinion for Armine. They did an ultra-sound on Armine. I’m not sure what they ultra-sounded, I wasn’t allowed in the room. Then they did an ultra-sound on my ankle, and told me there was a lot of blood around my ankle. The technician lady gave me a prescription for some kind of gel that I would put on my ankle which would help the swelling go down. My whole foot was really swollen at this point. We’d spent the whole previous day at the police station and in a bus, so I never got a chance to lie down.

We went into another room and they did a bunch of tests on Armine, she was having bad headaches, so they were checking her balance and how well she could focus her eyes, etc.

Armine’s mom paid for all this and kept the receipt to give to Bad Guy. And then we hopped to the radiology building. They told me it was about 100 meters, which is about a football field. I still have no crutches….still. The doctor we visited first didn’t have any and didn’t know where we could get some. I’d been hopping on one leg for some time now. I had Armine’s grandmother’s cane with me, but it just isn’t as helpful as crutches. I didn’t want to get a taxi for 100 m, so I hopped. I hopped for a long time before we realized the building was further than we thought. So we ended up getting a taxi anyway. My right leg was killing me from all the hopping, and everyone we passed stopped and stared.

We got to the x-ray building and the machine was on the second floor, no elevator. We both got x-rayed and had to wait an hour for them to develop. Armine’s mom walked around the whole time looking, unsuccessfully, for some friggin' crutches. While we were at the x-ray place Bad Guy showed up with his cousin (a girl), and two buddies. Varazdat, Armine’s brother, knew Bad Guy was bringing friends, so he came with two of his buddies. Armine hoped a fight wouldn’t break out. I did. This time I had a cane and Bad Guy wasn’t driving car, so I would have the upper hand.

The x-rays were finally given to us but the doctor to look at the x-rays was in a different building. So I hopped another 100 meters to a different building, with 10 people in tow, down 3 flights of stairs to the basement. I hopped into a doctor’s office and he looked at my x-ray. He said it wasn’t broken but then started to prepare a cast. I wasn’t cool with this. I had Armine ask a bunch of questions, but the doctor just shrugged them off. It was odd that the doctor wasn’t consulting; he was making his own decisions and just doing it.

But now with the cast, I can’t put spread on the prescription gel to help with the swelling. The gel the first doctor told me to get. There isn’t any communication between these doctor’s. So one will tell you one thing and another will tell you another and I guess I just have to pick which one I’ll listen to

The other doctor then looked at Armine’s x-ray, which showed that one of the discs in her spine didn’t look right. He told her to get an MRI. I sat outside the doctors office with Varazdat and his buddies and Bad Guy and his buddies while Armine went and got an MRI. The results wouldn’t come back for another day.

Bad Guy paid for the x-ray’s and was given receipts for everything else.

All Armine and I do all day is lay around. I keep watching this Argentinean soap opera which is dubbed into Georgian. Every 15 minutes Armine brings me up to speed on what is going on: “This girl is crying because her husband’s previously lost at sea wife just came back and he is still in love with her. But the lost at sea wife was having an affair with some other guy before she disappeared and she loves them both. Then some other woman is hiding from the police in a basement because she was having an affair with her sisters husband, who then framed her sister by killing her husband. And then this guy got run over by a car by some woman because he was cheating on her, and now his legs have to be amputated….” It’s great.

And one night a TV show came on and it was the Georgian version of Friends. It took me about 2 seconds to say ‘wait a minute, what is this?’ The set is almost identical, though the coffee shop is called ‘coffee house’ not ‘central perk’. Georgian Ross is fat.

Ben has changed his ticket and will now ride through Turkey with me after Christmas.

My ankle feels like it’s doing better. I don’t ever put weight on it and it only hurts if I put weight on it, so I’m not feeling any pain. I’m very anxious for some type of conclusion to Armine’s MRI. I wish she didn’t have to deal with this.

All things considered, we’re both terribly lucky. I’m lucky that I have such nice people willing to look after me and that I’m not stuck in some hotel in the middle of nowhere by myself. And we’re both lucky that we more or less walked away from it. When we were in one of the hospital’s the other day they wheeled some guy in who had two huge black eyes, cuts all over his face and wasn’t breathing on his own. That could easily be both Armine and myself in Akhaltsikhe, Georgia.

I’m going to go watch more soap opera’s.

(Taken from a post on Charlie's blog. November 1, 2009.)

I'm not sure why I didn't write about this earlier. Maybe because it isn't my story. Maybe because there was, at the time, a lot of uncertainty. But I'm feeling a lot better about all of it now.

Armine.

She's not doing so good. Ok she can walk and talk and she seems fine, but she's not doing so good. When the drunk driver hit us and she flew onto his hood and then onto the ground, she hurt her neck. The next day she kept complaining about neck soreness, and I, being the patient understanding person that I am, kept telling her it was just some type of whiplash and to quit whining.

The x-ray's of her neck looked funky, so she got an MRI. Armine has a tumor the size of a ping pong ball in her neck at the 2nd vertebrae right up against her spine. The doctor's think it has been there for a few years, growing slowly. The type of tumor, the shape, etc. make the doctors think that it is most likely benign. But it needs to come out. But it's right up against her spine, which means it doesn't just 'come out'. It's not an emergency, it's been there for awhile, but getting hit by the car moved things around enough that it's hitting the nerves running through her spine and isn't very comfy.

I'm not really satisfied with the medical help I've been given in Georgia, and I have a sprained ankle. When Armine gave birth 6 years ago she nearly died because the doctor left part of the placenta inside her. Having this operation done in Georgia isn't even an option, it would be a paralysis or a death wish. Going outside is too much money. Her family gets by, but a flight and then spinal surgery? No way.

There's a Mormon Missionary couple here in Georgia. An older guy with his wife. This guy has a nephew in the US who just happens to be a world renowned neurosurgeon. He travels the world giving lectures and instructing other surgeons on how to perform certain operations. This missionary sent a picture of the MRI's to his nephew who confirmed everything the doctors in Georgia are saying. He added that this operation shouldn't be done in Georgia. (Of course.) The US, Japan, and Germany are about the only places on the planet that could pull it off. Then he said "I could probably get a group of surgeons here to do it gratis. And I could probably get a foundation to cover the hospital bills."

Everything started feeling better when we heard that there was a possibility to have the surgery done in a safe place. The missionary in Georgia then offered up some frequent flier miles to get her to San Antonio and back. All she needed was a visa.

The United States' policy is to assume that every foreigner (excluding the EU and a handful of other places) entering the US is doing so to immigrate. So it is the responsibility of the applicant to prove otherwise. Armine is a 23 year old single mother and works as a nanny. She makes enough for what she needs, but it isn't like she has huge financial incentives to come back to Georgia. Getting this visa was very stressful. Her and I spent a week filling out forms, calling friends/employers, etc. asking for letters of reference and putting everything together. She was a nervous wreck. We had absolutely no Plan B if she were to be denied this visa. Go to Russia maybe and look for a doctor there? But the cost would have been too high. It was very literally this or nothing.

I wasn't allowed to go in to the interview with her. It was first thing on a Monday morning. About 1 minute into the interview the US interviewer started reorganizing all the papers saying "I don't see any clear evidence that you'll come back. . ." Armine was scared out of her mind, pulled out the MRI results and showed her the seriousness of her situation. She then pulled out a letter from her boss, who is the vice consul to the British Embassy. And that did it. That letter changed everything. The interviewer left the room to make a phone call. She came back a couple of minutes later and was much warmer and processed the visa.

Armine gets to America on Nov. 7th.

This whole situation was strange. I mean, she would have found this tumor eventually, it's growing in her neck. But she found it at a time when there was a connection to a skilled surgeon in the States who just happened to throw everything together, for free. It's incredible to me how this all worked out.

I'm a religious person. And while I don't like to get all religousy on my blog, I see God's hand in this. It's all been a very moving experience to see the generosity of these men and to see how everything was put into place for her.

Armine is still nervous, the surgery is dangerous, but it will be done by someone who knows what he is doing and she will be very well taken care of. And, she gets to spend her recovery time in Florida with her cousin, who is married to an American and has lived in the states for a few years. Everything is working out.

So I got hit by a drunk driver. My leg will be fine. I'll easily replace the broken parts on my bike. And Armine is getting the tumor taken out of her neck. Crazy.

Good luck, Armine.

5 comments:

FoxyJ said...

That is an amazing story! I hurt my knee while on my mission, and even though Spain is supposedly a first-world country (that can be a bit debatable) I didn't get very good care for it. It still bothers me 10 years later. I hope everything works out well for her.

Spencer said...

Thanks Brian. Excellent way to wrap up a day at work. And you're right- it sure beats the hell out of reading about churros. Good luck to Armine.

The Blog's Bollocks said...

dang.

Scoosba said...

That's incredible. That is an epic adventure.

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