Helmets in Vietnam were cheap plastic affairs that had more in common with baseball caps than something charged with protecting your skull. They were often colourful and came in a variety of designs - at one hostel we were provided with a helmet that resembled a colonial pith helmet. Nate and I had decided to forego fashion in the interests of continued brain function and had bought high quality HJC motorcycle helmets - a well known Korean brand. Mostly black, with red and white stripes, it was twice as big and at least ten times as shiny as any helmet on the roads of Vietnam; when I put it on I looked like I had a bowling ball for a head. I looked even more ridiculous when standing next to the tiny motorcycles we rented.
The airport security guard in Malaysia had raised his eyebrows when he saw my motorcycle helmet. The airline steward on the flight to Jakarta looked at it, then at me, and said, “You ride super bike?”
I am not a cool person. Sans motorcycle (and sans motorcycle helmet on head), at the waiting lounge in Kuala Lumpur airport, I basked in its reflected glory. I took to leaning against walls, helmet casually slung over my wrist to accentuate my new coolness. I’d place it conspicuously on tables in coffee shops. I often slept with my helmet next to me. Superbike was not just the physical embodiment of higher horsepower. It was a state of mind. Of course I can’t blame the helmet for my fourth - and final - crash. It probably saved my life.
I smashed into another motorcycle on the trans-Flores highway which ran through East Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia. Serving right to avoid a pothole, I was in the path of another motorcyclist turning on to the highway from a side street in the village the highway ran through. I swerved left to avoid him, back into my lane. He swerved into my lane to avoid me. I went back to the right and so did he. It was a higher stakes version of two people walking toward each other in a hallway.
For the last ten feet or so before the impact, there was a curious emptiness in my brain. No chatter, no swear words, not even a reflexive jerk of the handlebars. My brain, when it comes to fight-or-flight, chooses neither, apparently.
I remember the weightlessness as I flew over the handlebars. I remember throwing out my arm to break my fall. I remember my shoulder hitting the road. I remember the crash of the visor as my helmet hit concrete. I don’t remember what it sounded like when we crashed.
I got up and staggered over to the driver of the other motorcycle. He was clutching his stomach but he didn’t seem badly hurt. “I swerved over there” I said, “Over there, with the pothole.” Not that he understood me. He just grimaced and said something to someone in the crowd that had gathered around us.
It was a swirl of villagers, all trying to ask me something. “I can’t, I don’t know” I mumbled. There was an old lady who grabbed my hands. I let her lead me to another motorcycle. She made me sit pillion, taking my hands and wrapping them around the driver. I trusted her for some reason. She seemed to know what to do. Perhaps a lot of foreigners crashed in this village.
They took me to a clinic run by Catholic nuns in the village somewhere. My backpack containing my laptop and my passport and all my money was tied up to the back of my mangled bike. The villager who had dropped me off pointed for me to go in.
I gestured to my head. “But where’s my helmet?”