The Story of Javier
7.8.10 - 7.8.10 82 °F
As we crawled along in first and second gear, I began to wonder if our bus would make it up the next hill, or around the next turn. I read a book a few years back called Learning to Breathe, written by Alison Wright, recalling her near-death experience after being a victim of a bus accident in Laos. Remembering this story, I sat awake and attentive the entire drive, biting my nails with each turn. Little did I know that the bus would be the least of our worries in Laos…
The first two days of tubing exhausted both Galen and I, but we were able to rally ourselves for one last hoorah before taking off for Nepal. Galen enjoyed the swings while I took my turns going down the slide, and as we approached our favorite bar, “The Slingshot Bar,” we found ourselves ahead of most of the other tourists. The bartender we had befriended later confirmed, telling us that we were the first customers of the day. Because we had taken a liking to the family and their dogs, we hung out for a bit – playing with the puppy and shooting darts and slingshots. Eventually more people began to pop in as the sun began descending. We made more new friends, shared stories and laughs, and before we knew it, the sky was black. We had returned at dark the previous two nights, so we weren’t too concerned, and figured that we could always hop out and take a tuk-tuk back to town if need be. Eventually though, the air began to turn cold, so we said our goodbyes and peeled ourselves away from the puppy, the family, and the party.
Soon after we got in the water, a young man (who we later learned was named Javier), and a young woman, Flor, from Argentina floated up to us. Flor had a tube, and Galen and her were quick to start a conversation. Javier appeared quite inebriated, and didn’t have a tube, so I told him to hang onto mine while I used one arm to hold onto him, and the other to paddle. Galen and Flor must’ve caught a quicker current, and within minutes were about 100 yards ahead of Javier and me. As we floated along, Javier rambled on, attempting to make conversation, but was one drink too deep to do so. We never exchanged names. The only thing I remember him telling me was, “You should be a lifeguard.”
And then, ten to fifteen minutes into our float, without any warning, Javier let go. I yelled to him, telling him to swim back, and heard nothing in return. Within a minute, the yelling turned to shrieking, as I pleaded with him to say something if he was alive. Still, no response. I swam upstream and towards the shore as hard as I could, but the current was too strong.
As soon as I came to the conclusion that there was nothing I could do about Javier, I realized that I was alone on the river, with no sight of Galen and Flor. I started calling to Galen, whose responses came few and far between. I later learned he couldn’t hear me, and that Flor had thought that my sobs were actually laughter. I sobbed, paddling as hard as I could, trying to catch up. I was thrown a rope by a family, who said they would give me a tuk-tuk ride into town, but that I was the only westerner there. I debated the offer, before concluding that Galen, wherever he was, would wait for me when he got out of the river. I politely declined, and headed back down the river, sobbing.
When I finally caught up to Galen, he had to pull me out of the river. I was hysterical – the phrase “buckets of tears” might not be enough to describe how much I was crying. I couldn’t speak more than a word or two between gasps and sobs. Eventually though, Galen and Flor were able to get past my hysteria, and piece together the puzzle of what had happened.
As we were walking back through town, I continued to replay what had happened in my mind, provoking more sobs. I imagined myself, not even knowing his name, but being the last person to see him alive. What would I tell his parents? What would they tell their friends? What would his friends think of me? Would they be angry, wondering if I really did all that I could? Would people resent that I was the last person to see him alive? Did he have any brothers or sisters? What, if anything, was he studying in school? All of these questions, and more, kept flashing through my mind, creating a whirlwind of emotions.
One thing that flashed through my mind was that Galen and I would have to cut our trip short if Javier didn’t make it. I later learned he had the same thought… that we would be on a bus to Vientiane the next morning, and on a flight back to the States that same night. My emotions were especially mixed about this, because I have to come to Nepal for a long time now, and I was excited about the volunteering we signed up for. However, I wasn’t sure if I could get past the heartbreak of losing Javier. I have had friends and dogs die, but nothing could compare to the way I felt, alone on the river, yelling to Javier to no avail.
We met up with two other friends of Flor’s, to whom Galen and Flor quickly retold the story. They jumped into action, going to the police (who told them, in no uncertain terms, “No one is in the river”) while Galen and I got me into some dry clothes, and hung out at their hotel, hoping that Javier would wander back.
I knew that if Javier had opted to swim back, there was no way he would’ve made it, given his drunken state. His only chance was to get out of the river, and walk or catch a ride back. Given the rural, jungle environment surrounding the river, I didn’t think his chances of that were too good, either. His friends tried to comfort me, telling me, “It will be okay. I know Javier. He will find a way.” However, then they would turn around, whispering to each other, as if they too, thought that Javier would not make it.
Time seemed to crawl by as we waited, and waited outside of the hotel. I had eventually stopped crying (hysterically, at least) and was able to tell Flor’s friends, in detail, what exactly had happened on the river, where it happened, and when it had happened. It was a very surreal experience, and I have yet to put a finger on my exact emotions. Likely because I was experiencing a whirlwind of them… worry that he might not make it, wonder of why he let go and if we’d ever know what had happened, anger that he let go and that I couldn’t do anything, sadness that he probably didn’t make it. As time went on, I think we all began to lose hope. Galen imagined us on a plane home the next day, Flor and her friends imagined themselves at a funeral, and I imagined myself telling Javier’s parents that I was sorry, and that I did everything I could.
Our worries were put to rest when, as we sat together outside of their hotel, me crying on Galen’s shoulder, Flor rounded the corner with Javier, exclaiming, “We found him! He’s alive! He’s here!” A whole new wave of tears hit me, these out of pure, utter happiness as I embraced Javier, and learned his name for the first time.