My New Zealand Face Plant

Just a couple stitches, bandages and a black eye…no big deal. Still smiling!

My body’s been bruised and battered from years of rugged traveling. Exposure to the elements, hundreds of insect bites and my allergic reactions to them, some strange and interesting sleeping conditions, the occasional bout of food poisoning…

…and then there are the accidents. Like my Saigon Kiss. And my New Zealand Face Plant. You know, that time I literally fell ON my face. Yeah.

I was:

  • In Taupo, New Zealand, on the north island
  • 30 years old
  • 37 days into my two-year adventure around the world; and
  • Really really REALLY embarrassed.

I wish I could tell you that the story of my epic travel injury was a more exciting one. Like, a bungee jump gone awry, or a vicious kiwi bird attack.

But no.

I just fell.
Whilst running.
To catch a bus.

That’s it. That’s the story.

I’d gone to the town of Taupo to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It was my first-ever solo day hike and it would turn out to be one of my favorite New Zealand experiences: 19.4 kilometers (12 miles) of active volcanic terrain and the most beautiful crater lakes I have ever seen.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing and the Emerald Lakes, December 2009

It would’ve made for a fantastically greater story had my injury occurred there.

But it didn’t. My injury occurred two days later as I was trying frantically to get the heck out of town.

Again, I just fell.
Whilst running.
To catch a bus.

Despite planning to strictly do only the Tongariro while I was in town – a six- to eight-hour hike – I somehow ended up in Taupo for three days. So when I booked that bus ticket, I was determined to GO.

I packed up my enormous 40-pound backpack (an amateur I was, to be carrying so much weight!) and walked as fast as I could from the hostel to the bus station 1.2 kilometers away (0.75 miles).

Three quarters of a mile is nothing, generally speaking. I did just cross the Tongariro Alpine two days earlier. But walking ANY distance with my dreaded backpack had quickly become the bane of my existence in the month I’d been traveling. It was a huff and a puff of a journey for this inexperienced traveler, even to go just a few feet.

So you can imagine how I felt when, halfway to the bus station, I realized I’d left my passport back at the hostel.


I turned around. And despite the 40 pounds on my back, I started to run. All that was going through my mind was 1) shit shit shit shit shit shit shit, and 2) there is NO. WAY! I’m missing this bus. I refused to stay another night in Taupo.

So I ran.

No, I sprinted. And I’m a pretty fast little Asian. I sprinted – FAST – carrying 40 pounds on my back.

And I crashed.

It all happened really quickly, so quickly it seemed like a chaotic haze; yet it also seemed to happen in slow motion, because I can remember the subtlest of details. Basically, I was sprinting in a hunched over, 45-degree position, with the weight of my backpack bearing down on me. I somehow lost my footing.

And I fell.
Onto the pavement.

Both my hands were wrapped around the front shoulder straps and neither came out fast enough to break the fall. So, most of my body weight, plus the 40 pounds on my back, came crashing down on my FACE. I had turned my face to the left, while the fall crushed my sunglasses and sent a searing pain just above my right temple.

Getting up on my fours, I released the backpack over to my side and stood up. Immediately, I felt blood gushing from my forehead. There was a shocking amount of blood, given how small I later found the wounds to be. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much blood in my life!

There were two gashes to my forehead. It didn’t occur to me to take photos of them at the time, but here they were after five days of stitches and bandages.

The thin dark line was the smaller gash, which was brilliantly sewn up with two stitches (they did an amazing job; today, I can barely see the scar at all).

The larger gash was actually a chunk of flesh, which, without proper bandaging, would’ve just hung loosely off my face. It was really gnarly.

And yep. That’s a black eye.

So, back to the fall…

I fell, I got up. And still, the only thing on my mind was getting my passport, boarding that bus and getting the heck out of Taupo. I rushed to the nearest building, a building I recall was bungalow-like with a front porch and a glass door. It appeared to be a small business, perhaps a graphic design shop.

I knocked. A woman who looked to be about 40, brown hair, came to the door and…she kind of freaked out. This bloody little Asian girl was standing at the door and asking for her help. So, apparently the right thing to do was ask bloody little Asian girl to please get off the porch so she wouldn’t bleed on it.

Seriously, lady? Ok. (Don’t let that taint your view of New Zealand. The Kiwis are actually lovely people. Just not this Kiwi. Nor anybody in the town of Oamaru, for the record – seriously, don’t ever go there.) I backtracked down the two steps, off of the porch and back onto the sidewalk, pressing the sleeve of my right arm to my forehead to contain the bleeding.

My memory of what happened next is a bit spotty:

  1. Some other people in the office rushed to bring me paper towels since the lady who opened the door was useless.
  2. One of them phoned my hostel down the street to explain they had a bleeding backpacker who was insisting she needed to get her passport from the hostel ASAP.
  3. Two girls from the hostel came and got me in a pick-up truck and drove me back to the hostel.
  4. We went to the restroom where the girls helped clean the blood and dirt off my face.
  5. One of the gashes, the larger one, was the fleshy bloody blob hanging from my forehead. We just plopped it back on and I would hold it in place until I reached a hospital.

That hospital would not be the one located in Taupo, however. Despite everyone’s insistence that I go to the hospital, I was absolutely defiant that I would leave Taupo that day and on my scheduled bus, which was departing any minute now.

Of course, this was ridiculous, but I absolutely insisted. I really wanted to leave Taupo. They did as I wished, and drove me to the bus station where I boarded my scheduled bus at 2:10 p.m. My next destination was Rotorua, just an hour away.

Once I arrived in Rotorua, I went straight to the hospital.

But not before my bus broke down. Yep! In the middle of my medical crisis, my bus broke down. Murphy’s Law, right? Fortunately, a replacement bus arrived quickly and transferred over all the passengers and luggage to continue our route to Rotorua.

Although the entire journey was only about 90 minutes, it was a struggle. I was in an aisle seat, with my right elbow on the arm rest, my body slouched to my right, with my right hand holding my flailing forehead flesh in its place. My sleeve was starting to get crusty as my blood dried on it. And I felt so helpless and alone.

Fortunately, a nearby passenger and kind soul by the name of John Fitzgerald took notice of my suffering. Without saying a word, he folded up a sweater he was carrying and propped it on my armrest, to give my elbow some comfort.

I looked up at this man, tears pooling in my eyes, and gave him a shy but heartfelt, “Thank you.” John would not only bring me comfort during what felt like the bus ride from hell, but when we arrived in Rotorua:

  • He helped me off the bus and carried my beast of a backpack.
  • He accompanied me to the hospital.
  • And he stayed at the hospital with me until I was discharged.

This complete stranger! John My Angel, he’s since been dubbed. Never in my life have I experienced such kindness from a stranger. As I later continued on to different parts of the world, I did have the good fortune to meet countless gracious and selfless people. But John My Angel will always be my #1.

At the Rotorua Hospital, a young nurse put two stitches in my forehead for the smaller gash. And for the fleshy icky gash, she placed thin, sturdy cloth strips to hold the wound in place. The black eye formed about two days later.

Five days after that, I went to a clinic in Auckland to have the stitches removed. Yay!

In the grand scheme of travel injuries, this was pretty minor. Although, it wasn’t without some ramifications.

It’s been six years since the incident. The small gash is practically invisible now. The larger gash scarred into a small, raised bump that resembles a mosquito bite. It’s not very attractive.

But it’s a nice little reminder that 1) I should never run while wearing a backpack, 2) I made some pretty neat memories in New Zealand, and 3) I met an angel named John Fitzgerald.

Oh…and guess what my hospital bill came out to be? ZERO DOLLARS.

Imagine that.

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