Every so often, I come across a human story that rivets me. Here’s one.
Nayla Tawa, a lanky brunette with large blue eyes, was an extreme snowboarder.
She flew to Kyrgyzstan to go boarding in uncharted mountains, and to make a film about villagers who were trying to create a winter sports center to bring much-needed income to their town. On the first day , however, she had a car accident that broke her back in three places and stopped the film in its tracks. Ultimately, it set the stage for a different film.
Nayla was 28, studying geography and film at UCLA, when she heard about Kyrgyzstan. (Not Kazakhstan of Borat fame.) Kyrgyzstan is a tiny country composed almost entirely of mountains, 24,000 feet high. It’s called “the Switzerland of Central Asia.” A friend, Brandon Sheaffer, was in the Peace Corps there and told her the back-country boarding was “amazing. You’ve got to get over here.”
She decided to go for spring break; when she told the Russian instructor who was teaching documentary film, the woman said, “You must make a film there.”
“I’ve never even operated a camera,” Nayla said. But the instructor said the “best way to learn is to do it.”
Nayla didn’t want to make a film about a Westerner going to a foreign land and conquering the mountain, so she asked Brandon if he knew any locals whose story she could tell. Brandon connected her by email with Hayat Tarikov, an expert in community-based tourism where revenue stays in the community.
Hayat’s dream was to create a winter economy for a village with the exotic name of Arslanbob, but the local people needed equipment and training. They had wooden skis with hand-made bindings, and would walk or ride horses up the mountain to ski down. Hayat hoped to teach the children, “because they have no fear,” to become guides and instructors.
Since Nayla had never made a film before, she did a Kickstarter campaign, and convinced snowboard makers to donate equipment. With two male friends, she flew to Kyrgyzstan, planning to spend a week touring the back country with Hayat, using a split-snowboard, which is cut in two vertical pieces so you can put skins on the bottom and trek uphill. “You get places you can’t reach on a chairlift, and you’re not destroying nature,” Nayla says.
From the start, however, the trip seemed ill-fated. “Our bags got lost, flights were canceled, and Kyrgyzstan was having an unusual cold spell, with high risk of avalanches,” she says. But Nayla and her friends muscled through every obstacle; they were exhilarated. When they finally retrieved their lost bags at the Kyrgyzstan airport, it was 3 a.m. They hired a taxi for the six-hour drive to Karakol, where they’d arranged to meet Hayat.
They were speeding along the empty road when the taxi hit a long patch of ice and flew off the road at 60 miles an hour, crashing into a stand of trees.
Silence. Darkness. Nayla blacked out, and when she opened her eyes, she was in shock. What happened? It was below zero, pitch black, in the middle of nowhere. She called to her friends, but neither they nor the taxi driver responded.
Nayla did not realize it, but her back had been broken in three places, her sternum was cracked down the middle, and she’d torn all the ligaments in her knee. One friend had broken his back and all his ribs, and the other had broken his shoulder and suffered a severe concussion. The driver was unconscious.
“I was the only one who’d had no head injury,” Nayla says, “so I could think. I knew I needed to get my friends and the driver out of the car.” But how? She couldn’t lift or drag them out. With her back and sternum broken, she somehow rolled out of the car, crawled up a snow bank to the road, and with a desperate surge of effort, waved down a truck.
“How could you do that?” I asked.
She shook her head. “With adrenaline spiking, you don’t feel pain.”
The locals drove them to the nearest hospital, but it was dirty and not equipped to handle trauma. Nayla realized she had her phone with her and called Brandon, who was able to make his way there and move them to a local family’s home. They were joined by another friend, Kevin Smith, who’d been a paramedic in California. “His skills were higher than the local doctor’s,” Nayla says. She called her father in Colorado, who’s a doctor, and he told Kevin she had to be immobilized.
“There are no backboards here,” Kevin said. A strapping, 6’5” athlete, he thought a moment. “But I’ve got a snowboard.” He used duct tape to attach Nayla to the board, which is all she remembers. Her body was shutting down.
All this time, they had no pain meds. “I travel with a good first aid kit,” Nayla says, “but it got left at the car accident.” The local hospital only had injectable pain meds, which the Americans refused, for fear of infection from the needles.
All three and the taxi driver survived their injuries. What followed, for Nayla, were four years of repeated surgeries and agonizing physical therapy. She cried a great deal at first, wondering, Why did this happen? It seemed a classic case of “no good deed goes unpunished.” Gradually, she came to understand: “I have to go through recovery, and I can do it pissed off at the world or not. Either way, I have to do it.”
Once she was physically healed, she says, “I got hit with PTSD. I had nightmares, and couldn’t control my mind anymore. I thought I was going mad.” She saw a therapist, who told her, “Your body knows it’s recovered physically. So now you have to heal your mind.”
When she told me her story recently, in a café in Boulder, she said, “I’m still not there, 100%. I still have anxiety, and I don’t feel like the same person.”
But at this writing, she’s back in Kyrgyzstan, making a different film—about the crash, her recovery, and her return to support and film the winter sports project. This time her father is there as the team doctor, and they’ve brought 32 bags of donated ski and snowboard gear and clothes.
At the café, I had asked why she wanted to go back to the scene of her trauma.
Nayla gave a shy smile. “It will bring closure for me. I’ll finally get to meet Hayat—we’ve stayed in touch all this time—and help him fulfill his dream.”
She’s teaching ski classes, and was thrilled when two young girls showed up. “It’s a conservative Muslim town, and we rarely see women outside the home,” she says. “They’re not even welcome in the mosques for prayers.”
Many villagers told her they’ve been praying for her for four years, and that she’s a role model for their children.
“I didn’t want to be a character in this film, I really didn’t,” she told me. “But life doesn’t always happen as you plan.”
For more information and to support the Kyrgyzstan mission, visit http://www.returntokyrgyzstan.com
To watch a video of Nayla, click here.