Jimbo Abroad.
Your Subtitle text
journal


1-3-10
I leave for Taipei in just 19 days. 

And the reality of the situation is starting to sink in. 

Travel plans have been finalized for the first leg of the trip.  I'll leave Taipei the first weekend in February and head to Cambodia with a friend, Tyler, who has been living in Taipei for the past two-and-a-half years.

We'll be in Cambodia for about a week before flying to Bangkok, where we'll change planes and shoot south to Phuket to meet two more friends from home.  Plans are vague at this point, but we'll probably head further south to Ko Phi Phi.  We may even camp on the beach at Maya Bay. 

Spontaneity is a beautiful thing.  Sometimes. 


1-6-10
Vaccinations!  Why hadn't I thought of it sooner? 

Typhoid?  Malaria? 

Really? 

Those are pretty serious.  I can't imagine dealing with them in some rural village or on some remote island.  God, even a bad case of food poisoning could be deadly.  There must be doctors that will give me drugs for this kind of thing.  I'm going to need drugs.  Lots of drugs.

Alright -- just relax.  These are only precautions, right?

But I leave in sixteen days!  Sixteen!  And my health coverage runs out in six! 

I'm fucked. 

And these travel advisory websites really aren't helping my anxiety.

Malaria pills?  My God.  Do I really need to take them on a daily basis in Cambodia?  Is that truly necessary?  What if I forget one day?  Will I just become rife with Malaria?  Is Malaria just hanging around, waiting for some poor tourist to forget their daily dose?  I can be pretty absent-minded. 

These must be cover-your-ass recommendations.

Yellow Fever Vaccination: "Only required if arriving from Africa or a yellow-fever-infected area of the Americas."

Of the Americas?  There's yellow fever in the Americas?  I don't even know what yellow fever does, much less where to acquire it.  I didn't even know it was an actual thing!  I thought it was just a term used to describe an overwhelming affinity for Asian women.  "Oh man, ever since his first Chinese girlfriend, he's had yellow fever bad." 

And how am I supposed to know what constitutes a "yellow-fever-infected area?"  Christ, I hope they mean Mexico.  Or Canada.  They must mean South America.  They've got all types of fevers down there.


1-8-10
Last night I had the same dream I had three nights ago.

I was riding in the car with my mom.  She was driving and the sun cut through the windshield and reflected off her sunglasses.  She looked young.  And I felt young.  From my position in the passenger seat, it seemed like my vantage point was lower than usual; like I was shorter.  Smaller.

She was explaining to me why I couldn't go to Taipei.  She was describing the tragic and unforeseen event that was going to prevent me from leaving -- an event I couldn't recall upon waking.

She said, "Jim, it just wasn't meant to be."

And the words echoed in my head.  They reverberated and repeated with such an awful fatalistic tone.  It was maddening.  It was conspiratorial.  She said the words again and I told her to shut up.  I screamed at her to shut the fuck up.

"Never say those words again!  Never say those fucking words to me ever again!"

I started punching the dashboard.  I pounded it with my fists, which seemed so small, so insignificant. I felt weak.  Helpless.  It took so much energy just to lift my hands.

"It wasn't meant to be."

I started hitting the windshield and the glass splintered and cracked beneath my fists.  Tiny shards burrowed into my skin.  Small droplets of blood splattered my face and the interior of the car as I raised my hands and slammed them again and again.

Then I woke up.

Really, it was about the disappointment, I think.  It was about the helpless feeling of life fucking me.  It was about knowing the last few months were a waste of time that led to nothing.  It was about the disgusting and fleeting notion that maybe she was right -- maybe I'm not meant to live my dream.  Maybe no degree of persistence or daring will ever be enough to secure the life I want.

All this rushed at me in the span of a few seconds.  All this left me sweating when I woke up.


1-18-10
There have been a few goodbyes said already.  And some of them have been said amidst impressive inebriation.  So, some of my friends' best wishes, warm regards and final words are kind of hazy... at best.  But there are a few that stick with me -- largely because they were written down and I was able to revisit them when I woke in the afternoon, after my going-away party, with a blistering hangover and a sense of poignant nostalgia.

"Dearest Jim -- Have a safe and productive journey.  But most importantly, ENJOY!"

"Dear Jim -- Safe travels and best wishes.  I'll miss you terribly.  Try not to catch gonorrhea from a Taiwanese whore."

"I love you bestie!"

"I'll always remember that time I woke up to your hairy ass in my face.  You son of a bitch..."

"I will miss you but know that we will cross paths again soon (I hope!).  Have an amazing trip and enjoy every moment.  P.S. Try not to scare the tiny Asians with your freakishly large feet!"

"Nice knowing you.  Good luck beating those rape charges!"

"Watch out for the lady-boys!  Just cuz they look female doesn't make it okay."

"Et quacunque viam dederit fortuna sequamur."

The last one is Latin (yes, I do have a few friends willing to shy away from the obvious prostitution and disease jokes).  It means: "And whichsoever way thou goest, may fortune follow."

And no, I don't actually have any pending rape charges.


1-22-10
There's beautiful life in the places people don't want to look.  There's a lust for living in the corners where life is exactly that: living.  I need to get away from these overpriced drinks and over-stylized cityscapes.  I need necessity to punch me in the face and show me what experience should be.  Still, I want to sleep through the next twenty hours.  I want to wake up someplace so far from the Long Island Expressway and the congestion and the $200,000 shit-hole foreclosures that lull people into thinking they can live on this island.

But are they really living, or just existing?  Is there a difference?

Reverberations from departing planes shake this boarding gate like a violent nanny.  And already I feel some sense of distance.  But I also feel like the other travelers at this gate expect me to get off in Anchorage.  They expect me to remain in this country with everything I've worked for and everyone I care about.  So, I want to stand up and shout, "I'll stay with you!  I'll follow you to whatever forms of life you expect to lead!  We are the same!  We are all destined for motion!"

I've said my goodbyes.  I've sent farewells to Boston and Indianapolis; I've bid adieu to friends that will meet me on the other side of the world; I've shared love with best friends in Raleigh and Brooklyn; I've crossed paths with the future and lost my expectations in its eyes.  Now, I'm ready to escape reality like the existential outlaw I see myself as.  I'm ready to live outside the world, even if everyone else is conspiring to keep me in it.

Let me go and you'll see what I'm capable of.

I'm almost there.  I can feel the furthest distance I've ever known pulling me like a huge magnet.

There's no place like unhome.  And I need to get there.

 
1-25-10
"You awake yet?"

"No."

"Oh... how about now?"

"No."

It's loud outside my bedroom.  The suburban silence I've grown accustomed to is gone.  The rising cacophony is mostly small cars and scooters, but there are low grumblings of indiscernible languages seeping through the traffic.  I'd love to say that after a day in the city and a night at the club I've picked up some choice communicative gems, but that isn't the case.  Tyler tries to correct me every time I say "thank you" in Mandarin, but it's clear I'm still butchering it.

"It sounds like you're saying shoe-shoe."

The hangover is uncomfortable and my shirt still reeks like the bar.  It's legal to smoke in clubs here and the smell of cigarettes clings to my hair and clothes.  Clearly, I didn't have the presence of mind to change into a clean shirt before passing out.  The entry stamp from the club, Lava, decorates the backside of my hand like a faded tattoo.

"Well you made out with your first Taiwanese girl," Tyler says.  "Congratulations."

"I guess.  I mean I practically forced her lips open with my tongue.  I don't think she wanted my tongue."

"Whatever.  It still counts."

***

The club was crowded for a Sunday night, surely because Lava hosts an open bar for six-hundred Taiwanese dollars (a little less than twenty American dollars).  Needless to say, we got our money's worth.

Lava -- the only game in town on a Sunday night in Taipei.

The girl from the club was named Rita.  Sort of.  All the Taiwanese girls have American names they use with native-English speakers.  They assume that, for those who don't speak Chinese, their given names are too difficult to pronounce and remember.  They're probably right.

I speak no Chinese and Rita spoke no English.  We danced together silently.

We returned to our group from the dance floor and one of my new friends, an American-born-Chinese transplant, approached me quickly.

"You hook up with her?" he asked me.

"No.  I mean... was I supposed to?"

"Yeah."

"Oh.  The language barrier is tough. It makes it hard to... uh, you know, segue."

"Segue? You don't need a segue, man.  This is Taiwan."

"I'm just supposed to kiss her?"

"Yeah.  You should probably go do that now."

"Okay."

Before the club and after dinner, I sat with Tyler and his friends, drinking beers at a table outside of Starbucks.  Taipei 101 loomed in the distance and offered the only real reminder that we weren't in some American city with a large Asian population -- a fact that could be forgotten with the fluorescent row of Western chain restaurants lining our side of the street.  But Taipei 101 kept me grounded.  Everything beyond the 30th or 40th floor of the immense skyscraper was obscured by misty clouds, rendering the upper portion of the building completely invisible.  It reminded me of Jack's beanstalk -- a structure that climbed towards supposed nothingness, but disappeared into some unseen world.

I asked my new American and Canadian companions about what drew them to Taiwan.  The answers were varied, but seemed to have one element in common: a general fascination with the East.

I guess I expected escape to be as motivating a factor for them as it was for me.  This didn't seem to be the case.  These guys had pictured themselves over here at much earlier ages.  For them, it was planned.  Anticipated.  For them, it wasn't some form of controlled recklessness or practical escapism.  I had always pictured this area of the world filled with Westerners looking to flee.  Apparently, this was somewhat of a misconception.

***

"Tyler, your dog shit in my room."

Tyler just laughs.

"My room smells awful, but I can't really get mad at him.  He's too cute."

"Yeah, it's a real issue."

"Can you clean it up?"

"Nah."

"Come on, man, my head feels like it's going to explode.  It must be jetlag."

"Yeah, I'm sure it's jetlag."

There's a moment when I actually believe jetlag could be the cause of my pounding headache and volatile stomach, but the thought is fleeting.

I look out the window towards the gray clouds blanketing the city.  I haven't seen the sun since I arrived, but the weather's warmer than I expected.  And something about the city seems to lend itself to cloud cover. The mountains that are visible from my bedroom window seem appropriately complemented by the color scheme.  Much like London, Taipei's charm isn't hindered by the conditions.  But I look forward to seeing the sun bake these streets.  I look forward to visiting those very mountains in a matter of days.  I look forward to the southern coast and the preserved wilderness of this new country.  I look forward to the ruins of Cambodia and the beaches of Thailand and the sprawling markets of Vietnam.

For the first time in a long time, there's almost too much to look forward to.


1-29-10
I become a little less terrified every time I get on the back of a scooter.

The first time was almost heart-attack-inducing.  It's not so much the vulnerability or lack of control, but the way people drive in Taipei. The comparably rigid traffic laws of The States don't really seem to apply over here.  So, as Tyler and I zipped through Taipei towards my first night market, my heart was in my throat.

 At first, I thought my biggest issue would be the homoerotic connotations that go with essentially dry-humping another dude on a small scooter seat.  Predictably, saving face was my primary concern. Strangely, it had superseded the fact that this seat was going to be moving, rather quickly, through some of the more reckless city traffic I've had the pleasure of witnessing.

But, after a few rides, I've become significantly more comfortable with the whole thing.  It boils down to trust, I guess.  As a passenger on the back of a scooter, you have no control.  You're helpless.  You just have to trust that the person driving knows what the hell they're doing.

Today, we took the bus from Taipei to Keelung.  After about half a week in Taipei, I've grown a little disappointed with the sense of culture shock, or lack thereof.  It's a clean, safe, contemporary and fairly Westernized city.  Sure, I don't speak the language, but, language aside, it hasn't necessarily produced the overwhelming unfamiliarity I had expected.

Keelung, on the other hand, was a breath of culturally fresh air.  Surely, it comes much closer to meeting the preconception I had of an Asian city.  The streets are grimier and more claustrophobic.  Signs are printed in Chinese alone, with no evidence of English characters.  Narrow, labyrinthine alleyways lead to street vendors and small shops one could only picture finding by chance.  The smells and sounds are almost devoid of Western influence (save the inevitable McDonald's, 7-11 or Starbucks, but even those are fewer and further between) and it's difficult to find a single muttering of English in its crowded streets.

This is why I came to Asia.  To feel lost.  To feel confused.  To feel something different.

We met one of Tyler's friends in Keelung, who was kind enough to loan us his scooter for the afternoon.  Tyler's bike was still in Taipei (the trip from his apartment was too far to make by scooter), but he wanted to show me some of Taiwan's coastline and he felt a taxi would be a poor way of doing so.

So, after wandering the streets of Keelung looking for a store selling helmets (we only had one), we finally stumbled across an old Taiwanese man who owned a shop that sold mostly used appliances.  He had a single helmet sitting out front that he offered us, free of charge.

It was fortunate that I had, more or less, come to terms with my role as a scooter passenger at this point.  Although driving through the coastal mountains doesn't offer the same precarious congestion of city driving, it does propose new dangers: sharp and winding turns, larger vehicles, increased speeds, and the same reckless nature that seemed commonplace in the city.

Since arriving in Taiwan, I'd been solely exposed to city living.  The scooter trek between Keelung and Yeliou was my first expedition into the natural beauty the island has to offer.  And it was pretty spectacular. Green, mist-shrouded hills and mountains lined the westward sky of Highway 2 while the blue, pristine Pacific battered the low cliffs of the opposing side.  Small fishing villages and large resort hotels dotted the coastline, the latter looming vast and empty this time of year, like oversized, luxury ghost towns dwarfed in spectacle and size only by their naturally occurring complements.

The small scooter climbed the mountain highway while large trucks and speeding cars maneuvered quickly and dangerously around us.  As we sped through a cavernous tunnel, a large box truck passed us closely and irresponsibly, the back bumper of the vehicle nearly striking the front tire of our scooter.  I could have reached out and touched the speeding truck as the driver cut us off.

I gasped.  "Dude... holy shit!"

Tyler was reasonably unfazed.  "Seriously, what an asshole."

"It's not just me, right?  That guy was really close to hitting us."

"Yeah... total douche bag."

Before my first time climbing on a scooter with Tyler, he explained to me why his was in such poor condition: "Been in too many accidents," he said nonchalantly.

Apparently the same was true for his roommate.  And most of his other North-American-born companions.  Although I have yet to witness any kind of scooter accident, the popular consensus seems to be that they're fairly common.  This is something that always seems to be in the back of my mind.

But as we rode through the mountainous coastline with the salty ocean breeze whipping our jackets and the tremendous backdrop enveloping us, it was difficult to be concerned with physics and repercussions.  These were moments meant for introspection or meditation or reflection... not consequence.  These were times when enlightenment came in the form of scenery and velocity.

If God exists and He were to travel the northeast coastline of Taiwan, He'd do it on a scooter.


2-1-10
Awkward social miscues seem inevitable when immersed in a culture or language you know little about.

But sometimes the lack of understanding can work to your benefit. In fact, sometimes it can be  fun.

Today, I stood in a crowded Taiwanese supermarket and picked up a bag of mixed nuts (aptly named "My Nuts") and shouted across the store to Tyler, "Hey man, want to taste my nuts?"

"Nah, I'm good.  I heard they're delicious, but I just ate lunch."

The simple novelty of being able to discuss my nuts openly across a grocery store was reason enough to do so.  It would be wasteful not to take advantage of a situation like that.

Tyler has a friend who's an expert when it comes to awkward hilarity.  It's difficult to tell whether or not he's taking advantage of a lack of understanding between cultures, or he's truly that socially oblivious.  Maybe it's a combination thereof.  Regardless, he's probably the nicest guy I've met since coming to Taiwan.  And he may or may not totally grasp why we find him so fucking entertaining.  He's also an exceptional mixed martial arts fighter, so I really hope he doesn't beat the living shit out of me if he reads this.

So, here are some gems from James, the master of awkward.

At dinner, in a crowded restaurant:

"I know I said it... and I stand by it: blowjobs feel weird."

In a taxi heading to the club:

"Dude, I haven't had sex in months.  And I haven't cummed in a girl since June."

"Did you just say "cummed in a girl?"  Who says that?"

"Came... whatever."

Approaching us during a break in jiu jitsu practice:

"So, I wanted to talk about fucking my cat."

"Um... okay..."

"When you said I might get desperate enough to fuck my cat -- it's completely illogical.  Impossible really."

"Well, maybe if you've got a pencil-dick..."

"No.  I mean the cat would be jumping around, clawing and trying to get away.  I couldn't stay hard through all that.  Remember, I think blowjobs feel weird."

In the city of Hualien, as we searched for a place to eat dinner:

"I kind of wish we had stayed downtown."

"Why?"

"Cause at least we could find some girls at a bar downtown and take them back to the hotel room."

"Dude, we have three mattresses in a shitty hotel room that cost like twelve U.S. dollars a person.  How do you think that scenario would work?"

"Oh shit!  There are three hot girls crossing the street right there!  We can pick them up!  And one of them is really tall... Oh fuck, wait... no.  Those are lady-boys."

Anyway, the kid's obliviousness is almost refreshing.  Our tour through Taroko Gorge in Hualien was a perfect example.  The gorge and beaches were amazing, but it wouldn't have been a true guided tour without an allegiance between the guide and the local merchants.  In this case, the products being pushed were jade.

Jade is beautiful.  And some of the sculptures we saw in this particular establishment were genuinely breathtaking.  But, of course, the only pieces we would have considered buying were far beyond our price range.  The legitimately affordable pieces were mostly small earrings and bracelets.  Needless to say, a group of three single guys on a budget probably won't have much interest in these products.  But that didn't stop the saleswomen from pushing their wares.  Hard.

"No thank you," Tyler said.  "It's jewelry.  We're guys.  We don't wear jewelry."

"Oh, but you buy for girlfriends," the saleswoman persisted.  "Yes, very pretty jewelry for very pretty girlfriends.  You buy.  We give discount."

"No thank you.  No girlfriends... boyfriends," Tyler replied, making a general collaborative gesture towards the three of us.

"Boyfriends?" the saleswoman responded quizzically.

I looked towards James, who has a habit of sitting cross-legged in a very flamboyant manner.  The saleswoman eyed us up and down, her gaze fixing on James, his legs crossed, his chin perched on his hand.  He hadn't heard Tyler's claim.

I shrugged.  "Yeah.  No girlfriends.  Boyfriends."

Tyler said something in broken Mandarin.  It was incomprehensible to me.

The saleswoman looked towards our oblivious companion.  So did the three Korean girls on the tour.  They spoke very little English.

The saleswoman listened to Tyler's' (undoubtedly poor) Chinese one more time.  And although she almost certainly recognized she would not be making a sale, her face still lit up with amusement and understanding.  She clapped her hands together.  "Boyfriends!" she exclaimed jubilantly.

Her fellow saleswomen hovering over the case of jewelry did the same.  "Haha... boyfriends!" they exclaimed in unison.

Our Korean tour-mates looked in our direction and, after a brief conference, offered the same combined sense of congratulation and acceptance.  "Boyfriends!"

Tyler and I nodded.  James had no idea what was going on.

"What the fuck?" he asked.

"Nothing.  They know we're not buying this shit."


2-8-10
Dear So-And-So,

Leaning, stilted hovels line the river's edge while the mud-brown water strikes the boat's hull and cascades back towards the past and everything else behind us.

And I wonder if I'd be here if it wasn't for you.  I wonder if I'd be searching for some new home if emotional maturity had graced us at an earlier age.

Much like this boat, Cambodia is full of travelers.  But I think many of them are underwhelmed by the scenery and I think they're all looking to escape something.  Or find something.  Or just be content with their ability to tell friends from home that they sought adventure in this infamous country.

I think you have a traveler's heart, but not a traveler's stomach.  I think you would have lashed out at the whore that tried to pick me up last night in some seedy bar in Phnom Penh instead of just chalking it up to misunderstanding.  You would have gotten mad at me for talking to her.  But why not make conversation? Why not gain a different perspective on experience?  Isn't that why I'm here?

I can't really tell if this place would break your heart, thrill you or frighten you.  I've been falling asleep to street noise and the National Geographic Channel.  It's the only English-speaking programming I've found in every city I've visited.  And I've been waking up alone.  But I don't like the way my mouth tastes in the morning and I get a little uncomfortable in unfamiliar sheets.  Still, I think I'm starting to prefer the freedom and privacy of an unaccompanied bed.  I like the cool, empty space next to me.  I find it strangely reassuring.  I guess sleeping with inanimacy makes me feel alive.

There are naked children along the river's edge waving to our boat as we rush by.  And we wave back because it's all so endearing.  It's all so novel: the poverty, the filth, the potential for danger.  And as travelers we can say, "Look at us -- we survived all this... for a week.  We did our best to contribute something to a struggling economy.  We did something good, something to help."  But then we'll fly to Bangkok or Sydney or Hong Kong or Singapore.  We'll reminisce about this country in terms of late-night spliffs in closed hotel swimming pools, countless blurry photographs and wasted evenings with beautiful girls from California. 

It's all deliberately self-serving, even if we pretend it's not.

So, I think about returning to Long Island and fighting for my million-dollar foothold -- my pipe dream of wealth, property and love.  I think about acquiring your attention again.  I think about teaching in Taiwan or Vietnam or Thailand.  I loved the twenty minutes I spent in Bangkok while waiting for a connecting flight.  I could see myself living there -- that pensive writer sitting in a sweaty bar with no air conditioning, just ceiling fans spinning lazily overhead, my bottle of beer perspiring as much as me while I look to the street with absorbing eyes.  I'll be back there in five days and the thought is elating.

I listen to Kevin Devine and Peter Giles and As Tall As Lions while I scribble in the book given to me years ago.  And I think that this is the only life I know how to live: some wandering, neurotic cluster-fuck where self-destruction gets confused with emotional depth and creativity.  I consider walking along the side of this speeding river craft, tossing myself off and finding my new home beneath its dirty, churning surface.  But I recognize the immaturity, the contradiction.  I'm here to let life assassinate me, not the other way around.

And I still say fuck you, I am brave.  Braver than most anyway.  Braver than those unwilling to examine their lives in terms of the worst that can happen and gravitating towards those devastating possibilities. Sometimes I think you're like me in that sense.  And sometimes I think you're the complete opposite.

I'll follow this river to the ruined temples of Siem Reap and anywhere else that can teach me something new about the world.  I'll keep my fingers crossed and hope the dry season doesn't conspire to strand me on this speedboat, because there's so much to see beyond this cluttered body of water.  I guess if worse comes to worse, I can swim for shore.  There's always a way to escape and always a reason to do it.

I believe you taught me that.


Forever Something,
J.


2-11-10
"No": perhaps the most integral word for a traveler in Cambodia.

"Tuk tuk?"

"No."

"Guest house?"

"No."

"Massage?"

"No."

"Girlfriend?  Very young.  Sixteen?  Fourteen?  Very small hole."

"Dear God, no!"

"Smoke?"

"Well... no.  Not from you."

This concept of persistent salesmanship is probably most pervasive amidst the surrounding areas of the spectacular ruins of the Angkor temples, where you're bombarded by young children trying to sell cold water, t-shirts, mouth harps, tour books or homemade flutes.  This is consistent for both entering and exiting the temples.

Sometimes they'd catch us on the way in.

"No thank you,"  we'd respond.  "We just got here."

"Okay," they'd reply.  "I remember you when you come out.  You thirsty then." 

Honestly, it almost sounded like a threat.

And sure enough, as we'd leave the temple and attempt to make our way quickly to our driver and his tuk tuk, the sea of children hoping to strike a deal would drown us.  "Hey, I remember you," they'd call.  "You thirsty now.  I remember you."

"Oh, I'm sure you say that to all the boys."

As we climbed into the tuk tuk and asked the driver to leave, we felt like bank robbers escaping a heist.  "Drive!  Drive!  Before they block the exit!"

Still, one has to be impressed with the ability of these children to peddle in a multitude of languages.  You may find a child, no older than ten, asking travelers if they want to buy water in English, Chinese, French and German.

And on the streets of Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, it's a barrage of offers, both pedestrian and exotic, legal and illicit.  For the first day or so, we'd acknowledge most of them and decline politely, but after a few days it became exhausting and we'd do our best to simply ignore them.  Or, if we were feeling playful, have some fun.

"What you looking for, man?"

"Happiness," I might respond simply, a little trick taught to me by a friend who'd spent ample time in Southeast Asia.

And they'd look at me, perplexed.  "Oh, happy ending," they'd eventually assert with false understanding.

"No, happiness," I'd repeat.  "Find me happiness."

Then, as they were considering this proposition, we'd walk away.

"What you looking for, man?"

"I want to see a pregnant woman shitting on a polar bear," Tyler would demand.

"Polar bear?" they'd inquire quizzically, looking for clarification.

Sometimes it was difficult to comprehend what exactly the men were trying to sell.

"Hey guys, guys," a local on the corner approached us.  "Lady boom boom, eh?" he inquired, making a grandiose gesture with both hands.

We walked past him, doing our best not to seem intrigued.  But we were, simply on the basis of curious confusion.

"What was that?" I asked Tyler.

"Did he just say 'lady boom boom'?"

"You see that gesture he was making with his hands?  I think he wanted us to go fishing with him."

"I think he was inviting us to hang out with the lesser known Cambodian pop star, Lady Boom Boom."

Truthfully, most of these offers are nonabrasive and almost well-intentioned.  And unlike the exteriors of the temples, if you decline an offer in the cities, they typically won't pursue you.  After all, they're just trying to make a living.  Hell, I've worked in sales positions.  I've been that pushy, irritating guy whose attention is clearly focused on his commission check.

Although, I was never trying to sell underage sex.

I was actually a little surprised it took three days to be offered something so ghastly, since I had heard prior to my visit that the child sex industry is a legitimate and persistent problem in Cambodia.

But despite the constant peddling and the occasional depraved proposition, we felt like a week wasn't nearly enough time to spend in Cambodia.  In that week, we didn't even get to see the beaches of Sihanoukville (said to rival the beauty of Thai beaches, without the overwhelming crowds) or the emotionally heavy-weighted Killing Fields.  Surely, this country has plenty to offer travelers: breathtaking ruins; unique and delicious cuisine; a culture of people who are not exceptional hagglers (you can barter the price of nearly anything... and quite effectively); the intriguing (yet somewhat misconceived) potential for adventure and danger; a diverse and fascinating history; and a reasonably safe and busy nightlife, particularly in Siem Reap.  On "Pub Street" and in the surrounding sections, you might be reminded of a tamer Bourbon Street.  You could even turn off the main strip into what may appear to be a delightfully seedy alley and find boutique martini bars and upscale spas.  Of course, you may also find a young man in his twenties lacking any semblance of body parts below his midsection.

Landmine amputee victims are a common reminder of the country's turbulent and violent past.

But this young man will weave you a bracelet for three American dollars.  And despite his missing limbs, his outlook on life seemed remarkably brighter than my own, even with my complete torso and fully functioning appendages.  There I was -- mentally tallying the money in my bank account, considering if the four dollars I'd spent on dinner was too much, wondering if the lizard on the wall of our hotel room had consumed some of the mosquitoes, hoping the ice in my previous cocktail had been made from filtered water, hoping my flight to Bangkok would leave on time -- my mind a constant storm of menial obligations, hopes and anxieties.

But every time we passed the legless gentleman, he was smiling ear-to-ear -- a more genuine and appreciative smile than any I could conjure on my best day.

Experience shapes attitudes and outlooks.  Have you ever felt a sense of jealousy towards a legless twenty-something landmine victim?

Cambodia can do strange and powerful things to tourists.
  

2-15-10

For a while, I just kind of figured it was inevitable.

 

And before our trip to Cambodia, friends of Tyler pretty much confirmed it.

 

"Yeah, everyone got sick at some point."

 

"From the food?" I asked.

 

"From the food, the ice -- your guess is as good as mine."

 

"How many people did you go with?"

 

"Seven.  We all got sick.  It's not that bad, though.  You just kind of deal with it, get it out of your system and move on."

 

But after a week in Cambodia, unscathed by any kind of illness, my confidence grew.  Maybe the antibiotics prescribed by the doctor for travel sickness would go unused after all.  Because if you can't get sick in Cambodia, where can you get sick?

 

How about Thailand?

 

And as I lay on the white tiled bathroom floor at the Rattana Hotel in Karon Beach -- trying to wipe away the saliva and tears in between violent sequences of vomiting -- realization struck me with every painful heave: those antibiotics would definitely get used.

 

As I made my way from the bathroom to the bed for the umpteenth time, simultaneously shivering and perspiring, I tried to trace the illness to a particular culprit.  The oversized English breakfast with notably runny eggs?  The surprisingly bland lemon and garlic chicken?  Unfiltered ice in one of my drinks?  During any of these instances, some malicious bacteria could have wandered its way down my gullet and found itself in my intestines.  And apparently it didn't like company, because it felt the need to expel all other occupants.

 

Even something as seemingly helpful as bottled water would find its way into the toilet only minutes after consumption.

 

And I hoped, with a sense of knowing futility, that each pride-obliterating trip to the bathroom would be my last.

 

That has to be the last time, I thought.  There's nothing left to throw up!  It's all dry-heaving and bile at this point.

 

But as 3am crept to 4am, then 5am, then 6am, then 7am, I just stopped hoping and started to get angry.

 

There should be accountability for this sort of thing!  I'm going to lose a day in Thailand with my best friends because some jack-off didn't take the necessary precautions during food and/or drink preparation.  It can't be that difficult!  Use filtered water for ice.  Make sure the food isn't rotten to begin with and cook it thoroughly before serving.  With the exception of the filtered water, this is stuff I learned in seventh grade home ec!

 

These savages have poisoned me!

 

In my delirium, I even began to picture our waiter, chef or restaurant proprietor letting out a sinister cackle while he stroked his mustache (why wouldn't he have one?!) and discussed the tainted food or beverage with his employees.  "Stupid farang," he'd practically spit the words.  "He consumed like a glutton and now he's cursing his own wretched existence!  He will see what happens to those arrogant Westerners who think they belong in Thailand!  He will know the fury of Siam!"

 

And his companions would laugh wickedly and cheer my misery, patting each other on the back for a job well done.

 

Okay, granted -- that sounds more like a scene from some bad kung fu movie.  But one looks for someone to blame when they're in such a sordid state.  It's only natural to vilify an imagined or assumed antagonist, isn't it?  After all, someone is at fault and it certainly isn't me.  I’m the one writhing on the bathroom floor.  I’m the one who'll be confined to the hotel room the following day while recovering.  I’m the one that's been poisoned by some unknown enemy.  This situation certainly couldn't have arisen as a result of my own missteps.

 

Damn this country and damn the careless, villainous natives!

 

"Dude, have you been up all night puking?" Tyler asked from across the room as I emerged from the bathroom at 730am.  I was sweating and ghostly pale despite the tan I'd acquired at the beach earlier the previous day.

 

I simply nodded and collapsed into my bed.

 

"Are you okay, man?" he asked, wiping hazy sleep from his eyes.

 

"Getting better," I replied, weakly attempting a show of good humor I thought he'd appreciate.  I mean the irony wasn't completely lost on me, even in the midst of such an awful experience: a healthy and nearly seamless trip through Cambodia yields an over-confident and arrogant tourist ripe for humbling.

 

This was Thailand's way of assuring me I was still dumb and inexperienced.

2-17-10

Patong seems to thrive on over-stimulation.

Once night falls, the main strip caters to foot-traffic and becomes a crowded fluorescent hurricane of sex, alcohol, food, music and whatever else may tickle your pleasure centers.  Groups of tourists, mostly male, wander from one bar or club to the next, accepting or denying offers proposed by locals who stroll through the crowds presenting a variety of goods and services, most of which pertain to booze, women or drugs, at least in some capacity.

Of course, this seemingly excessive supply is only there to meet the abundant demand.

In the midst of prostitutes dressed like sultry pirates and a parade of lady-boys preparing for some kind of lavish, vaudevillian performance -- some appearing as passable female representations while others proudly flaunt and embrace the shock value of their unmistakably masculine qualities -- you may find teenage boys trolling with enormous iguanas.  They'll place them on your arm or shoulder or near your genitals, without permission, in an effort to snap a photo you might be willing to purchase.  You may also see a very squeamish and uncomfortable-looking Westerner with one of these massive lizards on his shoulder screaming at the teenage handler to remove it.

Attractive Asian women will grab your hand or wrap you in a weak bear-hug and literally force you into their respective club or bar, posting heart-shaped stickers on your hand and shirt.  Perhaps this last nearly-endearing act was simply a result of the holiday -- our first trip to Patong was on Valentine's Day -- because we did not receive any stickers on subsequent visits.

These women will sit you down at a table and bring you drinks that you're paying too much for.  If they don't think you've warmed up to the idea of paying for sex just yet, they'll sit with you and play games like Jenga or Connect-Four until you give in to their admittedly charming seductions, or they become aware that you're only interested in the attention and the novelty, not the sex.  They'll take a hint when you refuse to buy them overpriced drinks.  At this point, they'll continue to serve you politely, but their primary focus will shift to other men who seem more willing to delve deeper into the true Patong experience.

All the establishments have names.  At least I believe they do, but retention of details and direction is difficult enough in this whirlwind of sensory stimuli; the generic labels given to the bars just don't seem that important.  Maybe they would to a frequenter, but a passer-by attending this carnival for only a night or two will probably be more distracted by the scene as a whole and become less concerned with the specificity of something as inconsequential as a name.  If one establishment seems worthy of a repeat visit, you're more likely to remember the location.

On the street, you'll be offered tickets to sex performances and ping-pong shows.  You'll be offered yaa baa and meth and coke. ("My friend, my friend, you look tired. You need some energy? I have energy for you.")  You'll be offered "company" and "girlfriends."  You'll be offered taxis and tuk tuks.  You'll be offered burgers and noodles and cheap drink specials, most of which include Thailand's proud child and export, Red Bull.  You'll be offered t-shirts and hats boasting appalling English or popular Thai beer companies.  You'll be offered homemade wooden flutes, bootleg DVDs and impossible curios that you can't imagine anyone actually buying, until you see the groups of tourists surrounding the booth, hungry for an opportunity to haggle with the locals.

If it exists and can be sold for a profit, you can probably find it in Patong.

Whether or not this whole grand production becomes exhausting to you over a period of time is undoubtedly a matter of your personality and preferences.  Even the hardest of partiers could feel worn out after only a night or two (the mere act of refusing can become incredibly draining).  But the thrill of something so seedy and sinful will almost certainly be invigorating, even if it's only for a matter of minutes.  There's something to be respected about a place that's so unabashedly pleasure-oriented, a place that caters to your most obscene chemical and biological desires.

Even if that initial sense of excitement turns to one of loathing, Patong is a place that will stay with you for both the right and wrong reasons.


2-18-10

For all intents and purposes, the island is ours.

 

At least for the night.

 

There couldn't be more than thirty of us and we have this paradise to call our own.  We may be travelers and this sense of ownership will vanish soon, but we're something isolated and special here tonight.  We could be the only people left in the universe, but we celebrate this remoteness, this segregation, and drink ourselves towards something primitive and beautiful.

 

As the night grows darker and the fire gets brighter, our little planet gravitates towards stunning social simplicity.

 

Almost all the boats have left Maya Bay and we embrace the opportunity to build this one-night-stand of a colony.  But I suppose there's always some sense of apprehension during circumstances like this: Who are these other people?  Do they belong here?  Do they appreciate this unique situation?  Do they want to make the most of these few hours?

 

We pass around joints the size of tampons and consume buckets of Red Bull and whiskey, just to move past the unfamiliarity in an expedited fashion.  After all, our time here is all-too limited and it’s best to exorcise formalities and social anxiety as quickly as possible.

 

Some sit around the blazing bonfire trying to agree on a popular song that can be strummed on the old, weathered acoustic guitar.  Others lie on the beach and stare up at the speckled illumination as it's meant to be seen – without the pollution or distraction of lesser, unnatural lights.  Some adorn iPods and dance in the churning surf, kicking the bioluminescent plankton in time to their own rhythms, creating a private and organic liquid lightshow.

 

All this happens as the Thais play with fire in an elaborate and acrobatic fashion.

 

This is our playground for the evening – a beautifully and creatively imagined dreamscape come to life.

 

As the hours creep by, conversations become increasingly playful and much less inhibited.  We exchange fits of childish giggling with the girls from Manchester as we ask how they refer to some of the more obscure regions of their bodies.

 

Later, two Irish girls take to us naturally and threaten to drink us under the table.  And they accept our ethnocentric onslaught of bad impersonations and worse stereotypes with grace and good nature.

 

It's all very cinematic and I guess that's the point.  We're visiting a movie set, doing what the characters on that set did so many years ago – creating a utopia.  A twelve-hour utopia.

 

And even as we realize our friend has gone missing, even as the Irish girl whose name I'll never remember tells us she last saw him swimming in dark waters, we know there's no real danger.  Tragic things like that don't happen here. Not tonight.  

 

We scour the beach for our lost companion, doing our best to peer through the darkness and call his name quietly without alarming or disturbing our fellow island inhabitants.  And we find him passed out comfortably near the fire, the shadows of flames dancing across his face while the drunken makeshift minstrels croon some familiar ballad that was almost popular decades ago.  We jostle our friend awake and berate him for falling asleep so early, for wasting these precious hours.

 

As people grow tired, they pick a sleeping bag and find a semi-secluded spot somewhere along the beach.  The wind keeps the bugs away, but kicks sand in our faces as we stare up at some celestial Eden.  Luminescent sprinkles poke vibrant holes in the body of blackness like it's an assassination, like we're staring at an abyss with countless radiant exit wounds.  But it seems only appropriate with so many shooting stars.

 

And I wonder why this isn't everyday.  I wonder why we don't live like this.

 

Then I think of the film.  I think of the inevitable catastrophe: the drama, the disclosure, the imperfections, the discovery.

 

The social collapse.

 

And it seems all the more reason to graciously accept and appreciate this impermanent piece of perfection over some greedy and improbable long-term fantasy.  Because tonight we can live like this.

 

Fuck yeah, we can live like this.   

3-13-10

At the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, there’s an exhibit displaying hundreds of pictures drawn by children under the age of fifteen.  Apparently there was a nationwide contest in which kids were asked to create a picture that exemplified their hopes for world peace and unity.

The exact phrasing of the guiding topic escapes me, but the general idea was peace and optimism for multicultural understanding and tolerance.

Many of the pictures were quite similar – illustrations of cultural activities that mean a great deal to the Vietnamese people – while others were a bit more abstract.  Some, for example, portrayed the Earth itself as an entity, turning away from bloodshed and violence; some even showed humans holding hands with alien beings amidst some kind of intergalactic backdrop.

For me, the darkest and most affecting picture was entitled “Dioxin Baby.”  On the center of the page was the mutated form of a human infant.  It looked like an illustration of Siamese twins – one enlarged and misshapen body with a single set of limbs and two heads.

I'll admit my ignorance – at first I didn't get it.  I had no idea what Dioxin was or how it fit into the scheme of the picture or the encompassing topic.  It wasn’t until later, as I examined more shocking and gut-wrenching exhibits, that I learned Dioxin was the major malicious chemical in Agent Orange, a substance proven to have caused heinous birth defects after America's widespread use of it during the Vietnam War.

Subsequent to this discovery, I made my way back to the child's drawing and studied it with a new sense of understanding.  Although its bleak tone didn't mesh with the optimism of the other portraits, it still seemed appropriate for the competition's guidelines.  Because sometimes a huge motivating force for peace and unity can be the appalling repercussions incurred during its absence.

I learned a lot about that dark war at the museum – a war I admittedly knew too little about.  I knew about the awful effects it had on American soldiers who bravely fought, willingly or otherwise, in a harsh, foreign land.  But, in truth, I thought very little about the reasons for America's involvement.  As a child, I always thought it boiled down to communism and our obsessive fear of it.  I didn't really think much beyond that motivation.

As it turns out, I knew even less about the American-supported Vietnamese Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his regime's brutal acts of torture and execution against the Vietnamese people who opposed him politically and religiously.  This isn't to say America agreed with his tactics (in fact, it seems that in later years they realized what a liability he truly was), but their standing allegiance with such a violent and controversial figure was something I had not been aware of.

I thought of an email sent to me by my father, who is fiercely patriotic and knew many Americans that had fought and died in Vietnam.  He had wanted nothing more than to fight alongside the other enlistees and draftees, but was unable to do so as a result of a debilitating sports injury.  In his email, he had mentioned how strange it was for him to think that his son was in Saigon, “home of the bad guys during the war.”  And I couldn't tell if he was referring to the Vietnamese people in general, Diem's regime (who were largely concentrated in Saigon) or the revolutionary guerrilla forces of the Viet-Cong who fought against Diem’s control.

The museum rather unabashedly painted a nasty picture; not of Americans generally, but of the choices made by the American government with regards to involvement in Vietnam.  And I thought the whole thing was so frustrating – war, politics, governments.  There's so rarely anything you can legitimately call a historical truth.  One country's version of history can be wholly different from another's.  One nation's villain can be another's hero.  It's this subjectivity that I find so exasperating.  I can visit a war museum in Vietnam and see the physical evidence of atrocities committed by Americans, or I can stand in front of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. and view the names of Americans that were killed by Viet-Cong, many of whom were drafted into a war they didn't believe in.

I met a German man, Ditma, on the beach in Phu Quoc.  I told him I’d visited the war museum and he made a dismissive gesture with his hands.  “I have no interest in war,” he said.  “After World War II, I'm sure you can understand.”  And years ago, I also may have said something like, “I have no interest in war.”  But I thought of the child's illustration, “Dioxin Baby.”  And I thought if nobody had an interest in war, it would be difficult to learn from past mistakes.

Then I thought about genocide in Africa or Asia and how disgusting it is that such a term even exists.  And I found myself disheartened by the fact that after so many hideous atrocities committed by countless countries, humans have made very little progress in terms of peaceful coexistence.  After so many years on this planet, it seems more like a pipe dream than an attainable goal. 

Consequently, “Dioxin Baby” became more and more poignant to me, because it shows the importance of calling attention to horrors of the past in the interest of learning from them... and because it seemed so naively and futilely hopeful.


3-17-10

It's times like this my current life can suck.  It’s times like this I miss home.

When my stomach is still writhing from the case of food poisoning incurred the night before; when I'm starved, but too afraid to eat anything for fear it won't remain in my stomach more than a few minutes; when my fifty-pound bag weighs heavily on my viciously sunburned back and shoulders; when all I want to do is take a day to sleep and recover from my most recent illness, but know I need to set out at 6am to embark on a full day of airports and flights; when I have no idea what bug-infested guesthouse I'll call home for the next few days.

This is why I almost take offense when someone mislabels my trip as a “holiday” or “vacation.”

“Oh, so you're on a holiday?” 

“Not exactly,” I’ll reply without much certainty on how to clarify. 

Maybe “journey” is a more appropriate term. 

So… what am I doing here?  Why am I spending all the money I’ve taken years to save?  Why did I leave a secure job with a steady paycheck?  Is it all worth it? 

Currently, I have no friends.  I have no home.  I jump from one city, one country, to the next.  I look for the cheapest accommodations I can find.  I spend hours and hours on buses, planes and boats.  My life has no stability, no direction. 

I’ve also seen places with more beauty and history than I could ever imagine.  I’ve been to cities I never knew existed.  I’ve glimpsed into ancient realms and cultures that thrived long before America was a budding concept. And, most importantly, I never know what tomorrow will bring.  Today, my stomach thrashes, my body aches and my mind wanders towards the comforts of home. 

But tomorrow…     

Phu Quoc is too quiet and, in my experience, not a social climate for a solo traveler.  Still, I feel alive.  My discomfort and anxiety remind me that I’m here, I’m breathing and I’m moving.  I look towards the next day because I know it will be different – different scenery, different faces, different experiences.  I look forward to the sprawling beaches and thriving nightlife of Nha Trang.  After twenty-six hours without sleep, I look forward to finding a hotel and enjoying a long nap before discovering a new city.  And after three days of gloomy solitude, I look forward to a location brimming with potential for companionship.

This is why I’m here: to chase a dream, to seek out experience, to elude the temptations of security, boredom and complacency.

In short, I’m here to live.


3-25-10

Despite my affinity for experience, madness and intoxicants – in both life and literature – I had never read Kerouac. When I'd tell this to friends who knew my interests and personality, their responses would range from, “Well, you really need to read him,” to “What the fuck is wrong with you?”  So, when the little Vietnamese boy offered to sell me a copy of On The Road in Nha Trang, I agreed, after a somewhat obnoxious bargaining session. 

It's amazing to me how, during the forties, the Western parts of America were romanticized like it was the other side of the world.  And here I am, on the other side of the world, wondering about the Western parts of America.

I guess it was all different back then.  And I suppose it seems self-serving to associate myself with Sal Paradise, but how can I not?  My mouth literally dropped open when I read the following words: 

I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds.  I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

I thought about a remarkably similar instance I’d experienced the previous morning.  I woke up in my hotel room, stared at the ceiling and developed some powerful yet fleeting case of amnesia.  It was like everything, every memory, had escaped with a rush and then returned seconds later, but as an illusion – almost like my memories of home and the past were phony or implanted.  Who the fuck was I?  Who the fuck am I?  What city am I in? 

Before leaving America, I had this sort of romantic picture in my mind: the tortured writer lying on some cheap hotel bed wondering how he got there and what he was doing.  And there I was, momentarily clueless as to whose body this was and where its mind had gone.  It wasn't scary, just sort of confusing.  In fact, in a way it felt almost liberating, like I was free from something.  Free from everything. 


3-26-10

The van from Hanoi airport to the Old Quarters smelled like dirty farts and rotten Chinese food.

 

But it was only 80,000 VND, much cheaper than the 300,000 VND a taxi would cost.

 

The van was at capacity with close to twenty people, plus everyone's luggage.  Haphazard stacks of bags shifted precariously as the driver navigated in and out of traffic.  The ride took nearly two hours, moving from a somewhat scenic highway to the thick, hectic congestion of Hanoi.

 

For much of the ride, there was an Asian girl in the seat behind me throwing up into a paper bag.  She was in her mid-twenties and at first I wasn't sure if she was legitimately vomiting or just gracing us with some truly grotesque burps. But after about forty minutes, it became clear the poor girl was definitely hurling.  And I found myself wondering about what could have triggered this intestinal unrest.  I've heard of people getting motion sickness during bus-rides in Southeast Asia, but those are typically buses with well-worn shocks traveling across extremely rugged terrain.  Sure, this van wasn't the picture of luxury, but the ride itself was fairly smooth.  Well… I should say the roads we traveled were fairly smooth. Our driver, however, was a madman.

 

He'd blow red lights without a second thought and move the bulky van through traffic like it was a compact car.  During the course of the trip, he hit not one, but two people on motorbikes.  Each time, the scooter operator looked back at our driver and scowled.  And each time, our driver would put up his hands; but the gesture seemed less of an apology and more a way of saying, “Hey, what do you want from me?”

 

After we struck the second motorbike, the girl behind me really started heaving.  She was gagging and puking – it was just brutal.  You can't help feeling disgusted, but it was hard not to have some sympathy for her.  At this point, I had decided, without any legitimate facts or clues, that she had some kind of stomach bug.  And I empathized.  After all, I've had my share of stomach illnesses since coming to Asia, but I've been lucky enough to avoid them during travel days.

 

Fortunately, the inherent stench of the van seemed to cover up the potentially appalling smell of the vomit. Nevertheless, the girl courteously opened her window and every time the bus stopped to drop a passenger at their respective hotel, she would dump her bag of sickness out on the street to make room for more.

 

This could get ugly, I thought.  If a single squeamish person gets a whiff of that puke, we could be ground zero for a chain reaction.  Christ, if one more person starts spewing, we'll all be retching in each other's laps!

 

I felt shamefully relieved when the girl finally exited the vehicle at her guesthouse.  I thought I could almost hear the collective sigh of the relief emitted by the remaining passengers.  And during this whole trip, I was simply amazed at how unfazed the driver was – a puking girl, countless traffic violations, collisions with motorbikes and their operators. What may have been my most notoriously memorable ride in Vietnam was this guy's normal routine.

 

I see a new kind of status quo everyday. 


4-7-10

Vang Vieng can be bullets or bliss... or both.

Every person is a character and every thirty minutes is a story.

People get addicted.  People get trapped.  People get hurt.

Mia developed a severe heat rash that forced her to the hospital.  Erika injured her foot, but she settled for bags of ice and the local pharmacy.

And those are some of the lesser calamities you see or hear about.

During your time in Laos, if you come across anyone on crutches, in a cast or with any other visible injuries, you just assume (almost always correctly) that they occurred in Vang Vieng.

The river's potentially deadly – literally and figuratively.  The drinks are infinite and sickening and wonderful.  The drugs are plentiful and conveniently available.  There are tall swings, zip-lines and water slides, none of which are officially regulated and all of which pose some serious threat to a person's well-being.

People break bones and bust skulls.  They incur bloody wounds that require stitches

And a certain number – which can vary obscenely depending on who you talk to – drown every year.

It's a playground.  But it's a dangerous playground.

Really, the experience boils down to the people you share it with.  And I guess that can be a crap shoot.  But if you end up with an outstanding group (or a few outstanding groups), you can't help but enjoy yourself, even if it feels kind of shameful.

But no matter what, you'll remember it.  Even amidst the blackouts, you'll recall the experience.  You may remember it as something awful and beautiful.  You may remember wasted walks across rickety bridges hastily constructed of bamboo and two-by-fours.  You may lose the only people you want to spend time with and find them in your bed the next morning.  You may decide to stay an extra three days after committing yourself to only two.  Or you may want to pack up and go after just a couple nights, appalled by the whole debauched circus.  You may even end up seeking employment at one of the local bars, which look to ensnare directionless, addicted travelers to work for free food and drinks.

I guess it can be hard to see the true beauty of the place. Or easy to ignore it.  It's not easy to look past the river's drunken mayhem and appreciate where you are.  But if you really try, you can almost shut out the countless makeshift bars and stare at the looming mountains, which somehow seem magnificent and humble at the same time.  You can feel love for the people you're with and wonder how you were lucky enough to find them.  You can even hide from the river for a day and lose yourself in the country-side, ambitiously searching for lagoons, caves and culture.

You never really know when circumstance will abandon you and remind you that, in the broader scheme, you're traveling alone and these people you've met, these people you've come to adore, will go their separate ways.  But these people – these Swedes, Brits, Irish, Dutch, Australians and Canadians – they'll make you wary of leaving Vang Vieng, or Laos for that matter.  They'll make you want to stay and selfishly keep them with you.  They'll make you think about your current plans and consider altering them just to feel connected for a few more days.

Vang Vieng is heaven, hell or purgatory for backpackers.  It's everything you can never truly describe – and that may or may not be the most frustrating aspect about it.  Fortunately, I had people to lead me away. And it's hard for me to trust a backpacker.  I'll always be afraid of the same things: robbery, infatuation, abandonment, exhaustion.  But I've trusted Erika and Mia.  We managed to escape Vang Vieng together.  And somehow, that really seems to mean something.

4-17-10

So what about the last seventy-two hours?

Do I let them stay indescribable?  Do I try to put them into words?

Do I talk about water spirits, blackouts, infatuation and my third new year in four months?  Do I talk about drumming on missiles and cluster-bombs in the middle of a thunderstorm for an attentive and adoring crowd?  Do I talk about mood fluctuations, cascading waterfalls and emotional withdrawal?

Do I talk about getting stoned with a beautiful American girl and keeping each other awake until the sun rose?  Do I talk about the decisions I've made and their implications?

The storm is raging tonight and I believe it's been invoked.  After all, this is what the Laotians pray for.  This is the whole point of the new year celebration.  Everything in this country seems effortlessly fateful and I wonder how a place like this can go unnoticed.  I wonder if everyone else experiences a version of Laos similar to mine.

I listen to the driving rain and profound thunder as I'm sprawled across my bed, contemplating life, love and everything else.  I create my own private blackout by turning everything in the room off – everything except my brain, which is unrelenting.  It's a storm in itself – a burdensome, dangerous hurricane of ceaseless activity and neuroses.

I want to be able to describe this place and these feelings and do it all justice.  But I don't think anyone would understand.

This country changed my trip and my life. And I'll never be able to explain why.



4-30-10

The moon follows us, drawing a pale, luminescent path across the South China Sea as we run down the wooden pier, shedding our clothes while we descend the steps towards the calm, shallow water.

We're careful when jumping from the dock into the quietly ebbing outstretch of turquoise.  The tide is low so the sea is only a little more than waist-deep.  The three of us are in the water quickly while the fourth remains on the dock, fully clothed, squinting at us as we float aimlessly.

“Are you all totally naked?” she asks in a strained whisper.

“I still have my watch on,” I tell her.  “It's water-proof.”

She offers an agreeable shrug and disrobes.  Moments later, she's floating alongside us.

The simultaneous feelings of freedom and unity are indescribable.  We belong here, natural as the day we were born, embraced by the Earth in our most unobtrusive state.

I float on my back, letting the bath-warm water envelop my body and lap softly against my face.  My ears are submerged, creating an aural phenomenon where the muted serenity of the underwater world is fused with the quiet conversation of my friends – their words are incomprehensible, but their tones and laughs mingle with the sea and swirl around me like unseen fish.  It makes me smile because it doesn't matter what they're saying.

I can taste salt as the occasional wave washes over my lips.  But my eyes stay open, gazing up at the few stars that aren't rendered invisible by the moon's overpowering glow.  Another tiny wave gives me liquid goggles, blurring the night sky, making it appear like its underwater, like we could swim to the moon and the heavens, like we could all be astronauts if we could just hold our breath long enough.

Slowly, I let my feet dip beneath the surface and touch the sea's smooth, sandy bottom.  As I stand, the salt's mild sting continues to lend a hazy filter to my eyes, making the moon's path across the water seem that much brighter and distinct.  I think there's never been a path so well-lit situated right in front of me.  I think of following that path and swimming as far as the sea will let me.  I think of offering myself to the tide, plunging below the surface, staring up at the now-submerged sky and seeing just how long I can hold my breath.

I swear, tonight the moon's closer to Pulau Kecil than anywhere else.  And I'll never have a better chance to swim to the stars.

Web Hosting Companies