Chapter 1 – From the Beginning
Southeast Asia, the setting of many a nightmare for once-young Americans and a region tainted by Hollywood images and history books. It’s the place where I saw Lieutenant Dan’s legs reduced to nubs and a fast-running Forrest shot in the ass while frantically tearing through the thick of the jungle in search of his best good friend Bubba. It’s the place where a shady-ass game of Russian roulette stole the life of a strung-out and soulless Christopher Walken whose splattered brains and bloodied corpse slumped into the arms of a forlorn Robert DeNiro following the fall of Saigon. It’s a place where we’re led to believe that all the women are “so haw-ny” and the men are probably hiding out in underground bunkers with their machine guns, their triangular hats and their buck teeth, waiting to fuck you up. All I could imagine of this area growing up was a war-torn anachronism chock-full of rickshaws and rice paddies. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever picture myself visiting this remote jungle terrain, but life can be weird like that. Allow me to start from the beginning…
A year ago, I didn’t even have a passport in my name and was just another culturally inept college asshole with no foresight beyond Friday night. When I wasn’t too hungover, I attended classes at Marquette University and during my final two years of study, lived in an old-ass three story house in the ‘hood of America’s drunkest city, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For me and the eight other guys who’d been holding down 931 N. 14th Street, sippin’ booze was precedent and school work was more often than not kicked to the curb in favor of parties and the prospect of pussy. By the end of senior year, I’d made myself very comfortable at the drafty, century-old crib on campus at which Chris Farley was rumored to have taken a shit on the porch during his time at the university. I legitimately thought our tenure at that place would never end. But it did. And The Lost Boys of our modern day Animal House were cast out of Neverland with a pat on the back and our names stamped on magical pieces of paper signifying our rite of passage into adulthood.
All my roommates returned to their respective hometowns to get to work save Cleveland native Tim O’Shaughnessy who, instead of returning to “the mistake on the lake,” took a position as a financial analyst all the way down in Singapore. Unlike him and all the others who were eager to jump into “real jobs,” the transition from regularly partaking in twelve-hour saucing sessions on weekdays to trying to impress potential employers wasn’t the easiest for me to make. At twenty-two-years-old, there was no part of me that was ready to be trapped in an office environment, let alone get grilled like George Foreman while trying to prove my worth to some judgmental, suit-and-tie asshole that sits behind a desk and plays Pontius Pilate all day with interviewees. That sort of lifestyle, to me, sounded like a living fucking nightmare.
So, instead of following the herd and right away allowing the responsibilities of the real world to sexually molest, kill and hide my inner-child somewhere I’d never be able to find it again, I decided to allow myself some time to get in touch with this crazy ball on which we live. Using the money I’d saved the summer after graduation washing windows with my old man, I set off with friend and fellow fire-crotch Patrick Clough to attend the annual La Tomatina festival held in a small town called Buñol a few hours outside Valencia.
La Tomatina provides for revelers the opportunity to assault one another with all the rotten tomato bullshit from the year’s harvest deemed unworthy of being sold in stores. Before the actual tomato-chucking can begin however, I soon learned it’s required that someone from the crowd successfully scale a 25-foot-tall, greased-up pole and retrieve the full-size ham that sits atop while other competitors do their best to tear a motherfucker down. The “palo jabón,” as they call it, provided a violent display of bravado which is just the type of thing I like to watch while sipping a cold beer from a safe distance. Locals ripped non-Spaniards back to earth as a show of pride for their tradition while determined climbers who’d been stripped naked chafed their thighs and smashed their nutsacks shimmying up the big woody in pursuit of eternal Tomatina glory.
Amid the sweltering heat, townies blasted the crowd with fire hoses from elevated platforms and everything from knotted-up t-shirts and flip flops to empty beer cans and bottles of piss were tossed in the air by the unruly mob in anticipation of the main event. During this time, prior to the ham attainment, I started chatting with some young Australian dude who’d been standing right in front of me. He was eighteen-years-old, fresh outta high school and liked to party. Since I was pretty wasted off the bottle of wine I’d just dumped down my gullet, I remember very little of what was said between us. Nevertheless, the only thing I can distinctly recall from the exchange is the one thing I was supposed to: “If you take anything from this conversation,” he looked me dead in the eye, “it’s tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos.” Then right after imparting what he had to, he forcefully – and totally against my will – ripped off my thrift-store-purchased, random-ass family reunion, “Cousin Camp ’97” t-shirt and chucked it at a drunken barefoot Frenchman who’d been clambering up a nearby palm tree.
Moments after some newborn legend dug his grubby fingernails into the high-perched ham and began his triumphant descent, a fleet of very large dump trucks loaded with people and tomatoes appeared from around the bend, came rumbling down Buñol’s claustrophobically narrow main street and parted the wild crowd with authority. Everybody was forced uncomfortably to the sides as the passengers rained vicious blows on all us below and by these gentlemen, I was treated to numerous helpings of rancid tomato served right in the chops. It was literally so tight where I was standing down on the street that when the trucks passed, I couldn’t even raise my arms from my sides to defend myself from the fruit attacks or the powerful blast of the fire hose that repeatedly gouged the shit out of my eye sockets. As bad as that seems, it still wasn’t nearly as daunting as it was for the people on the front lines who’d been pushed up against the passing vehicles who found themselves in a constant struggle to not get flattened by the obstinate and unforgiving roll of the monster-truck-sized wheels.
By the time all the trucks passed and the fun was officially over, everyone in the crowd had been too shitfaced to remember from which way we’d all entered this war zone. One drunken Australian would rise up and order his droogs to push this way and another would counter that notion and command his followers to shove back. If you tripped when all this was happening, there’s a fair chance you’d never get up again. Girls were screaming and crying while unconscious bodies were being passed along as if they were crowd surfing. In one bout of jostling with some asshole who wouldn’t take his fucking hand off my back, my leg jammed into something metallic. I looked down and it was a dude in a wheelchair looking freaked out of his fucking mind. His arms flailed wildly as he gasped for every single precious molecule of oxygen attainable.
“Sorry bud,” I thought as I tripped around him. “I gotta look out for number one.”
The farther along we pushed in one direction, the more the shoving subsided. Eventually the crowd dispersed into an open area near the train station at which we arrived to the hilly bumblefuck Spanish town. For the most part, Clough and I emerged unscathed and, more noticeable than anything else I’d been feeling, I was sky high on adrenaline. I remember feeling like I could punch through a brick wall or even jack up a car with my dick. I hadn’t felt that way in years. It was a feeling of invigoration I probably hadn’t experienced since I was a child being chased by a baseball-bat-wielding driver whose windshield I’d just pelted with a big fat fucking snowball. It was great. I felt alive.
Later on that day, with my heart rate stabilized and my pores scrubbed clean of the gazpacho, I went down to the lobby of our hotel to do a little web browsing. After checking my emails, I thought back to the conversation I had with that shirt-stealing Australian kid on the streets of Buñol.
“If you take anything from this conversation,” his voice echoed in my mind, “it’s tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos.”
After punching the information into a Google search bar, I read the Wikitravel page for Vang Vieng. What I read made me wanna check out some photos. What I saw made me wanna watch some videos. And the videos I watched of tubing down in Double-V more than proved to be a testament to his prophecy. As I sat and watched clip after clip on YouTube of drunken Tarzans swinging on ropes from packed-to-capacity bamboo bars and crashing down into the innertube-filled river of some remote jungly-ass mountain town, that was it – I knew I had to go.
Clicking back over to my Gmail account, I passed a few of the Vang Vieng links along to my boy O’Shaughnessy down in Singapore and the seed was sewn. Over the following few months, we’d built our itinerary from opposite ends of the world. When I hadn’t been on the window washing grind back in Chicago, I spent most of my free time researching destinations and attractions in cannabis induced fits of curiosity then e-mailing my proposals to The OshMan who would soon after deny or approve and reciprocate with his own proffers.
We planned our journey as a counter-clockwise loop through mainland Southeast Asia. We’d start out with a brief dip into Kuala Lumpur, meet Tim’s sister Kathleen in Ho Chi Minh City and then continue from there through Cambodia, Laos and end up in Bangkok to visit my buddy Brian Schmit who’d been teaching English there for the past several months. After Bangkok, Kathleen would fly back to America and I’d chill in Singapore for a week while my man slaved away, crunching numbers for his Asian overlords. That weekend, he and I would fly back to Thailand and again meet up with Schmit – this time on the island of Koh Samui for a seaside orgy of drunkenness they like to call a “Full Moon Party.” That would then be our last hurrah together and we’d all go our separate ways: Tim back to Singapore, Schmit back to Bangkok and I to Hong Kong, Taipei and Manila before returning home. Despite my desire to explore the ruins of Bagan while getting deep-throated by some giraffe-lookin’ women who got so many rings stacked around their necks it’s as if Phil Jackson’s got the bitches in a fuckin’ chokehold, Myanmar didn’t make the cut. That ignorant-ass dream would have to be fulfilled at another time.
I had no idea what to expect, but I figured taking myself out of my comfort zone and diving into strange Oriental cultures could only do me good. Having grown up in a low-crime, middle-class, white Irish pocket on the northwest side of Chicago where everyone I knew was either cop or a fireman’s kid, I was never exposed to much diversity as a child. And following an upbringing as sheltered as that, I could tell that going on this trip to distant places where I’d be the exotic outsider was about as far away as I could be from all thoughts, feelings and things I considered “home.” And why not, right? I mean, after all, there’s plenty of room to grow for the kid who once upon a time believed that Asian people were some sort of robots that, instead of sleeping, needed to plug themselves into the wall at night to recharge.
Photos of 931’s exterior and La Tomatina…