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03/16/2003 - TRAVEL JOURNALS, 4 OF 5



Another installment from my travels, this one with a near-death experience. They say your life flashes before your eyes, but all that flashed before my eyes was the ground as my ass approached it. It probably helped that I didn't see the bus coming to run over my head. Not that it actually reached my head - in fact, despite the thick mud, Third-World brakes, and the fact that I'd just unexpectedly laid a motorcycle down in its path, the bus managed to stop at least a meter away.

More on that in the actual e-mail I first sent back home on December 14th, 2002:


My dear friends,

One of the biggest deterrents to getting injured in Vietnam -- aside from the pain and all -- is that if you get hurt, endangered animals will probably die. This bizarre causal relationship comes from the fact that traditional Vietnamese medicine, like traditional Chinese medicine, seems to be based entirely on the irreplaceable (and often sexual) organs of animals that are either extremely rare, extremely ferocious (especially when the disposition of their sexual organs is the matter at hand), or mythical. From what I've been able to ascertain, Vietnamese scientists could probably cure cancer if they could just get their hands on enough unicorn penises.

My own experience with traditional medicine was brief, but illustrative. The story begins ten days ago, when I learned how to ride a motorcycle in preparation for an 8-day motorcycle tour of northern Vietnam backcountry. I learned how to ride across a wide range of conditions -- from Hanoi traffic to rocks as big as my head. I learned how to swerve around water buffalo, wave at hoards of smiling kids, and take a drink of water, all at the same time -- while accelerating to pass a speeding bus. Uphill, in the rain.

Then, on Day 4, I learned how to crash.

Now, it's not nearly as bad as it sounds. I was going maybe 10 miles per hour, and the four-inch-thick mud that helped precipitate the fall also cushioned my landing -- not enough, unfortunately, because I separated my shoulder. Having experienced this several times before, I managed to put things right on my own, and we were all riding again within five minutes, with the only difference being that someone had painted spots and blue birdies on the road.

Anyway, that night, we stayed in the house of a local man, where we all laughed heartily over how the silly Californian tried to accelerate too fast in the mud. It got funnier and funnier, even through dozens of retellings -- but this mostly had to do with the grain alcohol that was being served.

When our congenial -- okay, profoundly drunk -- host heard of my shoulder injury, he immediately suggested a cure. Mind you, he wasn't talking about something that would help with the pain -- he was talking about a miracle drug that would literally rejuvenate my shoulder. The secret ingredient to this panacea? Bear bile -- otherwise known as the stuff that comes up after the bear barfs out everything else it can't stomach. Of course, the Vietnamese don't sneak through the forest, waiting for a bear to throw up -- they basically just kill them, though I think it's technically illegal (a word which the Vietnamese seem to translate as "requires a bigger bribe").

This bear bile business is probably more shocking to you than to me. By this point in my stay in Vietnam, not only had I been exposed to the menus (i.e., the ones with sparrow, goat penis, and pig anus) that I talked about in my last mass e-mail, but I had also been drinking whatever my guide/translator -- an Australian named Digby who, on a dare, would probably drink straight from a Texaco nozzle -- seemed to survive without immediate blindness. Of course, I was drinking FAR less of it.

Still, I've learned that the only thing that covers more phyla than a Vietnamese food menu is a Vietnamese drink menu. For where else can you sample of gecko, cobra, bee, bear, goat's testicles, and goat fetus? Not to mention goat ovaries, pig bile -- oh hell, the whole range of mammalian, repitilian, avian, and insect testicles, penis, bile, and hearts. I wish I were making this up, but these are actual items they put into the homeland drink here, a whiskey pronounced "ziel." And lest you think that the names are just cute nicknames akin to "Fuzzy Navel" in America, well, my friends, let me tell you that the Vietnamese put that notion to rest by sticking the actual item (or the biggest piece of it that will fit) inside the bottle itself. I skipped most of it. For instance, last night, Digby took us to a restaurant that had a whole dead bear inside a large aquarium. People drank out of it. Let me rephrase: people, except everyone at my table, drank out of it. I spent my time daydreaming a scenario in which the bear came back to life, broke out of the aquarium, and ate everyone who was drinking bear whiskey.

I digress, of course, because we're talking about medicine, not alcohol -- though the two very often seem to converge here. Back to the night of my shoulder injury. Digby, who's been in Vietnam for eight years, was very keen on the host's idea of getting bear bile onto my shoulder. Both men insisted that bear bile could (1) heal every pain and dory.se known to humankind, (2) induce enlightening hallucinations, (3) increase sexual potency to alarming levels, and (4) enable one to go without sleep for several days. My trouble was that I wasn't interested in at least three out of the four things. Nevertheless, wanting sleep, and wanting the inebriated host to stop breathing goat-penis-alcohol-breath on me, I agreed on a compromise: we'd start with a cloth wrap infused with tiger balm (which is basically like funkier smelling Ben Gay, and, shockingly, has NO tiger in it), and then I'd allow the host to put a couple of drops of diluted bear bile onto my shoulder. The only miracle that happened is that I didn't get a rash.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the motorcycle tour. In fact, it has easily been the highlight of my trip so far. We went into tiny hill tribe villages -- places so off the beaten path that they don't get visited by tour buses (or even tour jeeps). I showed the hill tribe natives my digital cameras and said "bet you wish you had one of these" a lot. Then I took their picture and, playing into their deeply ingrained fears, had Digby tell them that I was now taking their captured souls back to America, where I'd be selling them.

On a brief serious note, before I came to Vietnam, several people who had been here told me to "go before it's ruined." I didn't know what they meant until I got out to some of these remote villages, and saw varying levels of western influence. Certain things -- plumbing, electricity, and health standards -- are a welcome bounty. What's not as positive is the influence of the culture of consumption. The more remote tribes are still largely self-sustaining agricultural communities. Many of the villages closer to towns have become dependent on tourists and other outsiders for income -- sometimes in the form of selling handicrafts, but also in the forms of prostitution, organized crime, begging, and other troubling trends. Even our small group walked a fine line between positive cross-cultural interaction and inadvertent negative effects.

But contributing to the death of endangered animals and undermining the independence, culture, and sense of community of agrarian villages are minor offenses when compared to the malevolence of my worst deed. The most atrocious acts of evil are often perpetrated by groups of people, and this was no different -- it was me, Digby, and the two other riders in my group. We were at the hotel bar, and the cobra whiskey was flowing. (And again, when I say "cobra whiskey," that's not a brand name -- it's a list of ingredients.) And then someone said those fateful words: "Hey, we should do karoke."

How strong was the cobra whiskey? Well, not only did I agree to that, but I also had the inspiration to (a) bring out my video camera, (b) turn it on, and (c) hand it to Digby, resulting in a psychedelic record of some of the more egregious moments. If you feel like watching it, I suggest that instead you go out to the garage, find the rustiest tool you've got, and cut off one of your arms with it. It would be less painful. The one thing I will say is that the commentary is pretty good, because Digby was so drunk that he gives a bitter and brutally honest assessment of how bad the singing is as he's filming (and singing dreadfully himself, I might add). As we're slaughtering Beatles songs (in one musical atrocity, a bit of homesickness spurred me to change the lyrics of "Hey Jude" into the more California-centric "Hey Dude"), he's begging us to stop one moment, then singing along the next. Luckily, not too many Vietnamese people were around to witness this spectacle. The Vietnamese seem to like karoke, too, but mostly because many of the karoke places double as brothels. In fact, from what Digby says, most everywhere doubles as a brothel. I might test that theory on the airplane tomorrow.

Yes, that's right, I'm on the move again. From here, I'm off to the smells and wonders of Bangkok, where I have to make arrangements for the next hop, which will likely be the southeastern islands of Thailand, where some friends and I are heading to the year-end Full Moon Party. I'm also thinking about doing some rock climbing down there, since, thanks to the magical powers of bear bile, my shoulder's feeling better than ever, and has even grown a nice, shiny coat of fur. I also think about honey alot.

For now, I send my very best thoughts to everyone. Since I may not manage another e-mail update before the new year, have a wonderful, adventurous, fun-and-love-and-peace-filled holiday season. Enjoy the moments, wherever and whatever they are.




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