Culture – Backpackology http://backpackology.org Mon, 20 Mar 2017 01:59:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.4.11 Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale http://backpackology.org/2015/06/01/walnuts-machine-guns-a-taliban-tale/ http://backpackology.org/2015/06/01/walnuts-machine-guns-a-taliban-tale/#comments Mon, 01 Jun 2015 19:10:22 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=1554

A man with a machine gun has been following me for the last five days. His name is Zia, and he is very, very shy, especially for a man with a machine gun.

He first started shadowing me in the town of Chitral, near the end of my journey into Pakistan’s lawless Northwest Frontier—just a stone’s throw from Afghanistan. I’d come here in defiance of multiple travel warnings, determined to visit the fair-skinned, green-eyed Kalash Tribe—the legendary descendants of Alexander the Great’s invading army; lineage of the sick and wounded stragglers who were left behind for dead. The survivors created a unique animist civilization that miraculously lives on today, virtually untouched by time in an isolated valley of the Hindu Kush. While two of the tribal valleys are safe to visit, they’re precariously tucked in the Taliban heartlands, with volatile Swat and Dir to the east, and the insurgent border of Afghanistan to the west.

To make the situation even more perilous, I had come to Kalash to attend the Joshi Festival—a festival that would involve (in the Mediterranean fashion of their forefathers) drinking wine, dancing, and women showing their faces and forearms. To the furious Taliban, they might as well be Satan-worshipping prostitutes eating pages out of the Quran.

The Taliban demanded the infidels to desist and convert to Islam, but when the Kalash shrugged Muhammad off for another glass of Cabernet, the terrorists threatened to attack the festival (fundamentalist Grinches that they are).

Since the threat, the Taliban had kidnapped a Greek national in Bumboret village, and the divisional police weren’t taking any more chances with foreigners.

And thus, I give you Zia, my obligatory escort, grinning and bashful with his AK-47.

While Barbara, Eric, and Racquel (my three French and Spanish travel companions) resented their constant, armed supervision, it was pure, whimsical novelty to me.

“Zia! I’m going into this Internet Café to futz on Facebook for two hours. You stand guard for bad guys.”

“Okay, yes,” he blushed.

The road to Kalash was impossibly arduous; taking four days by bus and jeep over the Shandur Mountain Pass, which bridges the Karakoram with the Hindu Kush. By the grace of Tramadol tablets, we rumbled through foggy, high-altitude meadows dotted with yaks, past bullet-ridden walls of rustic villages, past bearded Pashtuns and women in burkas, into canyons shadowed by jagged, icy peaks wreathed in mist.

We stopped for a night in a small village called Mastuj, just south of the pass. In the candle-lit Police Station, we were forced to register in a tattered Transit Log—the back cover of which consisted of taped together Pokemon cards (I’m not kidding). According to the Log’s record, Mastuj hadn’t seen a single foreigner in over seven months—and accordingly, travel infrastructure was none existent. Bottled water was an alien concept to the village’s lonesome General Store, and I can now testify that brushing your teeth with Mountain Dew is a disgusting, self-defeating, and foamy process.

“Do you want protection?” asked the Deputy as we made our way out of the police station.

“No thank you,” Eric and I smiled. “We’re just staying the night.”

“Would you like gun?” he kindly offered.

The mountains of Afghanistan loomed forebodingly overhead as we made our final descent into Kalash. No one spoke; after constant military checkpoints, the exhilarating sense of peril had an almost narcotic effect. This was real adventure, I thought. Gulliver was a pansy.

By the time we saw our first Kalash woman, walking along the dirt road, swaddled in a technicolored, tribal dress, I counted our escort as no less than twelve armed guards: four in a truck ahead us, four following behind, and four crammed with us in our open-topped jeep.

The village of Bumboret was a rustic wood-and-stone affair, clinging precariously to the steep mountain face. Weathered, old women with more fingers than teeth swished about in vibrant, traditional costumes festooned with shells and tiny beads, and hemmed with tinkling, silver bells. Some were lugging wicker baskets of kindling on their backs, past windowless, timber huts with holes in the roofs, from which billowed fluffy columns of smoke.

It would have been a beautifully bucolic and nostalgic scene, if not for the several hundred Army and police officers milling around with assault rifles (and a few lucky rocket launchers). There were guns everywhere—filing through the narrow lanes, poking out of shrubbery, idling on the smoky rooftops behind sandbagged sniper posts.

When our motorcade roared into town, none of the villagers seemed to notice.

“It’s fun, isn’t it?” smiled Fahad, taking another sip of tea and gesturing to my escort.

“It’s fantastic,” I exclaimed, and Raquel rolled her eyes.

“You know, I’ve traveled all over the world as a photographer,” he said, “And my favorite trips are always, always, always the ‘dangerous’ ones.”

We were wiling away the afternoon over chai, with a slick, Dubai-based photographer we’d met, who had been sent to Kalash by an NGO. We listened like wide-eyed children as he described breathless adventures in war-torn Lebanon, of four-o’-clock curfews, and gun-fights with Somali warlords.

“That’s awesome!” I exclaimed, suddenly disappointed at my own exploits of waiting in line at the Taj.

“If the Taliban come,” he sighed, “Which I think they will… I bet it will be on the second day of the festival. That’s the main day, when all the villagers dance.”

Eric, Barbara, Raquel, and I fell silent for a moment, gazing off towards Afghanistan, as this reality sank in.

Finally, Fahad forced a smile. “But Steve doesn’t need to worry about that,” he chuckled. “You’ve already got the salwar, beard, and pakol. They’ll think you’re Afghani if you just keep your mouth shut and carry around a handful of walnuts!” he laughed.

Later that night, I procured a package of walnuts. It proved unnecessary, though.

That first night in Kalash, the border of Afghanistan was quiet and peaceful, glowing faintly under a million stars.

The festival began the next morning, with celebrations marked by people standing around, drinking milk, and quietly snacking on dried Mulberries and walnuts. Apparently it was a religious ritual, intended to purify the harvest. Either way, Allah must have been pretty sore about it, because the military presence had doubled.

“You’re very brave to come here,” nodded Hassan, after five hours of rampant dairy consumption. “You must think Kalash culture is extremely interesting.”

“Yes, it’s very interesting,” I assured, training my camera at a woman sitting on a bench, placidly sipping milk.

I noticed a sniper on a nearby rooftop start to doze off.

Hassan and his Pashtun cousins were visiting from Swat, and kindly invited us to join them for dinner and ~*~*~alcoholic drinks*~*~*~ at their guesthouse.

Around sunset, I was sitting on their porch with Hassan’s thirty-year old cousin, another Fahad, a dentist. He was explaining to me why Pakistani women stay at home, and why I can meet his wife, but I’m not allowed to meet Hassan’s or Ahmed’s or Irfan’s wives unless they first invite me, when I noticed him staring off at something behind me.

He was staring at the border.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I keep expecting to look up and see four-hundred Taliban marching down the mountain from Afghanistan,” he frowned.

“Oooh, that will never happen!” I uncomfortably laughed.

He shook his head. “Yes it will. You only say that because you haven’t lived it,” he muttered. “I’m from Swat. When the Taliban came in 2008, I had to leave my home. It was sudden. I only had a minute to look around my room and decide what to take. My parents were screaming…”

“That’s horrible…” I offered, fumbling for something to say.

“I had to leave my PS2, because there wasn’t enough time to unplug it.” He fell silent for a long moment, watching the sun sink behind the mountains.

I struggled to imagine being in that situation. I tried to imagine what I would do if that happened tonight. And then I imagined the Taliban breaking down the door of our guesthouse, only to find Eric, Barbara, Raquel, and a silent, pakol-wearing Afghan brother, stuffing his mouth with walnuts.

Suddenly, Hassan poked his head out onto the porch. “Guys, it’s a party! Let’s have wine!”

As if on cue, Ahmed appeared across the lawn, stalking towards us, looking pale and worried. He shouted something in Pashtun, at which Hassan’s face signaled that it was no longer a party.

Something had happened.

We stumbled from the guesthouse to find the main road calm and empty. The entire military force was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly, a jeep thundered by, kicking up dust, brimming with soldiers, weapons, and neat coils of barbed wire.

“Zia!” I cried, “Kya wa?” I attempted. “Bahut police Afghanistan jaraha ho. Kya wa?”

Zia shook his head nervously.

“Did something happen?” I stammered.

He shifted his weight, before reluctantly nodding his head, yes.

My heart was pounding in my ears. “Taliban janaa?”

He looked away, before offering another guilty nod.

The Taliban were coming.

I looked to Eric, Barbara, and Raquel, then to our four guards, then to Hassan and his cousins. No one said anything for a long while. We had no jeep, and no means of fleeing if we needed to. It seemed that our worst fears had been confirmed…We then did the only thing one can do in such a harrowing and helpless situation.

We uncorked a bottle of wine and started aggressively drinking.

White wine, at first, then red. Then, when the power went out, we lit candles and switched to paint-stripping rice liquor.

EAT THE CHICKEN!!” slurred Ahmed, to our cries of laughter.

By ten-o’-clock, we were all shitfaced. (Except the guards, despite our gleeful attempts).

EAT THE CHICKEN!!” Ahmed insisted, thrusting a drumstick in Raquel’s face.

“I’m a vegetarian,” explained Raquel.

The Pashtuns howled. “A what?”

“I don’t eat meat.” She smiled.

They didn’t understand. “Just try a little!” bellowed Ahmed, practically forcing the chicken into her mouth, until she finally took a bite.

That’s when we heard the first gunshot. POP! You could hear it echo through the entire valley, even over the cacophony of our drool-faced booze fest.

POP! POP! POP! A volley of shots, followed by another, then another.

Then it went quiet.

Ahmed put down the chicken, and our guards’ Walkie-Talkies started to crackle with voices.

Hassan shouted something to them in Urdu, which I couldn’t understand, and after an awkward moment, Barbara’s guard, Rahmat responded calmly.

“He says it’s just the Border Police, that they’re just communicating with each other,” conveyed Hassan. “They’re making sure they’re all still awake. Everything’s okay.”

Twenty minutes later, another exchange of volleys sounded.

Then again ten minutes after that.

At midnight, our guards politely ordered us to return to our guesthouse, and after much unintelligible protest, we stumbled home in the dark.

No one spoke of the Taliban, or the gunshots. Because, as Rahmat explained, it was just the Border Patrol communicating.

“It was a group of university students celebrating,” said a Police Lieutenant the next day at the festival, when I casually asked for an explanation. “Pakistanis fire guns to celebrate. Even at weddings and birthdays,“ he chuckled.

In either case, the festival unfolded without incident. We ‘Ooh’ed and ‘Ahh’ed as the Kalash drank wine and danced, spinning in circles to the rhythmic beating of drums. Then they all shook tree branches over their heads, and when that was finished, they abruptly started throwing leaves at the women. Then they spun in circles again.

It wasn’t until one week later, when I was sadly saying goodbye to Zia as I boarded my jeep out of Chitral, that I bothered to bring up the gunshots we heard that night in Bumboret.

“I’ve been puzzling over this, and I can’t figure it out,” I said. “But why would the Border Patrol be communicating with gunshots when they all have Walkie Talkies?”

Zia said nothing.

“Also, why didn’t the Border Patrol communicate with each other on the other two nights? I mean, am I really supposed to believe that it was a group of university students? That anyone would be stupid enough to start firing guns in such a militarized area, and at such a tense time? Because, even if they did, there would be fifty soldiers upon them in seconds, which doesn’t account for why the we heard shots for forty-five minutes.”

Zia shifted his weight. Adjusted his watch.

“It was the Taliban, wasn’t it?”

He looked around nervously, before his mouth curled into a giddy, reluctant smile that said it all.

“Maybe…” he nodded, before bringing me in for a long, tight Mom-hug, and I boarded my jeep to Islamabad.

The road descended from the mountains to the Peshawar Plain, cutting south through Swat, a highly volatile and dangerous region of Taliban banners and anti-American slogans.

But I wasn’t scared.

I knew the inquisitive man sitting next to me was secret police—I caught a glimpse of his badge when he was paying the fare.

Plus, I still had a bag of walnuts in my pocket.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

To learn more about the Kalash tribe, check out this story’s accompanying Photo Travelogue, “The Joshi Festival of the Black Kalash Tribe

For more gun-toting adventures with Zia, check out “Goatball Superstar, Afghan Hero,” or see a different face of Pakistan in “Kidnapped in Alipur

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Garden of the Corpse Flower: A Sumatran Jungle Quest for the Rarest Flower on Earth http://backpackology.org/2014/05/29/amorpho/ http://backpackology.org/2014/05/29/amorpho/#comments Thu, 29 May 2014 13:29:34 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=4519

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An angry, 260 pound Sumatran Orangutan is enough to spoil any vacation. To illustrate this, jungle guides in the Gunung Leuser rainforest enjoy showing visitors the scars they carry.

Jensen lifted his shirt, revealing deep laceration wounds across his back. “Mina did those,” he grinned. “This was her too,” he boasted, exhibiting a chunk missing from his wrist. “She’ll find us at some point in our trek today. She likes me.”

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In the past two years of writing Backpackology, we’ve sought out secret CIA cities, midget theme parks, and Taliban adventures. We’ve met feral jungle children, drunken headhunters, and Viet Cong cobra slayers. I’ve always strived to bring you the most scintillating caliber of adventure, because unless I feel like Indiana Jones at all times then I become incapacitated with despair.

This week, we are looking for flowers.

But flowers are for sissies, you might say.

To which I’d respond: you’re for sissies. Flowers, you see, are simply badass as fuck—simply badass as fuck. Especially, as you’re about to discover, the ones that grow deep in the jungles of West Sumatra…

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For this week’s Photo Travelogue—a botanical expedition for the rarest, most fascinating flower on earth: Amorphophallus titanum, The Corpse Flower—I’m going to show you that the kingdom of flora holds just as much wonder, violence, and mystery as the kingdom of fauna; it merely occurs on a different time scale, like a different plane of existence—an epic drama unfolding silently and invisibly beneath our noses. The premise of this drama is the ruthless struggle for light, water, and nutrients, for which each plants evolves its own unique battle strategy.

Sumatra is special for botanists in that the survival strategies of its plants are all completely horseshit insane.

Take for instance this cheery-looking vegetal:

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To survive in the nutrient-poor soils of Sumatra’s highlands, the lithe and lovely Nepenthes plant has acquired an appetite for flesh. Most often its dinner comes in the form of frogs or insects, although the larger species enjoy a menu of rats, lizards, and small birds. It hunts by emitting a sweet scent from its playfully-colored pitchers, baiting animals to peek inside, promising fun and jokes. When the prey falls into the lip of the pitcher it does not find jokes, but instead a pool of acid. The slick, waxy walls of the trap make escape impossible and thus the prey is liquefied into milkshake for the plants enjoyment.
More macabre and fascinating is the rarest flower in the world: Amorphophallus titanum—the Corpse Flower.

What makes it so fascinating?

For that we must step back to a foggy, April night in 1878, in the same Sumatran jungle in which I stand today.

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Moonlight dappled the forest floor as Italian explorer-botanist Odoardo Beccari hacked through liana vines. Beccari was a rivetingly odd man who, like many other scientists of his time, enjoyed more enthusiasm than sense. Having spent the previous two years stuffing birds into glass jars in the jungles of Papua and Borneo—contracting malaria, smallpox, and elephantiasis on one ankle along the way—Beccari was inspired to conduct the first biological survey of Sumatra. This endeavor involved tracking down majestic new species and observing how they responded to different bullets fired from his elephant gun.

Beccari was about to make one of the most shocking discoveries in the history of natural science.

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On the bank of a starlit river, Beccari stumbled upon a peculiar crimson flower blooming directly out of the ground. It was the most striking inflorescence the botanist had ever seen—bell-shaped with green ribbed sides and a dazzling scarlet-frilled margin. Rising from its center, a yellow spadix rose up like a spire.

His local porters identified the specimen.

“Bunga bangkai!” they stammered, which forebodingly means, “dead body flower.”

Beccari likely would have sealed it in a jar, but there arose an issue: This cryptic “dead body flower” was quite large indeed. While the stem rose to eight inches, the flower itself soared over ten feet in height—the largest inflorescence on earth.

Per scientific protocol, Beccari whacked it down with his machete.

He then butchered it to smithereens, scribbled some notes, and exhumed the 130lb tuber root—which was so big his journal exclaimed, “Two men could scarcely carry it!”—before dragging it back to Italy.

This is where the story gets weird.

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Nobody believed him, of course. Beccari’s 130lb potato discovery was appraised with vigorous chuckles. Undeterred, Beccari buried the tuber in soil, intent to prove his colleagues wrong.

Years rolled by. As the rest of the scientific community moved on to research things that are relevant, Beccari sadly watered his vegetable. Every spring a single leaf would sprout, growing tall through the summer and inflating his hopes, before wilting and dying by fall.

It wasn’t until 1889, after ten years of waiting, that an enormous pod burst from the soil.

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Thousands of aristocrats flocked to attend the world’s largest blossom, anticipating rare beauty and the exotic scent of Sumatra. The pod had grown so large that scientists reached the improbable conclusion that it was pollinated by elephants.

The truth—as they soon learned—was far more disturbing.

Beccari’s flower was actually pollinated by flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies.

To which a discerning reader might ask, how does a flower attract flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies?

The aristocracy of Europe was in for an unpleasant surprise.

Corpse Flower-8

The bloom began with a fat, yellow phallus erecting out of the pod, racing skyward at an astonishing 12cm per day. Reports describe scandalized governesses protecting young woman from “so indecent a sight.” Once the phallus reached ten feet in height, the flower splayed open, offending bystanders with its rancid perfume. Just trying to describe the stench, the poverty of the English language is revealed. The unambitious compare it to decomposing dog. In reality, it smells more like a dog that’s funneled a gallon of malt liquor, smoked a bong in a frat house, shit on itself, vomited on itself, violently choked on the vomit, died in a corner, and then began the slow and natural process of decomposition. The flower contains some of the foulest compounds on earth—dimethyl trisulfide (limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), dimethyl disulfide (dead body), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (Chloraseptic), and indole (mothballs).

Surprisingly it’s not the odor, nor the record height, nor the ‘giant misshapen phallus’ that makes Amorphophallus titanum so interesting…

Our hunt begins in the vibrant rainforests of Gunung Leuser, Aceh Province.

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Centuries ago the Corpse Flower may have flourished in the jungles of Aceh, but due to habitat loss, only a few blossoms have been reported in the last decade. Aside from Gunung Leuser National Park, which remains the last stronghold of the mighty Sumatran Orangutan, most of Aceh’s rainforests have been destroyed to make room for another plant…

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Harvested for their full-bodied beans, Sumatran Coffee Trees are cultivated for another purpose, to produce a horrifying beverage called Kopi Lawak—more commonly known as “Civet cat coffee” or “Petrified cat shit steeped in kettle water.” Perhaps I made up the latter name, but that’s essentially what it is: The Asian Palm Civet (more accurately a weasel) grazes on ripe coffee beans before sharting them out in malformed turds, which are collected, roasted, and sold at an exorbitant $700 per kilo—making it the most expensive coffee in the world.

I’m not shitting you.

Civet coffee is allegedly superior to normal coffee because the civets only select “the highest quality beans” (which I doubt, as Civets are also known to eat garbage). Marketers also claim the beans undergo fermentation in the animal’s digestive system, where enzymes penetrate the bean and “improve” the flavor profile (hahaha).

Corpse Flower-11

Cutting south from Aceh, we trace the Barisan mountain range to Bukittinggi in West Sumatra—the heartland of the Corpse Flower.  It is region of soaring volcanoes, raging rivers, deep caves, steaming hot springs, and the highest caldera lake in Southeast Asia—though these attractions are an afterthought for most visitors, who come here for one reason:

The bizarre and breathtaking flora.

Corpse Flower-12

The truth is that Amorphophallus titanum isn’t really the largest flower in the world. In fact it isn’t even a flower. It’s actually a spadix of many flowers (like a lilac) wrapped in a spathe that resembles a giant petal, making it the world’s “largest un-branched inflorescence.”

The title of “world’s largest singular flower” belongs to another denizen of West Sumatra…

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Spanning a meter in diameter and weighing twenty pounds, the Rafflesia arnoldii is a stem-less, leaf-less, root-less holoparasite. Like most cool things, it is extremely rare and can only grow on vines of the Tetrastigma plant, marauding it of nutrients. While its vendetta against the Tetrastigma plant remains unexplained, what is known is that the Rafflesia pollinates by mimicking the smell of a rotting corpse to attract flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies—much like the Amorphophallus.  For this reason it is also dubbed “The Corpse Flower,” however the Corpse Flower we’re hunting is far more elusive—and the reason why is spectacular.

Corpse Flower-14

In order for an Amorphophallus to reproduce, there must be another Amorphophallus blooming at the exact same time in close proximity—which is highly, highly unimaginable. The reason why—and the reason why our quest is so daunting—is that the Amorphophallus titanum only blooms for twelve hours once every ten years. Because of this, and the fact that it can only grow in the remote jungles of West Sumatra, the Amorphophallus titanum is purported to be the rarest flower on earth.

West Sumatrans speak of it as if it were a phantom. Putra Dawot—a trekking guide who spends most of his time in the jungle—has only seen three Corpse Flowers in his entire life. Ulrich Rudolph—a local horticultural enthusiast and organizer of botanical tours—has only seen the flower twice.

Though my odds of seeing one appeared slim, I had an Ace up my sleeve:

I had met a random dude in an online chatroom named “Al Dava” who said he knew of a Corpse Flower about to bloom in the woods outside his cousin’s village.

“That’s called a scam,” explained Ulrich.

“He said he didn’t want any money.”

“Usually when a Corpse Flower blooms everyone in Bukittinggi knows about it months in advance. It’s a huge event,” Ulrich scratched his head. “Have fun getting raped, I guess.”

The next afternoon, Al Dava picked me up on his motorbike and we drove into the countryside.

Corpse Flower-15

Al and his cousin belonged to the Minangkabau of West Sumatra—a matrilineal tribe famous for their buffalo worship and exotic, soaring rooftops. Insisting that the flower only blooms at night, Al detained me in his cousin’s hut all day, asking me endless questions while his aunt force-fed me offensively spicy eggs.

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When you’re trekking through starlit jungles with a flaming bamboo torch in one hand and a machete in the other, flower hunting seems a rugged and manly pastime. An hour had passed—an hour of fording muddy rivers, ripping leeches out of blood-soaked socks, and stubbing our toes over roots in the dark—when my nostrils started to burn. Either the Amorphophallus was close or we were nearing Al’s previous victims—the stench of corpses curdled the night breeze.

Yelling pierced the darkness as Al and his cousin dashed ahead. When I caught up they were standing on the edge of a clearing.

In the pale moonlight, a massive inflorescence towered overhead, its magnificent yellow spadix and scarlet frills soaring up from the forest floor. The smell was heinous beyond imagination. Like burying your face in the ass crack of a trucker.

Al squealed with delight, “Incredible!”

For a long moment we all stood there in silent awe.

Then the Sumatrans lost interest, before they started chain-smoking cigarettes and throwing rocks at bats.

“Mister! Mister!” Al shouted. “My cousin says there are many more blossoms like this.”

“Right now?”

“He says he sees them all the time when he comes to collect betel nuts.”

“He’s mistaken,” I chuckled.

The man stammered in Indonesian.

“He says you can see tomorrow.”

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The next morning Al’s aunt appeared with more spicy eggs, before Al’s cousin showed me another Amorphophallus titanum.

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And then another…

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And then another—this particular specimen stood an incredible 10”3’, but wilted and collapsed just before we found it.

While the abundance of blooms could be a matter of lucky timing, I theorize that the Corpse Flower’s blossoms were bio-synchronized…

By the scientific authority vested in me by Wikipedia and the wise Google Search Engine, I now present to you my “Bamboo Alarm Clock Theory:”

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Bamboo poses a number of mysteries for scientists; the most scintillating of which is that every 65-100 years, an entire sub-species of bamboo will flower and then die en masse. What makes this so unbelievable is that regardless of each plant’s geographical location—be it in the forests of Sichuan, an arboretum in Amsterdam, or a hippie’s bathroom in Williamsburg—every single member of that species will flower and die at the exact same time, in perfect synchronicity, as if by hocus-pocus Jesus trickery. Scientists are positively dumbfucked.

One theory suggests a sort of cellular alarm clock. I suspect that Corpse Flowers use this same alarm-clock mechanism to coordinate blooms, ensuring that they can pollinate within such a stunted time frame.

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But that still doesn’t explain the hundreds of non-blossoming Amorphophallus titanums we found in the forests outside Palembah village—an impossibly higher density than any of Sumatra’s national parks or the celebrated Palupuh Botanical Reserve. What’s most astonishing is that nobody seems to know about it—not even the local villagers, who were instead killing off the giant flowers out of fear, believing it caused a horrifyingly titled “skin-fall-off sickness.”

Off course this was nonsense, which Al demonstrated by vigorously rubbing the flower’s spathe with his face (then screaming in pain to his cousin’s alarm) (then laughing for several minutes at his clever joke).

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I’ve since written to the World Wildlife Federation, UNESCO, and Indonesian National Park Services (PHKA), informing them of Palembah village and suggesting that the forest be surveyed and considered for reservation status.

I hope that some day Palembah jungle makes it to magazines and documentaries as the Palembah Amorphophallus Titanum Reserve. I hope that some day this special place doesn’t end up like Aceh, or Riau, or the other three million hectares of Sumatran rainforest that disappear every year—chopped down by loggers or coffee farmers and squandered for a $700 bag of weasel shit.

For now, the jungles surrounding Palembah village remain an unsung natural wonder, a West Sumatran travel secret, the last garden of the Corpse Flower.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For an ill-fated jungle misadventure in search of a rare monkey, check out the travel story “Bungle in the Jungle, Five Days in the Hide: A Search for the Rare and Elusive Nasalis Larvatus

Or check out more fun facts and pretty photos by heading to Borneo in the geological Photo Travelogue, “The Biggest Darkness: A Journey to the World’s Largest Cave Chamber” Or peruse from other titles by clicking the “Photo Travelogues” tab at the top of the page.

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Slumber Party with Headhunters http://backpackology.org/2014/02/21/headhunter/ Fri, 21 Feb 2014 16:19:50 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=4400

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Steel flashed in the jungle mist. JoJo clenched his machete, fighting through rattan vines as the hog path lured us deeper into the Borneo rainforest. He nervously glanced over his shoulder. “Mister. There aren’t any headhunters left. It is 2014.”

I wacked at foliage with my blade. “Headless bodies have been found,” I exclaimed. “Over a hundred reports in the last ten years. How do you explain that?”

The translator shrugged. “Tigers.”

“Tigers!”

He nodded.

“And the ones with their hearts cut out?”

JoJo cursed under his breath. “Asiatic bears,” he said. “I do not know. I am not scientist.”

A tribal longhouse appeared through the greenery, built of wood and palm-thatch over soaring ironwood stilts. JoJo sheathed his blade.

“If these rumors are true, if headhunters do exist, this is where you’ll find them,” he grimaced, beckoning me towards the entrance.

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“Dayak people creep me out,” JoJo whispered.

Light shafts sliced through the dim and dusty longhouse, exposing tribal carvings, hanging baskets, and family portraits involving bone piercings and feathers. Battling the Pier 1 Imports vibe were chintzy Jesus posters, a 1998 calendar of the Twelve Apostles, and a sickly plastic Christmas tree next to some headhunting swords.

I didn’t know how to broach the topic of “Do you guys still cut off people’s heads around here,” so I made small talk with the tribespeople, complimented their Christmas tree and creepy portraits, and then asked if they still cut off people’s heads around here.

Apa!?” recoiled an old man with a whimsical beard.

JoJo repeated the question.

The old man mumbled, rolling his eyes.

“Did he say yes?”

JoJo stared blankly. “No, he didn’t. He says there’s no violence here.”

The old man mumbled confusedly, stroking his beard.

“He says the headhunting happens downriver in Pahauman district, near Pontianak, at the Saham Longhouse.”

My jaw fell off.

“He says they are very dangerous and kill many people, even women and babies. Once they killed a whole village in Sambas. He says it’s on Youtube.”

“Wicked!”

“He says you don’t want to go there though. Emotions are high.”

“Of course not,” I nodded. “What was the district?”

Skulls-3

“I need to get to Pahauman!” I told Pontianak Travel.

“I need a translator!” I told Borneo Adventures.

“I need a translator to take me to Pahauman!” I told Mentari Tours.

“HA HA HA HA!” they replied. “No.”

“But I’m writing an article about the headhunters!” I said. “I’m a journalist sort of!”

Suddenly no one spoke English.

“I will take you!” cried the young man at the bus office. “But under one condition: that you don’t mention Madura while we’re there.”

“What? Okay!” I cried. “Are you a guide?”

“No, I only sell bus tickets,” he muttered. “But I can take you and you can pay me forty dollars.”
“I’m Steve,” I said.

Saiful was a young Malay guy with a peevish grin, a few missing teeth, and the motor skills of a drag racer on ketamine.

“What happens if I mention Madura!” I screamed as our motorcycle blurred out of Pontianak. “What’s that mean!”

“DON’T TALK ABOUT MADURA, THAT IS BAD,” shouted Saiful, cutting off a truck. “They want to kill people from Madura!”

“What’s Madura!”

Saiful explained that Madura is a sandy, poverty-stricken shithole off the coast of Java with a devastating overpopulation crisis and no natural resources. To solve the problem, the Indonesian government instituted a policy called “Transmigrasi,” relocating Madurese people to islands like Kalimantan and Papua, which were low-density and abundant in resources.

The result was a bunch of uneducated, urban Madurese islanders being plunked down in the middle of the Borneo rainforest with the vague instructions to build a farm, but without any experience or know-how to do so. The government provided them shitty shanty homes that would fall apart after three years, along with the vague promise of financial aid—though this vanished through the Indonesian crazy-straw of corruption and most people were unable to buy basic equipment or even fertilizer.

With no food or means of income, the Madurese settlers took the easiest course of action available—robbing and pillaging from their neighbors. Petty crime and murder rates boomed. Illegal logging burgeoned and massive swaths of rainforest evaporated in months. The logging roads left behind damned rivers, creating malarial swamps, devastating the jungle ecosystem.

Seeing as Dayak culture is based entirely on the jungle—which provides them food, shelter, medicine, and other basic needs—it’s complete destruction was not appreciated.

Bigotry blossomed into hate crimes, culminating in 1997 when Madurese people stabbed several Dayaks at a concert. Dayak retaliation came in ritual form, as a ceremonial “Red Bowl” was passed from longhouse to longhouse—a signal calling the tribes to war in a time of emergency. This looked like the last scene of Pocahontas, except there wasn’t a John Smith and the natives started decapitating all the settlers.

Skulls-4

Dayaks overran the police and West Kalimantan ignited in genocide. Amidst the roiling smoke and bloodshed, the old tradition of headhunting was reborn.

While I still haven’t watched the alleged Youtube video, I’ve since read countless articles and reports detailing the conflict surrounding Pahauman—stories of pickup trucks full of Dayaks waving severed heads; photos of Madurese villages reduced to cinders; reports of babies being lanced on parang blades and road blocks killing any fleeing Madurese. In a macabre flourish, some of the victims’ hearts were plucked from their warm bodies and eaten by the Dayaks, who believed this would give them magic powers.

In the span of ten years, over one thousand Madurese were murdered in Kalimantan, with hundreds of thousands more displaced from their homes. Somehow the outside world never cared to notice.

Today things are more peaceful, Saiful assured. “There aren’t many Madurese left here. The Dayaks killed two-hundred in Pahauman and the rest fled back to Madura.”

I shook my head in horrified disbelief. “Was coming here a dangerous idea?”

“Are you Madurese?”

“No.”

“Then it’s okay!” Saiful cheered.

I swallowed hard. “”How are you sure? Have you visited Saham Longhouse before?”

“It’s okay!” he repeated, leaning on the accelerator.

Skulls-5

An elderly tribeswoman gazed down at us from the longhouse verandah, her decrepit breasts airing in the breeze.

“Do exactly as I do,” warned Saiful. “These are very conservative people with many rules called adat. ”

“Like?”

“Like, if you see a pretty girl inside and she waves to you, don’t have sex with her, or else you must give her family two pigs and a gong. That is adat.

“Got it,” I said, noting this in my Moleskine.

Saiful pointed to a wooden statue.

“Now before we enter the longhouse, you must kiss the guardian idol.”

“Is that part of adat?”

“No.”

I did as instructed. The old woman let out a shriek.

Orang Barut! Orang Barut!” she cried, before scampering out of sight.

“I lied. You don’t kiss the statue. Ha Ha Ha Ha,” Saiful chuckled, before barging into the longhouse.

We were greeted at the door by a mob of staring Dayaks, replete with intricate tattoos and plunging earlobes.

I shifted my weight and smiled. “Hello.”

The Dayaks pointed down the longhouse. Saiful nodded. “This way. We must speak with the chief.”

I followed Saiful down the long, long, long communal living hall, past endless family apartments, past fishing traps and dusty barrels, past a group of old man chewing beetle nut and splitting rattan vines. Upon reaching the last apartment, Saiful pounded on the door.

A cry came from the other side.

“The chief is coming,” announced Saiful.

I nodded, nervously cradling my machete.

Skulls-6

The door flew open, revealing a stubby man in a Hawaiian shirt. “I am Albertus!” declared the little Dayak. He had a receding hairline, a porn-star mustache, and a great, big smile that flickered between friendly and terrifying.

We bowed our heads.

“Welcome! Where are you from?” the chief cried, ushering us into his quarters—a treasure trove of woodcarvings, dusty artifacts, and evocative tribal deities. “This is one of the oldest longhouses in Borneo,” he exclaimed. “We have over two hundred families here.”

“Oh.”

“Sometimes Dayaks make tattoos that have magic, so parang cannot hurt us. My father had many tattoos. But then he died. The magic of his tattoos still lives inside me though.”

“Oh?”

“Why did you come here?”

“Wow, these carvings are incredible!” I smiled, picking up a grimacing idol. “Did you do these?”

“I made that one with adat ritual. It has magic.”

I admired the detailing. It looked like it belonged in a museum. “How much?”

“It has magic. Too expensive.”

“How much.”

“500,000 rupiah,” he winced—$16.

I flung him some bills and he exploded with excitement.

“Wow! You are my friend!” he cried. “Is that parang?”

“What?”

He pointed at my blade. “Give it to me,” he stammered.

I eyed the man cautiously. While he seemed charming (especially for a genocidal chief of headhunters), I still couldn’t shake the fact that he was a genocidal chief of headhunters.

I passed him the machete.

The blade flashed out. Albertus flicked the sword in the air, ran his finger along the edge, and then examined the plain wooden scabbard. “No design,” he said.

“Can you make carvings on that?” I pleaded.

“What do you want?”

“Something with more magic! I want magic!”

“You cannot have. Is not okay.”

“Well then what about a demon or something.”

“Mm,” he nodded. “Okay. You must stay the night!” he announced. The blade clacked back in the sheath and Albertus stalked out of the room.

I turned to Saiful, “What a nice guy.”

He wobbled his head, “Probably not.”

“You think he’s dangerous?

He shrugged. “Dayak culture is complicated… We should try to stay on his good side. Be careful.”

Skulls-7

As the sun sank over the jungle, beds were laid out on the chief’s living room floor. A bag of chisels appeared, and as intricate tribal designs began twirling across my parang, the master craftsman explained the rules of adat and the importance of Dayak hospitality.

Soon the tribespeople returned from the rice paddies, along with the chief’s two sons, and a special feast was prepared.

“Dayak food,” smiled Albertus’ wife, porting out a pageant of bowls—spicy fish sambal, chicken and potato curry, crispy fried tofu, stir-fried ferns, a bowl of dead birds, a plate of snails, and a dozen other unidentifiable yet delicious jungle treats.

Despite our protests, the family refused to start eating until Saiful and I had polished our plates. They insisted this was non-negotiable. This was adat.

“This is incredible,” I cried, picking apart a charred tangle of limbs with eyes. “Is it frog?”

“No,” Albertus smiled. “That is loud bird. Very special. You are guests.”

Food writer Anthony Bourdain once wrote that the most honest window into a culture is through its cuisine, but this is a poetic lie.

There’s a much better inroad.

Paul shimmied up a palm tree in the pale moonlight, clenching an empty bucket with his teeth. After much cursing, he reappeared with a frothy, yellowish liquid that reeked of rubbing alcohol and sadness. This nectar was then paraded down the longhouse to Paul’s friend’s apartment, where the noise of drunk Dayaks hit us like a foghorn.
“HELLO!” they roared, sitting with cups on a reed mat. A frazzled-looking woman stood in the corner, angrily frying rice cakes.

“Sit,” Paul instructed, as a dozen hands shot in my face.

“I’m Steve,” I smiled.

“Steep. Steep,” they attempted.

“Welcome to my home!” cried a guy my age. “I am Thomas!”

“I am from Brazil!” screamed a tattooed man. “I am Mr. Bean!” he alleged, and the Dayaks all fell over laughing.

Saiful stared in horror.

“DRINK!” shouted Thomas, thrusting palm wine in our hands. “You love tuak!!

“No!” Saiful recoiled.

“Cheers!” I cried, slamming back my cup.

Instantly my face crumpled. I guess I was expecting something delightfully tropical, because, well, they got it out of a palm tree.

“BWAAAAAHHHH!” I moaned.

The Dayaks cheered.

It was like drinking the anal discharge of a coconut.

“I am from Bangladesh!” roared Mr. Bean. “I am Islam!”

The Dayaks fell over in hysterics again. “Islam! Islam!” they laughed, slapping their knees. “He is crazy man!”

The woman in the corner turned and belted out a scream, prompting the men to laugh harder.

“That is my ex-wife!” shouted Thomas, handing me another cup. “DRINK!”

“BWAAAAAH!” I complied.
“You have very big nose!” someone exclaimed. “Very good, big nose!”
The Dayaks all nodded, muttering in admiration.

“Does it rain every day in America?”

“How do you like Kalimantan?”

“You are our brother!”

“DRINK!”

“BWAAAAH!”

“I am Mr. Bean! I drive taxi to Australia! I not speak any English!”

“BWAAAAAH!”

As tuak flowed, the conversation withered deeper into absurdity. Everyone grew louder and more unintelligible, except for Saiful who remained sober, and Paul who turned out to be a morose, Hemingway drunk.
“People think that I am bad people!” he moaned to no one in particular. “But I am not bad people!” He turned to me. “Steep,” he whispered. “Do you think I am bad people?”

“Why would you say that?”

He stared pleadingly.

Perhaps they knew why I was here.

“Uh…” I mumbled.

None of the Dayaks I’d met seemed capable of decapitating migrants—with the possible exception of Thomas’ ex-wife. They didn’t seem like natural born killers. If anything, they seemed gentle and charismatic.

There was something naggingly familiar about adat and the emphasis on hospitality and vengeance. It was nearly symmetrical to the Pashtunwali code of Pakistan and Afghanistan—a place where I was feted with similar kindness. Perhaps in such remote and unforgiving terrains, where the reach of central governance crumbles into tribalism, these ancient laws afford us a glimpse into our raw and often violent human nature.

Or perhaps Paul was just a bad people.

Skulls-9

Skulls-8

At around 5AM I was awoken by a woman trying to feed me rice out of a crumpled leaf. I had passed out on the longhouse floor. The woman turned out to be the neighbor, who had taken the liberty of preparing me sticky rice for breakfast.

Before saying goodbye, I found Albertus in his quarters. He was sitting beneath a window, sanding my parang, which was now adorned in beautiful, curling motifs.

“Every carving has story and meaning,” Albertus muttered, handing me the sword. “The story of this design is about safety and bravery. If you can stay for one week, I will make you better parang to scare your enemy.
“I think this will do nicely,” I smiled, tying it to my waist. “Thank you. How much for this?”
He shook his head, “Whatever you want.”

I fumbled with my wallet. “This is also for the lodging,” I said. “And for the food… And for the tuak…” I pulled out a twenty.
Albertus exploded with excitement. “You are my brother,” he beamed, touching his heart and bowing.

Paul and Thomas walked Saiful and I down to our motorcycle, where we shook hands and bid sad farewells.
“WAIT! WAIT!” came a cry.

Albertus barreled down the stairs, grinning with his hands behind his back. “Wait! For you! A special gift.”

“You don’t have to—“

Albertus held out two new carvings.

My jaw fell as my stomach turned in fear.

“We must go now,” stammered Saiful.

“Wow,” my voice cracked as Albertus placed it in my hands. “What… What’s the meaning behind this carving?”

A devious smile flitted across the chief’s face. “It is too, too long story,” he said. “You please come back again. I tell you next time, brother.”

Before I could manage another word, the chief threw us hugs, waved one last time, and disappeared into Saham Longhouse.

As our motorcycle purred to life, I stared down at a wooden head. Its lifeless eyes gazed back at me, its face bent in a demonic grin, its lips curled back revealing curved, hidden fangs.

Perhaps Paul was a bad people.

Skulls-10

**************************

Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For a tribal adventure from Pakistan, hop into cars with Pashtun strangers in, “Kidnapped in Alipur

To learn more about the tribal code of the Pashtuns, immerse yourself in “The Way of The Pashtunwali”

Or check out the Giraffe-Necked Women of the Paduang tribe in Burma’s “Human Zoo

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The Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri http://backpackology.org/2013/10/29/junglegirl/ http://backpackology.org/2013/10/29/junglegirl/#comments Tue, 29 Oct 2013 15:18:01 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=4152

Cambodia’s ‘Wild East’ is many things; it’s the leafy thwack of a machete over thundering waterfalls; it’s the pounding of tribal drums as a shaman slits the throat of a buffalo; it’s the scent of frangipani and the swish of a tiger’s tail; it’s the seduction of Apocalypse Now adventure floating in the steamy jungle heat. Some people come here to find a forgotten way of life governed by animism, spirits, and magic. Others come to trek the jungles in search of rare primates and exotic birds.

I came here to find a little girl.

On a cool October morning in 1988, eight year-old Pnieng Rochum and her younger cousin vanished near the remote village of O’Yadao in Rattanakiri province. While small footprints were discovered at a nearby stream, no investigation was made. The parents blamed the disappearance on jungle spirits and focused their energy on sacrificing buffalo.

Nineteen years later, a “half-woman, half-animal” stumbled out of the dense jungle near the village of Ten. She was naked, covered in dirt, and walking with an ape-like stoop. The villagers described terrifying, bloodshot red eyes, skeletal arms, and extended fingernails, which she hungrily used to pick rice out of the dirt.

When the story reached O’Yadao, Pnieng’s parents rejoiced—apparently this description matched their little girl.

“It was the happiest moment of my life,” recalled Pnieng’s mother, Rochom Choy. “I looked into her eyes and knew this was my long lost daughter.” Pnieng’s parents were even able to identify a scar on her arm, where her sister had accidentally cut her as a child.

On January 14, 2007, Pnieng and her family were reunited and the world media descended like bees, hungry to uncover a tale of hope, perseverance, and inspiring triumph.

Unfortunately such heartwarming tales don’t exist in Cambodia, and every time Pnieng’s parents tried to touch the girl, she’d begin screaming like a mental patient, ripping off her clothes, and fleeing towards the jungle. This led some journalists to suggest that Pnieng was balls-out fucking crazy.

“Deeply traumatized,” clarified one psychologist, “She is still coping from unknown events that unfolded in the jungle.”

As new developments emerged, the story grew stranger.

An early witness reported that when Pnieng was discovered, she was with a naked man holding a sword. Pnieng’s parents insisted the man was a jungle spirit. More likely, argued a British journalist, Pnieng had been kidnapped by a crazy naked guy in the woods. There were deep scars around her wrists and ankles that suggested she had been tied up. Perhaps her secret past was less like The Jungle Book and more like Deliverance.

The truth remained a mystery: Pnieng didn’t speak, nor would she make eye contact. She almost seemed catatonic, only muttering soft whimpers and animal squeaks.

Her parents feared that the jungle spirit was trying to reclaim her.

And then one morning, Pnieng disappeared again.

This is where the story gets weird.

Pnieng returned nine days later… But as a changed woman. She was now smiling, singing songs, and acknowledging visitors. One psychologist reported that she “uttered something that sounded like words,” in response to a game involving toy animals. In an even stranger development, she seemed to understand a few words of Vietnamese and Jarai, suggesting she’d spent time across the border.

Pnieng was starting to recover, but her doctors assessed it was too early for answers. Only in time would Pnieng Rochum reveal her mysterious past.

A few days later, Lindsay Lohan exposed her crotch at a nightclub and the Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri was forgotten by the world. The journalists flew home and many mysteries were left unsolved. How did Pnieng survive for nineteen years in the jungle? Why wasn’t she killed by tigers, snakes, or malaria? Did the Jungle Man really exist? What is it like to see an eight year-old little girl slaughter a monkey with her bare fists? What happened to Pnieng’s missing cousin? What does monkey taste like? How did she end up in Vietnam? Can people really swing on vines? Why does the media think anyone cares about Lindsey Lohan?

My ramshackle bus rumbled out of Phnom Penh and into the verdant countryside, kicking up clouds of red dust on the rugged road to Rattanakiri. I was going to find answers. I was going to connect the dots of The Jungle Girl’s secret past, to finally bring closure to one of the greatest Wild Child cases ever reported. I was going to try to find Pnieng Rochum.

“Do you have her cell phone number?”

“I don’t think she has a cell phone,” I muttered. I tore a page out of my notebook and handed it to my fixer. “Here’s her name and the name of her parents. That’s all I’ve got.”

“Good,” Mr. Smiley nodded, “That’s all I’ll need to find her.”

To facilitate my research and interviews, Mr. Smiley booked me a translator for three days.

My translator’s name was Ponleak and he was a good-humored, friendly and highly likeable Khmer guy. He was twenty-four and his hobbies included yelling, abruptly laughing at nothing, and asking me to inspect a photo of his newborn baby every thirty minutes. He would have made the perfect translator, except I had to ride on the back of his motorbike all day and he smelled like poo. Also, he didn’t speak English. At least not with any proficiency.

She lived in the jungle for nineteen years,” I slowly explained for the fiftieth time.

“What?”

“She was in the jungle. She lived in the jungle. Trees. Trees! For nineteen years!

“Jungle.”

“One-nine. Nineteen.”

“OOOH! Yes, yes!” Ponleak grinned.

I could tell when Ponleak didn’t understand me, because his voice would shoot up an octave and he’d go: “OOOH! Yes, yes!”

My hunt for answers began near Ten village, where Ponleak guided me into the jungle. In the weeks preceding Pnieng’s capture, several villagers reported food going missing, suggesting she was living here for some time.

It wasn’t particularly cozy.

The dense foliage was suffocating. It felt like walking through a broken carwash. I found no gamboling elephants or happy butterflies like I imagined, but instead an angry gauntlet of leeches and spiders. To survive these conditions for even a month seemed inconceivable. To survive it for nineteen years, Pnieng must have been a Jedi. She must have been strong, cunning, and vicious, a pigtailed, eight year-old She-Rambo.

An evocative, tribal rooftop soared out of the greenery. We emerged at a clearing, into a scene from Heart of Darkness. Standing before us were several deserted tribal structures adorned in blood-red patterns, buffalo horns, and the sculls of animal sacrifices. Stern totems stood sentinel, depicting beasts, soldiers, and one pregnant woman with her hands bound and throat cut. At her feet were strewn broken pots, woven baskets, dirty rice bowls, and beer cans.

If I were a crazy, sword-wielding naked man in the woods, I imagined this would be my real estate. “The jungle spirit!” I celebrated.

“No. Chunchiette,” Ponleak corrected; it was a graveyard of the Jarai tribe; these were animist spirit-houses where the dead received offerings.

I asked Ponleak to inquire with the local villagers as to whether they’d seen any naked militant lunatics about.

They had not.

Perhaps there wasn’t a “Jungle Man,” but one detail was haunting me: when Pnieng emerged from the jungle, her hair wasn’t long and wild, but short and straight.

Who helped cut her hair? Who was she with in the jungle?

I awoke early the next morning to a phone call.

“I can’t find her,” muttered Mr. Smiley. “I called many friends.”

“Did you check in O’Yadao?”

“No.”

I grumbled.

“Her family is Pnong minority!” he cried. “Pnong move around a lot. All the time.”

“Well then I’ll go to O’Yadao and ask.”

“O’Yadao is a very big, big district!” Mr. Smiley scoffed. “So many people. What are you going to do? Walk around with her picture asking people if they’ve seen her?”

“No. I don’t have a picture.”

“Ha!”

I sat up in bed. “The girl walks around like a baboon and makes creepy noises. It can’t be that difficult.”

Ponleak parked the motorbike outside a noodle shack in O’Yadao.

“O’Yadao!” he announced, before screaming at the noodle-lady in Khmer.

The noodle-lady replied something and pointed to a stilted hut three doors away.

“The girl lives there.”

**************

Pnieng’s sister ushered us into the hut’s main room—a modest space furnished with reed mats and a rickety table, on which an ancient television blasted cartoons.

Ponleak rapped against the timber walls, nodding with envy. “Very, very nice house.”

Next to the television, Pnieng sat on the floor, idly examining her fingers. She was now thirty-three.

Upon noticing me she smiled and gave a slight nod.

“Hello,” I waved. “Are you Pnieng?”

She looked at me for a long moment, before returning to the intrigue of her fingers.

We were informed that she was tired; she’d spent the entire afternoon ripping out her own hair.

Oh yeah, Pnieng was bald.

A woman appeared out of the kitchen, carrying metal bowls and hollering like an Italian mother. She placed the food on the floor in front of Pnieng—a bowl of flaccid, boiled kale and a mound of rice. She pointed to the dishes and bellowed.

Pnieng inspected her fingers.

The mother hollered again, taking Pnieng’s chin and guiding her head in the direction of the food.

Pnieng immediately descended on her meal, picking up fistfuls of rice and leaves, stuffing her face.

The mother sat on the floor across from us. She looked exhausted. Ponleak provided introductions and Pnieng’s mother, Choy, agreed to field my questions.

I opened my notebook. “Can you ask her what they’ve uncovered about Pnieng’s history in the past six years?”

Ponleak stared at me. “Why do you care?”

“What?… I don’t know! Because it’s interesting.”

Ponleak cocked his head.

I huffed. “Because Wild Child stories are important. They afford us a glimpse into our own primal, uncorrupted humanity. They reveal to us–”

“OOOH! Yes, yes!” Ponleak nodded, before yelling something at Choy.

Choy nodded and explained.

“Wow!” Ponleak turned to me. “She says girl was in jungle very, very long time!”

I put down my pen and took a deep breath. “Can you ask her how does she think her daughter survived in the jungle for so long?”

Ponleak shouted at the woman.

Choy launched into an epic story.

“Oh, wow!” cried Ponleak.

Her voice grew louder and she started gesticulating.

When she finally finished, Ponleak turned to me. “She doesn’t know.”

“She just talked for three minutes!”

“I don’t know how to say in English.”

I groaned loudly.

Ponleak’s face crumpled like he was about to cry. “I’m so sorry, sir!” he pressed his hands together in a sompiah. “I only speak little, little English, sir! I’m very, very sorry!”

“It’s okay! It’s okay!” I gushed. “You’re doing very good. So good! Can you ask her how old Pnieng was when she disappeared?”

I knew the interview was doomed, but I already had the answers I came for. Simply looking into Pnieng’s eyes, her story was disturbingly obvious.

I’m not qualified to draw any scientific, psychological, or experiential conclusions about Pnieng’s case. Nor am I entitled to make ungrounded, possibly disparaging public statements regarding her family and personal life. It’s not my job to do so.

So I’ll just do it as a hobby.

There is no evidence to suggest that this girl is Pnieng Rochum. Instead, there is only evidence to suggest the contrary. What doesn’t  add up is the fact that this girl looked like she was in her forties.

That, and the fact that she was profoundly autistic.

This wasn’t PTSD. If everyone who suffered an unspeakably traumatic event transformed into a whimpering, finger-counting potato, then America wouldn’t have any opposition in Afghanistan.

This girl was born this way and grew up in a Jarai village. This would explain the scars on her wrists. Life is cheap in the jungles of Cambodia and children born with mental disabilities in poor minority villages aren’t given special attention or WalMart staff aprons. They get bamboo cages and rope restraints. It’s sad, but true. If Rain Man were born in the Wild East of Cambodia, he would have been chained to a post. Like several famous Wild Child cases, Pnieng was likely kept in solitary confinement, refused of any human contact and never trained in language, social skills, or upright walking. Children who aren’t properly acculturated in infancy usually never grasp these basic abilities. Instead, they behaved much like the Jungle Girl—walking with a stoop and uttering soft whimpers and squeaks.

About a month before Pnieng’s discovery, she escaped her restraints and fled into the jungle. But she couldn’t have survived long. You can’t take down a 300 lb. tapir by examining its fingers. She wasn’t a killer. To survive for any considerable length of time, she would have developed lean muscle. Instead she looked anorexic.

Another possibility is that a male family member was with Pnieng until her capture—the “Jungle Man.” The Jarai are often illegal refugees escaping religious persecution in Vietnam. Many of them live in hiding in the jungle and are keen to avoid exposure to authorities. Perhaps when the male family member saw the villagers, he abandoned the girl to save himself. This would explain the short hair, as well as why she understood Jarai and Vietnamese.

When Pnieng’s parents arrived, they hadn’t seen their daughter’s face in nineteen year. They didn’t have photographs to keep their memories fresh. Perhaps they could recall Pnieng’s face perfectly and this girl was a match—but probably not. I suspect the parents simply loved their child more than words could describe and were willing to do anything to get her back—even if it meant lying to themselves.

When the interview was finished, Choy helped up Pnieng and we followed them outside to a small wooden shed.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Choy opened the door to the empty wooden box, pushed Pnieng inside, and then locked the door behind her.

“She says the girl stays here so she not run away,” Ponleak nodded.

“Wait,” I muttered.

Choy  smiled, reopened the door, and displayed the wooden cell, shining a flashlight in Pnieng’s frowning face.

“She keeps her daughter locked in a cage?!” I blurted.

The mother closed the door, waved us goodbye, and wandered back into the warm house.

“That’s totally fucked!” I said. “That’s… I don’t even…”

“Yes, yes,” agreed Ponleak.

He stared for a minute, then suddenly leapt forward. “Oh no! She forget!” he cried and locked the door of the shed. “Okay, we go?”

“The girl is deaf,” Pnieng’s doctor said, leaning back in his chair.

My jaw dropped.

“Whether or not she’s Pnieng is another question,” he continued. “Your theory seems very likely; I think this girl was probably abused or tortured.”

When I arrived at the doctor’s office, he was reluctant to talk to me, but irritating persistence won the day.

“I don’t want further media attention,” he frowned. “It distresses her. Her parents exploited her to get money from journalists. Then when the journalists left, they started asking us for money. They wanted Psychologists Without Borders to support Pnieng, but…” the doctor shifted in his chair. “We stopped researching her two years ago. Nothing was happening. We can’t honestly say who she is. The journalists tried to give her a DNA test, but we stopped them.”

“You what?!”

“The parent’s still say it’s their daughter, but they stopped believing the words a long time ago. I think they’re starting to reject her. It’s very sad. If the test proves it’s really their daughter, then nothing changes. But if she’s not and the parents throw her out, then what happens to this girl?”

A long, black silence followed. The doctor opened a drawer and fished out a business card. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Please contact Mr. Hector, he was the primary researcher. He’s in Spain now.”

I thanked the doctor and we shook hands.

“I hope you’ve found what you’re looking for,” he offered.

“I don’t know,” I muttered.

I never contacted Mr. Hector.

I still don’t know for sure what happened to Pnieng Rochum. I think we’d all like to believe the story that this little girl survived for nineteen years in the jungle. It reassures us that the human spirit is powerful enough to tame the forces of nature, that the things we’ve loved and lost may one day be returned, that hope is never truly dead. But deep down we all know it’s only a story. And for the Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri, this story ends where it most likely began—not with swinging vines, growling tigers, and swashbuckling courage, but with a poor little girl betrayed by fate and family, whimpering and alone in a wooden cage, somewhere in the forgotten Wild East of Cambodia.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

If you’re not depressed enough already, check out “The Human Zoo” in Burma

For another (funnier) jungle misadventure in Laos, watch me torture my intern with landmines in “Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons

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Poodles & Noodles: A Gastronome’s Guide to Vietnamese Food http://backpackology.org/2013/10/24/poodles/ http://backpackology.org/2013/10/24/poodles/#comments Thu, 24 Oct 2013 14:30:38 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=4071

Going to a Vietnamese restaurant and ordering Pho is like going to a French restaurant and ordering a baguette. Sure, it’s a tasty meal, but you can do much better.

Vietnamese cuisine is one of the finest in the world, but also one of the most under-represented. For the uninitiated, this makes Vietnam the culinary equivalent to a glory hole—it might look shady and you wont know what you’re getting, but the adventurous shall be rewarded.

From the succulent seafood of Haiphong, to the dainty steamed rice cakes of Hue, to the soft summer-rolls of Saigon, Vietnamese cuisine emphasizes light, vibrant flavors with fresh, local ingredients. This makes writing a foodie guide extremely difficult, as the cuisine is insanely regional. For example, one of the dishes below can only be made in one small city, using water extracted from only one specific well.

The following guide contains what I believe to be the twenty-five best, most distinctively Vietnamese dishes, arranged by region instead of course, as a culinary roadmap to Vietnam.

To understand Vietnamese food, you must first understand Nuoc Cham.

NUOC CHAM (DIPPING SAUCE): Nuoc Cham is Vietnam’s national condiment, a heady mixture of garlic, sour lime juice, salty fish sauce, sweet palm sugar, and spicy chili. The Vietnamese pour the stuff on e-ve-ry-thing. Nothing is holy. Nuoc Cham is to the Vietnamese as ketchup is to people who laugh at Larry the Cable Guy.

Northern cuisine closer resembles the cuisine of China than Southeast Asia, with noodles, soy sauce, and sour vinegar shaping a rustic flavor profile.

BUN CHA (BBQ PORK & NOODLES): The Vietnamese have discovered the meaning of life and they call it Bun Cha. It’s basically a giant cereal bowl filled with Nuoc Cham. And just when you thought things couldn’t get better, you discover that there are delicious patties of grilled pork submerged in it! Your Oh-Great-Bowl-Of-Sauce is served with sides of vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, and fried crabmeat spring rolls, which are dunked in the sauce and eaten with the pork.

NEM RAN (FRIED SPRING ROLLS): Despite the lies you were told by Panda Express, Spring Rolls are as Chinese as Freedom of Speech.
Vietnam’s most famous export involves deep fried rice paper rolls stuffed with vermicelli, pork, shrimp, crab, vegetables, oil, oil, and oil. Sometimes they’re transcendent. Other times, they’re just soggy tubes of grease. The best ones are wrapped in thin vermicelli paper, fried extra crunchy, wrapped again in fresh lettuce or herbs, and dipped in Nuoc Cham.

BAHN CUON (Stuffed Rice-Noodle Roll): Some people describe Banh Cuon as a “Vietnamese Crepe”—but they deserve to be slapped in the face by a Frenchman. Instead picture a giant, square sheet of rice-noodle wrapped around seasoned meat (usually pork) and buried beneath a handful of fried shallots. It’s very tasty, especially when doused in Nuoc Cham.

PHO (VIETNAMESE NOODLE SOUP): You could say I’m not “bowled over” by Pho (pronounced fuh). It has nothing to do with the taste—the broth stewed with cow bones is hearty and delicious, and the noodles and meat are perfectly accentuated with herbs and fresh, crushed peppercorn. My problem with Pho is my blanket hatred of all noodle soups. I enjoy noodles and I enjoy soup, but when they’re placed in the same bowl, it offends me on an elemental level.

THIT CHO (DOG MEAT): There’s no better way to start the morning than eating a whole basket full of puppies. While the littlest ones have tiny bones that are crunchy, their meat is wonderfully tender, because they’re so innocent.

In all seriousness, if you can get your head around the fact that it’s Mr. Fluffy you’re picking out of your teeth, then you’ll find dog meat to be surprising delicious, with all the richness of pork and all the gaminess of venison. For many, dog meat raises the ethical question of which animals are acceptable to eat and which are not. Does such a line exist? Eating dog is slowly losing popularity in Vietnam (especially amongst the younger generations influenced by Western culture), and is usually only eaten at the beginning of the lunar month, when its considered good luck.

BANH GOI (Vietnamese Fried Dumplings): Vietnam’s response to Indian samosas. It’s basically a pork spring roll made with fried dough instead of rice paper. It’s as super awesome and bad for you as it sounds.

Central Vietnamese food is perhaps the most sophisticated, drawing culinary inspiration from France, China, Japan, and its Southeast Asian neighbors to produce a flavor that’s uniquely Vietnamese. The portions are small, the flavors are bold, and the chili is fiery.

BANH HUE (Royal Rice Cakes): While most chefs would accommodate a picky eater with a plain noodle soup or a sandwich, this never occurred to the royal chefs of fussy Emperor Tu Duc. Instead they decided that the most logical course of action would be to fossilize individual shrimps in glass-clear cubes of pounded glutinous rice, like Dr. Grant’s mosquito in Jurassic Park. Perhaps they were fucking with the Emperor. Either way, their dimsum-esque creations are popular in the old capital of Hue, where you can choose from a wide gamut of visually beautiful, delicious ‘Banh’ rice cakes. The most delicious are Banh Khoai, Banh Beo, Banh Loc, and Banh Uot.

CAO LAU (HOI AN-STYLE SOBA NOODLES): CAO LAU WILL BLOW YOUR FACE OFF AND YOU WILL WEEP WITH JOY. Take chewy Japanese-inspired noodles, add mouthwatering Cantonese-style char-sieu pork, sprinkle it with Southeast Asian herbs and spices, and then top it off with a French-inspired reduction sauce and crispy fried “croutons.” Just trying to describe it, I nearly cream my boxers. In a unique twist, the dough of the noodles is made with timber ash, imbuing a smoky note. Might that be carcinogenic? Absolutely! But holy hell, is it yummy.

Sadly Cao Lau is only made in the old port city of Hoi An, using water drawn from one specific well. The universe is cruel.

CHAO TOM (SHRIMP PASTE GRILLED ON SUGARCANE): Who doesn’t love a tasty shrimp paste Popsicle? Not this guy. Chao Tom involves rich, decadent shrimp paste grilled on sugarcane. You’re supposed to roll it up in rice paper with herbs and veggies, almost like a tortilla, then dip it in a spectacular Vietnamese peanut sauce. DO NOT attempt to eat the sugarcane skewer like I did. I managed to bite off and swallow two large chunks of it before my waitress ran over to laugh at me.

NEM LUI (PORK & LEMONGRASS SKEWERS): The same thing as Chao Tom, except with delicious grilled pork and lemongrass instead of shrimp paste. The skewers were made of wood, which was much harder for me to swallow.

CAO LAU AGAIN!!! CAO LAU, YES! CAO LAU ALL OVER MY BODY.

MI QUANG (SPICED NOODLES WITH PORK, SHRIMP, & PEANUTS): There seems to be a correlation between the amount of soup in my noodles and the scope of my rage. Fortunately, Mi Quang only uses enough broth to moisten its tasty ingredients, which include rice noodles, pork, shrimp, peanuts, banana blossoms, herbs, and a tangy annatto sauce. I might go as far as to say I recommend this noodle soup.

BUN BO HUE (SPICY BEEF & PORK NOODLE SOUP): Goddamn noodle soups! This was probably the least interesting of the ones I tried, but some people lose their shit over it, so here it is. Noodles, beef, and pork mingle in a reddish broth flavored with chili, lemongrass, shrimp sauce, and annatto. Pffffffff. Shrug.

BANH BAO VAC (HOI AN “WHITE ROSE” DUMPLINGS): Perhaps in retaliation for China stealing the spring roll, the Vietnamese hijacked the Cantonese steamed dumpling. It’s obscenely tasty. The only innovation is that you dip it Nuoc Cham.

The South is the breadbasket of Vietnam and its abundance of fish, herbs, and vegetables means you’ll find bigger portions. Local ingredients emphasize freshness, color, and flavors that veer on the sweet side.

BANH MI (VIETNAMESE-STYLE SANDWICHES): I don’t recall the last time I’ve been so enchanted by a sandwich. This southern specialty is a glorious pairing of French and Chinese colonial influence: a crispy baguette is stuffed with various manifestations of pork, vegetables, cilantro, pork crackling, and chili. Mayonnaise moistens, soy sauce imbues ‘umami,’ and the flavors are anchored with a generous slathering of pork paté. Some people are put off by the abundance of fatty pork. They’re stupid.

BANH XEO (VIETNAMESE RICE CREPES): Banh Xeo is like sad, make-believe Mexican food. It’s still very tasty—I just wish it were buried in cheese and sour cream. The dish involves bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp fried into a crunchy shell made of rice flour and turmeric.
Resist the urge to eat it like a taco. Instead, place it in your rice bowl and mutilate it beyond recognition with your chopsticks. You then roll the fragments in rice paper with vegetables and herbs and dip it in Nuoc Cham or glorious peanut sauce.

BUN BO NAM BO (NOODLES WITH BEEF & PEANUTS): Bun Bo Nam Bo crams all the most iconic flavors of Southeast Asia into a single bowl; it can’t decide what it wants to taste like, so it decides to taste like everything all at once. Dry noodles are seasoned with mangoes, fried shallots, lime, garlic, lemongrass, pepper, tender beef, and just enough sour tamarind broth to moisten. Aside from having a having a cool name, Bun Bo Nam Bo is absurdly tasty.

HU TIEU (CHINESE-STYLE NOODLE SOUP): I take back what I said about Bun Bo Hue—this is my least favorite noodle soup. Soggy vegetables and cheap cuts of pork float unattractively in a boring, generic broth. Sometimes they use better cuts of pork or fresh seafood, but no one’s writing songs about it. Allegedly it’s a Vietnamese interpretation of a Chinese dish. I can’t think of any dish I had in China that resembles this, but for that I am thankful.

BUN THIT NUONG (NOODLES WITH GRILLED MEAT): Grilled marinated pork skewers with herbs and vermicelli noodles. It’s like a southern Bun Cha, EXCEPT DROWNED IN CREAMY, DELICIOUS PEANUT SAUCE HURRAY FOR PEANUT SAUCE.

GOI CUON (FRESH SUMMER ROLLS): Southern-style “summer rolls” emphasize fresh flavors. Unfortunately, these flavors are all quite boring. Unseasoned vermicelli noodles are wrapped in rice paper with bland pork and boiled shrimp. It lacks the glorious calories of its deep fried, northern cousin.

Ha Long Bay might draw the crowds and historic Hanoi may feature on all the postcards, but anyone can tell you the real highlight of Vietnam: Caffeine, Sugar, and Alcohol.
Save room for dessert.

CAPHE SUA DA (VIETNAMESE COFFEE): Vietnamese Coffee is strong enough to power a motorcycle, or at least get your hands shaking uncontrollably. While the grounds used aren’t special (typically cheap Robusta beans), the coffee is brewed to cocaine-like potency and sweetened with condensed milk. I’m not a coffee drinker, but this stuff is like chocolate-flavored crack. Perhaps I just like condensed milk.

BIA HOI (VIETNAMESE “FRESH” BEER): A Bia Hoi joint is a ghetto, Vietnamese beer garden, except the ‘garden’ is a dirty sidewalk strewn with litter and everything is in miniature. You sit on a tiny, plastic kiddie stool at a tiny, plastic table and purchase $0.25 pints of beer with colorful Vietnamese Monopoly-money. The experience feels perversely infantile. It’s like Fisher Price’s “Baby’s First Dive Bar;” the fact that the locals are always shitfaced only enhances this illusion of a kindergarten.

CHE (SUGARY ICE DESSERT-THINGY): “Che” is a word used to describe many dishes—from pounded rice cakes to syrupy soups to icy dessert cups. If you order Che Thap Cam, you’ll get a bowl of crushed ice topped with mixed fruits, syrups, coconut cream, pandam leaf, a parade of gelatinous mystery-items, and best of all, sweetened condensed milk.

I realize I’m only staying in Asia so that I can drink condensed milk everyday without seeming strange.

Vietnam boasts an enormous cuisine whose variety dwarfs the likes of Thailand and rivals the great kitchens of India and China. While it can’t compare in size, it compensates with ingenuity and regional flair. Inspired creativity is the hallmark of the cuisine. To indulge a trip along Vietnam’s coast is to indulge in an innovative and ever-changing menu.

So the next time you find yourself in your local Vietnamese restaurant, consider giving Pho a pass. Dig deeper. Travel your taste buds. Feast on rich Bun Cha noodles with pork. Explore the exotic fusion flavors of Cao Lau. Try asking the server for a nice basket of crunchy puppies. Most likely, the flavors will astound you. And in the unlikely event that they don’t… just dip it in some Nuoc Cham.

***********************

Backpackology has a Facebook page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For a culinary tour of Thailand, check out “A Wok to Remember: A Foodie’s Guide to Thailand on a Budget

Then grab some Imodium and tuck into a curry with “Inhaling India (A Diarrhea Adventure): A Foodie’s Guide to India on a Budget

Or just watch this video of me gagging on traditional Chinese wine made with animal penises: “The 1,000 Year Old Egg & The Three Penis Wine

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Steve McDonald Pokes Death In The Face With A Stick For Your Reading Entertainment: A Cobra Hunt http://backpackology.org/2013/10/16/cobra/ http://backpackology.org/2013/10/16/cobra/#comments Wed, 16 Oct 2013 16:42:55 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=3983

DISCLAIMER: No animals were harmed in the making of this story.

*Except for the cobra that I vanquished with scissors. Oh, and the rat that I smashed against a wall and ate.

*************

“Take it!” Tai exclaimed, thrusting the serpent into my hands.

I ran my fingers along its smooth, black scales. “Is it poisonous?” I asked.

“Yes! Ha Ha!” he cheered.

“What!” I gripped its tail, flinging it out at arm’s length.

Tai howled with laughter. “Poison, but no die!”

We were standing in a village snake market in the Mekong Delta, perusing a female vendor’s wares. I handed her back the snake.

“Ah! Here he is!” cried Tai, crouching before a wire cage. “He’s very expensive, so today we’ll catch a wild one for ourselves. If we’re lucky.”

I stooped over and gazed into the eyes of a large cobra.

“It’s beautiful,” I whispered.

“It is,” nodded Tai, before smacking the cage to piss it off.

FSSS! The cobra lunged into the bars. It reared up, spreading its elegant hood.

“Put on your sunglasses,” said Tai. “Or he will spit venom in your eyes and it will be bad.”

“Woah, cool!”

“I don’t know why you are very funny, stupid tourist,” Tai informed me, and I tried to remind him that my cobra-hunting mission had a more important motivation than thrill seeking.

The Vietnamese believe that a man who drinks the blood of a cobra gains certain ‘qualities.’ You must first rip out the cobra’s heart—still beating, Temple-of-Doom-style—and drop it in a shot of rice liquor laced with cobra blood. You then proceed to drink the beating heart, before eating the snake for dinner. If you manage to keep it all down, it’s supposed to bestow you with great strength and virility; it will make you a real man.

The simple truth is that eating a beating heart ripped out of anything—anything at all, even a little rat—cements your title as a “real man.” This appealed to me, as I’ve historically been somewhat of a cupcake. I possess the upper body-strength of Gumby. Sometimes I shave my chest.

While there were countless snake restaurants in Hanoi, the ritual had been reduced to a tourist trap—an expensive gross-out photo-op stripped of any cultural meaning. If I was serious about becoming a real man, I would be better off journeying to the Mekong Delta, catching a cobra myself, humanely killing it myself, cutting out its heart, putting it in a shot of rice liquor and blood, and then slamming it back before eating the snake. Surely this was the pinnacle of manhood. Surely a handlebar mustache would sprout out of my peach-smooth face, my voice would deepen to a sternly growl, and the next morning I’d happily awaken with tattooed biceps and a keen interest in the affairs of racecars.

A friend from Saigon had referred me to two former Viet Cong captains, who ran a homestay in the Delta and offered to facilitate my cobra hunt.

Tai was a jovial, talkative man in his fifties, with a big, brown smile from chewing betel nut. His geriatric brother “Uncle Tran” didn’t speak much English, but proved to be one of the warmest, most hospitable mass-murderers I’ve ever met.

Tai opened a box of medals. “My brother Tran was a two-star Viet Cong captain! He killed 178 enemy soldiers!”

I smiled nervously. “Oh, wow!”

Uncle Tran curled his wrinkly fingers into a gun, training an eye on me. “Boom! Dead!” he grinned. “Boom. Dead! Boom. Dead!”

I nodded. “That’s so good!”

He kindly laughed, before preparing me a bowl of fresh fruit. “Eat! Eat!” he insisted.

I obeyed.

Uncle Tran was a real man.

Tai’s motorbike rumbled out of Tan Tach village and into the lush backwaters, crossing wooden bridges over coffee-colored canals, fringed by droopy palm trees and floating with rice barges and wooden canoes.

Before beginning our cobra hunt, Tai brought me to the village snake market, where he rattled on cobra cages, proclaimed the infinite dangers of snake hunting, and then tried to shanghai me into purchasing an expensive riverboat tour instead.

“My ass,” I told him—though I knew his concerns were warranted. My shenanigans could easily get us blinded by a spitting cobra, bitten by a cobra (which kills in fifteen minutes), bitten by one of the other fifty venomous snakes that infest the Mekong Delta, infected by malarial mosquitoes, or sickened by water-borne parasites. Adding to the fun were the hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs and landmines that U.S. forces showered across rural Vietnam during the war. These unexploded ordinances still pose a deadly threat to the Mekong’s inhabitants, but in the realm of the cobra, snakebites are responsible for even more amputations than the landmines.

Tai parked on the side of a dirt road next to a vast, yawning rice paddy.

“Roll up your pants,” Tai instructed, before handing me a hefty, bamboo stick.

Despite my enthusiasm, I really had no idea what cobra hunting entailed. I imagined it involved me wearing black face paint and a sweet bandana like Rambo, clenching a knife in my teeth, wrestling a giant serpent in the rice fields.

This was grossly inaccurate.

Cobra hunting involved walking around aimlessly in the mud for hours on end, swatting at clouds of mosquitoes, and sweating profusely under the baking Vietnamese sun.

This held my interest for all of four minutes.

After three hours, I started whining.

Occasionally Tai would scream “oooOOH!!!

And I would lift my pole and cry, “WHAT!?”

And he’d say, “Oh. Nothing. Never mind.”

At the very least, carrying a big stick with intent was fun.

“I know much better place where we can find many cobra,” Tai decided.

We hopped back on the motorbike and rumbled down the dirt road, through rustic, palm-thatched villages, past sleepy bamboo groves and old women in rice hats pedaling bicycles.

We pulled up to Uncle Tran’s farmhouse, where I was promptly handed a gun. After receiving a brief, non-verbal marksmanship lesson from Uncle Tran, Tai announced that I was ready to walk around the farm and shoot at things.

Somehow, despite the promise of a loaded weapon, this was even more tedious and boring than the rice field.

After three hours of quietly looking at different trees, Tai pointed to a concrete bench riddled with holes.

“There!” he exclaimed.

I fumbled with the gun. “Where’s the snake?!”

“No, one time I hid behind that bench when the American helicopter was shooting at me.”

“What?” I lowered my gun. “You told me the Mekong was full of cobras!”

“It is,” Tai cried. “But cobras only come out at night.”

“What!”

“I said they only–”

“I heard! Why are we hunting in the day, Tai?”

He shrugged. “I tried telling you about the riverboat cruise.”

“Well then we’re hunting tonight!”

“But cobra hunting at night is dangerous.”

“Yeah, there are actually cobras!”

“You don’t know about cobra,” Tai shook his head, turning back towards the farmhouse. “We can hunt tonight,” he sighed, “But you must come see something first, please…”

We parked in front of a small hospital, where Tai pointed down a shady footpath. “Go look at that tree. You see it? I’ll wait here.”

I wandered down the path to a small, nondescript tree surrounded by a pool of water.

I eyed it blankly. I leaned forward to take a closer look.

When I finally realized what I was staring at, it was too late.

FSSSS! The cobra lunged at me.

I flew back, my heart pounding.

The tree was covered with perfectly camouflaged cobras.

I took a step closer.

FSSSS! It lunged again, spreading its hood.

When you’re staring into the fangs of a hissing cobra, your mind unlocks an extra bonus level of fear that’s difficult to articulate with words.

There’s something powerfully hypnotic about a cobra’s hood; there’s something deeply primal about the body’s hard-wired response. Despite my love for snakes, an alarm bell sounded in my subconscious. My hands began to tremble.  My stomach twisted and adrenaline roared through my veins. My body was screaming at me, warning me that those black, unthinking eyes were the very eyes of death.

Run!” it screamed.

I picked up a branch and poked the snake.

FSSSS!!

“Wow, cobras are terrifying!” I gasped, returning to the motorbike.

Tai nodded. “Now do you see that this was a very dangerous idea?”

“Absolutely,” I said, checking my watch. “What time will we start hunting?”

Pale moonlight sliced through the palm trees as we strolled the banks of the canal, armed with slingshots, sticks, and flashlights. Joining us were Tai’s four young sons, who were just as tough and stoic as their gentle, murderous uncle.  I watched as they shimmied up palm trees, leapt over canals, and at one point the oldest son dove into the river fully clothed and swam to the opposite bank, just so he could hit a frog with a stick. He then attempted to stuff the frog into his bag, but it escaped into the river with a crooked leap, and the younger brothers began cursing him in Vietnamese. I could tell they were real men too.

Eventually the boys began shouting and pointing up into the tree cover.

“A snake!” I cried, raising my stick.

Tai aimed his slingshot into the tree cover and fired.

THUD!

An enormous rat landed at me feet, stunned.

I stared at it.

“Quick! Throw it in the bag!” Tai instructed. “Grab it by the tail so it doesn’t bite you!”

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!

I smashed it with my stick.

“No! No!” cried the boys.

The rat flopped in place.

I grabbed it by the tail and bounced it off a cement wall.

“Stop! Stop!” they screamed.

I held up the vanquished rat. “Look! Look it!” I cried.

Tai frowned, “Now it will be difficult to cook.”

I stuffed it in my bag. I felt like a man.

The cobras never made an appearance, but all was not lost—foreseeing this potential outcome, we stopped on the way home from the hospital and purchased a cobra from a random woman standing on the side of the highway. Unlike the more regal specimens I’d encountered, this was a smaller, less menacing, Fisher-Price cobra.

Normally one would cut out its heart while it was still alive, but I wanted to kill the snake quickly and humanely.

Heeding Tai’s suggestion, I did this by snipping off its face with scissors. It appeared to do the trick, and the snake stopped protesting.

I then went about removing the snake’s heart, which was like dissecting a frog in science class, except there were condiments.

“Cut the skin along its belly,” Tai explained.

I jammed the scissors into what I imagined to be skin and snipped.

CRUNCH!

It was not skin.

It was everything.

The snake burst open like a piñata, spewing guts and intestines onto the floor.

“Oops!” I shouted, before losing scissor privileges.

Tai flayed the snake.

I pointed, “Is the heart still beating?”

“Who cares about the heart?” he smirked, selecting a greenish organ from the entrails.

“What’s that?”

“A kidney.”

“Cool!” I grinned. “What’s that for?”

I then watched in horror as he ripped apart the organ, squeezing the snake’s smelly, awful gastric juices into my shot glass, which was already defiled with blood and Vietnamese moonshine.

“Ha Ha, cheers!”

Tai placed the glass on a tray, before preparing a dozen more shots. He then carried them to the dinner table, where they festered at room temperature for over an hour.

I examined the ruby liquid with trepidation, allowing the humiliating possibilities to play out in my head. I imagined myself vomiting blood across the dinner table at Tai’s wife, before fleeing from the table in shame, squealing like a ninny, as the men laughed and licked their shot glasses clean.

When the snake had been boiled down to a soup, I gathered around the dinner table with Tai, his wife, his boys, Uncle Tran, and a few other men who stumbled out of the rice field without any introduction.

“You boys do the honors,” said Tai, placing the most rancid-looking glass in front of me. He handed a second glass to his eldest son.

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Cheers,” we smiled and clinked glasses.

I slammed it back.

It tasted like salty, iron-rich, bottom-shelf vodka.

“That’s not so bad,” I smiled, wiping my mouth.

The Vietnamese fell over laughing, clapping their hands.

“Ohz muh gawd!” stammered one of the random men.

Tai’s son pounded the table, suppressing gags. His brothers began screaming at him in Vietnamese, before he forced it down and gave a thumbs up.

“Again!” cheered Tai, “Again!” He placed another glass before me.

“Do it with me!” I shouted.

“Mm,” Tai looked away. “No, I’m okay.”

I turned to the others. “Okay, who wants one?”

Silence.

I looked around. “Uncle Tran! Do a shot with me!”

The hardhearted war veteran grumbled in Vietnamese.

“Uncle Tran says that’s really gross.”

“Seriously?” I cried. “I don’t want to drink all the rest of these shots myself.”

Crickets.

“It’s not that bad!” I baited. “Anyone?”

The men examined their dinner plates.

I drank all the rest of the shots myself.

Despite the volume of cobra blood I consumed, a glorious mustache did not sprout out of my face, nor did my voice deepen to a respectable baritone. And when I awoke the next morning, I sadly discovered that I still didn’t care about racecars.

Furthermore, I had a paralyzing hangover.

While the cobra blood was a disappointment, I still managed to impress a room full of canal-leaping, enemy-scalping, helicopter-dodging, Viet Cong action figures. So while I might not be a “real man” yet, for a minute or two there, I certainly felt like one…

At the very least, my pan-fried rat with garlic was a taste-sensation.

************************

Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For another shot glass of nightmares, check out “The 1,000 Year Old Egg & The Three Penis Wine

To hear more about my whimsical death wish, take a trip to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in “Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale

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Saigon’s Buddhist Disney World: The Theme Park Equivalent to Hard-lining Angel Dust http://backpackology.org/2013/10/08/disney/ http://backpackology.org/2013/10/08/disney/#comments Tue, 08 Oct 2013 14:12:52 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=3943

Saigon is an unsung paradise for theme park connoisseurs. It’s like a Southeast Asian Orlando, except all the theme parks are aggressively Buddhist-themed and hilariously bat-shit insane.

My main reason for coming was the multi-billion dollar Suoi Tien Theme Park—a Buddhist rip-off of Disney World, replete with stern religious mascots, a plunging waterslide out of Buddha’s mouth, and the usual rides, like “Mystery of Acrobat-Witch Forest,” “God of Soil Temple,” and a large, inexplicable statue of a transgendered apple wearing a mustache and lipstick.

“It sounds amazing!” cried Espen.

Andreas and Espen were two animated, young Norwegian guys who agreed to join me on my circuit of Saigon’s ‘Big Three’ parks: Suoi Tien, Dam Sen Water Park, and—our first stop—the unpopular and bizarre Dai Nam Wonderland.

Passing through the entrance gate, we were greeted with an auspicious statue of a cobra holding money and wearing a hat—the significance of which escaped us.

I unfolded my park map. Dai Nam was a world unto itself, containing a theme park, a water park, Buddhist temples, a zoo, a few resorts, shopping complexes, a shuttle system, and the largest man-made lake in Vietnam. It’s a similar experience to Disney World, except you’re the only visitor in the entire park.

I pointed to the map.  “Ooh, let’s start with that ride!” I scanned the summary, “The Five Phoenix Discovery makes tourists feel like being lost in the heaven. After visiting, you will understand what the samsara incarnation is, predict how your next life is, and choose a karma of rebirth.”

It looked like a kiddie ride. I wondered what they’d forecast for my next life; perhaps I’d be drinking apple juice with Buddha in ‘the heaven.’ We entered a rainbow building shaped like a phoenix, where we found a diorama of mechanical Chinese deities frowning and pointing to a sobbing Vietnamese woman.

“I think it’s a fun-house,” said Andreas, following an arrow down a staircase.

We descended into the dark, black-lit basement, where we were greeted by blood-curdling torture-screams. The arrows appeared to be leading us into Buddhist hell.

According to ‘Five Phoenix Discovery,’ my next life will be a pageant of demonic puppet torture porn.

Espen and Andreas fell over laughing.

We walked through a jerky, robotic holocaust of dolls being bashed to death with rocks, sawed in half length-wise, disemboweled by demons, mutilated with table saws by giant chickens, and several other acts that I’m simply at a loss to describe.

This was not a children’s ride. On the contrary, any bright-faced youngsters that might wander into this building would reemerge with the haunted, granite eyes of a war veteran. To make sure of this, the park installed a surprise-interactive component: while the visitor is gaping in horror at the dioramas, the speakers let out a shriek, “BLALALALA!” and a foam ghost rockets out of the shadows on a zip-line, passing inches over the guests’ heads. Unfortunately, this effect was designed with hobbit-sized Vietnamese people in mind—not towering Scandinavians.

WHACK!

“AHH!” Espen flailed as a foam ghost slammed into his face.

“Ha Ha, this ride sucks!” laughed Andreas.

“I know, it’s great!” I grinned. “They have an ancient Egypt ride too!”

“No way! What–”

WHACK!

“AHH!

The puppet-snuff was quickly losing its novelty, so I proposed we try the pleasant-sounding ‘Five Unicorn Palace’ —Dai Nam’s Buddhist interpretation of ‘It’s a Small World.’

Our inflatable raft drifted through a dark tunnel into ‘Five Unicorn Palace.’ We emerged amidst a colorful jungle. Miniature volcanoes glowed, mechanical apes chattered, and neon dinosaurs rotated in place to a cheery melody.

“Wow, it’s sort of like ‘It’s Small World!’” I told Espen and Andreas.

The happy song continued as our tiny boat floated past the dinosaurs, past tableaux of cavemen, then ancient civilizations. We saw Amazon hunters, Chinese warriors, and smiling Vietnamese villagers, before arriving to our shiny, modern age.

Then the happy music faded into murder screams.

“Uh oh.”

Our boat drifted through a green tunnel and arrived in what looked like a Buddhist revamping of ‘The Human Centipede.’

“Goddamit.”

The speakers were deafening. I shielded my ears as our boat glided through the demonic splatter-fest.

Espen shielded his head.

I realized that we were witnessing the Buddhist ‘five stages of being’—life, death, reincarnation, hell, and…

I pointed to the upcoming tunnel. “That must be nirvana!”

Our boat drifted through the tunnel and into a meth addict’s nightmare, acted out by crappy mechanical puppets. The demons were replaced by dangling flowers, rainbow velociraptors, and an offensive depiction of a Jewish man making a fist. Some of the puppets were malfunctioning—their limbs flapping pointlessly, their eyes rapidly winking as if having a stroke.

“What the fuck is that,” Andreas pointed.

I turned my head. “It appears to be two giant Aztecs in dayglo body paint dancing next to a tree covered in faceless heads.”

“Oh. I thought so.”

Our boat lead us to a polka-dotted egg vomiting a projectile stream of plastic babies. Then abruptly the ride was over.

We decided to skip ‘The Great Dragon God Maze,” as we could hear the screams from outside. It seemed that all the rides in Dai Nam Wonderland were exactly the same; that is, all except one—the park’s most popular attraction.

The advertisement for ‘Snow World’ read as follows: “You have ever dream of seeing real snow, touching snow, getting the falling snow flower or playing with snow. Snow World will surely satisfy all your dreams. The adorable snowman, funny penguins of arctic appear in the Snow World will take you to another world.”

“All our dreams?!” cheered Andreas. “We gotta go!”

Before entering ‘Snow World,’ we were forced to change into thick winter jackets, wool gloves, and heavy rubber boots—all of which seemed very unnecessary. At first.

In retrospect, I understand why ‘Snow World’ is their most popular ride. For people living in the tropical oven of Vietnam, seeing snow must be as awe-inspiring as seeing the Aurora Borealis.

However, if you don’t live in a tropical oven and snow is not an exotic concept to you, ‘Snow World’ is just a blisteringly cold walk-in freezer decorated with plastic snowmen, Santa Clauses, and—for whatever inconceivable reason—Pikachus. The most impressive part of ‘Snow World’ was that it had drawn enough crowds to trample the artificial snow into a sheet of filthy, compacted ice.

“This is awesome!” cried the Norwegians. “It’s like home!”

“I can’t feel my face.”

Espen and Andreas were puppet-ed out, so I made my way to Suoi Tien alone.

Located next to a smelly garbage dump on the side of a highway, Suoi Tien Theme Park aims to give visitors the magic of Disney World and a conflictingly somber religious experience at the same time. Needless to say, I was the only one there.

I wandered through the entrance, passing ice creams carts, religious shrines, and silent rollercoasters. I passed a knock-off Disney Castle juxtaposed with multi-armed Buddhist deities. I passed incense-laden altars, an animatronic Confucius, and a hideous, Disney-esque mouse character, whose droopy, paralyzed face made it look like he had cerebral palsy.

The best part of visiting a Buddhist theme park is that there are no lines. The worst part is that most rides require a minimum number of passengers to operate.

“No!” stammered the rollercoaster lady as I handed her my three dollars. “Five… You. Buy. Tickets. Five. Five. Tickets.”

“Fuck that.”

“Five. Tickets. Five.”

“I’m not paying fifteen dollars to ride a shitty rollercoaster. Do you really think five people are going to show up here at the same time?”

“Tickets. Tickets. Five.”

Also closed was the ‘Midair Bicycle’ ride, which allowed guests to peddle across a wire suspended over a pool of giant, circling crocodiles.

I was fortunate enough to get into the ‘Strange Creature Display,’ which was like a mix between a zoo and Auschwitz. The squalid, cement cages reeked of shit and a dozen of them were stuffed to capacity with bats, turtles, and monkeys (sometimes all at the same time). The only thing ‘Strange’ about the display was the curator’s bizarre fixation with porcupines—cages upon cages of porcupines. Porcupines everywhere. SO MANY PORCUPINES. I’ve never seen so many in my life.

At the front of the demented zoo, a man sat on a performance stage reading a newspaper. Behind him, two signs advertised daily shows—one involving animals doing circus tricks in humiliating costumes, the other showcasing a presumably unhappy dolphin who is made to jump through a hoop that’s engulfed in flames.

I pointed to my watch. “Four o’clock. Is the show starting now?”

The man shook his head. “Only if fifteen people.”

Fifteen people!” I scoffed.

Of the remaining rides, most seemed uncannily similar to the ones in Dai Nam Wonderland (but with more impressive production value and even less taste). Not that it made a difference—both parks were completely abandoned.

What made Suoi Tien so weird wasn’t just the absurdity of its concept, but the spectacular scope and ambition with which it was executed—that fact that millions upon millions of dollars were funneled into such an impossibly stupid project without anyone considering, not even for one minute, that it was a completely awful idea. I tried to imagine a Christian equivalent, a waterslide thundering out of the Virgin Mary’s gaping maw, a Ferris Wheel of St. Catherine, an afternoon parade of Roman’s dragging Jesus across the park. I also tried to imagine an Islamic version, an angry mob of Egyptians chasing the meet-and-greet Muhammad with torches and pitchforks.

The grand irony of it all is that Vietnam isn’t even a Buddhist country. It’s not even religious—less than twenty percent of the population professes a faith. Suoi Tien would have reached a larger Buddhist audience if it had been built in Hoboken.

I wondered if anyone was actually amused by ‘Snow World.’ I wondered if anyone was frightened by the animatronic blood orgies. I couldn’t imagine. The Vietnamese dodge landmines for breakfast. Simply crossing the street in Saigon is infinitely more horrifying.

I decided not to visit Dam Sen Waterpark. If I truly wanted to scare myself, I’d be better off heading to the Mekong Delta and trying to hunt for cobras.

I bought my bus ticket that night.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For an equally demented theme park outing, check out China’s Dwarf Kingdom in “Three Words: Midget. Theme. Park.

To hear about the weirdest restaurant in the world, click on over to “Fringe Chronicles: Tried to Order Dinner in Tokyo. Got Assaulted By a Man in a Frog Costume Wielding a Puppet Instead

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“Are You a Tourist or a Traveler?” http://backpackology.org/2013/10/03/touristy/ http://backpackology.org/2013/10/03/touristy/#comments Thu, 03 Oct 2013 17:02:06 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=3872

“I’m just glad to be off that fookin’ island!” shouted Jon in his Irish brogue, slamming down his beer.

“But you were only there for a day,” I smirked. “I don’t get it. Everyone else loves Cat Ba.”

“That’s because they’re a bunch of fookin’ wankers,” he mumbled.

We were sitting at a sidewalk bia hoi joint in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, down a crumbling alleyway near the old Chinese East Gate.

Jon leaned across the table. “It’s as simple as this: are you a tourist or a traveler?”

“Semantics.”

“No. Are you a tourist or a traveler? Do you know the difference?”

“Sure,” I said. “Travelers are pretentious tourists. Also they wear Toms and eat vegan.”

“What? No!” he shook his head. “Cat Ba is designed for fookin’ tourists, not travelers! Travelers want to immerse themselves in the fookin’ culture and have a real, authentic experience.”

I peeled the label off my bottle. “Sounds pretty pretentious to me.”

Until recently, I was annoyed by people who distinguished themselves as ~*~*travelers*~*~ instead of tourists—as if that made them more intrepid and cultured than the rest of us guidebook-waving mongoloids. Perhaps this is because I’d never given the subject much thought; at least not until I visited Cat Ba Island…

The ferry from Haiphong deposited me in the island’s main town—a strip of two lonely, parallel roads gazing out across an emerald bay of gorgeous, karst peaks. Somehow, every storefront in town was exclusively geared for foreign tourism. There were no friendly locals to meet, but instead hordes of frumpy tourists clutching brochures and wearing rice hats, wandering into busy traffic with expressions of confusion and awe.

Shrieking for their attention in every storefront were Vietnamese women dressed like prostitutes. “Boat Tour! Boat Tour!” they screeched. “Massage! Massage!” Some of them bore down on pedestrians with menus, hawking banana pancakes, gentrified spring rolls, or “Western pasta dishes,” which were so offensive to Italian cuisine that the Spaghettio’s mascot would have committed suicide.

This wasn’t Vietnam.

This was a nightmare.

I was hoping to explore this topic in last week’s story (Grandma Fang’s Vomit Cabin Experience for Authentic Travelers), but I cut out my diatribe for brevity. It’s been brought to my attention that this is a travel blog and not a Russian novel and most people don’t have time to read nine page epics about how I tortured my intern with landmines. So, for this week’s quick (read: SHORT) tidbit of Backpackology, I want to shed a little  pop-philosophy on our notions of authentic travel and what is and is not “touristy.” I can’t claim all the answers; I don’t wear Toms or eat vegan. I simply hope to strip away the pretensions and explore the differences between the tourist and the traveler. It’s up to you to decide which one you are.

Before one can understand the difference between tourists and travelers, it is very important to understand the difference between muffinheads and fuckwits. Both of the latter terms hold the same basic meaning (“idiot”), yet each is designed to color the subject with a different quality and nuance—a muffinhead is probably harmless and oafish, while a fuckwit sounds more loathsome and irritating. Which word you choose paints a different subject. Consider the words Big and Grand: both mean “Large”, but Grand was borrowed from the French word Grande to also imply sophistication and elegance, because France used to be classy. It is through this manner that new words are created and the English language expands.

“Tourism” is a very new word.

Until recently, “travelers” were adventurers. They didn’t play bingo on cruise ships; they went to the Orient to stuff monkeys in glass jars and distribute Bibles. Travel was only commercialized after WWII, when Thomas Cooke started selling guided tours to Europe, bringing families to the battlefields where their fathers, husbands, and sons had fought and died. Thus was the birth of the “Tourism” Industry.

The word “tourist” has a commercial element to it. A tourist is a consumer; they buy a product—an experience of a country that has been designed, packaged, and planned for them. Just look at the root word, ‘tour’—the subject is being guided.

The term “traveler” lacks that commercial connotation—a traveler seeks to completely immerse themselves in another culture, to make a unique connection with their destination that feels intimate and “authentic,” perhaps to find a sense of belonging or a broader perspective of their place in the world.

To argue this makes a traveler more respectable than a tourist would be vain and foolish. In fact, I’d argue that very few people categorize as strictly one or the other. By such definitions “Tourist” and “Traveler” aren’t mutually exclusive, but two ends of a gradient scale in which we all fall.

I, for instance, want to have an “authentic experience,” but I don’t want to spend all my time in villages shitting in the mud and eating porridge with my hands. Occasionally I like to go take pictures of pretty tourist sites and watch drunk Australians break stuff in hostels that smell like semen.

A destination can only be as ‘touristy’ as you allow it to be. By subscribing to the brochure experience, the only locals you’ll likely meet are the hotel staff or tour operators. If you’re not willing to brave the traditional food, adopt the quirky local customs, or stoop to local transport instead of a luxe tour bus, then you’re insulating yourself from the very culture you came to experience. While it takes luck and effort to reach out and forge a bond with an unfamiliar culture, by doing so you’ll no longer be viewed by locals as an economic opportunity. You’ll be a guest and friend.

When I look back at two years on the road, the moments I dwell on aren’t seeing the Taj Mahal, climbing the Great Wall of China, or taking a boat tour from Cat Ba Island. Instead my most cherished memories are of little things, moments when seemingly nothing was happening at all—sipping chai with a screaming Indian woman in the slums of Mumbai, haggling for a goat with my armed bodyguard Zia in Pakistan, playing a game of Chicken Scull with drunk women of the Black Hmong Tribe.

Human connection is the soul of “authentic travel.” It opens the doors for friendships and incredible experiences that could never be designed, packaged, or planned. Such fleeting moments are rare—but that’s what makes them so special. That’s what makes them magic. It’s these moments that drive the traveler.

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Backpackology has a Facebook page and YOU WILL LIKE IT.

For a tirade against package tourism, check out “The Backpacker’s Manifesto

For an “authentic experience” check out last week’s adventure, “Grandma Fang’s Vomit Cabin Experience for Authentic Travelers

For more tips and tricks for budget travel, click the “Backpackology 101” tab in the menu above.

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Grandma Fang’s Vomit Cabin Experience for Authentic Travelers http://backpackology.org/2013/09/25/grandma/ http://backpackology.org/2013/09/25/grandma/#comments Wed, 25 Sep 2013 14:30:08 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=3805

“That’s too touristy,” shouted Jon, stabbing a spring roll with his chopstick and dunking it in fish sauce.

“It can’t be that bad,” I shrugged. The Sapa Valley I’d seen in brochures was a bucolic paradise. It promised verdant rice terraces, charming hill tribe villages, and old ladies adorned in traditional Hmong and Red Zao tribal costumes. I anticipated barefooted children skipping through grassy meadows. I anticipated women holding baskets and singing quaint harvest songs in the cornfields. My experience would lie somewhere between Pocahontas and Mulan.

“Don’t go, I’m warning you. It’s a circus. Go to Ha Giang instead, it’s more authentic.”

“Are there pretty rice terraces?”

“No.”

“Are there old ladies running around in tribal costumes?”

“No.”

“Then why are you sabotaging me?”

We were sitting in a sidewalk café in Hanoi’s chaotic Old Quarter, watching the passing tide of rice hats and bicycles. Jon shook his head. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”

I took a sip of my coffee. “Too bad for me.”

Screaming and chaos clogged the air. The bus station was a warzone.

“Shopping! Shopping!” shrieked the mob of tribal women, their dirty hands banging against the bus windows. “You buy from me! You buy from me!” “You come village homestay! You come village homestay!”

A wail pierced the air as the bus driver shoved another tourist out the door, feeding the hungry mob. “Sapa!” he declared.

“AHH!” she screamed, swatting at groping hands with her guidebook before she was consumed.

She reappeared a minute later, scampering across the main road, pursued by two men on motorbikes shouting, “Taxi moto? Taxi moto?”

I stepped into the doorway next, my face stricken with panic and betrayal. The tribal mob stared back at me, waiting, waving trinkets, grinning like crocodiles. It was like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, except the birds were all selling the same bracelets and embroidered bags.

“Sapa!” the driver shouted, ejecting me from the bus.

“NO!”

Dozens of bracelets appeared in my face. I pushed and shoved through the gauntlet until I found a Spanish guy. We were surrounded by at least fifteen girls from the Black Hmong tribe.

“STOP!! STOP IT!” the Spanish guy screamed.

“Where you from? You so handsome! You buy from me! One dollar, please! You like my bracelet? One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar!”

Thinking fast, I grabbed the Spanish guy’s arm. “Hey man, that’s one of those bracelets you said you wanted–”

“NO!” he roared as the girls fell upon him like locusts. As he vanished behind the crush of colorful textiles and beads, I made a swift escape, stumbling down a back road, away from the tourist frenzy.

I came to Sapa to have an authentic experience and I knew where I needed to go to find it.

A Bia Hoi joint is like a ghetto, Vietnamese-style beer garden, except the ‘garden’ is a dirty sidewalk strewn with feces and litter, and also everything is in miniature. You sit on a tiny, plastic kiddie stool at a tiny, plastic table and purchase $0.25 pints of beer with colorful Vietnamese Monopoly-money. The experience feels perversely infantile. It’s like Fisher Price’s “Baby’s First Dive Bar;” the fact that the Vietnamese are always shitfaced only enhances the illusion of a kindergarten. After several minutes of aggressive staring, the locals will surround your table, ask you a million questions, teach you Vietnamese, vomit on the floor, and then invite you to stay in their homes.

Ten minutes after pulling up a stool, I had two drinking parties fighting for custody. I began airing questions with my phrasebook.

“What is your name?” they asked.  “You have family?” “When you go home America?” “How you like Vietnam people?”

“Do you go to college for scientist?” asked one man

“Hey mate, may we join you?”

I turned to find a smiling Australian guy with his arm around a Hmong girl.

Glenn was a friendly expat in his thirties. He’d been living in Sapa for three years with his girlfriend Suu, who belonged to the Black Hmong tribe. Glenn poured me a beer from his pitcher as I explained why I’d come to Sapa.

“So you want an authentic experience, eh?” smiled Glenn. “You seem like an adventurous guy, you should come with us to Suu’s home village tomorrow.”

Suu nodded. “My grandmother is having a Naw Taw Ya.”

“Cool, definitely!” I cried. “What’s that?”

Suu cracked a soda can. “It’s a Hmong tradition to celebrate the rice harvest.” Her gaze fell and she grimaced with disdain. “Everyone drinks too much rice wine and falls asleep in the road. Sometimes the shaman comes and cuts a pig’s throat. They cook its blood on a fire and everyone eats it with spoons. And then they all–”

“It’s an experience!” Glenn smiled. “Trust me, you don’t want to miss it.”

“I told you they drink too much!” scowled Suu.

“Suu doesn’t like alcohol. She never drinks.” He sipped his beer.

“Wow…” I said. “That sounds totally awesome.”

“Tell you what,” smiled Glenn. “I work at Sapa Valley Hostel. Come by tomorrow at 11AM and you’ll get an authentic experience you’ll never forget.”

The tribeswomen were waiting when I drunkenly stumbled back into town.

“You come my village homestay!”

“Okey dokey,” I wiped my chin.

“I am Jeaou,” one women said, grabbing my hand. “I am from Hmong people. We walk to my village now?”

“You betcha,” I slurred.

“Okay, beautiful walking!” announced the woman. She then proceeded to lead me on a sweaty, grueling, four-hour trek over the hot, humid mountains to her dilapidated cabin, where she ripped off her tribal costume for a dirty tee shirt, pointed at me, pointed to a wooden board, and exclaimed, “You bed. Sleeping.”

I shook my head. “No. It’s only 5PM.”

“Okay, okay,” she agreed, before pulling out a box and trying to sell me bracelets.

Dinner was served— rice, plain noodles, and lettuce. While Jeaou and her husband chatted in Hmong, I observed on a stool in awkward silence.

There were no quaint harvest songs. There were no smiling old ladies. The only barefooted children were Jeaou’s six boys, who repeated the same three English phrases to me over and over again: “No buy,” “Tomorrow,” and “No, no, no, no, no.”

I gazed out the window at the moonlit mountains, tracing my finger along the silver rice terraces. “Very beautiful,” I told the children.

“No, no, no, no, no,” they chorused.

“Tomorrow?” I asked.

“No, no, no, no, no.”

The next morning, Jeaou shook me awake at 7AM for our horrible trek back to town. I pleaded for more sleep, but was denied. She had bracelets to sell.

Suu “felt ill” and didn’t want to accompany Glenn and I to her family’s gathering. So to make our attendance even more intrusive and awkward, Glenn brought along two more foreign strangers from his hostel—Henrik and Hannes from Germany.

“Are you sure her grandmother is going to be okay with this?”

“Of course!” Glenn screamed as our motorbike descended into the valley, passing smoky villages and women in tribal headdresses hauling massive baskets of produce and rice. “The Hmong are always friendly. At least I think. To be honest I’ve only met her family a couple of times… Whatever!” he shrugged.  “Are the Germans still with us?”

I glanced back and saw two guys in button-down shirts puttering after us, their faces bent in massive grins. “Yeah.”

We reached a dirt trail on the side of the highway, where Glenn pointed up the mountainside. “Her grandmother lives up there.”

We stopped for a break halfway up the mountain, when we heard the slapping of footsteps approaching. A woman in Black Hmong costume appeared, scurrying down the slope.

“Good morning, Lee!” smiled Glenn.

“You’re too late!” she panted, running past us.

“What?” Glenn blinked.

“You’re too laaate!” she cried, disappearing through the trees.

We continued another few meters before Henrik stopped. “Is that what I think it is?” he pointed off the trail to what appeared to be a field of marijuana plants.

Glenn nodded casually and continued walking. “Yeah, that’s theirs.”

A charming cabin appeared before us like a Grant Wood painting. A rickety bamboo fence enclosed a small yard, in which chickens, pigs, and dogs pottered about, chased by barefooted children in various stages of nudity. Over the fence, a soaring vista looked down upon the valley, studded with rice terraces and cornfields.

An old woman in costume appeared in the doorway.

Nyaw zhong!” she beamed, waving to us.

I waved back and smiled; my brochure-fantasy was coming true.

“She doesn’t speak English,” Glenn muttered. “Hello, Grandma Fang! These are my friends! We brought gifts!”

She waved again, before gesturing us inside.

Grandma Fang’s cabin was a traditional Black Hmong dwelling with sooty timber walls and a mud-clay floor; both of which were already flecked with vomit.

The entire tribe was completely shitfaced.

Two tables stretched out before us, buried under plastic bottles, puddles of rice liquor, and bowls of terrifying tribal food. The women sat at one table, shrieking with laughter, passing around a chicken’s skull, and ripping shots. The men sat calmly at the other, chugging liquor and drooling on themselves, too hammered to navigate any conversation.

Glenn surveyed the scene. “Cool, we haven’t missed anything yet.”

“Are you serious?”

“Hello you boys!” cried a women with gold teeth. “You sit here with us!”

They produced chairs and the Germans joined them.

I followed Glenn to the men’s table.

“Hello,” greeted Glenn. “Nyaw zhong. This is my fr–”

Grenn! Champa cham!” the men screamed, thrusting full glasses of rice liquor into our hands. “Champa cham!”

I eyed the glass. “What are they saying?”

“They want us to chug with them.”

Halfway down the glass, I started gagging. It was worse than moonshine; it tasted like gasoline infused with acetone and butt-holes. The men cheered.

“Champa cham!”  they cried, handing us new glasses.

“No,” I coughed. “We brought you beer. No more champa cham.”

Champa cham!”

“No. Beer. Gift. No champa cham.”

“Champa cham!”

No champa cham. Do any of you speak English?”

“Not one,” said Glenn. “Only the girls do because they work in tourism.”

I looked to the other table where the women chatted with the Germans. The women picked up the chicken scull and Hannes and Henrik roared with laughter.

“I’m going over there. The women are teaching them authentic, cultural stuff.”

I strode over to the women’s table, where I was received with great fanfare. “Hello!” “How are you?” “Where are you from?”

The woman across from me smiled, “I’m Suu’s sister, Tso.”

“I’m Mim,” waved a mother holding a young boy.

“I’m Bleh,” grinned the woman with gold teeth. Bleh flung the chicken scull across the table before handing me a full glass of rice liquor. “You need to drink all of this,” she informed me.

“What?”

“They’re teaching us their drinking games!” smiled Henrik. “This one’s called ‘Chicken Scull!’”

“Champa cham!” roared the girls.

“But…” I frowned. This was nothing like in the brochures.

My tongue went numb after the third glass, which was great because it lessened the trauma of the following four glasses.

I slammed down my cup.

“EHHHH-OOO!” cheered a wobbling man behind me. He slapped my back, shook my hand, and staggered into the kitchen, where he promptly fell over.

‘Chicken Scull’ was like Spin-the-Bottle, except it involved Vietnamese moonshine and a filthy chicken scull. The goal was to drop the chicken scull on the table so that it landed upright: whomever the beak was pointing to had to ‘champa cham.’ You got three tries; if you failed, then you had to ‘champa cham.’

“Steeb!” shouted Tso.

“Stevvvve!” I grinned.

“STEEEE-BUUUH!” she shouted. The girls crumpled over laughing. Tso placed the chicken scull in my hand, “Your turn now.”

On my second attempt, the scull pointed to Mim.

Champa cham!” we cheered.

“No, it point to him!” Mim frowned, pointing to the infant boy on her lap. She then poured a cup of rice liquor and handed it to the child. “Champ cham!” she cried.

“Don’t–” I started, before the little boy slammed back the cup and casually set it back down.

My jaw fell off. I didn’t know whether to laugh or take the child away. I looked to the other table for support. One of the men vomited on the floor, before wiping his chin and pouring himself another glass.

Glenn drifted over to our table. “Grandma Fang is almost done with the meal. Are you guys adventurous eaters?” He looked at our game. “Oh, you guys are playing some Chicken Scull, eh? Love it.”

Mim handed the scull to the infant, who hurled it at the table. It fell on its side. The scull was returned to the boy, who attempted a second time and failed. Then a third.

Champa cham!” the table cried as the infant was handed another glass.

“Wait,” I shot Glenn a look. “Should we say something?”

Glenn nodded and cleared his throat. “Aw, poor little guy,” he said. “Here, I’ll do it with him!”

I stared in horror as a cup was handed to Glenn and he proceeded to chug rice liquor with the baby.

And by ‘stare in horror,’ I mean I documented it with my camera.

Naw Taw Ya is feast!” exclaimed Bleh. “Are you hungry? You must eat!”

A strange stench filled the air as Grandma Fang appeared carrying a tray of bowls.

Grandma Fang placed four large dishes on the table, before doling us rice bowls.

As the Germans stared apprehensively, Glenn and I dove straight in.

“So what am I eating?” I asked, taking a bite of what appeared to be ground beef.

I chomped down and my eyes shot open—it was not ground beef. It felt like I was chewing on bone shards.

“Those are pork bone shards,” said Tso. “Very delicious.”

Mmmm,” I smiled, forcing the it down whole.

“That is sour bamboo,” Tso continued, pointing to a bowl of mushy, pale greens. “And that bowl there is pork fat with skin.”

I shoveled them into my bowl.

“What’s in the fourth bowl?” ask Hannes.

“You don’t want the fourth bowl,” Glenn shook his head.

“That is a bowl of blood!” smiled Mim. “It’s hot pig’s blood!”

I peered in the bowl. She was right.

“Verrry tasty,” chimed Bleh. “Foreigners don’t like it though.”

Glenn shuddered, “Disgusting.”

I picked up a spoon and reached in. The tribeswomen watched as I examined it for a minute, before taking a bite.

The blood had been cooked to the consistency of flan and was seasoned with mint and basil.

I gave a nod. “Not bad.”

The woman fell over laughing. Grandma Fang applauded.

“You like! You like!” shouted Bleh. “You are Hmong people!”

“Oh yeah?” I laughed.

Glenn sat up straight. He fished out a chunk of blood with his spoon. “You swear it’s not that bad?”

I shrugged. “Tastes like salty herbs.”

Hannes frowned, “I’ll stick to the bamboo.”

Glenn stared at his spoon with dread and then took a bite.

Immediately his face shriveled like a prune. “Noo,” he whispered. He chewed for a minute before his body lurched in a spasm. “Noo,” he quivered. Suddenly he clutched his mouth and ran outside, where he painted Grandma Fang’s picturesque yard with half-digested pancakes, sour bamboo, and pig’s blood.

The Germans chased after him.

Glenn quietly returned a minute later and perched on his stool. “Hannes and Henrik just left. They had to catch a bus.”

The girls grumbled.

“Nooooo!” screamed Tso, who was starting to go cross-eyed.

Bleh reached under the table and produced a gargantuan jug of rice liquor. “You not leave until we finish this!” she growled.

“You stay the night! You stay the night!” the girls rabbled.

“Okay!” I said.

Glenn looked down. “I need to ask Suu first,” he mumbled.

“Just tell her you’re drunk and that you can’t drive,” I said.

Glenn knocked back a cup of rice liquor and winced. “That would be a good plan if I didn’t want sex for a month. I told her I wouldn’t get drunk.” Glenn pulled out his phone and dialed. “Fuck…” He stepped away from the table. “Hello? Hi honey, how are you?”

Bleh threw up her arms. “You stay the night!” she cried. “We party all night! We party all night!”

Glenn cupped his hand over the receiver. “No baby, that’s nothing. Not much is happening, everyone’s just finished eating now.”

Tso jumped up screaming. “You call my sister?! I want to talk my sister! Let me talk my sister!”

He angrily waved his hand. “Yes honey, that’s Tso…  No, no one’s drunk.”

Tso clawed at the phone. “Let me talk my sister! Let me talk my sister! Let me talk my sister! I tell her you stay tonight! We party!”

Bleh jumped up, swaying. “We party all night! We party all night!”

“No! No honey!” Glenn stumbled backwards towards the door, swatting to keep Tso at bay.

“Let me talk my sister!”

“We party all night!”

“No! No, honey!”

“Abort! Abort!” I cried. “Hang up the phone!”

Mim vomited on the floor.

“No honey, she’s no– Honey– No! Okay! Okay!”

He threw the phone to Tso, who happily launched into Hmong. Suddenly she sneered, growled something into the receiver, and handed the phone back to Glenn.

Glenn’s face turned white. “Honey?”

Glenn cringed as the phone let out a high-pitched shrieking noise. “Baby, I’m– Honey– Honey– Honey– I’m not drunk! I swear! I’m no– Okay! Okay! Honey– Honey–” Glenn ran out the door.

Tso smiled. “How you like our Nyaw Taw Ya?”

“I love it,” I said. “It’s very interesting.”

Glenn returned a minute later looking pale and shaken. “We need to leave…”

“What?” I frowned. “When?”

He shifted his weight. “Right now.”

Tso clenched her fists and screamed, “Nooooooooooo!”

After much unintelligible protest from Grandma Fang and the girls, we began the process of goodbyes.

“Goodbye!”

“We love you!”

Champa cham, one more please?”

“Nice to meet you, Steeb!” beamed Mim.

“You please come back for Naw Taw Ya next year!” stammered Bleh.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” I grinned.

As Grandma Fang pulled me in for a strong, silent hug, I noticed a few tiny, black piglets appear in the doorway and totter inside. I then watched in horror as they began eating Mim’s vomit off the floor.

And by ‘stare in horror,’ I mean I took more pictures.

**********************

Backpackology has a Facebook page and YOU WILL LIKE IT.

For another booze-soaked hospitality tale, play some goatball with Afghan refugees in “Goatball Superstar, Afghan Hero.”

If you think ‘authentic travel’ sounds pretentious, you’re right! But you should read this anyway: “The Backpacker’s Manifesto

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Detained in Laos: Lost Tribes of the CIA’s Secret War http://backpackology.org/2013/09/13/detained-in-laos-lost-tribes-of-the-cias-secret-war/ http://backpackology.org/2013/09/13/detained-in-laos-lost-tribes-of-the-cias-secret-war/#comments Fri, 13 Sep 2013 14:30:44 +0000 http://backpackology.org/?p=3762

It was the most beautifully appointed detention cell I’d ever called my own. The tiled-floors were spotless. The toilet was porcelain. There was a comfy, queen-sized bed, a TV boasting four channels of static, and a wooden armoire in case I was enjoying myself and decided to stay for a while. My favorite part was the sparsely decorated wall, with which I passed the time banging my head against. Sadly, after ten hours, this pastime lost its novelty.

My door was unlocked and so I poked my head out into the chilly night.

My armed guard was nowhere to be seen. It would be at least another hour before he’d stumble back reeking of rice wine, invite me into his office, and torture me once again with Lao soap operas.

This was my chance. I quietly slipped out into the darkness, closing my door behind me.

The front gate was open.

Across the dark valley I could see the former CIA-base “Sky” milling with soldiers, glowing faintly beneath a silver sea of stars.

******************

On the evening of May 15, 1997, the CIA declassified a series of documents revealing the largest covert operation in U.S. history—a bizarre and shocking story involving a “Secret War” and a tribe of militant opium farmers in Laos, called the Hmong.

The earliest documents dated to the 1960s. The US wanted freedom for Vietnam, however some of the Vietnamese wanted the freedom to choose communism. The US responded by bombing them to cinders—for freedom, off course. As the war intensified, the North Vietnamese began to infiltrate the American frontline by sidestepping through neighboring Laos—a direct violation of the Geneva Treaty, which mandated that Laos would remain a neutral buffer state.

The Americans couldn’t bomb the Vietnamese in Laos (for freedom) without breaking the treaty themselves, so they did what any upstanding, dignified world superpower would do. They hired a ruthless, tribal drug lord named Vang Pao to command a “Secret Army” of CIA-trained, right-winged Hmong tribal soldiers, to fight a “Secret War” against the communists in Laos.

Then the story got weird.

To accommodate the Secret Army, the CIA built a “Secret City” in the Laotian highlands named Long Chen (a.k.a. Lima Site 98). From this base, they conducted a covert air war over Laos. According to the CIA documents, the U.S. dropped more firepower on Laos than it did on Germany and Japan in WWII combined—an estimated average of one bomb every eight minutes, twenty-four hours per day, for nine years—making Laos the most heavily bombed country on earth. For freedom.

By 1973, Long Chen boasted a population of 50,000 and one of the world’s busiest airports—making it the second largest city in Laos, even though it never appeared on any maps. It was a comic book city, a place of tribal warriors, Thai mercenaries, spies, prostitutes, and secret agents using codenames like “Mr. Clean,” “SuperMex,” and “Junkyard.”

The last and most disturbing document was dated May 14, 1975—the fateful night when Long Chen came to a violent end.

Bloody civil war erupted in Laos and the communist forces surged the highlands. When the CIA issued an evacuation, panic ensued. Crowds of civilians surrounded flights on the tarmac, crying and screaming. Those evacuated were mostly Hmong leaders and CIA personnel.

“Farewell my brothers,” shouted Vang Pao as he boarded one of the last of the choppers. “I can do nothing more, I would only be torment for you.” He then took off, leaving tens of thousands of Hmong soldiers and refugees behind.

The shelling of the Long Chen began that evening. 10,000 Hmong crowded around the airstrip, waiting for the helicopters to return. None ever did.

After that night, the Hmong tribe slowly disappeared. Thousands of them were killed or executed as traitors. Many became refugees, fleeing across the borders into Thailand and China. Some sought asylum in the United States. Others vanished deeper into the jungles, waging a guerilla resistance movement that lasted until 2003.

The secret city of Long Chen still exists today. The base was reclaimed by the Lao military, but the rest of the city has since fallen into disrepair, reclaimed by nature and littered with reminders—bomb casings, abandoned barracks, and a long, crumbling airstrip.

While the city lies in a restricted military area, each year there are a handful of adventure-seekers who attempt to get inside. Some have tried on motorbikes, but turned back due to road conditions. Others have made it to the city check point, only to be turned around or slapped with a heavy fine. In 2007, three Laotian-Americans tried and disappeared, never to be heard from again.

As far as I know, only one foreigner—a well-connected German filmmaker—has set foot on the tarmac of the Long Chen airstrip since the night of May 14, 1974.

My goal was to be the second.

After two weeks of plodding along the Lao tourist trail, I excitedly unveiled my plan to Intern Lydia.

“No,” she folded her arms.

“Come on!”

“How are you planning on getting there?”

“Why is that important?”

“Do you even know where it is?”

“No, that’s why they call it secret! It’ll be like Nancy Drew!” I exclaimed. “But instead of missing puppies it’ll be military bases and tribal genocide.”

A week later, I set off alone.

I didn’t know where to find Long Chen, but I suspected that if I were Nancy Drew, I’d start my search in Saisombun, where a local population of Hmong enjoys blowing up government buildings. To reach there, I would need to travel deep into the mountainous jungles of the Saisombun Restricted Militarized Zone—a convenient undertaking by public bus.

The night before my departure, my Nancy Drew suspicions were confirmed—the wise Google search engine informed me that Saisombun was the last place the Lao-American guys were seen before they went missing. While I was thrilled at this discovery, I could hear a voice in the back of my head saying that this should be the last place I’d ever want to go—but I happily ignored it as the bus rattled out of Vientiane and into the countryside.

After an hour, we stopped at a village and a boy stepped aboard, dressed like a third-world, ‘90s boy band. He wore a sideways baseball cap, fingerless black gloves, and a jean jacket that he’d successfully put on backwards. He swaggered his way down the aisle and stopped over my seat.

“Hello excuse me, sir!” he cried with a heavy accent. “Do you work for beer money?”

“What?”

He reconsidered his question. “Do… you… work… hmm… for beer money?” He sat down next to me.

“I suppose.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“Oh, sir!” the boy exploded with excitement. “America is very good, sir! I want to live in California-Hollywood!” he said, before launching into an incomprehensible, thirty-minute lecture about California-Hollywood. The boy’s name was Kum, and he was a chatterbox college student who was studying computer programming in Vientiane, but his family lived in Saisombun.

Eventually I cut him off. “Do you know about Long Chen?”

“Of course, sir!” he smiled. “My grandfather was soldier for Vang Pao.”

I sat up straight. “Are you Hmong?!”

He nodded. “Of course, sir. Do you know Shakira?”

“Yes, but–”

“Super cool! Is she nice?”

“No, no, I don’t really know Shakira, but–”

“You don’t know Shakira?”

“No, I mean, I know her music, but I don’t know her personally. How do I–”

“I am not understand.”

“Yes, she’s very mean. How do I get to Long Chen?”

“Take a bus!” he said. “They go every Wednesday at 7AM.”

It was only Monday.

“But be careful!” he warned. “There are many prison camps in that area. The government doesn’t want outsiders. If they catch you there, they will put you in jail or maybe worse. You could end up in the prison camps or disappear. Do you know movie actor Vin Diesel?”

“No I don’t–”

“Vin Diesel is Lao hero! Vin Diesel comes from Laos.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

As the road wound its way deeper into the jungle, passing barbed wire fences, bomb craters, and mine fields strewn with yellow markers, Kum’s monologue withered deeper into absurdity, before finally he announced, “We’re arriving in Saisombum!”

The Saisombun Restricted Militarized Zone was a place of subtle charms. Very, very subtle charms. I stepped off the bus and found myself in the post-apocalypse. There was barbed wire everywhere. It was only 9PM, but the muddy, piss-scented Main Square was dark and deserted, save for one skeletal man in a rice hat, who tended to a massive bonfire of garbage. By morning, it would transform into a lively market, brimming with exotic vegetables, dangling meats, and live animals. Pepsi signs would hang over every other stall—tailors, barbers, and woodworkers—used as a fashion statement rather than an advertisement. Hmong women would arrive from the surrounding hills wearing tribal headdresses, while the men opted for blue jeans and baseball caps—usually worn sideways. The cultural footprint left by the Americans was glaring.

“You must go to the police station,” said the owner of my guesthouse. “They’re already looking for you.”

“How do they know I’m here?” Assuming the worst, I prepared to play the Dumb Tourist Card; I donned a goofy novelty tee shirt, tucked my guidebook under my arm, put a camera around my neck, and lowered my fly.

No one at the police station spoke English, so they ushered me to the chief’s office, where he stared at me in silence because he also did not speak English. Eventually a polite, mousy officer was produced, with whom I could communicate on a basic level.

“Why have you come here?”

I smiled vacantly, adjusted my novelty tee shirt, and said nothing.

An awkward silence followed. “Hello?” The man shifted uneasily. “Are you here for the nature?”

“Yeah. The nature,” I said. “I heard it was BEAUTIFUL!”

The man frowned. “Okay, but this is a restricted militarized zone… That’s why it’s named ‘Saisombun Restricted Militarized Zone.’”

“Okay…” I nodded blankly.

“…Which means foreigners are not allowed here…”

I stared for a moment, before a wave of realization washed over my face. “Ooooohh,” I slapped myself on the forehead. “GAH! I’m so stupid. Am I in trouble?”

“No, no. Clearly this was an honest mistake.”

“Okay,” I said, burying a finger in my nose.

“You need to leave first thing in the morning. Where are you going?”

“Long Chen!” I said. “I heard it was BEAUTIFUL.”

“No,” he shook his head. “You’re not going there.”

“Okay.”

“The road is very dangerous. Its been destroyed by a landslide and wont be cleared until next week. It’s also a military base and you’ll be arrested.”

The officers released me after I promised to leave in the morning and provided them my name and passport information.

“You’ll go to Vientiane in the morning?”

“I’ll go to Vientiane in the morning.”

We shook hands and I walked out.

I did not go to Vientiane in the morning.

I spent the next day hiding in my room, only risking exposure to make a kamikaze dash to the market, where I bought a bag of pork meat and sticky rice before retreating to my guesthouse.

Bus or none, I’d find a way to Long Chen on Wednesday.

At 7AM, there were no buses in the station.

The station manager pointed to a scruffy father and son who were loading a cargo truck with rice bags and live chickens.

I wandered over. “Long Chen?”

“Phongsavan,” shouted the man—a city just beyond Long Chen.

I threw my bag up and clambered inside, where I stood in the middle of the screeching chickens and sacks of rice, staring at the man.

He handed me a plastic stool.

Eventually more Hmong joined me amongst the chickens, before the engine finally roared to life.

The town of Saisombun faded behind us as the truck ascended higher into mountains, passing medieval villages made of palm-thatch and foraged war materials. We passed a group of children playing behind a fence constructed of barbed wire and plane shrapnel. Herbs and vegetables sprouted out of a gnarled warhead repurposed as a flowerpot. An old woman in a rice hat gazed out the window of a rustic, stilted hut built on cluster bomb casings.

Soon we reached the first military checkpoint. I relocated to the rear of the cargo hold, where I hid on the floor behind some chicken cages. To avert suspicion from the other passengers, I disguised this action by pretending that I enjoyed playing with the chickens. Because I’d never played with a chicken before, this mostly involved poking them.

After eight hours and three more checkpoints, we crested a mountain pass and a vast, grassy valley appeared before us, peppered with cream-colored buildings, barbed wire fences, and a long, crumbling airstrip. We were approaching Long Chen.

The truck descended into the valley and moment later, it screeched to a halt. Voices called out. A couple young men grabbed their things and disembarked. I ducked down behind the cages. My heart pounded.

It was at this moment that the chickens decided that they did not like me and I was betrayed. They began shrieking and clucking in panic.

“No! Shhhhh,” I whispered, gazing into their stupid, empty eyes.

I could hear the driver talking to someone outside. I held my breath, waiting for the inevitable.

The truck lurched forward. I peeked up and watched as the checkpoint receded into a cloud of dust.

Long Chen appeared around us. We passed a crumbling building riddled with bullet holes and overtaken with weeds. We passed the haunting shell of a former barracks, graffitied with communist slogans. We passed an elegant temple rotting in the middle of a field. There was an ethereal, forbidding quality to the place. J.J. Abrams would have blown his load.

I waited a few minutes until we were safely away from the checkpoint before I made my move.

I pointed outside. “Long Chen?” I asked.

The other passengers nodded.

“Oh!!” I cried in alarm. I began banging the side of the truck. “Stop!! Stop!!”

The truck stopped and I leapt out with my bag, slamming down the Dumb Tourist Card for the win.

The driver came around, “No, no!” he stammered.

“Yes, yes,” I replied and handed him a wad of bills.

“Okay.” He hopped back in the cab and drove off.

I tightened my pack and set off down the road; I needed to set foot on the airstrip.

The Secret City had become a Ghost City. Ahead of me, the dirt path was lined on one side with smoky, wooden shacks. On the other side, behind a grassy embankment and a perimeter of barbed wire, I could glimpse a dozen retro military offices, the former “Sky” headquarters, and an old air traffic control tower.

If I wanted to get onto the airstrip, I would need to find a way around the barbed wire.

I suddenly noticed a little girl standing in the doorway of a shack. She stared at me, eyes-wide, jaw hanging, petrified with fear, as if a bear had wandered into town.

I waved. “Sabaidee!

A blood-curdling scream erupted from her chest. “FALANG! FALANG!” she cried, disappearing into the shack.

More people appeared in windows as I walked. Heads whipped around, their faces twisting in shock.

Some of them waved. “Hellooo.”

I passed the open door of a noodle shack. “Hello!” a dozen soldiers waved.

I froze. I pulled out my guidebook, unzipped my fly, and nervously waved back.

They waved again. “Helloo!”

I cocked my head and continued walking. Perhaps the restrictions had changed, I wondered. Perhaps I was allowed to visit here now. I smiled.

A soldier appeared ahead of me.

“Hello!” I waved.

“YOU!” he roared, pointing. “GET OVER HERE!”

After thirty minutes of repetitive questioning, the officials disappeared into the checkpoint office to deliberate my fate. I sat with a young soldier on a bench outside, doing my best to act like a blithering nincompoop.

“Do you know where I can find a cheap guesthouse in this place?” I squinted.

The soldier smirked. “You can’t stay here. They’re going to put you on a bus back to Vientiane.”

“But that’s like a two days from here!” I moaned. My gaze fell to the ground, which was littered with bottle caps. “Wow, that’s a lot of Beerlaos caps!” I lit up again. “I love Beerlaos! I drank Beerlaos in Vang Vieng. I got drunk! Do you guys sell Beerlaos here?”

The man blinked. “You want a beer?… Now?”

“Heck ya!” I nodded.

I figured if I’d come this far, I might as well enjoy my last ten minutes with a drink.

The soldier called out and then a woman appeared with a bottle and two glasses. I poured us each a beer, we said cheers, and then I insisted the woman take our picture.

“No photo!” screamed one of the officials, emerging from the checkpoint office. “Give me your camera.”

“Are you taking me back to Vientiane?”

“No, no,” he frowned. “You’re not going to Vientiane.”

I was assigned an armed guard—a friendly, apathetic soldier named Liko. Liko escorted me from the checkpoint to a noodle shop, where he proceeded to get drunk on rice wine and laugh at soap operas.

“Hello!” someone cried. It was the soldiers who had waved to me earlier. They were flagrantly drunk, sitting around a mess of empty bottles. They invited me to join them at their table, where they talked to me in Lao and made me chug beers.

“Hello!” they screamed, refilling my glass once again.

“Hello,” I grinned, chugging it. By the time my lunch arrived, I was tipsy.

When Liko’s soap operas finished, he swaggered over to my table. “Ready?”

“For what?”

He pointed up the street. “The… The…” he searched for the word. “Doing.”

I took a sip of beer. “What’s The Doing?”

The Doing was sitting in a windowless room for two days. That’s what The Doing was.

That night, Liko was supposed to escort me to dinner at 7PM. By 9PM, he was still nowhere to be seen.

The gate was unlocked, so I took the liberty of letting myself out.

I crossed an old parking lot thick with weeds and climbed the escarpment to the barbed wire barrier. The base had come alive by night and its walkways bustled with uniformed personnel. I spied the control tower and the old hangar. I tried to spy the airstrip, but it was too dark. Somehow I would have to return during the day.

I sat there for several minutes, staring out across the old military compound, before I wandered back across the parking lot in search of dinner.

I couldn’t sleep that night.

After an early morning jog around my room and a good, ten-minute session of slamming my scull against the wall, there came a knock.

I opened the door. “I CAN’T STAY IN THIS ROOM.”

The young man flinched. “I’ve been sent to tell you that you’ll be leaving for Vientiane this afternoon.”

“PLEASE CAN YOU TAKE ME TO THE POLICE STATION.”

He shifted his weight. “Okay. Put your bag in my truck.”

The man drove me to the local sheriff’s office, where I quickly regretted my request.

For whatever reason, the police decided to put me on a low, cement platform outside the station in the sun, while they sat indoors watching soap operas. During commercial breaks, their heads would turn to watch me through an open door as I sweated profusely in the harsh sunlight.

“CAN I GO BACK TO MY HOLDING ROOM NOW.”

Their heads rotated away. The show was back on.

After the officers fed me lunch, they stretched out on the floor for a nap.

I checked my watch. It was 3PM; if I was going to set foot on the runway, I had an hour left to do it. I hopped off the platform, emptied my plastic water bottle into the grass, and very casually wandered away down the street.

I passed the bullet-ridden offices, the spray-painted communist slogans, and the creepy temple. I walked through the weed-covered parking lot, climbed the grassy embankment, and peered over the tangle of barbed wires.

There was no airstrip.

I stared around confusedly, certain I’d seen it from the mountain pass. It then occurred to me—it was hidden behind the airport; I’d have to reach the other side of the compound.

For a long moment I sat there, staring helplessly at the base. I thought of Nancy Drew, how she’d crawl through the barbed wire before making a Rambo-sprint behind the hangar. She wouldn’t be afraid to snap a guard’s neck.

I touched the barbed wire. It was very sharp. I sighed.

I slowly turned around and walked across the parking lot.

“HEY!” came the officers’ cries. I turned to see them jogging towards me, clapping their hands and whistling.

I smiled and waved my empty water bottle. “Hey! I’ll be right back, I need to buy water!”

“No!”

Five minutes later I was sitting and sweating on the platform again—only now my plastic bottle was filled with hot, boiled hose water, which tasted like socks. Twenty minutes later a cargo truck appeared and I was unceremoniously stuffed in the back.

The soldiers returned my camera and a moment later the truck lurched forward, clearing the checkpoint, setting out on the two-day journey back to Vientiane.

From the mountain pass, I could see the whole of Long Chen. I could see the crumbling, weed-ridden airstrip, stretching the length of the valley between the barbed wire perimeter and dirt road.

Revelation struck me like a lightning bolt.

It was the parking lot.

On the evening of May 15, 1997, the CIA declassified a series of documents revealing the story of a Secret War and Secret City in the highlands of Laos. Since the CIA withdrew in 1975,  only two foreigners have set foot inside Lima Site 98. One was a well-connected German filmmaker; the other was a guy with a novelty tee shirt, a ratty guidebook under his arm, and an unzipped fly.

********************

Backpackology has a Facebook page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

I also got detained in Pakistan. The CIA were also involved: “Detained in Bahawalpur

In fact, I had a couple of incidents with law enforcement there… One involved headless goat carcasses and also it was silly: “Goatball Superstar, Afghan Hero

For an adventure with Intern Lydia, watch me stick her in a minefield in “Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons

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