Adventures In Southeast Asia

Adventures In Southeast Asia

“A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.” ― Eugene Ionesco

 

I first began visiting Southeast Asia over twenty years ago, so it probably comes as a surprise to readers that I haven’t written about my adventures (or misadventures) there. In fact, I have written while in Asia, and about Asia when back home―but I haven’t published any of it. Besides, when you’re on vacation, who wants to work? Mostly I just wrote some poems.

My SE Asia adventures date back to 1998, when I immersed myself in a foreign culture for the first time. No matter how much I studied that part of the world, I still hardly knew what to expect. Excitement, apprehension and curiosity accompanied me all the way there.

Initial impressions of far-flung lands always begin from the airplane window, and with their emerald tropical greens surrounded by the bluest of waters, the islands I first saw drew me in immediately. By contrast, Hawaii looked like a tourist trap, even from the air.

 

The Opposite of the Car Culture

America is truly a car culture. But like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, you don’t think about it until you’re no longer in it. Much of Southeast Asia’s public transportation is by tricycle—a motorcycle housed by a metal frame that can seat as many as four passengers behind or beside the driver―or simply on the back of a motorcycle, which locals call a “motorbike” in English.

For longer trips, or on major thoroughfares, travelers can typically ride in a larger vehicle: a songthaew in Thailand or jeepney in the Philippines, a colorful jeep-like bus. Automobiles are a rare sight here, with the exception of taxis or vehicles belonging to the wealthiest of residents.

 

The Myth of Universal English

The idea that you can easily find people who speak your language quickly dissipates when you visit a small town: unless their business happens to require it, so few locals have any command of the English language that a translator is almost essential. If not for the luxury of having someone with me providing translations constantly, I would have had to endure long waiting periods while someone went off in search of an English-speaking person.

Of course, that was the case in the late 1990s. Nowadays one can use a smartphone app for basic translations from any language to another. Still, these programs are unlikely to take into account the many subtle regional dialectical differences among Southeast Asian provinces.

 

Culture Shock

Above all, the massive cultural disparities between North America and Southeast Asia provide the biggest shock to the system. These days, the “woke” culture in particular would be horrified to learn that lighter skin is still considered more favorable than darker skin all over SE Asia. People ranging from local beauty pageant queens to ordinary citizens are known to bleach their skin in an effort to look “caucasian…” or, at least, less “Asian.”

Whatever the ongoing challenges in this developing part of the world, there is always much charm and beauty to be found. And even in the busiest places, the pace of life somehow seems less frenetic than here in the west. Perhaps that’s why, whenever I reflect on my many trips to Southeast Asia, I always feel relaxed—and thereby somewhat disinclined to put myself to work writing about them!

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In my mind, I flash back to a time years ago, and the image strikes me with peculiar clarity—the dismal boarding house where I lived when I was newly sober, the shattering acid flashback with its neon cockroaches skittering across the dirty ceiling. Then, further back in the recesses of my mind, the original bad trip: bloody slashes like knife wounds leaping out from a whirl of furiously moving geometric patterns.

That night went on for days, it seemed, when I lay alone on my bed, paralyzed by the horror of it all, staring awestruck at the ceiling. In a way more real than surreal, I felt I stood on a ledge and looked down. It was the ledge of my own sanity….

At length, the patterns shifted and receded, and I was back. Closer to sanity—forever changed, if not ruined.

Whizzers, p.153

 

On the 6th of each month, I send out a monthly newsletter to my subscriber list. I’m not entirely sure how I settled on that date. Maybe it’s because my birthday is November 6th, or maybe it was just happenstance. Whatever the case, I rarely request feedback, though I often ask my readers to tell their friends and colleagues about my work.

This month, I requested some very specific feedback, in an email with the tongue-in-cheek subject line Whaddya Want From Me? I asked my subscribers what they’d like to see more of in those monthly missives.

To my surprise, I got a reply that said, Tell us a drunk tale.

Well, hell, I can do that.

 

Active Means Something Different To Me…

Like most people with long-term sobriety, I also have a bit of colorful history that preceded it. In my case, the decades of sobriety now exceed my “active” years by a factor of three to one—about 30 years sober that followed a history of around 10 years—but some of those years brought adventures that would send a chill down any parent’s spine.

The quote above, from my recent novel Whizzers, is a case in point. Filled with much more autobiographical material than my previous three novels combined, Whizzers blurs the lines between a fictional version of me who travels through time and the actual me, with many of my real-life experiences. Some date from childhood, but others include the active years.

It was July, 1986. A buddy of mine came over to my parents’ house, where I was staying alone while they vacationed in Nova Scotia. We each took a hit of LSD, and I figured we’d be in for a night of hilarity.

Unfortunately, my friend had just taken the exact same dose the previous night. So while I began to feel the effects within the hour, he got no effect. A few beers along the way, and he was ready to head home and go to sleep, whereas I knew I’d be up all night.

After my buddy went home, my girlfriend at the time stopped by. She had zero experiences with psychedelics—and would eventually add spice to her own story by “upgrading” from dating me to dating a guy who dealt coke and carried a gun—but she was worried about me.

I assured her everything was fine, don’t worry about me, and so on. But it was not an enjoyable visit. She left, and now I had a good eight to ten hours ahead of me, alone.

 

The Ultimate Buzzkill

Thinking I’d listen to some fun music, I tuned the radio into a syndicated program called “The Grateful Dead Hour.” Right at the beginning of the show, the host announced that Jerry Garcia had slipped into a diabetic coma, and then queued up the dirge-like classic Mission In The Rain.

Already feeling jangly, my state of mind slid down like a snowball rolling down a hill. Like said snowball, it went faster and grew larger as it descended. Before long, I was alone and in a state I can only describe as dumbfounded.

It wasn’t just that I was a Deadhead, or that my mood had been shaken by the disappointing experiences with my friend or girlfriend. Anyone who has ever used these types of drugs will know that they shouldn’t be taken in an uncontrolled environment. Avoid all news, don’t answer any phone calls, and for God’s sake, don’t be alone. Those were all no-brainers when it came to psychedelics.

The scene above from Whizzers is pretty accurate. I can still recall, with morbid clarity, the Freddie Krueger-like slashes that appeared in the shifting patterns on the ceiling above my bed, where I lay transfixed, utterly alone. Just riding it out, as it were.

So there you have it—a true story of surviving the bad old days. Not exactly glamorous, but then, not much of that stuff really is, at least from today’s perspective. And isn’t that really what it’s all about?

For more tales of insanity and survival, check out Whizzers online from your favorite retailers.

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