The days here in striking Yangshuo have blended together in a heady mix of wet, warm air and karst pinnacles covered in fog and foliage so dense its hard to tell which side is winning, the mountain or the jungle. As the town has gotten busier and busier in the lead up to the May Day week-long holiday, with tourists both Chinese and foreign pouring in from every place imaginable, the day-trips out of the city have also gotten more crowded. Strangely enough, though, my Financial and Menu Adviser and I mostly have avoided the madness of the crowds. And I do mean madness: 1.3 billion of your best friends can't be wrong, now can they? So after a mildly interesting day hiking up the centrally located Green Lotus Peak and through the nearby areas, we headed out of town. The first thing we did was rent mountain bikes for 10 yuan (US$1.25) from our excellent hotel, the Bamboo Cafe and Inn. This seems like a good idea, and largely it was. The bike tour through the more rural outskirts of town was great, offering unique views on silver platter of hidden karst valleys that remained obscured by fog even when standing right in front of the buggers. However enjoyable, mountain biking on unstable dirt paths pocked with potholes in the middle of intermittent rain is just not a good idea for maintaining any level of cleanliness. When the rain thundered down, we had to plow forward; there were no trees large enough to seek shelter under. The FMA and I were having so much fun being the only bikers on the road besides elderly locals that we barely noticed the inadvertant mudbath. The next day, blessed with clearer skies and a fortuitous calendar development, we headed north on a local bus. We got out at Xingping, a small fishing village that's close enough to popular Guilin to see many, many tourists from there. The big draw is the river cruise northward, featuring scenery so near and dear to the Chinese heart that a facsimile of it resides on the face of the 20 yuan note. We did take the cruise, and we did see even more beautiful foggy karst scenery than either of us had ever thought possible. But what made the trip to Xingping great was the calendar. We went up on April 29th. Around here, the village markets occur on either the first or the second of each month, and then every three days after that, except when they routinely but randomly skip a fourth day for shits and giggles. The Xingping market always begins on the second, so if you do the math right and stick the fourth skip day where it ought to be, and you wind up on the 29th. The only things I didn't see on sale at the market were motorized vehicles and complex electronics. I did see: injection-molded plastic shoes the colors of the rainbow, pants, shirts, knickers, socks, bras, hats. I also saw animal parts so finely dissected, they could be worn as hats except that they'd attract ravens or crows. I saw beef parts and duck parts, and whole. There were pig's feet, pig's faces with an eye still attached, pig's everything. Chicken feet, whole chickens, and if I'd asked, I'm sure they could've gotten me some fresh bird flu, too. I saw snakes and fish but surprisingly, no insects for sale. They must be a regional thing. I even saw a dog getting his fur burned off with a handheld blowtorch; rigor mortis had clearly set in and he was non-regionally dead. There were all manners of Chinese pastries for sale, too. Thankfully, they were not being sold next to the animals. Vegetables, too, the same kind of neon purple eggplants that I saw in Guangzhou; something lime green, long and bumpy that looked like a cross between a Next-Gen sex toy and a Japanese goya; lettuces and bean sprouts and oranges and pineapple. All kinds of people were there, but mostly the elderly both running the stalls and shopping. I assumed that the "yewts" of Xingping had better things to do with their Saturdays than go shopping with Ma and Pa, but then, I did see around a dozen toddlers and other assorted flavors of small human running about. Some of the older folks seemed really pleased to see tourists, especially one man on an abacus who insisted on repeating his last calculation three times for my camera. Others, well, they didn't mind strangers, but had very strong feelings for the lens of a camera. Particularly the man roasting the dog. There were teas, of course, and dried fruits, too. I saw electric adapters and bootlegged plastic toys with designs belonging to wealthy toy companies up for grabs. There were car-battery style wet electrical cells, in sizes mostly appropriate for two- or four-stroke vehicles. There was everything. Beyond the hubbub of the market, the town of Xingping had its charm as well. Walking back from the boat docks in the late afternoon, a doorway that looked like a decades-old European design, bordered on three sides by a red banner marked with gold hanzi, the Chinese ideographs. In another doorway, nine yellow wooden cards, about 20 or 30 centimeters on each side, featured hand-drawn portraits of various Chinese leaders sketched in loving poses. I recognized Confucious, Mao and the current leader, President Hu. That's a bit of an interesting thing, the portraits. In Yangshuo, you can buy a t-shirt featuring a somewhat hilarious caricature of a world leader for a song and a half. They're everywhere: W. and Koizumi, bin Laden and Tojo for you World War II buffs. Hu Jintao, though featured along with the others, was drawn in nothing more hilarious than a restful, smiling position. So much for tolerance. The day after the FMA and I went to Xingping, we rented bikes again and went out to Moon Hill, six kilometers outside of Yangshuo. The karst is famous for the 1200-some-odd steps leading to the top, for its views of the valley and its massive half-moon shaped hole piercing the top. When we got to the "official" end of the path, where the cut stone steps faded into muddied dirt, we saw a path heading up even further. The views from where we stood were nice, but not fantastic, so we headed higher. The last 30 minutes went up an arduous slope, with a path heavily dotted by sharp limestone outcroppings. The weather was with us, and stayed dry. At the top of the karst, we could see a 360 degree view of the entire valley, impeded only by other karsts. There wasn't even any fog that day, except on the horizon, and so the green fields contrasted beautifully against the brown dirt road and the coal-gray water. We could hear the horns of the traffic below on the paved road, but they were nearly invisible against the overwhelming greeness of it all. The karsts stood up, petulant children coated in swaying green ants, and where they weren't instead the valley opened up. Quadrangal farmland and whitewashed villages dotted the vista, and the karsts kept repeating themselves until the only way to tell they were still there was a slightly darker patch of gray against the lighter clouded sky. When we left Moon Hill, the holiday traffic was in full force. Trucks of the multi-axle variety, flocks of bicyclists, motorcyclists, and the strange trucks that had motorcycle engines grafted to their Frankensteinian fronts clogged the road. The FMA and I biked along until we hit a side path, and then ducked away from the noise and fumes. This took us along some of the most bucolic and impressive scenery we'd seen all trip. Rice fields, drenched from the previous day's rains, glowed green. The water in them was muddy brown, and we saw all manner of field work going on. Some people, even a kid in a red shirt, were taking their water buffalo out for grazing. One bare-chested middle-aged man was scattering white powder over the rice, fertilizer or salt perhaps. And behind it all were the karsts, reflected in the rice field water, silently observing the scurrying below them. Chararcterizing the karsts as giving a damn one way or the other about what happens in their shadows I think is to miss the larger point of their beauty. They are testaments to powers that are far stronger, and move far slower, than those that bustle beneath them. Yet draped in fog, often protected by rain, it's hard to not wonder what they would say, if they could tell us their secrets.
Take a walk down any street in Yangshuo, and you'd be hard-pressed to avoid looking at a misty view of at least one towering karst. They litter the area like giant forest green anthills, and there is so much fog it's hard to separate the enormous columns from their shroud. All this impressive scenery stirs the stomach as well as the eyeballs, which suits Yangshuo just fine: there seem to be as many tasty dishes as there are karsts. My Financial and Menu Adviser has been in fine form here, although the fiduciary aspect of her responsibilities seems completely overwhelmed by gastronomical overload. In other words: some of the food we'd like to try we have to seriously talk about donating blood to afford. Other items, such as the Yangshuo special Beer Fish, do not cause my wallet to attempt suicide. The FMA and I went to the night market at the head of Xi Jie, West St., and spent several minutes trying to decide which random vendor to choose. The vendors stretched out across the wide sidewalk, tables, chairs, plastic awnings and naked 60-watt lightbulbs jostling for eyeball attention. Behind them, ash gray plumes of smoke rushed skyward, and following the smoke up, sat a ninjaesque karst, pitch black in the night except for a silvery streak of rock catching light from the streetlamps. We waded through fold-up chairs of the church basement variety and past tables with clear plastic covering the blue-checkered plastic tablecloths. Two tablecloths might seem redundant, but the top layer was a stroke of stall-food genius. Instead of having to wipe the table clean after each party has dined, simply lift up the plastic, tie the four corners together and toss the mess in the trash. Once we passed through the eating area, things got interesting. And hectic. Customers and sight-seers meandered slowly, as if they were walking through congealing sweet and sour sauce. Vendors shouted out their wares, thrusting menus into the faces of potential diners, all hoping for just one more couple to sit down. The skewer vendors were lined up double, creating a clear pathway through the miasma of roasting food and chattering people. They all had their raw ingredients on display. Thin wooden dowels were plugged straight through a stunning array of mostly fauna and some flora. An expert tunnel engineer couldn't have done them straighter. There were whole chicken legs, diced beef and cubed pork, freshwater shrimp in a row of three and with their heads still attached. There were skewers of octopus legs and pig tripe, thankfully separated. Veggies, too, were represented. Whole corn on the cob, not skewered but ready for the grill. Leeks, or something related that was green and dangly, stabbed through their meaty white ends. There was fried bean curd in thick yellowed blocks, punctured twice on the bottom like a preliminary design for a Chinese rip-off of SpongeBob SquarePants. The FMA and I delved into the land of delicious meat-on-a-stick for our second foray into the night market, which featured most of the aforementioned food prodcuts doused in hot sauce and washed down with the local brew, LiQ - pronounced "LiChuan." (I've been teaching myself a bit of Mandarin, and am so far very, very novice, but no matter how good I get I doubt I'll ever understand where the pinyin system of transliteration gets a "ch" from a "q".) For our first night, though, we went a bit further up the path. The skewer vendors had all magically morphed into mini-restaurants, serving a variety of dishes with as much depth as any of the other restaurants in town, but with the additional atmosphere of being outside and having the kitchen in full view. The cutting boards, and the preparatory dissembling of meat products, were also in full view; so, too, was the meat in its pre-dissembled form. In front of the stalls, as anybody who's ever been to a decent Chinatown won't be surprised to learn, were the hearts and souls of the night's dishes. The spleens, too, along with the lungs, the skin and the limbic systems. You get the point: the meat was alive. Fish were swimming in a pool that was big enough for them to flop about and get some oxygen into their lungs. They also had a red string tied through their dorsal fins, so that the chef could pick the animal up for the customer to inspect before cooking. Crawdad-sized lobsters twitched slowly in their pile; frogs hopped fruitlessly in their nylon mesh sack. The sources of pork and beef for the evening were thankfully no longer what they were: we did not see any cows or pigs running around. The chickens and ducks, too, had already been shoved on to birdie heaven, their feathers but not their heads removed. We ordered a Beer Fish, a Yangshuo specialty, and paid 46 yuan (just under US$6) for two kilos of something local - trout, perhaps - from the Li River. The fish was then bonked on the head, cut open and half-cooked. Then a bottle of beer was poured into the wok with the half-done fish. The end result, when combined with the fresh tomato, garlic, onion and other vegetables and spices, was an incredibly juicy fish. Slit down the middle and served with both sides of meat up, since it's considered bad luck here to flip over a cooked fish, the meat was tender and flaky, but not so much that it would fall off the chopsticks. The FMA and I, anticipating smaller portions, had also ordered pork spareribs and stir-fried vegetables. While equally yummy - yes, that's a technical gastronomical term - it turned out to be a tactical error. There was enough food on the table to feed at least four people, and we drank enough LiChuan for all of them. Travelling through Asia is supposed to induce massive weight loss, but I just don't see how it can happen in China.
If you look real carefully at the night sky, you might see a faint blinking glow coming from the direction of China. That strange red luminescence is the word "sucker" written in neon across my forehead, a result of getting on the wrong end of a tout this morning. My Financial and Menu Adviser and I arrived in Yangshuo at seven a.m. The night bus ride was more comfortable than the worst bus ride we had in India, but it was still unpleasant. The seats didn't recline fully, and I would've gladly sacrificed the complimentary cookies and bottled water for some decent shut-eye. As it was, I got about three hours of sleep. I think the FMA got around four. Mentally drained, we weren't ready for what awaited us at the bus station. The group of touts was nothing worse than any we faced in India, and in fact was much smaller. One of these fine contributions to humanity, a tallish, thin man I'll call Shanghai Stew, came up and asked if we had a hotel. Yes, I said. Would we mind informing him as to which fine establishment we'd made a booking at, he asked, except not so polite. Things went downhill from there. "Bamboo House," I said. "Oh, great, that's me!" he replied. "Really?" asked the FMA. I don't have to tell you how incredulous she sounded. "Sure!" said Stew, and pulled out a business card that would seem to indicate that he was, indeed, from Bamboo House. Hesitantly, we agreed to go with him. In fact, everything we did that morning was with large walloping dollops of hesitation. But we were tired, and so we went up to a room on the third floor of a hotel without a sign in English in front. We bargained him down from 90 yuan a night per person, to half that, and then paid him for four nights plus 50 for a deposit. (The yuan is currently exchanging at 8 to the one U.S. dollar.) He then tried to sell us a tour package, which took four rounds of "No!" to get him to lay off. Then Shanghai Stew threw his arm around me, made some comment about a honeymoon, and implied to the point of stating outright that we'd all go out for beers tonight. Stew then said, "Okay, you tired. I come back at 11." I couldn't believe this guy. It was like asking for a candy bar at the local corner store, paying for it and then finding out you had to go into some stranger's car to pick it up. Eleven? I didn't really understand what was happening at this point. "Twelve," I said. Another three rounds of haggling and 12 it was. Annoying at the time, this would turn out to be incredibly fortuitous. Then we passed out, clothes left in a Hansel-and-Gretel trail across the floor. Twelve came and went and we slept through someone knocking on the door. One-forty-five came and there was the pounding again. But before that, we'd woken up and showered, and noticed that the name on the hotel key contained none of the English or the Chinese hanzi that make up the phrase "Bamboo House." I was eager to get the money back and get the heck out of there. As I opened the door, there was Shanghai Stew, in all his lanky glory. He started to say something about tours, but I cut him off. "You lied to us." "What?" "You. Lied. This is not Bamboo House." "You saw room, you said it okay." "You lied. If you don't give us our money back, I'll go to the police." Surprisingly, he got a bit skittish at the mention of cops. Could it be that little Stewie had some prior involvement with them? The next 10 minutes consituted an argument that was generally kept civil, except for one point when Stew tried to enter the room. I slammed the door on his hand to keep him out, and then approached him and demanded our money, or I'd go to the police immediately. The FMA, who'd been showering when he arrived, emerged from the bathroom like a Greek Fury. Or a deus ex machina. Hell hath no fury like a woman who's been ripped off, and so we'll never know whether it was the aggression Stew'd just seen or the potential of getting into a tangle with a pissed-off Australian lass that convinced him to capitulate. We left the hotel 100 yuan shorter, feeling quite stupid for having been suckered into the whole debacle in the first place. At least it didn't cost us 400 yuan.
Arriving in China has been my trip's equivalent of a human landing on Mars rolled into the Second Coming, with a 100cc dose of any solid Chinatown like a visual needle stuck right into my optic nerve. When my Financial and Menu Adviser and I planned out our trip, we started off in India knowing that it would be the cheapest country on the itinerary, but also the hardest and probably the least enjoyable. China would be the photographic negative of India, highest in cost yet also the one place that the FMA and I were both dying to explore. We arrived in Guangzhuo by accident. The cost of tickets from Bangkok to Vientiane, where the trip was aborted so I could get repaired, was the same as the cost of tickets from Bangkok to Guangzhuo. Guangzhuo is in south-eastern China, about a 2 1/2 hour bus ride from Hong Kong. Just from its location alone, you should be able to infer its importance to China's future. Providing easy access to Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia and a southern gateway to Hong Kong, but without the higher costs of doing business there, the potential for growth is obvious. As the FMA and I discovered, it's not just a horrid mash of conrete and bad design. The skyscrapers were inoffensive, as much as the things can be. The riverfront views during the day were appealing, and about as charming as well-placed neon can make a place look at night. There wasn't an over-abundance of it, but enough to draw your eye to the shapes of the towers illuminated against the darkness. Besides that interesting stretch of promenade along the Yanjiang Xilu, I found the area around the Qingping Shichang to be an incredibly intoxicating introductory taste of China. It looks like China. There were sloping, hooked rooftops, albeit the majority of them were made of tin or aluminum, and there were lots of people shorter than I speaking in Mandarin or Cantonese. Coupled with what seemed to be the same guy lugging a two-story pile of styrofoam on his bicycle zipping by every ten minutes, it all looked authentic to me. Qingping Shichang translates as Peaceful Market, wonderfully ironic in light of the tiger's claws, dried whole monkey (with fur!) and other animal parts being sold on the pedestrian overpass-turned-black market. I was quite lucky to get off one decent photo of the tiger's scarily dried tendons and talons popping out from tallowed skin before one of the vendors realized what I was doing and jumped up. But the FMA and I had already moved on, and he was unwilling to abandon his wares to give chase. The non-illegal food available in the market was as impressive as the illicit endangered animals turned into charms. Scorpions were as easy to procure as a cold drink on a hot Tokyo day. There were large black ones, with pincers far more frightening than their tails, and tiny baby ones the color of fresh dust, all their various appendages the same size. Live turtles, too, their heads poking frantically above the rim of their cardboard cage, and a dozen blue-eyed Persian kittens going by in a two-tier cage on the back of a bicycle. There wasn't much to do except acknowledge their mewling and hope that they were bound for a pet shop and not a hot pot. The cooked food we encountered was phenomenal. If the stall food in India had been as uniformly good as the food was in this seemingly random Guangzhou market, then India might've been more enjoyable. There were easily six stalls within 100 meters of each other, all with various concoctions of fried bean curd, duck, chicken, pork and what looked to be an entire farm of vegetables. We opted for one place at random, pointed out to each other the utter lack of foreign tourists, and then promptly saw half a dozen walk by within minutes. It didn't matter. We tucked into our duck, rice, bean curd and steamed buns amazed at how delicious it all was. (Not all simultaneously - yuck.) Then the most amazing thing happened. As the FMA and I sat at a table and inhaled our food with a speed that would make a Sudanese blush, a young Chinese couple came and sat next to us. There weren't a lot of tables, crammed into this tiny corner of the Peaceful Market where three streets met. Then, they spoke to us. My Mandarin is abysmal. I'd been studying a bit from one of those self-teaching audio books, which hasn't been that bad except it didn't exactly help build enough confidence, to, y'know, talk to a person. In Mandarin. I did remember enough from the first lesson: "Bu futonqua," which roughly - I mean, so roughly, it's the linguistic equivalent of exfoliation - translates as, "No common language." "Common language" is how the Chinese casually refer to Mandarin, which of course was nothing more than one of many regional dialects until Mao took over. Mao and his followers, of course, happened to be the folks who spoke Mandarin, and thus ends our history lesson for today. So: strangers spoke to me in Mandarin, or Cantonese, and I was able to communicate enough with them to indicate that I sadly could not reciprocate. In my nearly three years in Japan, I sadly can not say that this happened even once. The FMA says that it never happened to her, either, and I bet a dozen of my gaijin friends would agree, as well. Explaining why the young 'n' hip Chinese felt comfortable starting a casual conversation with a foreigner while the young 'n' hip Japanese didn't would probably take a flow chart and a case of beer or some other social barrier-breaking supplement. Right now, though, I'm not so concerned with why. I'm just glad it's happening.
The benefits of being forced back to Bangkok with my tail between my legs (so to speak) were not readily apparent. No matter how illogical it seems, there's a certain amount of self-deprecating abuse that incidents like what I went through encourage. "If only I'd done something different," the mind whimpers, and like a whining dog tossed unceremoniously out of the house on a cold night, the only thing to do is ignore the screeching bugger and carry on as best you can. "The Insurers" sounds like a bad Bollywood knock-off of a little Mel Brooks production. Sadly, arguments with my particular strain of insurers, right up until today with a big three-hour blowout over what they would and would not cover, have been occuring regularly. So often, in fact, that it's been tempting to go home just so I wouldn't have to deal with them anymore. But it keeps me warm at night that I get to send them more than 30 pages of receipts to claim money that they owe, but their insistance on changing their information every time I call up has been driving both my Financial and Menu Adviser and I mental. I was amused to note that after being discharged from Bumrungrad Hospital, the insurers booked me into Bumrungrad Hospitality Suites, which offers accomodation mainly to recuperating hospital patients. The hotel room, as the name implies, was a suite larger than my two-bedroom abode in Nishi-Shinjuku. This shouldn't surprise anybody familiar with the Tokyo apartment scene. Also not surprising: it was better furnished, with a gas oven, full-size fridge, hardwood floors, air-conditioning, a dinette/iiving room, two balconies, a bed large enough for a Roman legion and a shower with massage jets. Due to the healing injury, I wasn't allowed to use them, but I believe the FMA was quite thrilled. Despite all that opulence, the fan-only, cold water-only, but otherwise incredibly charming guesthouse with the decaying garden the FMA and I'd found in west Banglamphu near the river is still more my speed. I guess I just prefer teak to tile. It wasn't the easiest to move through the dense crowds here with my hands guarding my groin in what I'd hoped was a subtle arm position, either, but it sure beat watching crap TV from the hotel, where the cable news wouldn't work in the morning and several of the movie channels wouldn't work at night, and Cartoon Network would show more "Camp Lazlo" than kids should be legally exposed to. It's also been a bit of a weird week, where I had to spend money to save money. Since the insurance company was reimbursing me for food expenses, I had to get receipts whenever possible. But in a city like Bangkok, where a lot of the best food comes from stalls, asking for a receipt is like asking to put ketchup on your green curry. It's socially repugnant, and will only get you laughed at. So we had to go to food joints that would give receipts, and the only ones that do that are the chains - yuck - or the ones that cater to higher-end clientele. At least, higher-end than the FMA and I tend to aim on this trip. Speaking of food, room service sucks. The service itself was fine, as services go. The guy showed up on time, wasn't rude, and all the other little details one expects from having grub brought to your hotel door were in order. But the food quality was not worth the extra money extracted for the privilege of "restaurant" food, delivered special. The FMA and I had found a super-cheap Internet cafe in Banglamphu our last time in Bangkok. Ten baht for 30 minutes is so cheap, it's worth the bus fare to get there. After getting our geek on the other night, we went out to our favorite "almost-a-stall" restaurant. Jokpachana has plastic tables, sugar-high eager service, and some of the best restaurant food I've had. Their steamed mussels are so good, the FMA now wants to try mussels at every opportunity. That's a big change from making retching noises any time I'd order them in the past. And of course, Jok's pad thai is simply the best I've ever, ever had. I think it's the kind of fried bean curd they throw in, but something about it makes it addictive. I was craving pad thai for a week after I left Bangkok in March. So now I'm saying laa kawn to all that as the FMA and I head off to China. We've purchased tickets to Guangzhou because it's simply cheaper to fly there on 24-hours notice than anywhere else in China, and it's a fairly easy city to fit into the itinerary that we'd been thinking about. Besides, at this point it's best to get to the land of pandas and dragons before more bad stuff happens.
I was released from a Bangkok hospital yesterday, 11 days after what had started as a disturbing but not overblown incident in Vientiane, that wound up swelling to enormous proportions involving general anaesthetic and something the insurance companies like to call "medical evacuation." I woke up Tuesday, April 4th, with a strange swelling on the trunk of my penis. It wasn't very large, the swelling, I mean, in the sense that it wasn't the size of a baseball or anything. But it might as well have been, considering it was on a part of my dick that generally stretches north, instead of west. When parts of your body that you're particularly protective of have bad things happen to them, you tend to get a bit panicky. I'd never had a sexually transmitted disease, although the fear that somehow I'd mysteriously contracted one, despite always being safe if not entirely monogamous, suddenly burned through my head. Just for the record, the FMA and I have not cheated on each other, you gossiping grannies. The fear of having an STD sometimes can far outweigh the reality of not having one. The swollen area was painful to the touch, but not crippling so; I decided to see how the day went and if it got worse, I'd go to the doctor. It got worse. Good grief, did it get worse. So we went to the doctor recommended in the guidebook, at the Australian Embassy Medical Clinic. It turns out I was very lucky to have the FMA with me, since they'll only see people from Australia or other Commonwealth countries. Dr. Ben Burford was a bit horrified, which wasn't very comforting. The last phrase you ever want to hear from any doctor is, "I've never seen that before." The only thing worse than hearing that phrase once, is hearing twice. In the first 10 minutes I was in the examination room, I heard that three times. I nearly smacked him for the last one. I got the point: my putz was fucked. He suspected some kind of bug bite received either in the shower the previous evening or, more likely, afterwards while I was sleeping. Burford advised strongly against sleeping in the nude ever again in Southeast Asia, and prescribed oral antihistamines and steroids. The next day, the swelling had gone down a bit. He was happy with the progress, if still horrified, and I was still worried. If it didn't get better fast, he said, he'd send me down to Bangkok for treatment. By Thursday night, whatever improvement the medication had affected had worn off. Friday morning came and the FMA and I went to the Chinese Embassy, since that's where we'd taken our passports on Tuesday to get visas. We both knew that there was a strong chance the day would end in Bangkok. Interestingly enough, the Chinese visa is the same cost for 30 days as it is for 60, so we had gotten a 60-day visa, good as long as we entered China within the next three months. It was a comforting thought that if I could get healed in Bangkok, the effort to get the Chinese visa wouldn't be wasted. We went straight from there to the Australian Embassy and its clinic, and Burford didn't stand around, sputtering about once I got into the exam room. He took one look at the thing on my Thing and said, "It's time to go." He notified the insurance company that he was approving a medical evacuation to Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital, and then one of his secretaries kindly arranged for plane tickets that afternoon from Vientiane to Bangkok. Technically, I think, it's called a "self-evacuation," which sounded scarier than it was. I simply get myself onto a commercial flight to the city the hospita is in, as opposed to a chartered medical flight or getting shipped in a box or something. The flight was at 4:30, and before eight that evening I was in the Bumrungrad emergency room. On the one hand, I was extremely glad that I was being sent somewhere that I could get this scary alien thing growing on my penis taken care of and obliterated. On the other, and as preposterous as this sounds, I was really pissed off about this trip ending. It was a no-brainer and yet a tough decision to temporarily abort the trip, like being stuck between a cock and a hard place. It's a strange feeling, to be so worried about something as logically mundane as travel, when something far more serious was going on. As the taxi wove its way through the stop-and-go Friday night freeway traffic, though, I was far more concerned about resuming the trip than I was about my johnson. Does that make me a putz? All that changed by Saturday afternoon, as I was wheeled into the operating room. One nurse asked me if I wanted a local, regional or general anaesthetic. She didn't have the best English-speaking ability, but all it took was one raised eyebrow to communicate: "You're sticking a scalpel into my penis, fer Chrissakes! What the heck do you think?!" A few minutes later, staring at the bright lights and the bright ceiling, I saw a gas mask descend towards my face. The next thing I remember was an incredible burning pain in what had been my unnaturally-swollen nether region. I gingerly lifted up the sheet covering me, worried that they'd mistaken me for one of the many pre-operation transsexual patients in Bangkok and had cut off a lot more than they'd should've. Those fears shrank to nothingness as I saw what looked like a massive plastic tube sticking out of a short, thick white wrapping of gauze, gone yellow with iodine, where my dick once was. As my head - the uninjured one, folks - cleared of the anaesthetic, the pain grew sharper and the fumbling jumble of words spilling from my mouth grew clearer, at least to me. A nurse came over several times before she realized I was trying to get her to take the catheter out out out. For the next 30 hours or so, any kind of urination was obscenely painful, enough to force me to hold on to the wall with one hand. I like to think of myself as a modern guy, with modern-guy sensibilities. Tolerance towards body alterations is simply part of growing up in a city. If you don't know someone these days who's had a tattoo or a piercing, or even artistic scarification, you're just not the hip dude you thought you were. Us young and wild kids'll do anything for self-expression. Heck, some of my friends had gotten penile piercings in various places. But even back then, I had no idea how they could manage the discomfort. This experience hasn't made it any clearer. By Monday the 10th I was able to walk around the room without too much pain, and they took me off the saline drip. On Tuesday they removed the drains they had placed in the sub-cutaneous skin of my penis, two pieces of some kind of surgical plastic or some thing to keep the incisions open as the fluid causing the unnatural swelling dripped out of my body and into the gauze blanketting the area. By Thursday they'd taken me off intravenous antibiotics, and the doctor hadn't discharged me only to make sure that I could walk about without pain. Overall, the week was an utter bore, filled with crappy TV and crappy movies, and feeble attempts to read, write and otherwise distract myself. The insurance company provided some distraction, in the rage-seizure-inducing way that insurance companies always entertain the insured. At one point, we were shown a fax by the hospital administrators saying that we weren't allowed to be in a private room; only semi-private was covered. After two calls, one involving angry yelling, the other calm raciocination, the insurance company swore that the info sheet was meant only for the hospital, not for me to see. It seemed that it actually was okay that the FMA was sleeping on the couch in the room, saving them the cost of a hotel. They just forgot, or something. And towards the end of the week, my insurers provided quite a few panic attacks as they debated what they were going to pay for, and how much to allot for per diem expenses, and the whole ridiculous charade that these people insist on going through as they take your money with a smile. I don't regret having gotten the insurance, though: US$550 for the year covered pretty much any kind of accident I could get into, including this one, which will probably come close to US$3000 when all is said and done. The early-morning doses of pethadine, the secret identity of Demerol, did make things a lot of sleepy fun. Apparently, I kept needing the painkiller in the morning because my erections were straining the skin around the wound area. The doctor chuckled as he told me this, and said it was a good sign. I kept my mouth shut. A good sign would be not having four additional holes in my dick. A good sign would be not having to wrap my shlong in gauze before leaving the house, like a snake with a broken jaw. A good sign would be drinking sweet Laos coffee by the gallon in some random small village north of Luang Prabang, not choosing between CNN's news re-runs or the Discovery Channel's "American Chopper." There's a little voice in the back of my head saying, "All will be well. You must be feeling better if you're out of the hospital, walking around and fuming at suffering from trippus interruptus yet again." I'm quite glad to be on the mend, out of the hospital, swollen things swelling where and when they should be swelling, and generally functioning as normally as could be expected. Leaving the hospital today was like being born again, seeing daylight unfiltered by thick glass for the first time in 11 days. It's an appropriate analogy, I suppose, seeing as how the whole experience was like having a second circumcision. I can't believe that all that happened to me, and I'm damn lucky that there was no tissue damaged, either. I should be able to continue travelling after my follow-up appointment this Friday, all healing as it should. Still, the dicking rifuckulousness of it all is hard to swallow.
I'm stuck in Vientiane waiting for my China visa to return. Sad to say, it's not a very exciting or interesting city. Not nearly half as charming as Savannaket, nor as filled with the hectic life as Bangkok, it just sort of sits here on the Mekong, pleasantly happy to exist as it does. There are a wonderful plethora of restaurants, though, and the French-Vietnamese sandwiches and food at PVO are stomach-stunningly good. I did, however, manage to peruse a somewhat newish copy of a newspaper from Bangkok, and came across these statistics on tourism in Laos in the print copy of the April 2nd Bangkok Post. I can't seem to get their web page to load, which may be a Laos thing or may be a BP server thing. If anybody wants to hunt down this story on their home page and send it to me, this might be a bit more attributable. Total number of tourists: 1,095,315 From Thailand: 603,189 - 55 percent From Vietnam: 165,151 - 15 percent From the USA: 47,427 - 4 percent From France: 35,371 - 3 percent From China: 29,210 - 2.5 percent I'm a bit surprised that there were more Americans visiting Laos than non-French Euros, since I've run into far more of them than of us. But the way that truth in statistics has been a rare thing historically, and an even rarer thing of late, this all could be completely fabricated. Heck, you may not even be reading this.