THE OTHER SIDE

peace dome

 

 

 

The Shinkansen rocketed at a velocity that seemed impossible. Steve and I relaxed, worked a crossword together, and watched the Japanese countryside warp by in a blur as we headed north towards the main island of Honshu, enjoying this truly remarkable mode of transport. The bullet train lived up to its reputation, reaching speeds of nearly three hundred kilometers an hour. Often, when traveling by car or even airplane, you have no sense of how quickly you are actually travelling. The Shinkansen, however, shattered all such ignorance. One glance out of the window towards the rice fields and houses flickering by, and we had no trouble fully comprehending the intensity of our trajectory.

Hiroshima sits on a wide river delta and has all the features of a modern, lovely Japanese city. The wide, tree-lined streets play host to light-rail trams; the air is clean with a taste of ocean salt; like everywhere in Japan, the sidewalks are immaculate and the shops and restaurants give off the warm glow of prosperity. Hiroshima looked like a terrific place to call home, nothing like scene of destruction that I’d come to associate it with. For most of us, it is synonymous with misery and horror. To gaze at the present day city was pleasantly jarring, however, since it looked nothing like the black and white photos of flattened and charred buildings, skeletons of vehicles, and the maimed, hopeless inhabitants that I had come to equate with the city. I knew the place had been rebuilt, of course, but I had no idea just how completely they had achieved the goal. Like Fukuoka, Hiroshima was nice. While its history may have been tragic, its present seemed nothing of the sort.

But we didn’t come to Hiroshima to marvel at its modernity: We came for the past. We wanted to pay witness to this venue of unimaginable carnage and attempt to understand—not with our minds, but with our guts—what exactly had gone down there at 8:15 in morning of August 6th, 1945. We wished to examine the scene of the crime, to pay our respect, and perhaps give penance. Most overriding, though, was the urge to reach out as humans and attempt to make sense of what can only be described as the height of inhumanity.

So Steve and I disembarked from the Shinkansen and set out for the city’s Peace Park—a memorial to the atomic attack that lies along the banks of the slow-flowing Ota River near the city center. Steve consulted the map in his guidebook, and we were immediately on our way, forcing ourselves towards the objective at a fevered pace. This wasn’t easy. Now that I was actually in Hiroshima, I fought the urge to turn around and jump back on the bullet train. Did I really want to spend my afternoon thinking of such death, along with my country’s bloody hand in its creation? But this was more a pilgrimage than a pleasure trip, and we grimly pressed     on, knowing our quest to be one of necessity.

The Peace Park is aptly named, for it was quiet, even by Japanese standards. The only sound was that of the breeze, some squawking seagulls, and the weird little pink sightseeing boats chugging up the river. Steve and I strolled along in contemplation, observing this unwritten rule of silence, hyper-aware of the fact that we trod upon hallowed ground. It was early spring and the cherry blossoms were just beginning to bloom, giving the surroundings a taste of life. But all I could think about was death. I tried to imagine the feeling of going about your business on a Sunday morning, only to be blinded by a flash, feel the air ripped from your lungs, and get hit with and incinerating blast of hellish heat. Multiply this feeling by tens of thousands of people, and the enormity becomes too much to bear. As I morbidly obsessed on these details—the melted flesh, the crisped skin, the people who were vaporized with their shadows burned into the sides of buildings—I was not overtaken with emotion. I felt no tears, or horror, or guilt even. I was strangely detached, bowing my head, walking in silence, but feeling little. I was reminded of attending mass with my family in my late teens, with the kneeling and genuflecting and mumbling of prayers. The process was supposed to infuse me with grace, but instead I was left feeling hollow and false in the knowledge that I was just going through the motions.

The most iconic structure in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall, which is the closest surviving building to the epicenter of the bomb’s detonation. It has since been renamed the Genbako Dome, or “A-bomb Dome”, and serves as a testament to the blast. The roof of the dome was sheared off by the explosion, but the frame remains, giving the building the look of a clean-eaten carcass, a warning to other prey. It’s the one remaining relic of that terrible morning, and sends home the reality of what happened to anyone viewing it. After snapping some photographs, I just stood and looked. The emptiness inside me was now replaced with a warm, sad understanding.

Eventually Steve and I wandered up to the Peace Park’s museum, where my earlier mental speculation as to the effects of the bombing and subsequent radiation on human beings was confirmed by many graphic photographs. These pictures served as exhibits—close up shots of burned, poisoned, and misshapen people—all civilians, many of them children. I hadn’t eaten since the morning, but my hunger turned to nausea as I took in the photographic evidence of the crime. They were hard to look at but I forced myself, and I challenge anyone to do the same and not be sickened.

We spent about an hour at the museum, which included not just documentation about the victims of the blast, but information on the physics of the Hiroshima explosion, as well as extensive data on nuclear weapons in general. There were charts displaying which countries possessed the bomb, as well the estimated size of their arsenals. Unsurprisingly, the USA topped the list. The museum strove to be more than a memorial, however. It attempted to inform people about the reality of nuclear weapons and at the same time advocated for their total eradication.

As we left the museum we came upon a guestbook, which was an intriguing read. Messages from people around the world attempted to articulate the un-expressible. Most were short lines of sorrow and regret, with plenty of pleas for peace. Some of my fellow Americans left personal notes of apology, trying to put their shame and sense of guilt into words. One Canadian commenter did the opposite: She attempted to wash away culpability by reminding the world—through underlining, exclamation points, and all caps–that she was from Canada, NOT the USA, and that her nation had no hand in the bombing. The guestbook acted as part mirror, part Rorschach Test. After reading comments for ten minutes, it was time to leave my own. I picked up the pen and put it to the white paper, but paused. I attempted to form opening words, but they felt cheap and inadequate. Defeated, I set the pen down and walked away.

Stunned and somewhat shaken, we left the Peace Memorial Park and headed back into town. Though two hours of revisiting one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century had tamped down our hunger, our appetites now returned with a vengeance. It was time to eat, and soon we found ourselves in the huge, covered, Hondori Shopping Arcade, because nothing takes your mind of atomic catastrophes like the bright colors and strange flash of happy, Japanese consumerism.

For lunch we went local, sampling Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a kind of fritter layered with egg, cabbage, bean sprouts, sliced pork, and octopus, cooked on a hot plate as we looked on. It was hearty, filling and delicious. This was some proper, regional fare and made us feel more connected to the older, non-nuclear Hiroshima.

Bellies full, we left the little restaurant and joined the shoppers in the Hondori Arcade. We had an over an hour until our train back to Fukuoka, so this market looked to be the perfect place to kill some time. Steve was looking to pick up some souvenirs, but Japan had already sapped my wallet plenty, so I was more than content to just window shop and return to Korea empty handed.

“I’m gonna check out that shop over there. Maybe pick up something for my students,” Steve said.

“Cool. I’m going to look on my own. Why don’t we meet back here in thirty minutes?”

I proceeded to walk down the arcade a couple of hundred meters until something caught my eye. It was a comic book store. While not a collector or even a huge fan of comics, I love the stores that contain them. In America I’ve spent many hours browsing through store selections–from superhero stuff to alternative to erotica—I like to check it all out, and the more obscure the title, the better. I had never been to a comic store in Japan, though. I was familiar with manga (Japanese comics) style and dabbled in reading some years before, but here I was, in Hiroshima, facing the entrance of what was the Manga Mothership. So I slipped through the threshold and proceeded to get lost.

It must be said that the Japanese are notorious perverts. They even outdo their old allies Germany in this regard. Some of the strangest sexual stuff on the internet emanates from Japan–whether it’s bukkake (a ring of men masturbating onto a woman), puke videos, or “tub girls,” with arcing shots of brown liquid from the subject’s assholes. The Japanese just seem to have an obsession with bizarre and forbidden, or at the very least, relaxed attitudes towards those who do. There’s a pervy, sexual vein running through Japanese society which they embrace openly. This was evidenced on the streets as well, with so many of the women wearing short skirts and stockings or knee-high heeled boots. So much of the fashion had a fetishistic sensibility. There’s just a sense of really kinky sexuality that pervades the country as a whole, and nowhere does this manifest itself more clearly than in manga.
This comic shop took things to a whole new level. I thought I was prepared for what I was about to see, but, in reality, I was not. And bear in mind that this was no seedy shop near the train station or off of some forlorn exit off the freeway: It was in the most famous and busiest shopping arcade in the city.

The bottom floor was made up of your run-of-the-mill manga, most all of which featured cover illustrations of young teenage girls drawn in the form’s signature style—long limbs, slim bodies, full breasts, and unrealistically huge eyes. As I walked down the aisle and eyed the covers, I saw that the comics spanned countless subjects: high school romance, baseball, basketball, idol groups, fantasy, magic, martial arts, supernatural, horror, and many more. Like most manga, eroticism was inherent in even the most innocent of titles, though I only took in a few that featured swimsuit poses and camel-toed panty shots. They were in the collection, but in the minority, and as suggestive as they were, everyone kept their clothes on, even if it was just their underclothes.

I then took the stairs up to the second floor, which was similar in tone to that of the first, though a couple degrees hotter in content. Again, I just looked at the covers:  More panties and bras, bikinis, as well as some exhibitionist and “upskirt” stuff, but still open to all ages.

The third floor was both a literal and figurative level up: only eighteen and over allowed. Gone were the innocent high school crush narratives. Everything here was about primal sexual urges: the clothes came off and the characters went at it. All the titles featured naked girls with big eyes fucking, getting fucked, being objectified, humiliated, and defiled. Orifices featured prominently. Close-up detailed drawings of juicy penetration. This was some straight-up nasty, porny stuff—explicitly portrayed right on the covers–but nothing scarring.

Then there was the fourth floor. Like the third, it had an attendant checking anyone who appeared to be of questionable age. It was on this floor where I discovered that almost anything goes in Japan, as long as it’s drawn in a semi-cute way. At first it wasn’t so bad, relatively–mainly gay comics featuring high school girls and boys. But things quickly took a turn for the vile. I spied various kinds of rape, erotic pissing, and a few books featuring very pretty girls shitting. But it didn’t stop there. This was Japan, and as I was finding out, they really like to mine the depths. As stomach churning as some of the comic covers were, they inadequately prepared me what I was to regard next: a whole aisle featuring pre-pubescent girls and pre-pubescent boys in obvious sexual situations: Illustrated kiddie porn. My first impulse was to look away, but a sinister curiosity took hold and kept my eyeballs glued to the covers: I had stumbled into dark, bizarre territory and wanted to take it all in, if only this once. I had never seen anything so manifestly taboo, and there was loads of it. A few of these titles showed shockingly young kids, some so young that they wore diapers. And it got worse as I peered on. I could feel my pulse quicken and breath grow shallower. Was this stuff for real? As my eyes scanned this gallery of finely drawn covers, I felt like I was rubbernecking a gory car crash; I was compelled to look, even though I knew the sight may make me sick. I was witnessing the unthinkable and it just got more extreme as I burrowed deeper. I had come too far to turn back and was now committed to seeing the very worst that this store could throw at me. And I got it, in the form of what can only be described as hermaphrodite toddler covered-in-come comic porn. I felt like I had just been kicked in the head. I’d had enough. I’d seen my fill and no longer felt pressed on by some invisible hand. I was dizzy and wanted to puke. I ducked my head down and locked my eyes on the exit, not looking as I got the hell out of there.

As I burst from the first floor entrance I swallowed a lungful of air in an attempt to quell the hot wind whipping forth inside of me. I wanted to smash the windows and set fire to the store. I was wrong, I thought. I was wrong about this culture, about these people, about this nation. I was momentarily convinced that Japan, for all of her beauty, cleanliness, and seeming civility, was an evil place. I told myself that something dark and terrible boiled underneath the surface, something not even concentrated fire could scour away. For a second I pondered whether the destruction wrought upon her so many years ago was such a bad thing, and then immediately felt like a heel. How could I even contemplate such a thing? I was an American in Hiroshima, the site of the darkest and most awful act in the whole history of human warfare. This atrocity had been executed just decades before by my government. Attempting to justify such a crime because I was bothered by some comic books was beyond sacrilegious. I was frightened that I could even think such a thing.

My blood was percolating, but my anger quickly began to subside and saner thoughts crept back in. Perhaps the abominations I had just observed weren’t so terrible after all, when put into a certain context. For all the sickening stuff one finds below the surface, Japan is a very safe, civilized place. Maybe they had something figured out. Maybe it’s better to recognize such taboo subjects and create a space to contain them, rather than suppress them to the point to where they burst out in more harmful ways. Maybe the Japanese are just more honest about our dark sexual impulses, and their seemingly lax attitudes reflect a more realistic approach to the problem–a kind of societal harm reduction–like experiments in drug decriminalization.

I stood there, scanning the crowd for Steve. As I gazed out at the clusters of people shuffling past the shops and restaurants under the market’s arched arcade, I thought of our sushi feast from two nights before. How sweet it had been. Japan had been good to me. I’d immediately encountered kindness, generosity, and mastery. I repaid it by getting drunk and starting a fight at the punk club. Japan responded by denying me oteng. Japan seemed like such a bright, twinkling pace, full of beauty and magic, quality and wonder. The country at times seemed to approach perfection. But putting up such an immaculate façade must be taxing. Is it any wonder things get ugly behind the mask? Should I have been so surprised that Japan had such a dark vein flowing so shallow beneath the skin?

Whatever my judgments, Japan didn’t need my approval. As I watched the citizens of Hiroshima shuffle by, they seemed relaxed and content and totally unconcerned with my petty judgments. They were pleased to be living in this exquisite house they had built, and weren’t seeking my input in the matter. Japan was kind, Japan was brutal; Japan was lovely, Japan was disturbing. Japan was anything I wanted to call it, but it wasn’t mine. So when I finally caught sight of Steve’s spectacled face, I held up my hand and waved. He walked my way and soon we were off, rocketing back towards Fukuoka and then sailing on to Busan, our home on the other side of the sea.

HOUSE OF ROSE

blurred-palms-at-sunset-vince-cavataio

The girl slid the key out from its slot behind the dark wooden check-in desk. She waved a few loose strands of hair from her face and motioned for me to follow. I trudged behind, lugging my backpack and sweating. It was only nine in the morning and already hot. My mind was full of static; my eyes stung from lack of sleep.

The girl was willowy and brown-skinned, with a pouting mouth hedged in by thick, pink lips. She wore a short denim skirt and flip-flops that slapped the stones as she sashayed down the small path towards the communal room. The back of her skirt was slightly unzipped; I caught a glimpse of her blue underwear and felt a sudden flash of heat. I took a breath and swallowed. She was tall and long-limbed, with a bushel of hair pulled into a long ponytail that slightly bounced as she walked. She stopped at the door, inserted the key, and—flashing me a huge, toothy smile–unlocked it.

“Here is your room.”

“Thanks,” I said, plopping my pack down onto a thin mattress of a bed in the corner.

I did a quick scan. The room appeared to be empty. “Is there anyone else in here?”

“No. You have it to yourself… for now.”

“Lucky me.”

“Yes. Lucky you.” She lingered in the doorway, cutting a dark, leggy figure in the blast of morning light.

“I’m Chris. What’s your name?”

“Mirasol, but you call me Mira.”

“Mira.”

“Yes.”

I approached, offering my hand, which she accepted. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, Chris. Enjoy your stay at House of Rose.”

*

House of Rose sat at the end of a small side street on the very edge of Puerto Princesa, the capital of the Philippines’ Palawan Island. It was situated in a lush, palm tree-shaded area quite far from any action in town. The place was named for the woman who ran it–a Filipina in her mid-thirties–married to a hulking, bear of a Kiwi named Andy, who had bought the property some years before. The small compound contained a collection of bungalows, a kitchen, and an open-aired restaurant and bar, along with a cheap, above-ground swimming pool that was almost never occupied. The whole complex had a tattered, improvised feeling, as if one day Rose and Andy woke up and hastily decided to open their home up for visitors. That’s not to say that House of Rose lacked charms. Like the name suggests, the place was homey, informal, and relaxed. I felt comfortable straight away, perhaps because of its relative shabbiness. This decidedly unpretentious hostel was set far enough off that everyone was forced to mingle with each other. It was an island of sorts—a guest house adrift–where both the visitors and the staff were, in a way, captive. While this surely caused some to bristle, I knew straight away that this was the kind joint that brought out the friendliest in people, and was immediately glad I’d come.

I napped hard through the late morning and, after lunch, made my way to the nearby beach, which was one of House of Rose’s selling points. This cove was only accessible by a mucky trail leading through a mangrove swamp. The beach itself was small, with a forlorn hut staffed by a friendly dude selling soft drinks and renting some fourth-rate snorkeling gear, but lacking any outfitting of my own, I was forced to make do with what he had available.

Despite the sad state of the leaky mask and ill-fitting, blister-inducing flippers, the underwater scenery far exceeded my expectations, with a psychedelic array of coral and schools of skittish reef fish. This spectacle was nothing short of enchanting, so I propelled myself out of the little inlet towards the open sea, spurred on by the promise of viewing even more bizarre and chromatic sea life. I was happily dizzied, lost in this hypnotic return-to-the womb, when I suddenly came face-to-face with the undulating form of a blue and black banded sea snake. Though notoriously docile, these creatures are off-the-charts venomous. I could feel my heart thump in my throat. And despite the fact that I was enveloped in welcoming water and surrounded by neon splendor, I was now very aware that I was swimming alone in the South China Sea, surrounded by countless creatures that I knew next to nothing about. I was far from the solid ground and felt extremely vulnerable. If anything were to happen, I’d be toast. So I turned back towards the beach and paddled my legs with fervor. Mission aborted.

That evening I emerged from my room and joined a small group of guests in the dining area. We sipped drinks and watched Venus Williams obliterate an opponent on the flat screen above.

“She’s got legs just like I like ‘em,” said Bud. “Feet on one end and pussy on the other!”

He slapped my back as he howled at is his own joke. Matt and Scott, two young guys who, it turned out, were from my home town of Olympia, Washington, looked down to the table and visibly cringed. Andy, the barrel-gutted owner, sat nearby, smoking and nursing a bottle of San Miguel. He took a drag and smiled for what appeared to be the first time that day.

“I’d make quick work outta that, tell you what.” Bud finished off his drink. “But I’d better be careful, cuz you know what they say: Once you go black you never go back!”

Bud screamed again with laughter, looking around the room for any kindred spirits. I couldn’t help but crack a smile, and neither could the curly-headed Matt, who suddenly guffawed and looked to me, as if to say: Is this guy for real? Andy shook his head, chuckling to himself, while a Dutch couple in the back picked at their meal and gazed on in disgust.

“Hey Drew!” Bud shouted to his son, who stood behind the small wooden bar. “Give us another round of margaritas, lickety split!”

“Sure thing, Old Man.” Drew grabbed the bottle of Jose Cuervo, emptied it generously into the blender, and then pressed a button, filling the room with a high-pitched industrial grinding sound. He wore his white baseball hat backwards and his shirt unbuttoned, exposing a newly-purchased shark tooth necklace that dangled above his bronzed pecs and six-pack abs.

“You mind if I take some photos?” asked Scott.

“No problema, bro.” He began to pour the drinks. “You sure you don’t want one?”

“That’s fine. I’ll stick to Coke”

Drew slipped on a pair of shades, grabbed two margaritas and struck his best pose. Scott clicked away. Party on, bro.

“That’s mah boy!” Bud nodded in pride.

Unlike his son, Bud elected to go totally shirt-free, wearing just calf-length board shorts and flip-flops. He was around sixty years old and ridiculously tanned, with close cropped grey hair and a small, sinewy frame adorned with a couple of jailhouse tattoos. Bud bounced around House of Rose like a lightning ball, striking up a conversation with anyone in the vicinity, burning with the vitality and energy of a man more than half his age. He was from Texas and spoke in a harsh twang at volumes only found on the North American continent. Despite his obvious brashness, Bud was an expert charmer, and usually managed to elicit smiles out of even the most reserved visitors at House of Rose.

What Bud exactly did back in America was a mystery, though he was now retired–“on disability,” he claimed. It was difficult to discern exactly how he could be held back, physically, at least: The guy was a firecracker. He was now collecting a monthly check back home and living it up in tropical Asia, where he spent his days and nights drinking and whoring. He was most proud of the latter, talking up his sexual exploits with nary a whiff of shame.

“Last night me and Drew got us some whores,” he announced.

Scott raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, really?” Matt egged him on.
“Sure as shit,” he replied, nodding seriously and making eye contact with all three of us. He then yelled back to his son: “Ain’t that right, Drew?”

“What’s that, dad?”

“Last night we both got us some whores!”

Drew beamed a horsey smile and gave a thumbs up.

“Get this…” He lit a smoke and continued. “Mine was a skinny lil’ thang… felt like I could crack her pelvis straight in two. His was short and fat, with a big ol’ ass and a pair of tits like a couple of bags of milk.”

“You know I like me some booty, dad,” Drew confirmed, delivering fresh margaritas.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with a little cushion for the pushin’. But I prefer my meat close to the bone!” Bud grinned, exposing a set of teeth missing several key members.

“Now get this.” Bud stood up. “I was drillin’ into mine like a rabbit in heat…”

He demonstrated his best pelvic thrust.

“…and then I looked over at mah son, just a couple feet away, and he was doin’ the same. I turned to him and gave him a hi-five, right then and there!”

He recreated the moment, reaching into the air with his hand, which was met by Drew’s in one triumphant slap.

“Screw fishin’ or workin’ on cars! Bangin’ whores side-by-side—now THAT’s some real father-son bondin’!”

Bud cackled and grabbed his son around the shoulder in a half embrace. Drew looked on stupidly, chuckling under his breath. I took a sip of my newly concocted drink.

Bud took a breath and reflected, nearly choking up: “There ain’t many fathers who have a relationship like that with their son.”

“You’re a… lucky man.” Scott managed.

“How’s that margarita?” Drew inquired.

“It’s terrific. Damned good,” I said, telling the truth.

“Right on, bro! Did I tell you I know how to make ‘em or what?”

“You weren’t wrong there.”

“Hell no, bro!”

He offered up his hand for a “bro shake.” I clumsily obliged, attempting to follow his lead through the complicated, multi-step ritual that ended with us both pantomiming the smoking of a joint. He finished it all up with a fist bump with Matt and Scott.

Our little crew was soon joined by two more members of Bud’s entourage: His daughter, Brenda, and her husband, Chuck. They were also residents of the Lone Star State, and along with Drew, had flown out to the Philippines to visit the old man in his retirement haven. Brenda later confided that this is the only way they could visit their father, since he would be arrested if “he ever set foot on American soil again.” She had straight red hair, wore round glasses and only drank cola (“Don’t drink anymore since quitting crack,” she said.), while her big-bellied husband guzzled beer and explained why this trip was such a momentous occasion.

“I swore I’d never leave America again. I’m dead serious.”

“Why not?” asked Matt.

“Y’all ever heard of Hurricane Hugo?”

“Sure, I remember,” I said.

“Well I was on vacation in the Dominican Republic in ‘89 when it made landfall. It was pure hell, I tell ya. I was holed up in my hotel room for three days without runnin’ water or electricity. I thought I was gonna die. Never thought I’d be so glad to get home. When I finally got back to Houston the first thing I did was kiss the ground and swear that I’d never leave the USA again.”

“Sounds pretty intense,” said Matt. “Hey Chris, you ready to order? I’m starving.”

“Yeah, all that snorkeling today worked up my appetite.”

“Let me ask y’all something,” continued Chuck, in the manner of a Christian who is about to thickly lay on the Jesus pitch.

“Shoot away,” I offered.

His tone was heartland earnest. “Have you boys tried the Chicken Cordon Bleu?”

I had made the mistake of ordering this gut bomb back on Luzon and felt like I might die from intestinal blockage for hours afterwards. It seemed to be everywhere I turned in the Philippines–some uncelebrated national dish.

“You mean here?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. Right here.”

“Uh, no,” I replied. “I just got in this morning.”

“Well, y’all listen to me good.” He looked deep into my eyes. “Do yourself a favor and try it. Try the Cordon Bleu. Best thing on the menu—actually to hell with the menu—this here is the best damned Cordon Bleu I ever had! Ain’t that right Brenda?”

“Mmm-hmmm. It’s soooooo good…You really should try it.”

“Chicken Cordon Bleu. I’ve had it the last three nights in a row. I don’t even bother orderin’ anything else on anymore. Mmmm–mmmm. Cordon Bleu.”

While not morbidly obese, Chuck was well overweight and looked like he could benefit from a few less meals of breaded chicken breast, deep-fried and stuffed with cheese and ham… but that didn’t stop him from requesting it once again when Mira came over to take our order.

“Y’all gonna get it, too?” Chuck stared us down.

“Sure… uh… why not?” Matt obliged.

“How could I ignore such a recommendation?” said Scott, closing up the menu.

“And you, Chris?” Mira asked, cocking her head and smiling. Her hair was now let down and cascaded over her shoulders. She wore the same denim skirt as in the morning, but had since changed into a pink uniform polo shirt that read, House of Rose.

Chuck interjected: “I got three words for you, Chris: Cor. Don. Bleu.”

“Actually…I think I’ll go with the grilled barracuda instead.” I pointed to the menu entry to be absolutely clear. Mira’s English was decent, but not expansive. Chuck looked deflated.

“Oh, man, you’re missin’ out I tell ya.” He shook his head and looked to Brenda for concurrence. “What can I say? I tried.”

“Maybe next time,” I said, watching Mira’s long legs saunter back into the kitchen.

Kiwi Andy caught me mid-ogle: “You like her?”

“Uh…. What?”

“You fancy Mira?”

I offered a shrug, palms upturned.

“I give her one day off a week, just to give the others a chance.”

“Will you look at that,” Bud muttered, still enraptured by Venus’s moves on the TV. “Mmmm-mmm-mmm… I would eat the corn out of her shit.”

*

The next day I joined Scott and Matt in an expedition out of the exhaust-choked chaos of town. We rented motorcycles and headed north on the two-lane road, which soon opened up into green country, with the wild sea on our right. Our destination was Honda Bay, one of Palawan’s many marine sanctuaries. Once there, we chartered a boat for a day trip around the many islands which dot the bay, taking in the salty air and, more importantly, the array of life sea life pulsing underneath the water’s choppy blue surface. The highlight was Snake Island, named not for any resident reptiles—there were none—but rather for the thin, serpentine shape of the tiny landmass.

Right off of the main beach was a deep canyon, home to thousands of fish. The tour operators fed the fish daily—a dubious practice, conservation wise—but one that assured the snorkelers delivered to the area got the biggest bang for their buck. And the bang was mighty indeed. We snorkeled and looked on in amazement at the masses of fish gathered up–whole walls of finned creatures moving as one organism. Even the shallows were thick with shimmering, living clusters, deprogrammed of their natural fear of humans due to the feeding routines. I’ve never taken in such a spectacle—assuming that such delights were reserved for deep sea divers—and came to realize why Palawan had come to be billed as the crown jewel of the Philippines’ eco-tourism hot spots.

In the early evening I found myself seated alone at the tables of the House of Rose. I typed away on my laptop and uploaded files to Facebook, amazed that wireless technology had managed to reach even this remote corner of the Philippines. This novelty was short lived, though, as midway through my cyber-work, the power cut out.

“It happens all the time,” said Andy, shuffling into the space. “Power blackouts. No need to worry. We got a big generator to deal with this nonsense.”

Within a couple of minute the generator was fired up and power restored, though it sounded like a pickup truck with the exhaust pipe removed, a machine-gun combustion engine that destroyed any semblance of tranquility at House of Rose..

“You busy right now?”

“No.” I yelled, over the generator’s din.

“Come join me for a drink at my mate’s if you’d like.”

The old boy is warming up to me.

“Sure thing.”

I jumped into Andy’s van and he drove us to a tiny, open-air bar near the center of town. Andy double parked and as soon as we got out, we were greeted by the proprietor, a skinny, leathery man who appeared to be in his late 50’s. His name was Claude, and he hailed from Quebec, though like Andy, he was spending his golden years drinking away the hours in Puerto Princesa.

“This is Chris,” Andy said. “He’s a Yank, but don’t hold it against him.”

Claude warmly gripped my hand. “Welcome, my friend.”

Claude ushered us to a large outside table and promptly ordered a round of San Miguels from his much younger wife. The expat husband-to-wife massive age gap is de riguer in this part of the world. Such is the way of the Philippine retirement plan, I suppose.

We were soon joined by several other paunchy, middle-aged white dudes, all of whom were seasoned veterans of the Palawan scene. I sipped my beer and took my place at the end of the table, while the local boys talked shop. All of them were married to local women and at least made a partial living by offering booze, lodging, tours, and even girls to the visitors rolling through.

“Things are better these days,” said Jan, a white-haired Dutch guy who owned a small hotel.

“It’s about fuckin’ time,” added Andy.

“Was it slow before?” I asked, embracing the role of the greenhorn.

“You don’t know about the kidnapping?”

“What kidnapping?”

“Abu Sayaf? You, as an American should know these things,” said Jan.

“I know about Abu Sayaf,” I said, attempting recovery. “But aren’t they down south, in Mindanao?”

“That’s their base of operations,” said Andy. “But eight years back they kidnapped some tourists—including several Americans—from a resort here in Palawan.”

“Dos Palmas. Honda Bay,” added Claude.

“Honda Bay? I was just there today.”

Andy continued: “They came during the night, loaded them in a boat, and took them away to an island down south, where they held them in the jungle for several months. A few hostages were killed… some beheaded.”

Claude ran his hand across his throat and made a gagging sound.

“…though most were eventually freed by the army.”

“And a load of ransom money,” said Jan.

“Anyway,” Andy said, “as you can imagine, tourism to Palawan dropped off massively after that, which is ridiculous. It was just one targeted raid.”

“On the rich,” says Claude.

“Exactly,” said Andy. “You have nothing to worry about, Chris. I guarantee you that House of Rose will be the last place ever hit,”

“You are right about that my friend,” laughed Claude. “Even the terrorists have some taste.”

“Tell all of your friends to come,” said Jan. “And, if,” he lowers his voice, “while you’re here, you ever need a place to take a girl… I have rooms by the hour.”

“That is good to know,” I said.

Andy looked my way and shot me a wink.

Good and buzzing from the beer, we headed back to House of Rose just in time for dinner. The cast of characters from the night before was gathered up again. Brenda and Chuck sat in silence, gorging on their daily fix of Chicken Cordon Bleu. Chuck sported a white muscle shirt and improvised headband, and was broiled red by the sun, the kind of burn that is agonizing just to look at. Bud and Drew were next to them, beers and smokes in hand. I took a place at the adjacent table with Scott and Matt, who both plugged away on their laptops.

“Well look what the cat drug in!” said Bud. “Your lil’ gay buddies told me about your adventures today.”

“You really should check it out, Bud,” said Matt.

“It’s awesome,” added Scott, sipping from a Coke. “Check out my photos.”

“Well, we’re fixin’ to go tomorrow. Ain’t we?”

“Sure thing,” mumbled a miserable Chuck, mouth full of Cordon Bleu. “But y’all need to remind me to bring my sunscreen.”

“What are you doin’ tonight?” Drew asked. “You got any plans?”

“Here I am. What’s up?”

“Well the girls want to head out later, once they close up the kitchen. You wanna come, bro?”

“Count me in.”

“Not us,” said Chuck, looking up from his half-eaten plate. “I feel like I survived a napalm attack. My sizzled ass is goin’ to bed as soon as I’m done with this chow.”

After work, the women changed their clothes and came join us.

“You girls is lookin’ fine tonight!” exclaimed Bud.

Mira and Rose smiled, while the short, darker-skinned Dalisay gave him a death glare and hissed, “You try to touch me, old man, and I cut off your hand.”

“Cut whatever you want girl, just as long as it ain’t my pecker. I’m still usin’ it!”

The eight of us piled into two tricycles–the motorcycles with sidecars found throughout the Philippines–and headed away from House of Rose into the town center. The dirty streets were filled with pedestrians, motorcycles, a few cars, and many other tricycles. Like most developing countries at night, the side streets were dark save the lights of the vehicles. People stood and sat in front of gates and doorways, drinking, smoking, and gambling. Some had guitars and entertained each other with songs. Nearly everyone in the Philippines can sing decently and strum at least a few chords on a guitar–never have I been to a country so steeped in music. We passed by open air restaurants with their display cases full of meat and fish dishes, fried rice, pancit, lumpia, and adobo. A few neon-lit girly bars pumped out loud pop music in an attempt to lure in the men, and mange-ridden dogs wandered free.

“Where are we going?” I asked Mira, who was sandwiched against me in the small side car. I put my arm behind her and she leaned in close.

“Away from House of Rose!” she said, smiling. “We want to show you Princesa!”

The tricycles stopped at the town’s harbor and we all got out. We walked along a wide promenade lit up by white lights on green poles and took pictures of each other in groups and couples. The sticky Palawan air was cooler at the water’s edge, and both families and lovers strolled along and gazed out into the dark of the bay. A couple of large ships were moored at the docks, and I got the sense that the municipal authorities did everything they can to make sure that his part of the little city looked as spiffy as possible. A huge sign at the harbor’s edge spelled it out in white, stone lettering: WELCOME TO PUERTO PRINCESA

“How old are you, Mira?”

“Twenty-two.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-eight.”

“You are liar!” She slapped my shoulder. “Much younger.”

“Nope. Thirty eight.”

“You are American, yes?”

“Yes, but I live in Korea.”

“Korea? Why do you live in Korea?”

“Work. I teach there.”

“Korea is very cold, no?”

“Yes, right now, VERY cold.”

“I cannot stand the cold.” She shivered at the thought.

“Are you from Princesa?”

“No. I’m from Roxas… to the north.”

“Do you like working at House of Rose?”

“Is okay job… but many hours and little money. But I meet many people… many visitors… many countries.”

I paused for a moment: “Do you have a baby?”

To me this seems like a legitimate question, since nearly every woman under the age of twenty-five I’d seen or met in the Philippines had at least one kid. The Catholic Church’s imprint was visible everywhere in the country, especially in the form of millions of children birthed by very young mothers.

She grinned and answered without hesitation: “Yes, I have baby. A son. His name is Miguel. Look.”

She brought out her cell phone and showed me a picture of a chubby-faced toddler with huge brown eyes.

“Very cute.”

“I miss my little boy…”

“Where is he?”

“He lives with my mother… in Roxas.  I don’t see him so often.”

“It must be hard for you.”

“Yes, but I must make money.”

“Hey you guys!” Rose waved to us. “Come this way.”

We followed Rose and the rest of the posse along a trail leading up the hill that loomed over the harbor. Once we got to the top we came upon a cluster of large tents lit up with white Christmas lights. As we entered, I saw that they were packed with people shouting. The air was hazy with cigarette smoke and I could taste sawdust and sweat. A vivid sense of excitement burned in my skin.

“Hey Mira, what is this place?”

“Filipino casino!”

The crowds gathered around various low-stakes games of chance, all of which looked homemade. Each had a game master and groups of players throwing down bets, behind which stood even more spectators. We moved into the room, squeezing through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd.

“You wanna play?” I asked.

“Okay.”

We made our way to a huge table. In the middle was a sunken platform made up of squares of many colors. A hole was cut in the middle of each square. Along the edge of the table were colored rectangles that match the squares. This was where you placed your bet. Once all the bets were placed, a soccer ball was tossed onto the platform. It rolled and bounced about until eventually settling on a color. If the color matched that of your bet, it paid out.

I handed Mira some pesos and we both placed bets. The man tossed the ball onto the platform.

“Para para para!” she shouted. I know para means “stop” in Spanish and assume that they must have adopted it in Palawano. After all, Tagalog is full of Spanish words.

“Para! Para!” I shouted.

“Para!” Mira echoed, laughing.

The ball settled on orange. We won.

We ended the night at a strange club in town, complete with cover band. Filipinos are the kings of cabaret bands, providing the lounge entertainment for countless hotel bars and clubs throughout Asia. It’s no wonder that they’re also masters of the form in their own homeland.

We all ordered San Miguels and hit the dance floor when Matt joined the band on stage for a version of “Twist and Shout.” Matt was a guitarist for a few indie bands back home and strummed and belted out the Beatles classic with gusto, all while being backed up by an extremely courteous group of Filipino players, who appeared slightly bemused by the spectacle. After Matt’s stint sitting in, Bud bought several rounds of tequila shots for the table, and the girls tore it up, throwing out all of their best moves to a blaring soundtrack of pop favorites, with Lady Gaga and the Wondergirls heavy in the mix. The Filipinos love their pop, especially with an extra dollop of cheese on top. They adore music of all forms and have no time for scorn or self-involved irony.

It had been a long, sweaty day and I was spent. I drooped in the chair, nearly nodding off, thinking of my bed at House of Rose. Mira grabbed me by the hand and attempted to coax me back out to the floor, but my shoes felt like they were filled with wet sand and I just couldn’t keep up, so I collapsed back into the seat.

“Are you okay?” she shouted in my ear.

“Yeah yeah… fine. Just tired… and drunk.”

She sat down next to me and held my hand.

“Oh poor baby…” she teased. We watched Bud as he leapt and spun in crazed abandon, tapping from a seemingly infinite well of energy.

“I like you, Mira.”

“I like you, too.”

“I’m leaving on Wednesday.”

She nodded along with the beat, watching the old man continue to cut it up.

“Can I take you on a date tomorrow?”

*

After a day trip by motorcycle to the other side of the island, I returned to Princesa, killing time before my upcoming date with Mira. That evening I wandered away from the guesthouse toward the center of the town, eventually settling in at an open air bar and restaurant nestled on a side street. I sat alone, listening to techno pop music blare over the tables and sipping yet another cold San Miguel.

An old woman in a straw hat ambled past. She carried two baskets tied to a stick that lay balanced across her shoulders. She called out, “Balut! Balut!

“Have you ever tried balut?” asked the waitress, a perpetually-smiling young woman of about twenty.

“Isn’t that the half-formed baby ducked cooked in its egg shell?”

“Yes, that’s it, though these are baby chickens”

“Uh, no. I can say with some certainty that I have not eaten balut.”

“It’s good!” she laughed. “You want to try?”

I sipped and thought for moment before pulling the trigger: “Uh, sure…. hook me up with some chicken fetus.”

The waitress called to the old woman, who stopped, opened one of her baskets, and produced a white egg. The waitress paid and handed it to me. I felt its warmth radiate into the palm of my beer-cooled hand.

“Okay, now follow my directions. First, carefully crack.”

I nodded and tapped the top of the egg on the table.

“Good. Now peel away just a little bit… that’s good!”

“Okay, what next?”

“Drink the soup.”

“The soup?”

“Yes, drink the liquid inside. It is very good. Some say the best part.”

Again I followed her directions, putting the warm egg to my lips and tipping it towards my mouth.

“Go ahead and suck.”

I did as I was told. The balut broth was slightly salty and tasted very much of chicken. So far so good.

“Finished?”

I nodded.

“Now peel the shell away.”

I slowly stripped away the shell, revealing a hardened yellowish yolk and purple umbilical cord. Soon the alien head became visible, all slimy and pink, complete with bulging eyeballs and an almost fully-formed beak. A spider’s web of veins twisted underneath the sickly, translucent skin.

It was a grotesque form, reminding me of the baby in David Lynch’s classic film Eraserhead.

“Now eat,” instructed the waitress. I took a breath and went to take a bite before she stopped me: “All. Take all at once.”

“Okay,” I said, eyeing the hideous mass just inches from my face. “Here goes nothin’.”

With that I popped the whole balut into my mouth and chewed. As I bit down I felt my teeth slice through the yolk and into the flesh, followed by a burst of warm fluid from the semi-creature’s insides. The taste was intense–chicken concentrate–the very essence of poultry. But what disturbed me most was the crunching. I could clearly feel its tiny bones snap as I crushed and ground up the fetus in my chomping maw.

I quickly gulped the fleshy, gooey mass down, and chased it with beer in a frenzied attempt to purge every trace of balut from my unfortunate mouth. My stomach balked at the delivery, but the impulse soon passed, and I managed to keep it down.

The waitress looked on in pure joy, giggling, beaming, and punctuating the whole affair with sincere applause.

“Well done!” she praised. “It is very delicious, yes?”

*

Later that night I returned to House of Rose. The dining area was quiet, save a few of the guests that I didn’t know. Andy was there, smoking and drinking, of course, eyes fixed on the cricket highlights flashing on the TV. Rose saw me sit down and came over.

“Are you ready for your date?”

“Yes.”

“Just remember to use a condom,” added Dalisay as she walked by with some empty dishes.

It was nearly midnight by the time Mira emerged. After work she’d gone back to her shared room to shower, change, and put on some makeup. She wore the same denim skirt from the morning I arrived and a sleeveless black top, exposing her thin, round shoulders. I caught a hint of perfume as she walked up.

“Are you ready?”

“Sure… where are we going?”

“Let’s just ride and see…”

Mira got onto the back of the bike and we took off into the nearly-empty streets of the town. It was late, and with the exception of a few bars, and a restaurant or two, everything was closed up. She gripped my waist lightly and nestled her chin into the back of my shoulder.

“Do you want to meet my cousin? We can go to her house.”

We rode through the central business area with its haggard shopping center and fast food chains, past the impressive white and blue cathedral, and out to the far end of town. Mira directed me down a dirt road until we came across a small house. We stopped. The barks of several, unseen dogs echoed around the neighborhood and no lights were on inside. Mira lightly knocked on the door, but got no response. She knocked again: nothing.

“Maybe she is asleep…”

“Well what should we do?”

“Let us just ride.”

We rode back down the main strip into town, towards the airport and then turned around. We then headed back out towards her cousin’s place and turned around again, doing several laps through Princesa like cruisers in small town America. We talked about nothing, but just rode, savoring the night breeze that whipped through our hair and the damp warmth of each other’s bodies.

“Are you hungry, Chris?”

“Yeah, I could eat.”

We stopped off at one of the few restaurants still open. It was a Vietnamese noodle house. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, many Vietnamese fled their homeland via the sea. Some of them ended up on Palawan and are still around today, their noodle shops a testament to their presence.

Mira and I were the only customers. We ordered two bowls of chicken pho and colas, sitting under the restaurant’s buzzing, fluorescent lights, slurping the noodles and broth and sipping the soft drinks from plastic straws.

“Where do you go tomorrow?”

“I’m heading north, up to El Nido.”

“Are you coming back through Princesa?”

“I’m not sure yet. I may go all the way to Coron and fly back to Manila”

“You should come back during my day off and we can go the beach. Would you like that?”

“I would,” I said, waving away a fly.

We rode back to House of Rose as slowly as possible. Neither of us wanted to be there but it was very late and there was really nowhere else to go. I suddenly remember the offer Dutch Jan had made the day before: “If you ever need a room,” he said… but it didn’t seem that this was going to be that type of night. Mira worked hard, but wasn’t a working girl.

As we approached the guesthouse the streets got darker. The branches from the trees reached out over the lane, and moonlight sifted through.

“Stop here,” Mira said.

I killed the bike and just sat there. An orchestra of frogs chirped from the swamp nearby.

“Look at the stars,” she said, pointing up to through trees. There they were, glowing white; majestic.

We got off the bike and stood in the middle of the road, just looking up, afloat in the tropical night. I felt the warmth of her hand, her long fingers intertwining with mine. I turned to her, leaned in, and we kissed.

She smiled and laughed.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

I felt that warm wave rise again inside and placed my hands on her hips, feeling her bone through the strong denim of her skirt. I went in for another kiss, this time with more purpose and passion, but she placed her hand on my chest and lightly pushed me back.

“No.” Again she smiled, though I could see in her eyes that she didn’t trust me, that she knew exactly what I was after.

It was nearly four am when we returned to House of Rose. The place was dark and shut down.

“Oh no.”

“What?”

“I forgot my key,” Mira said. “I cannot unlock the room.”

“Well isn’t Dalisay in there?”

“Yes, but she is sleeping.”

“Wake her up.”

“No, no… she will be angry. I will stay out here until morning. Just two more hours.”

“Come to my bed. I have to get up at six as well. The van to El Nido comes at six thirty.”

“I cannot. It is against the rules.”

The temperature had dropped significantly and now a slight seaside chill hung in the air. I could see that Mira was cold. I went to my room and grabbed a light sweater from my pack and gave it to her.

“Here. Wear this.”

She slipped it on. It draped over her like a blanket.

We sat together in one of the wooden lounge chairs on the edge of the dining area. I held her and she rested her head on my shoulder. We listened to the sound of the night—dogs, frogs, crickets, far off music, motorbikes, cars and voices—until I dropped into sleep.

“Get up,” Mira said, kissing my forehead, bringing me back. “Go sleep. Go.”

We stood up together.

“Thanks for a great date, Mira.”

She nodded. I embraced her weakly, then turned and walked toward my room.

“You will come back for me?”

I stopped.

“You can come see me on my day off. We can go to the beach.”

I looked back towards her silhouette.

“Will you promise to come back?”

“I will,” I lied. “I promise.”

NEW REVIEW

Check out this terrific review from fellow Signal 8 writer Giacomo Lee for The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia:

‘I’d failed both my wife and myself, and vowed to never let that happen again.’

There’s a point halfway through this travelogue which really hits the reader in the gut. It comes when the writer returns to his hotel one night to find his wife highly distressed, and unusually quiet. Unbeknownst to him, she had been followed by men in a car, who then proceeded to hang around outside the couple’s hotel room, calling for her to come out to whatever foul end they had up their sleeves. While all this was happening, the writer had been out enjoying the nightlife of a new country, innocuously drinking in a bar with fellow travelers. He’s of course overcome by tremendous guilt upon finding out, and it’s put across with a brave and brute honesty that’ll make you take stock a little. The reason it really hits hard though is because up until this point, Chris Tharp does what all great travel writers should – he stays out of it. He paints the scene, shows us the locals and the ex-pats, gives us a little history. He himself rarely strays into the picture, and when he does, it usually hits the funny bone with some sort of hilarious observation. When that moment in the hotel comes though, you’ll be impressed by the sobering honesty of it. I couldn’t have put it down on paper, not for anyone.

But it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, for The Worst Motorcycle in Laos never pulls any punches in its 400 page trek across the Asian continent. Some of the scenes I will never forget for their haunting depiction of life on the extreme end of the poverty scale. There are moments when you’ll have to put the book down to think about what Tharp has just seen – a deformed child in a cart; a foul mouthed nine year old; the squalor of public defecation. This is important information, and it helps the book show a world that is changing, or very much needs to change.

The title should tell you this is writing by someone who skipped the planes, and traveled on the road, seeing life from ground level. It gave Tharp a chance to observe, and observe he does. He sees things which you and me would otherwise miss: the North Korean official on mysterious business in Laos; the travel agency advertising archaic fares; the invasion of a seaside village by rich Russians where once there were none.

He sees beauty too, with vivid descriptions of rural China in one of the book’s finest chapters. It’s fascinating enough to get a look into pre-Olympic China, but when we are later taken to the volatile Uyghur region of the country, it becomes a vital kind of reportage about somewhere that will most likely be whitewashed in the years to come. Another reason to read these very rough travels in Asia.

THE WORST MOTORCYCLE IN LAOS: ROUGH TRAVELS IN ASIA

moto2

NOW AVAILABLE IN BOTH PRINT AND E-BOOK VIA AMAZON AND OTHER FINE PURVEYORS OF BOOKS, SO GO AHEAD AND GET A COPY WHILE THE GETTIN’ IS GOOD!!!

In The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia, author Chris Tharp recounts his misadventures in countries across the region he’s called home for the last ten years. He takes us to the back-alley restaurants of Vietnam on a quest to eat cobra; to the neon streets of Japan, where he goes on tour with a jazz band, gets lost in the depraved depths of a comic book shop, and nearly causes a riot at a punk rock bar; to far Western China, where he narrowly misses a terrorist attack and endures a harrowing drive on the world’s highest highway. Whether he’s losing his lunch on the boat ride to the disputed Dokdo islets, surviving a bus wreck on a Korean highway, eating chicken embryos in the Philippines, or riding a dilapidated motorbike through the dirt tracks of Laos, Tharp delivers his tales with a mixture of honesty, wit, and humor that will inspire readers to strap on a backpack and hit the road.

But don’t just take my word for it. Hear what some other folks have to say:

“In The Worst Motorcycle in Laos,Tharp takes us on a wild ride from the neon streets of Tokyo to the dirt tracks of Indochina. The essays are insightful, humorous, and
unflinching. A great read for the active and armchair traveler alike.”

– Michael Breen, author of The Koreans

“Tharp’s done it again. He’s got a knack for finding himself in, shall we say, interesting places and situations: from fake flowers and monks to persistent touts,
these are the stories few can experience for themselves. Make no mistake, Tharp makes life happen on his own terms.”

– Chris Backe, travel blogger at One WeirdGlobe (www.oneweirdglobe.com)

“The Worst Motorcycle in Laos is a thoughtful rampage through the backwaters of Asia. Tharp writes about his travels with a refreshing, humble honesty, unafraid of
exploring the gritty and the grimy, the seedy and the sublime. Witty, poignant and at times even disturbing, this is a great read for both the seasoned journeyer and those
content to enjoy from the comfort of home.”

– Brandon W. Jones, author of All Woman and Springtime

“Illness, whether his stomach, or his motorcycle, forces Tharp to destinations he hadn’t planned. Going off the beaten path leads to revelations that aren’t just culinary ones, but philosophical quandaries that push toilet seats as well as his conscience. In that sense, the dynamic of Tharp’s journey isn’t so much that of Asia as it is the landscape of humanity. At the same time, his mix of visceral pain, self-deprecating humor, and unique cultural idiosyncrasies pervade throughout the travelogs and make for some damn good conversation.” – Peter Tieryas, Entropy Magazine

“Tharp’s writing is sharp witted… casual and inviting, I feel like I’m along for the ride. After finishing the book I felt like I always do after reading a good travel book, ready to hit the road.” – Laura Bronner, travel blogger at An American Abroad

NAME THAT RAT

nutria-portrait-ed

Recently I read about a 20,000 won ($20) bounty that the Korean government is offering for carcasses of river rats, which have invaded the Nakdong River basin near my home in Busan. This reminded me of a passage cut from my book, “Dispatches from the Peninsula,” where, on a motorcycle trip, we come face to face with these a few of these beasties. I make no claims that this is fantastic writing, and there is a reason this was sliced from the manuscript, but it still pleases me that it finally has managed to find an audience. Enjoy. 

Often the most satisfying – or at least the most memorable moments of a motorcycle trip – are those which are unplanned, those impromptu decisions to follow a small road sign and see what it is actually pointing you towards. We never know what the destination will have to offer, but often we are surprised. Such was the case with our last pit stop at Upo Wetland.

Real wetlands are few and far between in overly-built up Korea, where habitat preservation has taken a back seat to progress, so when we took the spur road that lead to the huge swamp that makes up Upo, we were suitably impressed.  The place sits in a massive bowl, ringed by steep embankments. It is host to a huge bird population, both year-round and migratory species. Upo is quiet, with just the whispers of hikers, photographers, and birders, along with the slow crunch of cars winding along the gravel road. We dismounted our bikes and took in the swamp from the main viewing area.  A whole day could be spent at Upo, hiking any one of the trails that rings the marsh, but we were short on time and just took in what we could.

We noticed a man in a small boat which he propelled with a long pole. He slowly made his way into the swamp and jumped out on a small island made from dirt and bushes. He produced a snare from his boat and lowered it into the brush, hooking what sounded like a moaning animal. The thing wailed and screamed like an infant as he wrested it from what seemed to a trap and then lifted the thrashing creature into the boat.

“What the fuck is that?” I asked. “A cat?”

“Yeah,” said Sir David. “They may trap cats out here to protect the native birds.”

“Cats, in swamp? I thought cats hated water.”  BC was more than skeptical.

“There’s no fucking way that’s a cat,” Sam chimed in. “Maybe it’s a nutria.”

“A what?” said BC

“Or a bagder,” Will opined.

We watched enraptured, as the man moved to a second island, and extracted a second creature.  It too screamed and moaned as he plucked it from the mud and into the boat.  For a couple of seconds we got a glimpse of the beast, but it was too far away to make out clearly. Once in the boat, the man went about to stuffing the creatures in what appeared to be large, empty rice bags.

“I don’t think they’re badgers.  I think they’re some kind of otters. Yeah, that’s an otter.”  I was sure. “They’re probably eating the bird eggs.”

“Why ain’t he killing it right then and there?  Why bother taking it in?” David was confused.

“Maybe they eat them in the village over there. Might be a delicacy,” Will thought.

“Could be a big ‘ol swamp rat.” said Sam.

“I don’t know… did you see the size of that thing?  Rats don’t get that big,” said BC.

“Swamp rats do,” Sam replied.

The trapper now poled the boat back towards shore, and we, along with a handful of Koreans, headed down to the embankment to see the creatures in person. Before he reached the shore, the man reached into the water and grabbed a few handfuls of aquatic plants. Food for the beasties.

I addressed the old man as he drifted in on boat. “Ajosshi, what kind of animals are those?”

“Nutrias!”

“I was right!” Sam was vindicated.  Nutrias are an invasive species from South America, a kind of semi-aquatic rodent.

When he reached the shore the trapper lifted one of the creatures out of the bag by the snare and set it on the ground, in front of us and a few gawking, photo snapping Korean tourists. The varmint hissed and gnashed its frighteningly long, yellow front teeth.  The thing looked more like a beaver than anything else, though a very ratty beaver. The old man poked at it with the stick for effect, and the critter at once gnawed at the poker.

“Wouldn’t want to stick your finger in there,” Sir David remarked.

The trapper put the nutria back into its bag and hauled both of them down a trail, with the group of us in tow.  The trail ended at a large cage, in which the trapped animals were deposited, along with their “feed” that was extracted from the swamp.

“Why are you saving them?” Sir David asked.

“Food.” The old man implied.

Sir David continued: “Are your going to eat them?”

“No!” He shook his head in disgust. “They’re for the lions!  The lions in the Seoul Zoo!”  He smiled, lit a thin cigarette, and marched off proudly.

“Wow.  Lion food.  Not a bad idea, really,” remarked BC.

With that, he hiked back to our bikes, fired them up,  and made off  towards the unfortunate town of Miryang.