V. Important Caveat: if you do not like descriptions of bodily functions and prefer to not read accounts of lavatory failures that contain superfluous, gratuitous—if not fecally pornographic—descriptions, then do not, do not, do not continue reading.¹ This is your trigger warning. (Alternatively, read about glowing worms or check back next week for pictures of caves.)
I’m as prone to embarrassing travel stories as some people are to clumsiness. Buzzfeed, no less, included two such stories in a 2015 listicle. The creators rendered me into a gif, so I got to witness a cartoon version of myself dropping a wine bottle at a Macca’s and deluging the tile with pinot. My face, I’m sure, turned as lush as the wine after a security officer scolded me for what I’d done. But, up until Mui Ne, I never had in my roster an excreta-type story that featured me as protagonist.
The closest I had was one from 2013 at Venice’s Festa del Redentore. There, a friend of mine—I’ll call him Chris Christy—suffered an acute case of drank way the fuck too much. To properly experience the Festa, revelers have to charter a barge boat to the Guidecca Canal, tie it into line with hundreds of other similar craft, and then spend the next six hours drinking, eating, and moving from barge to barge as buccaneers might during an open sea melee. In most boats, a plastic bucket is the sole option for relief.
Within the first hour, Chris Christy’s Irish flu went south. I shielded him for the next two hours as he squatted over the bucket, his face turning the white of soap suds.² The complete and conspicuous failure of his intestinal fortitude haunted him to the point that only after five years did he lift the prohibition on telling the story in public. Still though, the red that rouges his face whenever the story is shared is a sufficient postmark for his continued embarrassment. But the terror, shame, and desperation that strikes a traveler during an anal melt-down is the dark matter of story creation. It is a Big Bang, of sorts.
What follows is mine.
Leonie wanted to avoid returning to Saigon. While in Phu Quoc she’d made clear that she’d go straight from Saigon’s airport to its bus station and hop on a bus to Mui Ne.
While researching Vietnam, she became enthralled with Mui Ne’s sand dunes. In pictures they looked regal, like pregnant gold hills, and barren of people. I promised to join, but not at the expense of another Saigon night.
I spent this night eating crab soup in a narrow eatery with limited seating. Then I took a stomach sloshing walk through heavy rain to sample baked goods at a line of pastry shops. I didn’t feel ill, but my stomach didn’t feel impermeable either. I’d felt an unease, like on the brink of stomach flu, since my second day in the country. On this, day ten, I figured the feeling, incubated for so long, was going to be the norm and wouldn’t sway wildly into sick or back into health without forewarning. It was my body adjusting, I thought, so even though my stomach rumbled like pipes recalibrating pressure, nothing felt like an emergency so it was best to carry on as normal. But after my night in Saigon and during the last hour of my six hour bus ride to Mui Ne, a single pang of discomfort hit my stomach. I was scrunched in the back of the bus with a large family and had no option for relief except that I could yell desperately out for the driver to stop. At the time, though, the figurative hammer smacking on my intestines felt controllable. I focused on denying my discomfort, and it worked. Also I took a few Pepto Bismol tablets and a fast acting Imodium pill.
I arrived with cleans pants in Mui Ne in late afternoon.
Mui Ne, a town, is a dot on a map and feels no greater in size when seen in person. It has a lumpy topography. Surrounding hills resemble piles of fine-grained amber sugar poured from a spout. Husky vegetation is sparse on these sand hills and grows dense near freshwater that flows through hollows. The town is a loose congregation of buildings, mismatched in style and purpose, just as they are in so many other Vietnamese tourist towns. Some are magnets of opposing charge: fishing slums that have neither plumbing nor electricity and depend entirely on a thalassic subsistence and then resort compounds with obstructionist palms and sunny blue pools. Base living and simple concrete homes subsist between the flanks.
Leonie booked me a bed in a backpacker hostel 15 kilometers north from Mui Ne central. The bus company’s shuttle wouldn’t take me that far, so I had to barter with the driver to drop me off as close as he could. Thank god a motorcyclist pulled over when he saw me walking the remaining five kilometers. My stomach was liquefying and each step brought me closure to rectal failure. We bartered a price, and I sat on his passenger seat, my massive trekking bag on my back, my day bag strapped to my chest, me between cushioned like in an already-deployed-air-bag.
I focused more on my stomach than the ride. If I concentrated on his driving, or Mui Ne’s traffic situation, there’d be additional bartering for replacing the upholstery on the backseat. Mui Ne suffers from a disproportionally high number of traffic fatalities. A major highway runs through it, so the speed limit is higher than usual, and that means the max speed posted is but a quotient of the speed people actually drive.
Once I was dropped off, I walked to the check-in hut exhausted, dusty, the whole intestine thing a sloppy mess. I grimaced a hello to the congregation of backpackers on the couch playing Risk on a homemade board. Leonie was there and we had our reunion. I received my keys, dropped off my bags, and finally had a bastion of relief for body and mind.
This hostel couldn’t decide what it was. It had private accommodation rooms, A/C bunk rooms, no-wall bunk rooms with mosquito netting bundled over cots, tent accommodation, two banquet style restaurants for tour buses, and three bars. Built on a declivity, all the rectangular buildings near the ocean were built without the wall that would face the water. The guests segregated themselves by type. Tourists—either Vietnamese or Chinese or Russians—stayed to their groups in the banquet halls and bars, and backpackers—Swedes, Canadians, Brits, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, French—spent most of their day in a common area. This had a bar, three dining booths, a pool table, and sofas. The fabric on these sofas was like a topographic map chalked by the squiggly lines of sweat. Backpackers spent the better part of their days lounging, smoking, and leeching what little Internet was available.
The food was atrocious. Leonie ordered a pizza that I think could have been repurposed as dry wall. The meat of a chicken sandwich I ordered looked like the unwashed white part of a jockstrap. Vietnamese entrees were no better. While the food didn’t help wean my stomach from persistent discomfort, the consistent access to water, toilet, and TP made me feel cocksure. I flaunted my physical bravado in my stomach’s face and showed a flagrant disregard for its interests by drinking beer and moving too rapidly, willingly letting it churn its contents into batter knowing that my salvation was a mad dash and locked stall away. Because I’d yet to have one of these mad dashes, I possessed an unwarranted confidence in my body’s ability to control itself.
This was wrong of me.
I felt assured enough to join Leonie for a $5USD, 5-hour tour of Mui Ne’s sand dunes and miscellaneous highlights. An American War era 4×4 jeep turned out to be our transportation. Even with its ignition off it was possible to hear gasoline glugging. The vehicle was a welder’s dream: nothing but steel components sutured together with a combustion engine under the front hood. The evergreen paint job was a viscous spread, like too much honey dried on toast. I got into the way back with Leonie, two French girls, and a British couple. We had no seat belts, just our hands gripping bars overhead. The amount we got tossed around was dependent on how much upward pressure we were able to exert against the bars. There were no windows either, so the hot air billowing in once we got going walloped my lungs. It felt like the waft of air that comes when you open a heated oven.
Before we left, Leonie and I had thought to bring but one water bottle. I also had the fleeting idea that I should bring a roll of toilet paper. I didn’t.
This was also wrong of me.
Mui Ne’s white sand dunes, our first stop, were marked up like cake frosting that’s been left unguarded. There was no wind to do any etch-a-sketching, so we had no respite from an uninhibited sun whose heat hit from above and radiated from below. The eight of us on the tour dispersed into the sandy preserve, and within ten minutes the dunes were mottled with our ascending cotton forms.
Leonie and I put as much distance between ourselves and the rest of the group as we could, but distance offered no solitude. Only the most far off dunes, ones a few hours walk, looked untrodden. Green bushland covered a wide creek, and the sea some distance away was a brash blue against the coast.
This humbling intake lasted a moment, as out of garages rumbled ATVs and other American War jeeps that were available to rent by tourists. The vehicles raced Mad Max style across the dunes, and after half an hour we left them and limped back through the hot and squashy sand, reduced the water level in our bottle, and waited under the jeep’s boiler steel shade for the driver to return.
While waiting, I peaked around for a toilet. This was out of idle curiosity more than real need. Men napped on hammocks, chickens pecked about. But I did wonder whether I’d need to engage in a skirmish to ward off a siege. The driver came though and honked us in.
Fairy Creek—thirty minutes drive from the white dunes and in Mui Ne proper—had water that looked to be the run off from soaked rusted iron. Stepping into the creek was a respite. The jeep drive was beginning to un-mortar my insides, and I needed a bracing and still relief. We waded through this creek with water that never rose above ankle height. The sand was ultra fine. It had a satin feel that polished off the rough residue of my feet and hands, and, when left to dry on my skin, settled in the cracks and patterned to look like a rusted web or an arabesque sketching. The water’s cool, up my ankles and through my legs, annealed my stomach, but this respite lasted until I stepped out again and had to wait for the jeep driver to show up.
I felt that the situation was getting dire, so I peaked into a nearby convenient store to see if it had a restroom. A quirk of Vietnamese culture is that shop workers often live in quarters appurtenant to their commercial enterprises. This means that if a bathroom is available, you often have to walk through someone’s living space. Sometimes children are there lying on flat, wood benches watching TV. Mothers might be nursing, or a quarter-blind elder will be sitting shirtless in a room corner with a fan aimed at his face. This particular store didn’t have this set up, plus, I was not yet at the point of desperation where I would willingly inflict what I was incubating on anyone. But, not having any luck, I felt the intestinal doomsday clock tick a second closer to midnight.
We had two more stops. At least an hour and a half separated me from certain relief. Anything before then would be improvised and without precedent.
Once we’d parked at the next stop, a fishing village, I felt panicked: that pulsing heat, sweaty brow, animal’s look for refuge type of panic. At once the village represented that it did not have plumbing. Women carried buckets of water and used these to splash down wood boards that had displayed seafood. No shack stood as the obvious out-house.
My insides were a wreck, and I worried about the fecal plumage they were capable of unleashing. I seriously considered escaping to find a ditch. I didn’t, but only because I knew that searching would give my mind license to imagine what relief would be like and that would end in disaster if relief was not possible. Better, I thought, to try to placate the cramps…
So I took pictures. A woman led a gaggle of bald headed chicks across the sand. Shore birds scuttled from small waves then sprinted back to stab at the mollusks that failed to bury themselves. Kids crouched near the surf digging for the same. The fish cleaned from the vendor stalls left a terrible, rotten smell. A putrefaction that had a clinging grit that stuck to clothes and needed soap and salts and oil to temper and then needed more soap and salts and oil to get rid of. The day was ending. The sun was near enough to the horizon that its brightness and heat waned and the sun could be gazed at. Since fishing is done at night there, fishermen pushed into the water rafts that looked like upside-down bowler hats. The men paddled out to fishing boats moored in calm water and whose colors resembled a line of parakeets. Watching the men navigate the round boats reminded me of the teacup ride at Disneyland: when one man paddled, the boat spun round until the man’s partner countered it.
I was consciously imprinting the exacting details of actions routinely done, and I tried to appreciate the sun’s faltering, the surf’s tepid curl. “Yup,” I thought while doing this, “I’m gonna shit my pants.”
On our way to the red sand dunes, our last stop, I knew I was not dealing with a return to home base situation, so a just fight-off-what-is-coming-with-a-grin-and-bear-the-pain strategy wouldn’t work. This was a General-the-paratroopers-are-jumping-we-need-confirmation-as-to-the-drop-zone-coordinates-right-now red alert operation. But, I knew that the red dunes were a popular tourist attraction. Across the street would be a variety of gift shops, banquet halls, and food vendors set up like sutlers trailing an army. Surely one would have a bathroom. Yet during the fifteen minutes it took to get there, the pressure expanded and grew to be more dense and more urgent. I fretted that a premature fuse would ignite the whole ordinance. A bump at the wrong time, a mistimed rise off my seat would take away much needed bum pressure. I wondered: how would I apologize? Would there even be a way to make amends? Would everyone just skip this last stop and go home because I couldn’t corral my body fluids sufficiently? Maybe I’d just leave the country. Shit and then say thanks for the ride, sorry for the mess, I’m off to Cambodia.
While holding my face and sweating into my hands I recalled those ultra-athletes who publicly shat themselves in pursuit of the pinnacle of physical excellence.³ Nothing about my story could ever provide motivation or inspiration though, just caution. I was another white guy taken to task for consuming street food whose bacterial composition was in a league that my avocado coddled immune system couldn’t comprehend.
My forbearance lasted until the parking lot. Once the ignition went off, I practically tore the seams off the driver’s shirt, hauling him squarely in front of me to ask, Where’s the nearest bathroom? He flicked his head to an outhouse of some sort, about a 50m, butt-holding dash away. Its two blue doors were entrances to relief, but when I got up to them I saw each had a metal bolt pushed into a hole drilled into the door jam. The pressure in my bowels pressured every action from here on out. Here I was, in front of padlocked doors, suddenly at the mercy of a digestive system that had taken tactical control of the rest of my body’s functions. I turned a shoulder and battered the door in. The force and subsequent crack open had me stumbling inside. I saw the dried, disgusting, almost archaeological remains of a one-time bathroom. Toilets were ancient relics, the feces inside them calcified, the piss left so long in them that it’d corroded the ceramic to the point that it cracked and broke off like a broken mosaic. I couldn’t go here. I was angry at myself for not bringing TP.
I left knowing that whatever place was next would be it. This wasn’t a mental choice. The animal instinct of needing relief overwhelmed thirty years of potty training and fifteen or so years of Puritan shame. The internal blitzkrieg had a muster order for three minutes from now, so wherever I was is where it’d find appeasement. (Getting paid per military metaphor, btw.)
The neighboring building was a restaurant. No one was inside, but it was clear that the lunch crowd had left a while ago and nothing had been cleaned. Vortex funnels of flies moved around the tables. I thought I heard voices in a kitchen, but I saw no one. I figured a bathroom was in the back. I did a duck footed, stiff-legged walk/sprint, something rubber stamped by the Ministry of Silly walks, hoping a clench-cheeked stiffness would grant me a few more moments, knowing too that it’d make the first uncapped blow that much worse.
The men’s and women’s bathrooms had no divide between them. The men’s side had three urinals and three stalls, none of which had locks. One toilet didn’t have a water connection, another had a low level of mustardy condensate in the bowl. One looked fine. No stall had toilet paper, and no toilet had a bidet hose connected. Fuck myself for not bringing TP.
The quaking demand of this moribund shit had me in a stall shaking to undo the laces of my bathing suit and then squatting, ape like, over target. A series of concussive blows pasted the water and maculated the bowl’s upper porcelain. I thanked the toilet for its sacrifice.
Half-way through though, the urgency of my predicament waning, I faced the consequences of having to choose this place. While the entire building seemed blessedly deserted, I didn’t know how I’d be able to clean myself. I wished I’d worn underwear instead of just a swimsuit. I would’ve sacrificed those if I could. Or a shirt. I considered using Vietnamese Dong. And it was a mess back there. I couldn’t just say, “Whelp, time to pull the old swimsuit up, this one is clearly a no-wiper.” I even took off my shirt and hung it on a peg for protection. I needed a shower or a high-pressure, good-for-cleaning-elephants hose nozzle. I scoured my backpack. No papers, no cloth, nothing. Until. Water bottle with its squirt feature that at the moment was like a holy grail of salvation. But it was empty. My choice was to fill it from the sink basin outside the cloistered safety of that fecal confessional. So, in the buff, my backside an environmental hazard, I went outside, filled my bottle, and prayed I wouldn’t welcome a surprise visitor. Even without a language barrier there’d be no explaining this one. Safely though, I returned to the stall and did a reverse Old Faithful. I went back to the sink and stole a bar of soap and rubbed it to oblivion to clean every affected part of me. I put my shorts and shirt on, grabbed my bag, and went back into the restaurant. An employee stood in the dining room busing a table. He looked at me. I looked at him. I bolted. Where you been! He yelled out like it was an accusation. I out ran the yell and he didn’t give chase.
Ashamed, dignity gone, I crossed the street to the dunes. Leonie sat waiting. The sun’s bottom touched the dune top, so I walked across the shadow that extended from her form to the other side of the street. Are you okay? She asked.
I felt decrepit. Everyone seemed to be gifted a temporary power to look at me and determine what I’d just done. Nah, I thought, I’m pretty far from okay.
But, what I said to her was, Totally, let’s go walk some dunes.
¹ Bowels, unsurprisingly enough, move readers to fascination and book reviewers to revulsion. Serious works of fiction have an allowance for the scatalogical so long as the purpose is comedy. Ulysses and Don Quixote, for example, contain references to shit—and shitting—but they’re accepted as part of the works’ whimsy. Infamously, Thomas Pynchon didn’t receive such treatment. His Gravity’s Rainbow gave too serious a focus to shit. It (the book) was a Pulitzer Prize contender, but the judges were repulsed by one particularly gristly, if not poetic, coprophagia episode. (It has this line: “The turd slides into his mouth, down to his gullet. He gags, but bravely clamps his teeth shut. Bread that would only have floated in porcelain waters somewhere, unseen, untasted.” So, yah, gross.) But, feces treatment in literature aside, I wonder if there is a serious work of fiction that makes a bowel movement its central focus, the narrative driver. For all the contrived scenarios writers devise to create tension, I can think of nothing more relatable or empathic than a character who badly, badly needs to take a dump while seemingly every external force in the world is working in concert to prevent the character from doing so. When I think of the scenarios in actual quotidian life that are true “beat the clock” scenarios, a buzzer-beating pants drop has to rank as number one. Close seconds are catching public transportation and getting to an appointment on time, each of which are used amply in fiction. And yet, taking the Browns to the Super Bowl is treated like a freak-side show. Maybe there’s a game changer though: Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle, critically noted for an exhaustive detail of the mundane, writes about shit. A lot. The Paris Review wrote an article about it. Karl didn’t describe it for comedic reasons, nor did he make it poetic. He just wrote about terds. Simple stuff, and people appeared to like that he did. Why the hub-hub may be because of Western squeamishness with bodily functions to begin with. We keep our death and our shitting private. Poopurri, for example, an olfactory concoction meant to disguise poo-smell, is an actual product. NPR did a piece about it. People buy it. There are studies that suggest farting in a relationship is key gauging its health. Like, it actually says a couple’s willingness to engage in prolific flatulence is a litmus test to determining potential success. (But then there’s the story of the Florida woman who assaulted her husband because he farted too much, so I don’t know what to believe.) Google “Farting in front of a significant other.” Do it, please. GQ and Maxim give a calendar date range on when it’s acceptable. I’m not writing this footnote and the above blog post thinking I’m helping to wipe away the taboo. It just might be amusing if you’re into this sort of thing.
² An acute reader will ask: How do you clean up? Answer: In the water. Hold the bucket, lean over the gunwales, dump contents, and then wash. It’s gross, yes, and everyone was going it. Do not swim in Venice’s water folks.
³ One of these athletes was dubbed “Bajsmannen.” In English, “Poop Man.”