No Country for Christmas Man
I pay my rent by writing for a travel website, and this summer I visited Vietnam and Cambodia on a 3-week assignment. Alarmed that the Viet Cong might soon take his 29-year-old baby captive, my dad strongly suggested that I might benefit from parental supervision. My dad hasn’t traveled a lot, and as an only child, I’m comfortable saying stuff to my parents like, “Get out of your comfort zone, man!” For the bulk of his life, he’s lived in suburban Maryland, a land where one is never more than 6 inches from a square meal and a round government employee. I did feel a little concerned about how he would fare. And as it happened, he did almost die.
I’ll let him tell it.
He’s a lawyer and is unafraid to really jam out a word count, so I recommend that you print this sucker out and read it on the toilet, in the preferred reading room of dads everywhere.
No Country for Christmas Man,
Down and Out in Faifoo
By Kevin Kendrick
I am a portly pink man with glasses and a large, almost completely white beard. I am much older, and in truth a good bit heavier, than pretty much any other tourists (let alone natives) I encountered during our two-and-a-half weeks in Vietnam, and half-week in Cambodia. Ah yes, travel when you’re young they say. Well, I never had the time, interest, or money, so I went later. Truth be told, before this trip to Southeast Asia the only foreign countries I’d ever been to were Canada and Louisiana (rim-shot).
I was something of a sight to the Vietnamese, even in the large cities. On more than one occasion I’d notice small faces looking up at me, mouths agape. “They’re talking about you,” our guide informed me; “they’re saying that you are Christmas Man.”
In Hue some people stopped me to pose for a picture with Christmas Man. A grownup passing by on a scooter relied on more local material, proclaiming "Hey, Buddha!" Later in Hanoi, when I paid for something with an American $50 bill, the employees giggled together behind the cash register for several moments, finally emerging to gleefully inform me, pointing to the portrait, “it you!”
Vietnam's Tourism board has since changed its slogan to "Hey Kevin, Did You Know You're Old And Fat?"
Our third major destination on this trip was Hoi An, an ancient little town next to the East Sea in central Vietnam. Our first full day in Hoi An was long, sun-drenched, and infernally hot. It was steamy, unrelenting heat; the kind of heat that doesn’t permit perspiration to fully function as intended, where evaporation plays a crucial role in the cooling mechanism.
The sweat weighed down my “light, breathable cotton” shirt. With increasing frequency I had to pause to ring out my shirt and sweat rag, the liquid pouring forth and splashing audibly to the ground. Over time and with nowhere else to go, the perspiration seeped inexorably into the upper regions of my light tan cargo shorts with particular emphasis at the front, creating the unmistakable appearance that I may have peed myself.
Across several hours we walked up and down those ancient humid streets strewn above with colorful cloth lanterns, snapping pictures and fending off knickknack vendors, fruit sellers, and custom clothiers promising bespoke garments within 24 hours. We moved at a brisk trot, checking off noteworthy temples and historic buildings. Finally, at one of the last temples on our itinerary, I sat down, exhausted, in the shade of a tum-tum tree, and experienced the first lightheaded inkling of what was to come. The sun-soaked world around me started to look uncharacteristically thin and two-dimensional, almost too bright to look at, with a vague, shifting, yellowish blotchiness clouding my sight. I knew I had to stay put and get more water. So Molly proceeded alone to the final destination with instructions to bring cold water when she returned. She reappeared about half an hour later. I guzzled the water as if I were that rich guy crying out to Abraham to send Lazarus by with a wet fingertip, and then staggered slightly as we hailed a cab. Once back in the hotel room, I drank still more water and fell fast asleep.
After sunset, Molly wanted to visit the old town again to experience the fabled night market. Another objective was to obtain “cao lau” noodles — a specialty to Hoi An made with “special” water from a “special” well. The night before she had wandered down a dark alley to observe the legendary well, and beheld a tourist peeing in the grass just a few feet away, but it was not made clear whether this was integral to the specialness in question.
As we marched toward the night market, we passed an imposing neon ad for Tiger beer that read, "Be a Tiger, Not a Pussy." We were both sweating a lot, but despite having changed, I again looked as if I had just emerged from a swimming pool. "Let me carry your bag," Molly said. "I'm a tiger, not a pussy," I responded.
I flagged this as an example of “toxic masculinity,” and I can only hope that one day my feminist blither-blather will sink in.
We walked several blocks uphill to a restaurant that turned out to be closed. To my secret dismay, Molly directed us back to the tourist-packed center of Hoi An, over a bridge and through a vast press of humanity in search of a second-choice destination where we could obtain these fabled and possibly piss-flavored noodles. I was starting to feel quite faint again, and at times toyed with the idea that I would just stop and collapse on a curb nearby for a rest. Adding to the distress was the fact that, at my age, dehydration causes acute back pain and joint swelling.
Finally we arrived at the second-choice establishment, well lit and heavily patronized. After a brief, and for me, rather dizzy wait, we were seated at the back of the packed restaurant near large fans which served only to move the heat around.
It was at this point I really started to lose my grip. The fainting sensation waxed and waned, accompanied by that faint yellow blotchiness and bright, two-dimensional look to things. I managed a few words to Molly about how I wasn’t actually feeling too good and needed to get a cold beer pretty soon. But when she pressed for details I again lied and assured her I’d be fine.
FINE, it turns out, is an acronym for “Fuck, I Need Emergency medical assistance”
We ordered, and then I fell silent in the confidence that remaining very still and quiet was my best path forward. Molly informed me later that it was at this point that my eyes rolled back in my head and my neck started to wobble. Then my head smacked the side of the table as I collapsed to the floor, sprawling between the tables next to us. Before exiting in this singular fashion, I remember noting that the young couple seated closest to us was speaking French.
My information from this point is that Molly went into a panic, screaming “Dad!!? Dad!!?” while squeezing my potentially lifeless face as I lay on the floor.
I saw blood flowing from his nose, and I thought he might have had a stroke. Later I observed the blood was pouring from a flap of loose skin under his mustache.
A cry went up for medical know-how, which appeared in the form of two Dutch nurses on a holiday. It was their kind, angelic faces that I first saw when I finally came round. Then Molly’s horrified face swam into focus, back from arguing unsuccessfully with restaurant staff to call a doctor. The Dutch angels placed a seat cushion under my head and spent a long time pouring water on my scalp, pressing ice onto my neck and back, and making me assure them I would let them know if I felt I was passing out again. They pressed a moist cloth under my nose, bringing to my attention the fact that my face was bleeding quite profusely. They conferred among themselves and agreed that I would need stitches. (I would later find it curious that they spoke English to each other throughout the ordeal.)
One might assume this was an embarrassing situation for me: a big, old, copious man – an American in Vietnam, no less — with a giant white beard, sprawled out in the middle of a crowded restaurant with a bloody face, having water and ice applied to his fleshy body. As it happened, I couldn’t have cared less; I was finally getting relief, and it was heavenly to feel cold water running over my head, ice on my neck and back, and my lower back pain gone due to finally lying down. Molly avers that when I opened my eyes I wore a bug-eyed expression she’d never seen before, nictitated rapidly, and asked "did I pass out? How long have I been on the floor?"
“Nictitated” means “blinked.” This is why they pay him the big bucks.
The Dutch nurses asked if I could sit up. "I'm ok, I'm ok,” I said, assuring them that if I could just get back to the hotel, I’d be fine. The nurses and other bystanders helped me up onto a chair and asked if I could walk to a taxi. I said I could, but as soon as I stood up I passed out again, covering new distance as I fell through the large, open doorway onto the outside steps. I was now half in and half out of the restaurant, with my upper body on a lower level. The nurses acted promptly to move me all the way out till I was lying flat, rolling me gently like hippies tending to a beached whale.
Now fully outside, I drew a yet larger crowd. One notable addition to the salvation committee was an energetic elderly European woman wearing culottes. She fanned me energetically with a menu and yelled angrily at ogling passersby to move along.
I recall the Vietnamese voices insisting for some time that ambulances weren’t allowed in this ancient part of the city and that I would have to get up to a main road where a taxi or ambulance could reach me. Even in my condition I knew this was nonsense. They wanted me gone at any cost, and as soon as possible, for the obvious reason that I was bad for business. I didn’t resent this particularly, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to budge. Meanwhile, the Dutch nurses finally prevailed — they could, and must, call for an ambulance.
“Let’s roll him into the river” was the staff’s general drift.
Molly kept up a routine of returning inside to see if they knew when the ambulance would come and to get more ice. "Your noodle ready!" one of the waitresses announced. In response, Molly asked tearfully about the ambulance yet again, glaring angrily at the waitress and those goddamn noodles.
At last an ambulance arrived. Several volunteers assisted with the effort to hoist me onto the gurney and into the vehicle, including the Dutch nurses’ beefy husbands. After a short ride I was deposited in the ER receiving area, which had no air conditioning.
The staff proceeded to hook me up to an EKG device that appeared to be state of the art circa 1965. My back pain had returned due to the jostling, and I kept seeking relief by turning my legs to one side, then the other. A nurse determined that this was intolerably complicating efforts to properly attach the EKG sensors, and she delivered a sharp, corrective slap to my knees. In all my half-century of experience with the medical profession, this was the first time violence had come into play as part of the delivery strategy. Not wanting the situation to escalate, I resolved to watch my P’s and Q’s going forward.
They next rolled me into a back room, stitched up my upper lip, and then rolled me down a vast, empty, un-lit corridor and into a large, empty, un-lit room where nurses inserted an intravenous drip. In a welcome twist, all this was accomplished without slapping, or any other form of overt punishment.
Molly uncovered another innovation peculiar to the Vietnamese medical system, to wit, a firm policy of withholding water from patients. While I was getting slapped around in the ER, Molly was in the next room trying to get ice or water for me. The nurse informed her that sort of thing simply wasn’t available. Incredulous, Molly persisted. Finally, in an effort to placate these insane demands, the nurse escorted her out of the hospital and off the premises to a roadside convenience store. Cold bottles of water reposed in a padlocked cooler, the drunken, shirtless proprietor passed out in a lawn chair in front of it.
The nurse tried unsuccessfully to wake him by jostling his foot. For some unknown reason, she did not slap him. Molly yelled at him to wake up. Finally a woman appeared with keys and Molly was finally able to purchase cold water.
Here’s the man I plan to one day skin and make into a rug.
Hope you woke up refreshed, asshole.
"Sorry about this, Moll," I said whilst receiving the drip and drinking cold water (local protocols notwithstanding). She started to cry. "I shouldn't have made you walk so far!" She wailed. "Why didn't you tell me how bad you felt?"
"I didn't want you to regret having me along," I said. This level of guilt and remorse on her part was most gratifying for me. She had been trying to cover as much ground as possible with military precision, and I had been secretly forced to confront my age, and above all the fact that aging is precipitous. Just ten years prior, I had walked from Rockville to Dupont Circle in a single day, 22 miles in all. That decade from 46 to 56 takes a lot with it, as I now learned.
Had my drive to be a good little travel writer driven my dad to death’s doorstep? Guilt coiled in my gut like a bloated serpent.
Also, “The Glorious Hikes of My Mid-Forties” will be a full chapter in his upcoming memoirs.
As for this Molly character, I thought back to hikes I would force her to take with me in the woods when she was a chubby 10-year-old. She'd plod along, lazy and asthmatic, whining over the whole 2 miles. Now she was like a terminator in her inexhaustibility.
On those death marches around a suburban pond, I would think to myself, “Just you wait, old man.”
But my revenge was supposed to be an above ground pool filled with soft serve that I wouldn’t share!!! Not this!!! DO NOT GO GENTLY INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT, CHRISTMAS MAN!!!
Around 2 am, with the IV bag empty, I felt well enough to go back to the hotel and finish recuperating. Our visit (including the ambulance ride, the EKG, the stitches, and the slap) came to USD $212.
In an apparent lapse in protocol, as I walked out to the waiting taxi no one slapped me or hit me over the head with a heavy tray. As we rode home to the hotel, Molly eyed me nervously. "I feel a lot better now," I said. "Really." I looked forward to thriving anew in a setting where beatings and dehydration were less routine. I also now got my glasses back, which I am informed were retrieved by that French guy from a far corner of the restaurant to which they had flown when my face met the table. Jacques – if that was his name – also took the trouble to pop a lens back in that had fallen out. Merci.
When we got to the room, I filled my wife in on all the details while Molly demolished a bag of meat-flavored chips from the minibar.
Poca’s “Manhattan Rib-Eye” flavored chips taste like a narrow escape from death’s clutches, far from home.
Anyway, we’ve both recovered nicely. Here’s a recent pic: