I was twenty-three years old and had been trekking through the jungles of Southeast Asia when I had a very strange few days that seemed to arise out of nowhere. I had been riding around on a motorbike on an island in the Gulf of Thailand, and, there, on some desolate stretch of dirt road, I took a spill and cut my foot open on a rock.
The following day was Songkran, the Buddhist New Year, during which the entire country erupts into utter bacchanalia of drinking and revelry. Children wormed through the streets with buckets of brown, brackish water, dumping it on my head and screaming as they ran off. Through a miasma of rather inexpensive Thai whiskey, I looked on with horror as my newly cleaned and bandaged foot slowly became exposed to the elements.
My foot became infected. I woke up the next morning to it swollen to the size of a soft, overripe grapefruit. There weren’t any hospitals where I was. The doctor at the solitary clinic on the island told me I’d need an IV affixed to my wrist to administer the antibiotics, and that I’d have to return to the clinic twice a day to have my wound cleaned and debrided in the most painful fashion possible.
And, as all this was going on, we started hearing news of a coup that was happening in Bangkok, in which the anti-government red-shirts were involved in deadly skirmishes with the Thai military.
So, while they were cutting out pieces of my foot and loading my head up with painkillers, it seemed like the entire nation was on the cusp of revolution. And in the meanwhile, through all of this, the island’s inhabitants, locals and tourists alike, were drinking copiously and dashing through the dusty alleys, in search of their next moonlit adventure.
And, so it was a strange few days, wandering around this tiny island, IV needle taped to my arm, foot bandaged up, stretched out alone on white beaches, and then sitting in bars exchanging news with other travelers. Tough to say whether it was the painkillers or the booze or the unlikely setting, or the entire, exact confluence of events, but within me began to spawn this sense of euphoria, this wild sense that this time, whatever it was, whatever it meant, would never come to pass again in quite the same way.
Things eventually resolved themselves, for better or worse: the foot healed, the insurgency was quelled, and I was able to head south at my first opportunity, crossing into Malaysia several days later. But, years later, these few days still echo in my head.
Maybe it’s the image of a drag queen outside a bar spraying a can of pink silly string at me, or the fishermen wading in off of their dinghies at sunset, or the tall bonfires clawing up at the stars on the beach at night, or the impassive nurse stretching over my infected foot with a scalpel, or maybe none or all of these things. The cheap, cold beer. The impregnable heat. The smell of exhaust. The pain. The pleasure. The fact of being young. The fact of feeling what it is like to be alive. That little euphoria-inducing taste of something new and unknown.