A week ago I decided to hike into the jungle and hike a rim trail during a twenty-one-hour layover in Fiji. This was my first time leaving the United States since university, when my roommates figured out the strippers in Canada went without even the dubious coverage of a g-string, and so of course I decided to hike, alone, in the jungle, in a foreign nation where nobody knew my name, let alone where the hell I was. In the movies, this is how white people stumble upon ancient amulets that grant them super powers. In real life, this is how white people spend five years listed as missing persons before more experienced hikers find part of their mandible at the bottom of a gully.
My rental car looked like a Honda Fit someone sent back in time to kill me. Back home people who drive the Fit like to name their cars things like the 'Wee Fit' and the 'Fit Bit.' If this car had a name, it would have been the 'UnFit,' as in, "This car is unfit to drive up a mountain, Ben, what were you thinking?"
A word about the road into the Fijian National Forest: It's not paved. Or dirt, for that matter. As near as I can tell, it's bouldered. The potholes were deeper than the UnFit's wheels. (Which, according to the owner's manual, were only two inches in diameter.) At one point I had to crank the handbrake through a washed out curve just to stay on the road. Groups of locals watched me with undisguised amusement as I ground past bus stops visited by vehicles with wheels taller than I am. At one point I was overtaken by a Bradley tank. Moments later I passed that same tank where it had skidded off the road, into a ditch. I asked the owner if he needed a hand, but he said Triple A was on the way. Unfortunately, at that moment the ground gave way beneath him, and he vanished into a chasm deeper than man is meant to know. I decided that this was as good a time as any to pack it in, and turn around. After three miles (fifty-four kilometers) in reverse, I found a driveway, and got myself headed in the right direction, which was, in this case, back the way I came.
On the way back to the beach, I was overtaken again, this time by a herd of goats. The smell was incredible.
"Get off the road, tourist!" One of them bleated. Another one keyed my car, which startled me given the average goat's lack of thumbs. Perhaps these were not your average goats. I'm not sure where they kept their keys, either.
Back in Nadi, which is in Fiji for my American readers, I found myself adapting relatively easy to driving on the left side of the road. It's not as hard as you'd think. The trick, after having driven four thousand miles through the American South, Deep South, Southwest and Motherfuckin' Californ Eye Aye (official title) in less than a week, is to start screaming early, and not stop until oxygen deprivation robs you of your instinct to jerk the wheel into the wrong lane and go mano y mano with an Isuzu box truck. With nothing better to do, I decided to go to the beach, because with the exception of nearly drowning several times, hacking open my flesh on rocks, getting my hand unzipped by a spiny fish (I'll have my revenge someday, Alphonse,) and getting shot with a rubber bullet that one time, I've had nothing but good experiences on the beach. Oh, I suppose I did get a sunburn once. But that was my fault.
As luck would have it, after I careened into a parking space at the tail end of seventy meters (four point six miles) of burnt rubber, hyperventilated for ten minutes (seventy meters) to get my heart rate under three hundred BPM, and offered a variety of prayers to a variety of deities, I found myself next to the hostel at which I had a reserved a bed. Jokes aside, this was in fact an accident.
Fun fact: "Jokes aside, this was in fact an accident" sums up my time in Fiji rather nicely.
With nineteen hours to kill before my flight, I sat down to a lovely meal of mostly-fried squid and salad, and read some of my Joyce. Note that when I say "My Joyce," what I mean is "I've applied to a graduate program in Dublin, and as such I'm taking another crack at this coprophiliac sonovabitch." Dubliners is one of Joyce's more accessible works, I'm told. It's certainly no Finnegan's Wake. On the other hand, while ruby isn't as hard as diamond, neither of them is easy to chew.
I got into Fiji around nine in the morning. It took me two hours to nearly kill myself in the woods and make it back to Nadi, and an hour to eat my meal and give up on Joyce for the day. It was, therefore, around noon when the first of the honkies started to stagger out of their dormitories for coffee and questionable eggs benedict. I'm not sure if "honky" is the right word to describe The United Caucasians of Benetton, a group of Aussies and Brits and Germans and what-have-you fucking about with somebody else's money, but I've always liked the word. Honkies. You know the type, loud as a motorbike, but wouldn't bust a grape in a fruit fight because it might not be organic, let's just have more cheap local beer, can you believe how cheap everything is here, hey this isn't a rare burger you call this rare take it back. (Thanks Jay. I think I might have misquoted you, though. My bad.) Sleeve tattoos, shitty sweatshirts and MacBooks, hungover for the twelfth week in a row. Reed thin boy-men even I could whip in a fight, girls shoving flabby planes of gin sugar into bikinis they thank god are in style, because if the hipster generation hadn't made ugly fashion a thing then both genders probably would have been shipped off to die in a war.
"You'd think they never heard of real coffee," one of them complained into a cup of instant. "You think if I have some shipped over, they'll be able to brew it right?"
"I couldn't go back to her room," another quipped, "I already fucked both of her roommates."
"Every night at nine I see the flight back to LA and I think, that should be me," one girl mused. "I was only supposed to be out here a week, but my money's lasted five so far."
They were awful. So I decided to eat some acid and walk on the beach.
I figured I had eighteen hours to kill. What was the worst that could happen?
Please note that "I decided to eat some acid," and "What was the worst that could happen," are sentences that, when taken together, constitute what we in the writing fields call, "ominous foreshadowing."
I popped the paper in my mouth, sucked for a moment, and swallowed. Only then did I realize my mistake: For better or worse, if the paper was inside me, I was along for the full ride, the whole enchilada, the full metric fuck-ton. (One million pounds of fuck.) Whatever was on the blot had fifty feet (ten kilometers) of Ben in which to ground itself. I had eighteen hours. The last time I dosed from this batch, it lasted fifteen. I was pretty sure I had enough time.
About an hour later, I was telling myself I was pretty sure my acid was broken, because all I felt was giddy, energetic enthusiasm. This happens to me every time, I convince myself my drugs are bad, and then all of a sudden I'm looking at the clouds, exclaiming to no one, "Vincent Van Gogh! I get it now!" You ever see Starry Night up close? Acid is like that, except the painting is moving. And you're inside the painting. And you have this strange urge to smile a lot and say things like, "borp," and dig in the sand. You don't hallucinate, per se. It's not like Salvia (which is known on the street as Ackbar, because, "It's A Trap!") or Ayahuasca, which I have never taken but mention because I needed a second clause in this sentence. Acid is, instead, a simple diminishment of the brain's ability to prioritize sensory input, coupled with an uptick in the belief centers of the brain, commonly called "gullibility." It's not that you actually see faces in the trees, you just see everything at once, leaf and bark, light and shadow, and your brain decides, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then there are clearly faces in those trees. It can be overwhelming, if you are the sort of person who takes drugs and then forgets that you have taken drugs. It can also be overwhelming if you find yourself trapped in a hostel pub for hours with a bunch of young shiftless rich kids, bitter old Australian expatriates, and third world hookers. Why was I trapped, you might ask?
Because it started to rain.
At first, I thought the rain would be fun. Lock my stuff in the rental, sit on the beach and blissfully trip away the day ensconced in a storm. I'm from Ithaca, New York, a city in the middle of a glacial landscape that acts as a rumble strip for weather patterns. I know rain. I've been in storms where the thunder has shaken the inside of my sternum, storms where the rain has missed me on the way down and come around for another pass by bouncing off the ground. I've been out on the water and seen my friends' hair stand on end, because the lightning is hitting all around us. I know rain.
I do not know a damn thing about rain.
This was not rain you sit outside in, secure in the drugged-out knowledge that you are being rained on by rainbows. This was the sort of rain that causes characters in a Ray Bradbury story to contemplate suicide. This was rain that pressed down on your head with a pressure that should be limited to the depths of the ocean. This was rain that could fucking kill you. This was rain you could drown in. This was rain that forced you under cover, filled with lightning that made the lightning back home worry its dick was too small. This was rain that came with thunder that rattled flatware on sodden wooden tables. This was rain that is best summed up by this simple fact: When the storm was over the beach was smaller.
I took cover on the roofed-in patio, then watched as we all clustered closer and closer together as the rain pressed in on us. The smell of tobacco, weed, stale beer, unwashed bodies and genital stink covered in cheap perfume, the braying laughter of dumb children and the insistent German of German tourists who flat out refuse to speak anything but German and look at you like you're the asshole for not knowing their language. I was stuck.
Here's the thing about acid: it doesn't like to be stuck. It's the spoiled child of recreational chemistry, the sort that throws a tantrum if you don't do as it tells you. If it can't have its way, it gets mad.
Here's thing about a hostel pub during a violent storm: It's the sort of place where letting out a primal scream to let off some of the tension of tripping balls while on your way to a new life is generally frowned upon. Nobody wants to deal with some dope in a leather cowboy hat digging in the dirt while he shout-hums the theme to Jurassic Park. Turning over the chairs to make a chill-out fort is considered poor form. Hostel pubs are the kind of place where you're meant to sit quietly, drink too much, contribute to the western exploitation of third-world nations, have disappointing sex with moderately attractive smelly people, and conceive the sort of shitheel offspring who will, in time, repeat the fungal cycle of cheap beer/bad sex/unplanned pregnancy, thus perpetuating the worst parts of our species. It's not the sort of place where you want people to notice that your pupils are bigger than your skull and that you are swiftly losing control of your trip.
What are Fiji's drug laws like? Do they take kindly to idiots who drop acid and freak out in bars? I don't know now, and I didn't know then, and that, dear reader, is when things started to go wrong.
Acid is, ultimately, extreme mental energy and acuity. I've found myself better able to balance, throw, and move while tripping. Doc Ellis, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates, claims to have thrown a no-hitter in 1970 while absolutely faced on acid, and having tripped many times, I believe him. But when that energy has nowhere to go, it turns inward, and that's where trouble lives.
The thing is, there's never been anything especially dramatic about my bad trips. I've been down that road a few times, and it's largely an experience you wait out with as much patience as you can muster. I don't see mean-spirited hallucinations. I don't get paranoid. I just get sad, and self-hating, and low. I'm not sure if this is a result of my anxiety disorder, or some strange form of mental strength, or if those two concepts are related. I just know that it's shitty feeling shitty while in the throes of a drug that dilates time. Acid tends to last between ten hours and three centuries, as near as I can tell, so if you're having a bad time, you'd better be cool with having a bad time for a while.
The rain lasted maybe two hours (ninety years.) That is, the rain that kept us all from moving outside of the same ten-by-ten-meter space. (Approximately two square inches.) If I could have stretched out comfortably and stared at the sky, maybe alternated between conjugating the word 'borp' and screaming like a banshee, I might have at least had the sort of spirit journey shamans like to refer to as "Ha, Ha, Look At The Dumb White Kid Gibbering About Existential Unity, Hark At Him." Unfortunately, I was seated in between a somewhat out-of-place Australian Family, a jaded expat who was, as near as I could tell, made out of beef jerky, and a young woman who looked like she could quote the entirety of Lana Del Ray's Born to Die while blackout drunk. In other words, I had obviously crashed the Unfit, died, and finally made it to hell.
I listened for moment while the Aussie mother talked to the expat about Fijian socioeconomics. There were people taking shelter from the storm in the three-story construction site next door, and she pointed them out to the group, remarking on the harsh realities of a nation whose chief industries appeared to be tourism and not gutting tourists. (I was glad, at least, that she could see the people in the open building too.)
"That building? Been going up three years," he growled.
"Oh," she said, "have there been problems with the construction?"
"Nah, jus'th'Fijians couldn't organize a fuck in a brothel," he snarled. There was no animosity in his words, he was just the sort of person who snarled when he spoke.
The woman glanced at her three-year-old daughter, who was listening to the conversation with the sort of open-eared attention we do our best to grind out of children by the time we send them to school, in the States.
"Nice to meet a fellow Aussie," she said after a pause.
Her child stared at me calmly. Adults tend to make excuses for other adults' behavior, which is how we in the States ended up with Donald Trump holding the national tiller. Children do not do this, having not yet learned the kind of embarrassment about their own behavior that causes them to make allowances for others. Which is why, in a moment of quietude, Mathilda, the toughest toddler I've ever met, said to me, "You are freaking out...man."
"What do you mean, Mathilda?" I said.
She responded in a voice like Barry White creating All and Everything.
"You've only got twelve hours until you have to drive a car back to the airport, man. You're fucked. And youuu....knowit."
"But Mathilda, that's heaps of time," I said. "I'll be fine."
"No," she said. "You won't...man."
Full disclosure: None of that happened. But Mathilda definitely knew something was up. I'd like to think her mother didn't, when she struck up a conversation with me, presumably on the assumption that I wasn't the sort of man who sprinkled his speech with the word 'cunt' the way some people sprinkle salt on popcorn, but on the other hand, how could she not have noticed that my pupils were, in fact, the size of Fiji?
"Oh, I'm from...Ithaca. New York. America. The States," I said, thinking all the while, oh, shit, I'm peaking. Thank god I'm an atheist, or I'd be sure I was seeing this woman's aura. What does it mean that it's blue? Does that mean she's a good person, or does it mean I'm having a stroke?
"Oh, wonderful," she said. "An American who travels. Tell me, what do you think of what's gone on with your election?"
I started planning my move four months ago. When Trump was elected, I already had my visa sorted and my ticket purchased. In all that time, I've not been able to come up with an explanation for American politics beyond, "Well, thirty years of education cuts has a hell of an effect on a nation's critical thinking ability, and if you think Americans don't like a black president, imagine how they feel about having a woman in charge." What I said, however, was, "Uuhhhhhhhhhhh........."
"Never mind, I'm sorry, you should have to answer that, you're tripping face right now," she said.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"I said you're on vacation. Some rain this is, isn't it?" She smiled brightly, and for a second, her smile wrapped around her entire skull.
"Pretty crazy," I said, which to my mind sounded like, Preh..........teee.......craaaaayzeeeeee. Good lord, you're talking about the weather while on acid in a foreign country. This is Hell. You are dead and in Hell.
The expat sneered that the rain was so bad he wasn't sure he'd be able to get home, ran out into the watery depths and drove his tiny hatchback, rattling and sputtering, down the road. It was an old Nissan, and next to the UnFit, it looked like an F-250.
I am never going to make it off this island.
After seven centuries, the rain died down to the point where it would only have been national news back home, and I started to pace, up and down the narrow outside corridor, past the check-in counter, the restaurant, and the pub, back, and forth, and back. My chest felt like it was unfolding in unseen dimensions, and I kept stretching my feet, sure that I was this close to finding the muscle that would make me lift off into the stratosphere, although I think it's more likely that I nearly shat myself. My brain was running a countdown in my head, and I could hear Mathilda's basso profundo, saying, "Ten hours, man. You're never getting off this island...man." I wondered if she was right.
A group of white kids in sleeve tattoos, handlebar mustaches, and the sort of idiot drapery Stevie Nicks used to wear to cover up Stevie Nicks started to watch me wander up and down the walk. For a moment, the rattling footfall of my flip-flops was the only sound in the universe, and it was unthinkable that I was not the center of hostile hostel attention. I passed a table of attractive, desperate-faced local women and one of them said, "Hi. Are you staying here tonight?"
"I have no idea," I said, and walked on. Behind me, laughter. Lady, you have no idea how far sex is from my reality right now. Once I tried to masturbate on acid, for the hell of it, and I kept losing hold of my self. The truth is, the mentality of acid is your mind, yourself, and your consciousness, all about half a step out of sync with your physical body. Once Diane and I tried to make out while in the latter stages of a trip, and the sensation of lips on lips was so alien, so otherworldly that all we could do was laugh. It wasn't bad, and it wasn't good...it just wasn't what our bodies wanted, at the moment. I know people who say sex on acid is the best, but they're generally the sort of people who think going to music festivals and shitting in a plastic box for three days is a good time. Personally, I don't want to put my appendage inside another person's body while I'm in the sort of state that makes dislocating my own jaw through inattention a definite possibility.
Have you ever been drugged for medical science? A real drug, not Novocain. Have you been put under, or given the sort of amnesiac drug that lets a doctor get all up inside your asshole without you thinking anything more than, "This sucks. Glad it's over now. This sucks. Glad it's over now. This sucks. Glad it's over now," for hours on end? And then you come out of it, and the slow, sudden realization is that you are a real person, with a real mind, in a real world? That's what the end of a bad trip is like.
Oh. Here I am. I'm back.
One moment of clarity, and then, a billion years later, another. I started to go looking for the visuals, chasing them through the universe around me. The wooden post holding the roof up shifted, thought better of it and rebounded to normality. The clouds broiled above me, but their hearts weren't in it anymore. In my journal, which became my solace in the last few hours of my ordeal, I have written, "The moment where you go from being bullied by a trip to bullying the little bastard. I'm still here, motherfucker, and you're just a rapidly-metabolizing collection of chemicals." I cracked my knuckles, stretched my legs, looking for the rest of the drug, and then remembered that it's MDMA, not acid, that crystallizes in your muscles like ice cream on a shirt that a child thinks he's saving for later.
Darrell, husband of Danni, the woman who had asked me about Trump, walked by and asked me if I wanted to see photos of his wound, and I remembered that we had spoken earlier of an accident he'd had while chopping wood with an ax. I said I did, and he sat down across from me and showed me on his enormous phone photos of a blown out cross-section of his first tarsal bone, which he'd chopped nearly in half.
"Four screws and a metal plate," he said.
"Damn," I said. "When did this happen?"
"Nine weeks ago," he said casually, as if nearly severing a quarter of his foot with a blade was nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Australians are funny people. He showed me the scar, which looked ancient.
"Jesus, man, nice work." I dragged my brain along with me and told him I'd done some work around idiots in a state school metal shop, when I was in university. And then we sat for three hours talking about old wounds, scars, driving fast, teaching our friends the joys of handbrake turns while they sit cowering on the passenger side, and which feels worse, the burn of slag on skin or the sickly sensation of unzipping flesh on something sharp. We agreed that burns on skin feel worse in the body, but a cut feels worse in the heart.
A word about charming Aussie families: When you're coming down off a bad trip, a long conversation over instant coffee about accidental mutilation and industrial accidents is exactly what the doctor ordered. If it can be followed with a hearty conversation about geopolitical realities, so much the better. So, Danni and Darrell, if you're reading this, you pulled me out of a hell of a jam, and Darrell, thanks again for the shot of tequila. Your daughter is a sweet little kid, and I'm almost certain she doesn't actually sound like Barry White cracking atoms with the force of his will. Although, in retrospect, I'm not sure she ever actually spoke in my presence. If I trailed off during any of my sentences, I promise, it's not you, it's me.
The saddest silver lining of a bad trip is when sobriety becomes the sweetest thing that you have ever known. My reality carries with it always a pilot light of chemical anxiety, and I know I've really fucked myself up when the familiar mean little voice whispers in my ear like a friend. Sitting there talking with Danni and Darrell, who I think were happy just to meet a fellow traveler who wasn't interested in the casual rapine and pillage of a poor island nation, I found myself wondering, do they like me? Do they think I'm stupid, or an ugly American? And the familiar nag of the I'm-a-jerk voice was such a relief after being convinced for entire eons that I would never stop seeing rainbows in shadows, I could have cried. But I didn't, because as near as I can tell Aussies only cry when they're three years old and they run into a post at full tilt. And even then, it's only for a minute. That kid really was tough as nails.
At ten o'clock, Danni and Darrell took their long-suffering eight-year old, Aiden, who was just old enough to be deathly bored with what amounted to a drinking hole/hookup bar for idiots, back to the hotel. Danni wrote their contact information in my journal, and told me to look them up if I'm ever in Melbourne. I sincerely hope to see them again, as they were the high point of the whole miserable day. I had another drink, alone, and wrote in my journal, wincing every time the generator gave out and the honkies clapped and jeered.
The odd truth is that it wasn't a miserable day. Even having a bad trip was a funny sort of victory. I live with a fear that permeates every fiber of my reality, and the fact that I was able to go to a dark, evil place full of predatory rainbows and pull myself back out without attracting too much attention or calling for help is proof that I'm doing all right. Alone in a foreign country, stuck in a universe of my own stupidity, I can take care of myself. I didn't think I could do that. Or maybe I did, and I'm just the kind of fucking idiot who plays Evel Knievel games with his psychological maladies to prove a point. Either way, I survived, and I damn well did it on my own.
At eleven, the pub closed, and I made my way back to the UnFit to watch Lemonade again and doze away the night in the front seat. There were new rivers carved through the beach, and the air reeked of tropical rain, healthy plants and diesel fumes. I listened for a moment to the sounds of Fiji, the call of birds, the rush of wind, the 'eh eh eh eh haaaaa' of a severely faked orgasm and the idiot clapping that followed.
"Next time," I muttered, "I'm flying direct."