The New Voyageurs

Wherein six Minnesotans brave the Mekong River, whirlpools, and dysentery in a leaky boat with a lawnmower engine held together by toothpaste and cardboard and live to tell about it

The Tainted Nipple's voyage from Kratie to Phnom Penh went as planned—at least, as much as anything was planned. The crew lollygagged their way downriver, encountered plenty of locals, were befriended by monks, warred with biting earwigs, avoided serious health troubles, and, in the gape-jawed manner of strangers in strange lands, soaked up the ambience of the big river. When they finally reached Phnom Penh, Shoemaker called on a friend of a friend who had a riverside residence where they could moor the Tainted Nipple. One night in the capital city, filmmaker Eberhardt screened his documentary about tramps, Long Gone. The venue was, to say the least, unusual: a barge that was once a floating brothel and was subsequently converted to offices for non-governmental organizations that represent Cambodian garment and sex workers. In attendance, according to Shoemaker, was "an audience to be proud of: deportees, garment and sex worker activists, a smattering of expatriate artist and documentary filmmaker types."

Later that night, as the crew of the Tainted Nipple dined with Shoemaker's friends, a downpour struck and the Tainted Nipple, moored too close to a roof drain, wound up submerged. The next morning, Gerty couldn't get the motor running. Shoemaker hunted down a mechanic from the nearby shantytown. After struggling for hours, Gerty and the mechanic finally brought the motor back to life. The materials used to effect the repair—toothpaste and cardboard—did not instill much confidence in the motor's long-term viability.

Around that time, photographer Mike Dvorak arrived in Phnom Penh. Because Shoemaker, Claasen, and Eberhardt all had work obligations, it was decided that Dvorak, Jack, and Gerty would pilot the Tainted Nipple over the remaining 100 miles to the Vietnamese border. The rest of the bunch planned on reuniting after the border crossing—though it was far from certain whether the Tainted Nipple would make it to Vietnam. When Gerty and Jack went to the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh to inquire about the legality of entering the country by boat, they were summarily ejected. That may have had something to do with their appearance, the crew allows. At that point, Jack had developed a skin rash and, to avoid irritating it, had taken to wearing a cloth wrap instead of pants. "I don't think they'd gotten a lot of requests from boat punks to cross the border," Dvorak says.

Undaunted, the three-member crew set out for Vietnam. They camped one night on a sandbar on the river. By late afternoon the following day, they realized they had somehow floated past the Cambodian exit point without noticing. Now, they found themselves at a Vietnamese military installation. The prospect of a clusterfuck situation loomed large. None of the three spoke Vietnamese. None of the guards or any of the other officials at the crossing station spoke English. "There was no communication. None at all," Dvorak recalls. "Basically, we just sat there and stared at the guy." A supervisor called to the scene couldn't figure out what to do, either. Around that time, Dvorak noticed that a truck had become mired in the sand outside the checkpoint. Communicating with the guard via sign language, the crew of the Tainted Nipple volunteered to help push the truck out of the sand. The guard nodded, the trio pushed the truck free, and quite suddenly the mood shifted. "All these villagers came around, they were smiling. I guess they figured we were okay," Dvorak recalls. "But who knows why they really let us cross?"

After leaving the checkpoint, the Tainted Nipple and its three-man crew proceeded downriver into Vietnam. As dark set in, they found a sandbar where they set up camp. It was then that Jack Brauday started to complain of pain in his back. Dvorak figured he might have pulled a muscle pushing the truck at the checkpoint. For Gerty, Jack's complaints were more alarming. He'd gone down the Mississippi with Jack and knew him to be stoic. "Jack totally downplays everything," Gerty observed later. "That was the one time I'd seen him say, 'Oh, shit, this is bad.' I'd never seen him admitting to pain before." Dvorak and Gerty told Jack to relax in the boat while they prepared dinner. "I looked up at him and I could tell something wasn't right," Dvorak remembers. "All of a sudden, he passed out, fell into the river, and sank like a rock."

Dvorak and Gerty rushed to the water to fish out their friend. When they pulled him to shore, they saw that he was shivering—not a good sign, considering that temperatures were in the 90s. They consulted their map and noticed a marking for a village 20 or 30 kilometers away. A cross on the map, they figured, signified some sort of hospital. "I had no idea what was going on," Gerty recalls. "No idea. A lot of stuff was going through my mind—malaria, maybe liver flukes." With no other choice, they set off into the night. Earlier in the trip, the crew had avoided traveling the Mekong at night. There were good reasons. Unmarked navigational hazards, the presence of large commercial vessels, the absence of running lights on their boat, fishing nets everywhere. But none of that mattered now. With Jack lapsing in and out of consciousness, Gerty piloted the boat as Dvorak shined a flashlight into the night. A rain began to fall and, worse yet, a strong tidal backwash developed. When the engine periodically overheated and conked out, Dvorak recalls, the boat was forced back upriver.

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