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

Blowing into the gas tank to prime the motor, Gerty was able to get the boat moving again. Over the next three or four hours, they pressed on into the darkness, unsure where they were headed or which of the myriad river channels to follow. As it neared midnight, they reached the village of Chau Doc. Gerty and Dvorak hauled Jack out of the boat to the sidewalk. Gerty spotted two women and, pulling out his English-Vietnamese dictionary, kept repeating, "Hospital, hospital." The women left for a short while, and then returned with a fistful of pills. Unsure what sort of pills were being offered, Dvorak and Gerty recommended against it.

At that, Dvorak decided to look for help. "I must have looked crazy—all dirty, my hair standing on end, just shouting 'English, English, English,'" Dvorak remembers. Somebody pointed across the street to a noodle shop. It was there he met Hoc Lam. "I said, 'Do you speak English?' And he says, 'Yeah, what's the problem?' Perfect English," Dvorak marvels. "At midnight. In the middle of nowhere." Hoc summoned two teenagers with motor scooters, who transported Jack and Dvorak to the hospital. At first, the non-English speaking doctors were sure that Jack had been injured in a motorcycle accident; in his disheveled state, Dvorak says, it was a reasonable assumption. Later, Hoc arrived for translating duties. Jack was diagnosed and treated for that most painful of afflictions, a kidney stone attack. As the doctors tended to him, and a throng of curious teenagers swarmed about the hospital, Dvorak and Hoc fell into conversation. That's when it came out that they both made their homes in Minnesota. Everyone was dumbfounded. "I just about fell on the floor," Dvorak says. "How in God's name can you be in south Vietnam, in the middle of nowhere, in need of help at midnight, and someone from your hometown shows up? It still sends shivers up my spine."

As it turned out, that wouldn't be the last visit the crew of the Tainted Nipple would pay to a Vietnamese hospital. The day after Jack's misfortune, Shoemaker, Claasen, and Eberhardt arrived in Chau Doc to rejoin their friends for the final leg of the trip. Not long afterward, both Dvorak and Gerty were felled by dysentery. Dvorak figured he contracted the illness from an iced coffee. Given the myriad possible routes of exposure, he adds, it's impossible to know for sure. Whatever the cause, he and Gerty found themselves severely incapacitated. Overcome by waves of nausea and vomiting, Dvorak remembers stopping in a village and staggering through a cockfight and thinking how surreal the trip had become. He was holed up in an air-conditioned hotel room, trying to recuperate, when Vietnamese police showed up with questions about passports and government representatives. When they saw Dvorak's condition, they insisted he go to a hospital. Shoemaker found a young Vietnamese man, an English teacher they came to know as Mr. Nam, who took Dvorak and Gerty to a hospital. "The doctor told me to pull my pants down, brought out the horse needle, and then gave me a massive amount of pills," Dvorak recalls.

Michael Dvorak

After Gerty was treated, the police told Mr. Nam that Dvorak and Gerty needed to get out of town, or submit to an interrogation about their activities. Nobody wanted that. So the next morning, the crew of the Tainted Nipple boarded the vessel and set off for Saigon. They didn't get far. Gerty and Dvorak were still in tough shape, Jack was convalescing, and the Mekong was becoming increasingly polluted and crowded with boat traffic. At Truong Xuan, the next village, the group agreed to pull the plug, leave the Tainted Nipple behind, and finish the trip to Saigon overland. Shoemaker called the English teacher who'd helped them out the day before. The Tainted Nipple was his for the taking.

After the voyage came to an end, the crew went their separate ways. Dvorak and Eberhardt set off for Laos, looking to find Vietnam-era American soldiers who had stayed behind for a possible documentary. That didn't pan out, though Eberhardt would later return to southeast Asia to work on another documentary about "the deportees"—American-raised Cambodians shipped back to their native country because of criminal violations in the U.S. Last summer, most of the crew of the Tainted Nipple joined in yet another boat-punk excursion, a trip down the Ohio River. Gerty incorporated the long-tail motor design that he'd discovered in Cambodia and reports enthusiastically that he got as much as 40 miles a gallon on the Ohio. In December, the group collaborated on a 44-page zine recounting their odyssey, The Adventures of the Tainted Nipple, and a photo exhibit of the two river trips; the latter is currently on display at the Matchbox coffee shop in northeast Minneapolis.

Hoc Lam is back at his lunch counter at the Asian Express. He plans another three-week trip back to Vietnam to visit family this spring. He'd like to stay longer, he says, but his customers at the Asian Express won't brook a more extended absence. When he thinks about last winter's adventure in Chau Doc, Hoc still laughs at the strangeness and pure serendipity of it all. "Everybody was surprised," he says. "Oh, my God, it's a small world."

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