Last night I dreamed a disturbing dream.

Was walking somewhere, down some road when I came upon a street brawl.

Within minutes the fight engulfed me. I felt every kick, every punch as I sunk, swollen to the ground. Brutal beating. And horror – as liquid drowsed my body wet and reeking of gasoline and flame.

That sanitised hospital smell, the bright lights, white walls and nurses are what I remember next. And then facing my bandaged, melted face and thinking: Am I glad to be alive?

Wondering how could I face family and friends with this new look. Burnt beyond recognition.

Asking myself how could I live that same confident life now that I’m grotesque. Ugly as sin, as they say; as people no doubt would say, or think. There goes my any chance of a wife.

And when I got home it was as I foresaw. Frightening children, sinking friendships, shelving the looks-are-only-superficial facade and realising that I couldn’t cope with the new me.

I wanted to end it. I wanted the old me. I wanted people to remember me that way.

And I recall getting excessively high – then putting the pistol to my head, knowing as I did that I’d opted for the easy option. Dying. Knowing I wasn’t the strong, determined person that I’d thought myself to be.

Waking from that vivid dream some hours later still in Kontum.

There in the highlands of Vietnam, I realise – the movement in the corner of my eye -somebody stops and stares as I drink fresh orange juice in a dirt-floored shack – which is a shanty restaurant open to the street.

At first I don’t really notice him. Just another curious person. Just another tribal. Just one of the million today who’ve stopped to look.

Just another beggar … Just another pained face.

I glance again – I’m stunned !

My mouth hangs like the melted skin that drips from his face. He’s a zombie !!! Christ! It ain’t real.

I dart my eyes back.

This time he shyly turns away. And me too – shit, I’m gaping at a living horror – it ain’t polite. But this is real.

A man with a melted face. A face of waxy, oozing flesh and thick- stretched, whitened lips. And an eyeball exposed, round and bulging from the skull. The man with the Napalm skin stares. But catching my gaze, he turns. I feel sick.

That man is me from my nightmare. But he’s better than me: A person who wants to survive because life is worth any lost vanity.

I’m guilt-struck, and feel the urgency to gain his approval. As soon as our eyes re-connect, I smile and call: Jarao! Hello in Vietnamese.

He grins. (His cracked, blistered face like a happy horror.) I wonder how often has anyone said “Hi”, to him. This misfit.

I want to photograph this guy – but lack the courage, the nerve to confront such a task. Some minutes later, he’s away, hobbling and bent. His warped, blistered face.

He looked like a freak from hell.

And probably felt it – but really it is I who is the freak, for thinking of him so …

Travels in Vietnam – 1994

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