I used to go nuts for Fanta. When I was a kid, it was my default drink. Birthday parties, fast food joints, wherever, I always went straight for the orange stuff. There was just something about its impossibly fizzy, zingy flavor. The Japanese talk about a “fifth taste” they call umame. The word has no direct translation but means, roughly that a thing tastes just how it should. That it is a perfect exemplar of flavor. Normally, it’s a word used to describe savory, meaty fare, but, for me, Fanta had always had a perfect umame. Somehow, it even tasted more like oranges than an actual orange. I couldn’t get enough.
And when I got older and began to clock time in strange foreign lands, Fanta became, for me, became a bastion of familiarity. You can pick up a can of Fanta in most of the 186 countries currently in existence, although the recipe is always a little different. At last count, there were more than 90 flavors on offer, ranging from the exotic (lemon and elderflower in Romania) to the quirky (Toffee in Taiwan) to the downright bizarre (Banana Fermented Milk, anyone?).
Fanta traces its origins to scarcity. After a trade ban enacted by the allied forces during World War II prevented German Coca-Cola plants from importing a syrup essential to the production of soda, Max Keith, the Man in Charge, resolved to concoct a new soft drink, one that could be easily and cheaply made from whatever was lying around. In went pomace— the skin, seed and other assorted effluvia that catches in the filter when fruit is put through a press. In went whey—a smelly byproduct of the cheese manufacturing process. Keith once called it a soda wrought from the “leftovers of leftovers.” Junk, all of it, stuff nobody else saw any value in.
Rumor has it that the Nazi party took note of Fanta’s rising sales and entered into a series of clandestine business deals with Coca-Cola. At one point, Fanta cases even displayed gory tableaux of lions tearing apart Jewish men and women.
I’m 28 now. And I, too, can trace certain tangled threads of my core identity back to scarcity. To Not Enough, and the big, bad trouble it causes. Incidentally, I’ve pretty much lost my taste for Fanta soda. In fact, I find it noxious. Unsettling. And with a hint of metallic bitterness my 10-year-old palate was far too immature to detect.
I taste it now. Definitely.
The trouble started in Southeast Asia at just about the end of 2003. I was a stupid and self-assured 22, and I’d fallen in with Krisjna, a Belgian hippie. We’d hit it off over peanuts and warm whiskey in a guest house lounge in Northern Thailand. He grinned my way from beneath a corona of blond dreadlocks, banana leaf joint in hand, and I was done for. We’d been on the road together for more than a month by then, the rough equivalent of a two-year relationship in backpacker years. On Christmas Eve, we found ourselves in the tiny town of Muong Ngio, deep in the jungles of Northern Laos, where we’d rented out a bungalow from a guy named Sengdala for four bucks a night. Ours was among a handful of teak huts scattered across a patch of hardscrabble earth at the edge of the Mekong River.
I’d been hamstrung by e.Coli poisoning after an ill-advised swim in a filthy swimming pool several weeks previous and so I could no longer stomach alcohol, or much solid food for that matter. But I drank Fanta voraciously during that time. It was the only thing that settled my queasy belly and it became a panacea for my many fevers and dizzy spells.
Krisjna and I had decided to spend Christmas Eve in the town’s only bar, and as I sat on the dirt floor chasing Advils and Metronidazoles with a sweating can of that oranger-than-orange drink, we were approached by a small, dark-eyed boy who identified himself as Jai. He was 12, and Sengdala’s nephew. He spoke excellent English, and he shared my passion for sugary soda. The three of us sat up past midnight, slurping sodas and telling jokes, snapping photos with my camera.
Looking back, it’s hard to point to any clear indication that Krisjna and I were in trouble. Just one single moment stands out, after we’d said goodnight to Jai and were squatting before a smoldering campfire at the side of the road near our hut. I sensed, for just a moment, that we were being watched. Somewhere out past the flickering glow of the tiny fire, something was waiting.
There exists a kind of darkness in this world that Westerners simply cannot conceive of. An inky black that is only possible in the poorest corners of the earth, where electricity is scarce and the moon gets swallowed up by the jungle well before dawn. It was that kind of darkness I peered out into, trying to source my sudden and inexplicable discomfort. I saw nothing. So we stood up and headed off to bed, clutching hands.
We awoke some eight hours later on a cloudy Christmas morning to find that all of our things had been stolen while we slept. I’d lost my medicine. My passport. My money. My plane ticket. My camera. My journal. Ad infinitum.
In shock, we wandered into the center of town, where I crumbled theatrically into a heap in the middle of the dirt road, my head and belly aching. Krisjna yanked me up and dragged me, sniffling pathetically, to the tiny Buddhist temple at the north end of town. Inside the temple sat a large, roughhewn altar. We stared at each other and hit our knees. What else was left to do?
Before us rested a gaudy likeness of Budhha. A can of Fanta had been set on the altar before him, just to the left of a modest dish of white rice. It had been popped open and a tiny pink straw was jutting out from the hole. I sniffled some more, feeling gloriously downtrodden and pathetic. Krisjna reached out to squeeze my hand, and we groped in the cloudy half-light of that Christmas Morning, beyond words.
After a few minutes, a small boy in monk’s garb passed in from a back room. We disentangled ourselves and he bent down next to us, chattering away in Lao. Then he picked up an old coffee can from the ground next to the altar and rattled it. A few coins clinked noisily. I reached into my pocket. My hands closed around a Thai coin. It was the equivalent of 50 cents, and it was now all the money I had left in the world. I fingered it, even toyed with the idea of tossing it into that can, but then where would we be? In my darkest moments I might be known to kneel down and mutter out a quick and earnest prayer, but I’d certainly never had that kind of faith. The boy rattled the can some more. We shook our heads miserably. He grew frustrated and left us to our hopeless supplications. We departed, embarrassed.
* * *
That was a long, hungry Christmas. I spent most of it sulking in the hammock strung up outside our hut, staring blank-eyed out into the jungle, where there were no paths back, where land mines from the Vietnam War still waited, untripped, where everything suddenly seemed so much bigger and more sinister.
We didn’t talk much. Krisjna padded barefoot up and down the length of the single dirt road that ran through town. The nearest phone, by generous estimates, was a four-hour boat ride away. Already, my belly was growling. We had no cigarettes. We had no friends. I’d lost my medicine. What The Fuck were we supposed to do now? And, more importantly, why the fuck had this happened at all? Why had such a punishment been visited upon us? I slipped into a dark reverie.
I grew up Catholic. I’d always been taught that good works would be repaid in kind. But that day in the hammock, some belief I used to have about the deep good in this world died, got stubbed out into an old soda can with the soggy, rotten butt of another crappy jungle cigarette. I came to sense in those bitter moments that karma was nothing more than an old and mostly useless saw. I’d invariably returned wallets, taken the hands of small children separated from their mothers in large crowds.
Yeah, I’d stolen stuff sometimes. But it was usually out of some hyper-rationalized sense of entitlement: trolling the internet for free mp3s cause everyone knew that record companies were pure anathema. Palming grapes in the produce aisle cause, where I came from, a million pounds of fruit and veg were wasted every day anyway. These tiny rebellions seemed patriotic, somehow, justifiably vitriolic responses to greed and wastefulness. Like most Americans, I considered myself a mostly good person. And this was my repayment? What The Fuck?
* * *
It didn’t take long to sort out the culprits. The door to our hut had been constructed from a single plank of flexible wood. Thing was, if you pulled on it from the bottom, it bent. Not too far, but definitely far enough to allow a body passage through. It would have to be a small body, though. Say, that of a youngish boy, probably no bigger than about twelve. Jai.
The town’s police chief, an eighty-five-year-old man in a sunbaked blue track suit, showed up in the afternoon to take our report. He chewed on a frayed, nasty cigar, consulted closely with Sengdala and a decision was made. There would be no police report, Sengdala announced.
“It’s just too weird,” he said. “We can’t make a report.”
“But what are we supposed to do?” I asked, my hysteria rising again. He had done this. I knew he had.
“You drink too much. Lose your bags at the bar,” he said, smiling carefully.
“No!” I shouted, my body tensing up like some dumb, trapped animal.
Krisjna raked fingers through his mop of dreadlocks– a compulsive gesture of frustration I’d see many times in the days to follow– then pressed his balled fists into his closed eyes and said simply: “We’re hungry.”
The police chief was busy scratching notes onto a water-stained pad, squinting periodically off at the muddy Mekong, kicking the earth with a sandaled foot, avoiding our eyes.
Clucking his tongue, Sengdala led us to his restaurant across the street. He exchanged terse words with his wife in a kitchen doorway and an hour later, we were served two tiny saucersfull of curried vegetables. No rice. No water.
After eating, we scored a pack of smokes off a sympathetic British guy and returned to our hammocks. But we must have cut pretty pathetic pictures in our filthy traveler rags, chain smoking and staring forlornly out at a pack of kayakers whooping and shouting in the water down below, cause Sengdala returned at dusk to invite us to dine with him and a few of his brothers.
We supped on raw buffalo stomach cured in mint, scooped up with glutinous palmfulls of sticky rice. I didn’t like the idea of sharing a table with Sengdala and his ilk, considering that the food had no doubt been procured with the spoils from our overstuffed daypacks. I knew I should stop. This meat was the rough equivalent of blood money. And it would probably make me violently ill besides. But I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours, except for the disgusting curry stuff, and my appetite was insatiable. I swallowed great mouthfuls of the buffalo.
We talked little, watched the sky beyond the village bleed into a blackish blue as the sun dropped behind a jagged spit of mountain. Sengdala told us the growing swarm of backpackers who came up to his village by way of Ngong Kiao, of his lengthy preparations for a party to celebrate his daughter’s marriage to the police chief’s son in three day’s time. (Yeah, I know.) We nodded and shoved more meat into our faces. But there was no room for pretty fantasies. His post facto kindness indicated nothing, and we all knew it.
* * *
I think it’s like this: Anymore, Western culture is spreading fast. It’s rattling at the gates of Everywhere, rolling inevitably in with its big-bellied sails, belching colorful detritus. Krisjna and I were, I suppose, unwitting ambassadors from the fabled shores of that 365-day-a-year party, a place where orange soda rivers ran through crystalline cities paved in solid gold.
Before our three lives intersected, Sengdala had—whether through means or luck—come to assume the post of Richest Man in Town. And yet he lived in a house where we’d scarcely have been caught dead, in a village we only deigned to visit, where no one had ever had a hot shower, where a nightly hour of programming on a flickering console television hooked up to the town generator was an untenable luxury to which the entire village looked forward all day. He knew it. We knew it. And that fact made our simple presence humiliating. And that, in turn, made us targets. We came bearing backpacksful fancy gadgets and thick, smelly wads of foreign currency, lambs to the slaughter. And, just like that buffalo on which I gorged myself so insatiably, this wasn’t personal. Not really.
What happened between Sengdala and us was simply about the awful, awful shit that can go down when you reduce the world around you into its true configurations and come to realize that the calculus adds up only to Not Enough.
None of it was fair. But in the end, I was essentially as powerless as Sengdala was to change any of it. And when I came to recognize my own powerlessness, I began, also, to understand why I could, on occasion, steal from others with so little guilt or fear of reprisal.
In the end, accepting my own hypocrisy also meant conceding the hypocrisy of a twelve-year-old kid who could smile into my face, drink a can of soda on my coin some Christmas Eve in the jungle, and then make off into the night with everything I own; the hypocrisy of a grown man who would orchestrate such an act and then invite me to Christmas dinner. It’s why Fanta comes in all those disgusting, alien flavors. It’s complicated, but in another way, it’s the most logical thing in the world. It was never supposed to make sense! It was never, never supposed to be fair.
My jungle story goes on, and it gets worse. It involves weeks in diplomatic hell, bribes passed through slots in glass windows, getting ripped off on a bag of weed by a monk and a near-fire in a hotel room in the Lao capital city and countless packs of 30-cent cigarettes. Fights and teardrops and Western Union money transfers that I’d spend a year paying my frantic parents back for.
I got home, eventually, a little gaunt and bleary-eyed, yeah, but I got there. The e.Coli cleared up after a few tooth-jarring months and life moved forward.
Krisjna and I still write each other. Not often, but we do still write. We don’t talk much about the fights, or Sengdala, or the way I had to pawn my watch to pay for a hotel room. We’ve forgiven the universe most of that, and we are friends. As for Fanta, well, it’s been harder to get past, somehow. I slugged down a can of the grape variety in El Salvador a few months back and the taste of it made me wretch. It tasted like metal, like blood. Perhaps, though, it’s the smack of atonement that still rings so bitter on my tongue after all these many years.