We’re just about done with January 2013, and I still haven’t had any free time to write about my three-week holiday back in October-November 2012 (well, except for this one)… until now. Better late than never, right?

Besides getting the R&R I deserve and testing my limits once again, my second solo Southeast Asia backpacking trip gave me the opportunity to do something I haven’t done in a while: read. I pore over a lot of articles and printouts every day due to work and personal interests, but I certainly haven’t read any of my books from cover to cover in years. (This also explains why I’ve done just two themed/bulk reviews — one on death and another on language — since 2010. I’m really glad to say that that isn’t the case anymore!)

The problem with packing light is that after the bare necessities, you really don’t have room for much else. I had no choice but to go for the smallest book I could find in my shelf; I figured I could just buy a larger backpack en route, as well as more physical books. (Hah. Yeah, right.) By the time I returned to Manila in early November, I was still using that small Jansport bag, but it was thisclose to bursting at the seams with the many things I acquired on the road, which included more books from Bangkok, Yangon and Saigon. I’m sorry; I just couldn’t help it. 😉

Upon closer inspection, I realized that, like in 2010, the books I brought along, read and bought during my trip had some things in common. For instance, the three books in this blog entry delve into the dark or hidden sides of certain places, and like me, the characters went on both literal and figurative journeys.

These books also kept me company during lulls in my own three-week solo journey. I read in bed as I tried to get over the day’s events (and my excitement for the next day in an unfamiliar city). I read while getting severely sunburned on the beach − rotisserie is the first word that comes to mind. I read in between and during flights, and sometimes, while taking public transport. I read while waiting for my food to be served. I read while checking in at my hostels. I read everywhere I went, and whenever I wanted. I’d say I spent half the trip meeting new people, making friends, taking photos, observing and exploring; and half of it alone and with my head down as I wrote and read.

(I don’t really know who first said that reading is another form of travel, but I agree with that statement, and it’s amusing to think that I was reading these books while traveling. ;))

Ladies and gents, let’s go for a ride with three authors: Chuck Palahniuk, Rattawut Lapcharoensap and Andrew Blackwell. Our destinations: Hell; Thailand; and specific areas in Ukraine, Canada, Texas, the Pacific Ocean, South America, China, and India that give environmentalists the chills.

Warning: If you haven’t read these three books yet, please stop reading this blog entry right now. There are some sentences here that can and will be considered spoilers. Read this entry again when you’re done reading the books.

"Damned" by Chuck Palahniuk, "Sightseeing" by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and "Visit Sunny Chernobyl" by Andrew Blackwell. The LG Optimus Vu phablet in the photo isn't mine; I was reviewing it at the time I took the photo.

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk, Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell. The LG Optimus Vu phablet in the photo isn’t mine; I was just reviewing it at the time, and it certainly looks much better than the old and battered iPad 1 I was using last year.

Little Girl Lost − and Found

Chuck Palahniuk’s protagonist in his 2011 novel Damned is an unusual one. Madison “Maddy” Spencer is the 13-year-old daughter of two Hollywood power players with questionable parenting skills. Little Maddy is a quick thinker, has a sharp tongue, is very observant, is capable of adjusting to unique situations, and has a good sense of style, among other traits.

Oh, and she’s also dead, her soul will be in Hell for all of eternity, and she has no idea how she ended up there. Awesome.

My tanning essentials. My holiday was far from Hell-ish, though. 😉 And kids, smoking is bad for you. Don’t do it. Huwag nyong tularan si Lola KC!

Just 247 pages “long”, Damned is a quick and very entertaining read. It took me just three days or so to finish it, and that’s with a lot of distractions. And, as mentioned above, it’s the only book I brought with me from Manila. Turned out to be an awesome choice. It had me laughing and reacting at random moments, eliciting looks of surprise from fellow tourists and hostel staff. That awesome illustration of Satan on the cover also got me a fair amount of stares and head-to-toe looks. You don’t know what you’re missing, folks.

Palahniuk uses short chapters to push the story along − which is hilarious, sad and reflective at various points. I loved Maddy’s brief notes to Satan at the beginning of every chapter, too − apparently, “Are You There, Satan? It’s Me, Madison” is a Judy Blume reference.

Many of the sentences also reminded me of my priorities and how I looked at the world when I was 13. I guess it’s the first instance of travel that I’ve seen in the book: it made me go back to those years in my life, years that are now loooooong gone, but always cringe-worthy.

There are other instances of time travel throughout the novel. In notable chapters, Maddy tells readers all about her far-from-ordinary teenage life, the one she unexpectedly left behind. This includes descriptions of her family’s homes around the world (and the strange and cruel ways her mother would use these homes’ surveillance systems), her experiences with her family members and adopted siblings (including Goran), and the way she was treated by her female classmates at a Swiss boarding school. Except for the “homes around the world” part, I think people can relate to the familial and educational experiences quite well, particularly those who were loners and/or were bullied during those pivotal years. The desire to love, be loved, and fit in can be understood by anyone who has ever gone through puberty and lived in a whacked-out home environment.

In every journey, the people you meet and get introduced to are as important as the journey itself. As Maddy ventures into the different levels and areas of Hell, she builds up a long list of friends and allies. First up are her new friends: the blonde beauty Babette, the punk rocker Archer, the nerd Leonard (no, not the one from The Big Bang Theory!), and the letterman jacket-wearing athlete Patterson. First impressions don’t really last in Maddy’s case, as she eventually sees Babette as a close friend, Archer proved to be a worthy cohort, and her little crush on Leonard was nothing compared to her feelings for her adopted brother and “ex-boyfriend”, Goran.

She also makes things easier for some of Hell’s later arrivals, like the dying elderly folks that Maddy has called and encouraged while at her telemarketing job. They eventually made their way to Hell, and are quite happy to be there, and not just because they helped boost Maddy’s “damnation” numbers for the month.

(Note to self: Don’t ever tell telemarketers to “Go to Hell!” because, shit, according to Palahniuk, they’re already there!)

Let’s not forget about the demons. Maddy would become acquainted with them throughout the book: they keep the underground empire going and make it excruciating for residents in many ways. Who the hell knew that Hell functions pretty much like a corporation, and has porn and telemarketing divisions; that dandruff, clipped nails and semen also have a place in the underground world; that demons can be bribed using candy and are pretty annoyed with slow Internet connections (plus use dot matrix printers!); or that you can be damned over seemingly harmless things?

Yep. We’re all doomed.

So we’re done with time travel, and newfound friends. More clear and direct examples of our travel theme can be found in the last few chapters. Like the aforementioned Spencer homes around the world, or that time Maddy took a chauffeured car to Hell and fell asleep before she got there. Yeah. Sounds like almost every road trip I ever took with the family. 😛 I kid, I kid.

Another example: every Holloween, Hell’s denizens get a day-long pass to Earth and mingle with the living. Of course, Maddy and her crew went up to the surface for the day − and our heroine got the opportunity to exact revenge on three “Twatty Twatlanders”. You gotta make the most out of your trip, you know.

Here’s the next aspect of travel that I saw in the book: those who wander, with or without a plan in hand, often think of themselves as going through “uncharted” territory, and taking part in pretty new and unconventional stuff that would impress the folks back home. That may be true most of the time: you’re doing things you’ve never done before, and the place you’re exploring right now is “uncharted” in your own little version of the world.

But if you really think about it, you’re just one among the many who have written the same chapters into their lives, but with different elements. You think you’re channeling Magellan or Earhart or other real explorers, but if you think about it, you’re just going the same way as everyone else. You share the same options as other travelers, and are limited by the laws and constraints of your destination(s).

Maddy wound up in Hell with the rest of the damned. The world she explores is the same one seen (or conjured) by so many others. And it turns out that (SPOILER ALERT!) her entire “script” was written by Satan himself (a.k.a. her uniformed chauffeur)… and readers can safely assume that he did the same thing for everyone else.

Bummer, right?

Well, Maddy still has an awesome story, and she (well, Palahniuk) told it in a way that can’t be done by the other “damned” souls. She saw Hell, conquered it (the parts with Hitler et al., I found really weird), and changed the way things are done in there; and (I hope) continues to buck the norm.

A traveler’s unique background, view and interpretation will make a trip more worthwhile − and turn a standard story into a quirky and delightful one. I highly recommend this book; you should go to Hell with Maddy Spencer. (Wait, that didn’t sound right…)

Damned, Chuck Palahniuk
Paperback, Anchor Books
Buy: National Book Store | Fully Booked | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo Books

(Next: “Seven stops in Thailand”: Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap)