I'm writing this at midnight in our hotel room in Quy Nhon, hoping to get the chance to upload it in the morning, so I don't have internet access to see where I left off last. I'll approximate. I can't fill everything in anyway; it's been a while and it's all pretty piece-meal.
Basically, this month has been a lot more like a series of field trips than anything else. Any sort of coherent project pretty much fell apart. Plans got changed last minute left and right. (Our plan for this week in Quy Nhon for example was originally to spend about 5 days composting, then 4, then 3, then half of Monday, all of Tuesday and half of Wednesday, then just half of Monday and all of Tuesday and then just Tuesday, at which time we ended up splitting into two groups, one visited a small composting facility in the morning and people resettled by the government away from beach shanty-towns in the afternoon while the other visited a larger composting facility in the morning and two small villages where ENDA, the NGO we're sort of partnered with, has implemented clean water projects in the afternoon.) We've had a lot of interesting environmental lectures, read books and watched documentaries. (I highly recommend An Inconvenient Truth, The Corporation and Regret to Inform – all documentaries – as well as Cradle to Cradle – a quick read, although because it's printed in a generally environmentally friendly way, the book is really expensive and you might want to check it out of a library instead of buying it). We've split our time, I'd say, about 65%-35% between discussions about the environment and the Vietnam war (which occasionally overlap, mind you). It's been worthwhile, if rather different and improvisational.
I think, instead of trying to do a play by play which, frankly, is impossible, I'll just hit things that I think of as I'm writing. A general overview of the feeling of the month, though, would be a good start.
It's been a lot of hurry up and wait. We're either busybusybusy all day or we have nothing scheduled for the weekend. I played a lot of guitar in our guesthouse in Ho Chi Minh City (I'm reteaching myself) and had the chance to read several books which I really needed. Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, is his best yet and a fast read and Rory Stewart's The Places In Between is well-written, fascinating, informative, entertaining and not at all dense. I'm nearly through with The Golden Compass which I have on my iPod and have been listening to on our recent wealth of bus rides. I've read it before, but it's still wonderful. You should read it. All of you. Yes. You. :-) I've also had time to watch a lot of movies (a lot of people have been watching a lot of movies…our group bootleg DVD collection is very impressive…) and spend more time with our TBB crew. Everyone is so different and so interesting – I want to really get to know each person individually. I think the one of the worst things that could happen would be to get home and feel like I wish I'd talked to so and so more. I'm not naturally particularly friendly and outgoing, but I'm determined so watch out. Anyway, tangent, sorry.
Ok, here's my random spattering of thoughts and images. And go!
Ho Chi Minh City is absurd. I strongly dislike it. There are motorcylcles everywhere and to cross the street you just have to hope they don't hit you. You have to walk in the street most of the time anyway because the sidewalk is taken up by parked motorcycles or these giant stupid trees they've planted in cement squares of dirt in the middles or it's just gone entirely due to construction or lack thereof. The pollution is pretty awful and it's always hotter than is pleasant despite the fact that it is apparently the cold season (it's probably 90 out and there are women in coats not to mention the fact that because of the pollution and the trend dictating that pale skin is desirable, women ride around on motorbikes in shoulder-length gloves, socks and cloths wrapped around their faces). The telephone and electric wires are all one huge tangle at corners. There are quite literally two and a half foot high tangles of black wire clinging to telephone poles every few blocks and then every now and then there are just a couple of wires with naked tips hanging down in the middle of the sidewalk (if you're lucky enough to find one on which you can walk) like vines off a tree in Tarzan. You hope you notice them before you walk into them, but you might not since you have to spend a substantial amount of time looking at the broken up ground making sure you don't trip. Fun story: I was walking to our writer's workshop (something optional that Beth has started and which has been held sporadically) laughing hysterically out of embarrassment because it has just been pointed out to me several times that I talk to myself quite a bit more than I thought I did, when my knees gave out under me as my foot hit a bump and I went straight down to the ground. Most of the TBB group was ahead of me crossing the street and didn't notice, but a group of three or four twenty-something Vietnamese outside of a swanky restaurant pointed and laughed until I staggered up and away, still choking on embarrassed giggles.
Rylan did point out the other day that, although none of us much like Ho Chi Minh as far as I have heard and it's much easier to feel useful and part of a community in a rural area, as long as we're studying development, it's probably useful to see one of Asia's growing mega-cities. He's right. As much as Ho Chi Minh has nothing to do with how I imagine Vietnam, it is a part of the country and the region and such cities will only become bigger, more crowded, more polluted, and more relevant.
We've been hearing a lot and talking some about the Vietnam War, or, as they call it, the American War or the War of American Aggression which, really, is probably more accurate. We've been to the War Remnants museum in HCMC, we watched the documentary Regret to Inform, we visited the Cu Chi tunnels (a tunnel city built by the Viet Cong about an hour outsided of former Saigon), we met with some families with children affected by agent orange and we visited Son My, the site of the My Lai Massacre. The Things They Carried, one of my favorite books, is also floating around the group and I intend to reread it soon.
It's a pretty big topic. You can look at it from an American perspective, a Vietnamese perspective, a communist perspective, an environmental perspective and a human perspective. Each has its own big questions. What was the real point of the war? What is the point of any war? Does war ever have a place in this world as an answer? When does a war end? How do countries really reconcile? What are a combatant country's responsibilities in a war with regard to civilians and the environment? What about lasting consequences both psychological, physical and environmental? One of our discussions was framed by the question: Who is the enemy in war? Answers ranged from "everyone" to "ourselves" to "ideals and governments" to "greed."
Other questions were raised for me, too. I tend to react to personal stories very strongly, much more than I do to generalizations or statistics. We watched Regret to Inform as I've now said several times. It was a documentary made by an American woman who lost her young husband in Vietnam. She returns to the place where he was killed along with her Vietnamese friend who left her country after the war. Along the way you get not only their stories, but the stories of several other couples from both sides that were broken apart by the conflict. It's heart-wrenching, not unexpectedly, but somehow the thing that struck me most, listening to all those women and seeing the wedding photos and the snapshots of the dead men, was that all of those people were basically my age. Learning about war when you're younger, you think, oh, that's horrible, but those boys are older and stronger and braver. Or maybe you just don't think about it at all. But watching that movie, it hit me really, really hard.
I've said for a long time now that if there were a draft today, we wouldn't still be in Iraq. There are socio-economic inequities in our military that make it so that those families most directly affected by the war tend to have muffled political voices and it's difficult to get really worked up about something that doesn't touch you personally. If there were a constant threat that all of the men you held dear (and possibly women too) could be packed up and shipped off to Iraq at a moments notice, there would be a lot more protesting going on. There would have been ofr a long time and I think the troops would have been pulled. But there has been no draft. (There are a lot of things wrong with our military, actually, don't ask don't tell being near the top of my list (did you know we've discharged 10,000 able-bodied men and are now accepting people with criminal records and mental issues to replace them?))
After watching the film I looked around the room at our five TBB boys I was horrified. They're all eighteen or nineteen and any of them could have been drafted if this were 1968 and not 2008. Suddenly I saw them all in uniform, shrouded in the jungles of Vietnam, shooting, being shot at, killing and dying. I started sobbing. I love them all and the images were too much and they wouldn't go away. They kept playing themselves over and over in my head. No one should be made to kill or asked to risk their lives for some high ideal in a far away and unfamiliar land. No one is prepared for that and I don't know how anyone can come back from it still whole.
I'm against the war in Iraq, but I've never gone to a protest. My being against the war has had no bearing at all on anything, really. Like I said, I have trouble connecting to theoretical people, people that I know exist, but that I don't actually know. But this, this is something I feel in my gut. I get it now and I didn't quite before.
We visited the site of the My Lai massacre (a four hour bus ride each way instead of two to touch on plans changing again). The event was abominable and not an entirely isolated occurance. There is no way to apologize for something like that. At the museum on the site (the best museum we've been to in either Cambodia or Vietnam, I think) our tour guide told us about the three American soldier who didn't take part. One shot himself in the foot and the other two rescued a few survivors, pointing the gun of their helicopter at American soldiers to keep them away. We watched a short video in which there was a line that said something to the effect of "My Lai is something that should never happen again and hopefully will not" and another that said "If I were there, I would hope that I would have the courage to do the right thing like Thompson [one of the men in the helicopter]." I also saw, scribbled in the guest book, the idea that those soldiers were bad seeds and that the entire U.S. army should not be judged by their actions. Every army has bad seeds. Those three ideas bothered me. First of all, atrocities like My Lai happen every day in places like Sudan and the Congo. Every day. What are we doing about it? Pitifully little. Second of all, I too would hope to do the right thing in a horrible situtation, but what was it that made all of those soldiers do otherwise? They were certainly not all bad people. They were probably terrified, angry, numb, crazy, drowned in a mob mentality. To live the way they'd been living, they must have had to begin to see the enemy as something not human, the lives they were taking as worth less – how else could you live with yourself having killed another human being you'd never even met? None of these things, of course, in any way excuses their actions. The horrific nature of the massacre is literally beyond my imagination. But what makes good men, boys really, do such horrible things? It reminded me of a study I've heard referenced where college students were divided up into two gropus: prisoners and prison guards. The guards ended up so violent and abusive that the study had to be stopped after just a few days. So what made them do it? War. The whole idea of it, the environment in which they were dropped, unprepared. Yes, I would hope that I would do the right thing. I bet they all would have hoped that too. But would I? Would you? I don't think we can rightly say. I hope I never have to find out.
Needless to say, all of this made us think about America. What it is, really, and what it stands for. I've never been a fan of blind patriotism, but I was talking to Emily who said she'd once been told that she didn't have the right to complain about the U.S. because so many other countries had it so much worse, and my views solidified for me. I complain about a lot of things in the U.S. There are a lot of problems to complain about. And I think I should complain. I can pick out the faults and still love my country and appreciate it for its good as well. Ultimately, however, I don't love America as much for what it is, as for what it has the potential to be. I love its ideals, its ability to change and to grow. I don't hate my country when it does something wrong any more than a parent would hate a child who made a mistake. I'm disappointed in my country as that parent would be in his or her child. The most patriotic thing I think I can do is expect a lot from my country and help it to meet my expectations. Or I guess I could just put a flag on my lawn and eat hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Same thing.
One more fun story, to end on a lighter note, and then it's bedtime for Becca. I think I'll call it "Bus Misadventures: The Sequel" or maybe, "Aventura Dos!" Anyway, our drive from HCMC to Quy Nhon was supposed to be eight to ten hours. We charged up the computers, grabbed our ipods, fought to get a solo seat and set off at 6am. About 11ish we pulled over to the side of the road. "Why have we stopped?" asked the voices of the many boys and girls, their groggy heads bobbing up from behind the pleather seats. "Why have we stopped?" asked Robin and Beth, their fearless leaders. They got off the bus and sat in a roadside café in the middle of nowhere, Vietnam. The speediest of them grabbed the ten or so hammocks, the rest settled for plastic stools and chairs. After an hour of napping, reading and cribbage playing (a game in which Lily and Becca dominated Dave and Noah, to the competitive boys' chagrin), it was announced that our bus's radiator had broken beyond repair, another bus was coming from HCMC and would arrive in five hours or so. Five hours?! But wait! Two vans would come for us and take the us next hour and half to our lunch stop, a cavernous and empty Vietnamese restaurant, and then on another ten minutes or so to a beachside motel where we'd rented rooms in which we could stay. Hooray! Broken bus beach detour, not so bad after all. At least we hadn't hit anyone. After lunch, some beach and some dinner, our replacement bus arrived with our luggage stowed underneath. We set off again at 7:40pm. "How much longer?" the students' voices chimed? "About 500 kilmeters," came the answer. "Maybe seven hours." Seven hours? But that would mean the students would not arrive at their destination until 3am! Again, they hunkered down for some sleep or, in the case of the back row, a late night showing of Fargo on the green computer. (Incidentally, a pretty good but not fabulous movie). On the tired students rode over a bumpy and dug-up rode with a necessarily tired driver until, at 3:30am, they parked on the side of the road and heard a soft "we're here." Bags were collected and hauled up the steps to the fourth floor (also known as the fifth floor, because everyone but Americans counts the ground floor as zero). A good night's sleep was then had by all (but not before room 441, Lily, Liz and I, put up the hammock Christmas tree, the three strings of lights and the small golden menorah to brighten the small, dull room).
Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night
And to All Others a Happy Chanukah
(we're playing dreidel on Christmas Even night, then watching the Grinch and then having a Christmas party at a schmancy hotel on the 25th)
Much love and good wishes,
p.s. I think I've not mentioned our biggest plan change of all! We're no longer going to India. After the bombings in Mumbai, TBB determined that it would be too dangerous to take 18 Americans into Northwestern India. It makes sense, as far as decisions go, but no one was happy about it. Our plans had been in limbo until today. We will be going to Thailand instead, still studying sustainable agriculture and getting to do homestays. I was pretty bummed about spending even more time on this peninsula in SE Asia. Yunan was just north, then Cambodia, then Vietnam and now Thailand and for our enrichment week afterwards Laos! I want to see other parts of the world! BUT our plans for Thailand sound really incredible, actually, so I'm getting kind of excited. We'll spend a week in a facility that teaches locals and foreigners about sustainable living and then go live for three weeks in a community that has just switched from chemical to sustainable agriculture. We'll have two language teachers with us the whole time which, in combination with homestays, means I may really learn some Thai. My Vietnamese, incidentally, is abysmal. I can say hello and goodbye (sin chao), thank you (cam on), pork, beef, chicken and fish (heo, bo, ga, ca) and iced coffee with milk (café sua da). Sometimes I can count, too, but that's about it. Ah well…
p.p.s. We've been talking and thinking a lot about environmental stuff too, but I'm rather tired so that will have to wait either for another post or for a coffee date when I get home :-)
p.p.p.s. I'd just like to remind you all that you get to keep up with my by reading this blog if you so choose, but I require emails to keep up with you…so send them along! It's winter break, kids. I know you've got free time :-)