Saturday, June 27, 2009

The summer of 2009 is surely one that will stand out in my memory for years to come.  Three days into summer vacation, I found myself 8615 miles (as the crow flies and the map service tells me) from Milwaukee.  Even though that fact alone might cause one to think of the trip as “memorable” there are numerous verbal, physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences that I encountered on my 10-day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia that are much more significant.

            Right now, as I sit with my journal and nearly 1000 photographs that I’ve taken, I will begin the on-going process of reliving and reflecting further about the things I saw and heard while on this journey.  Mind you, this is only the beginning……….

            On our first full day in Vietnam we visited the Viet Cong Cu Chi Tunnels.  As I overcame my claustrophobic tendencies and crawled (bent over) a short distance through one of the tunnels to the next exit, I thought about the lengths people will go to survive.  I couldn’t wait to reach the light of day. With over 200 km (that’s about 124 miles, you know) of connecting tunnels and rooms, I begin to try to imagine what it would have been like to stay, live, and eat down underground for months at a time. After a brief five or so minutes of crawling around in the dark, I was ready to exit!  We saw a diagram of the ingenious layout of the tunnel system – the four-chambered system which would allow smoke from cooking and heating fires to escape slowly to the outdoors, the ventilation holes placed strategically near huge termite hills for camouflage, and the parts of the tunnel that were placed near the river in order to hold the livestock near.  Well laid-out – well thought-out……….hard to imagine living in them.

            As we walked the grounds, seeing (or rather having the guide point out the various entrances to the tunnels) I also thought about our soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War and what little chance they really had in defeating/surviving here.  Viewing the assorted booby traps and devices used in the jungle against other human beings turned my stomach.  What horror – war.  What a dichotomy – killing and striving to stay alive.

            In the cities we visited I was taken by the juxtaposition of old and new.  Old, shanty-like homes and store fronts intermingled with brightly colored, modern homes and apartments – some palatial.  Apparently no zoning laws, at least none like those in the US.  Perhaps more striking is the fact that no one seems to mind.

            The foods of Vietnam and Cambodia were, for the most part, delicious.  I know that I will be searching the bookstores and the Internet for some of the recipes of the foods I enjoyed.  (Although I have little hope of being able to find Elephant Ear fish here in the U. S.)  Perhaps, I’ll even make more frequent visits to the Mekong Café!

            The trips to Unicorn Island, the Cham village, and the floating market will not be forgotten.  The lifestyles of the peoples in these communities contrast heavily with those in the U. S.  The reliance on the river, the rain, and the natural resources in their surroundings provide them with a strong sense of cooperation and connections to family and community.  All work together to survive, all the while maintaining a friendly, welcoming demeanor – despite their hard work and struggles.  Their pride is evident in how they conduct themselves and the daily efforts they put forth to provide for themselves and their families.


            The visits to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields were the most harrowing.  Our guide was seven years old at the time the Pol Pot Regime evacuation of Phnom Penh and separated from his family for four years.  My eyes swelled as he told his story.  It’s hard for me to imagine how and why such senseless killing could occur.  How possibly justify the killings of so many innocents, the indoctrination of children? How very evil.  That history should repeat itself in such a form is the deepest of tragedies.  I know that it’s important – much like the Holocaust Museum – to make these inhumanity-to-man crimes public in the hopes that such things will not happen again.  I am now reading a book I purchased at the museum on the Pol Pot Regime, in an attempt to find out more facts about this time and place in history, knowing that despite what I read there will never be a “reason” for such travesties.  This period of time in Cambodia will continue to unnerve me anew each time I reflect on it.  It will never find “a place” in my mind.  The suffering of the Cambodian peoples has, however, found a place in my heart.


            I was delighted with the visits to the ACIS school in Khprob Village, the Sangkheum Center, and the Bright Futures Kids Home and A New Life Orphanage.  These visits were definitely highlights of the trip. I was impressed with the difference one person or a handful of people can make in the lives of children.  The sense of family and community prevailed in all of the facilities. Whether teaching, playing games, or simply talking with the children at these locations, the fact that children are children (and the hope of the future) no matter where you are in the world was brought home.  I hope someday that I will be able to return to Siem Reap and spend more time with the children and teachers there.  In the meantime, I will have to contend myself with maintaining communication via email with those that I met. (Oh! The wonders of technology!)
            One high school student who I met at the Bright Futures Kids Home had asked if I would like to exchange emails with him.  Of course, my reply was the affirmative. By the time I returned to the hotel later that evening a message from him awaited! Since that visit I have received three more emails from two other students and a helper at the orphanage who is studying to be an accountant.  I fantasize about meeting all of them again.

            The new ACIS school is only beginning to develop.  (I believe we are the first Americans to visit the school.) Many of the students are from the poor surrounding villages and bike to school. Class sizes are large – about 50 students – and there are no computers.  Perhaps USM can continue to assist and support in the development of the school.  Both students and teachers were excited about our visit and our contributions of Harry Potter books (written both in Khmer and English), school supplies, balls, and, of course, American candy!

            The temple visits were somewhat overwhelming.  Although I have quite extensively documented each of these visits (Angkor Wat, et al) photographically, I found it necessary to purchase a book that not only contains the correct spellings of the names of the temples, god, and goddesses, but also includes a history and explanations of the multitude of carvings and buildings on each site.  My mind raced as my ears heard and attempted to catalogue all of the information that simply rolled out of the mouth of our knowledgeable guide. 


            So, it seems that at least my early summer reading has been selected.  The trip was a confirmation of the fact that the more I learn, the more I realize that there’s so much that I have yet to learn.  My head is filled with so many new facts and experiences, but my heart is filled with a new sense of wonder, of knowing, and of anticipation of good things yet to come.  I am so appreciative of having had the opportunity to take this journey – one that will impact my future and, hopefully, make me a better person for having had the experiences it provided. 


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