Double clicking the one folder of many in "my pictures." Its label reads Vietnow, an example of my obsession with creating names (some clever, most frivolous) for anything and everything.
About 400 thumbnails popup on the screen and I am immediately brought back to the landscapes, jungles, cyclos, oppressive heat, sweat and beauty of Vietnam. This is not nearly a new concept, but it will never cease to amaze me how a single image, a collection of dots, lines, shapes and colors, can have so much power. It captures your gaze, in half a second your brain recognizes it, and the picture forces you reflexively to ponder, dream, fantasize, and realize the importance of what you did, how incredulous it all now seems. Of the many images that rush pass my eyes, this one today happened to stand out and I want to share it.
I wanted to see what once was the De-militarized zone of Vietnam. I arranged for a veteran of the war named Mr. Thia to show me all of the sites over the course of two days, his mopehead being our source of transportation. On day two, we were near the Cambodian border, around the waistline of Vietnam. Riding on the back of Mr. Thia's cycle, the breeze rushing past I can remember provided a momentary release from the sweltering and sticky heat. My ass was quite numb from riding on that tired and depleted leather seat for almost an hour. We are climbing in elevation and winding left and right around roads that were paved 30 years ago. Tragically we passed a bridge where a truck carrying passengers in its tailgate swerved to avoid something, probably a cow, crashed through the guard rail and plummeted 50 feet to meet the river and
their deaths below. Mr Thai told me he knew one of the people in the truck, and I tried to give condolences with conviction.
We stopped for a rest on the side of the road still flanked very much by jungle, but here there were primitive housing structures as well. As I got off the bike to stretch and brush the red dust from my shirt and camera bag, a group of children ages 5-13 began to assemble around me, each staring at me with unwavering and penetrating gazes. They were not rude stares though, in fact the furthest thing from them. Their stares were filled with genuine fascination, curiosity, and shyness. Making eye contact with the very young ones would send them into hiding behind the legs of older ones. It honestly felt like I was the first white person they had ever seen. I looked at Mr. Thai inquisitively and he uttered the words "Montegnard People" out around the cigarette he was lighting. Unfortunately I did not learn much about the history of these people or even what the name means. I know it is a French word. This is what
I did learn about these people in the brief amount of time I was in their presence: Their lives were patterned around hunting and gathering. All of the adults I was told were farming in the rice paddies save one that was manning the shanty supply store made out of boards. It seemed like Vietnamese living in cities thought the Montegnards were completely inferior, and I even heard one refer to them as "monkey people," but that could have just been a bad apple. The children were left to watch themselves. They lived in absolute and complete poverty. They had nothing but the tattered and dirty clothes on their backs, and the raised thatched roof dwellings where they lived. Walking through them, avoiding stepping on all of the free range animals, being followed by my new entourage, all felt like going back in time. A time before electricity and modern niceties that make our lives now seem so simple and assisted that they're almost boring. There were no power lines, no water pipes, no wi-fi, no myspace. They did have each other though, and it seemed enough to make them happy because they all had smiles.
Mr. Thai suggested that I buy them candy from the store, which I hesitantly did because it felt like I was at a zoo or something. I opened the package and all of the kids immediately set upon me with open palms and ravenous faces. Organizing a line was futile; you would think that I
would have been prepared from teaching Korean children but it wasn't in the cards. I tried my best to make sure everyone received an equal amount, but I'm afraid a few sugar cravings went unsatisfied. I will always remember their eyes, the warm curiosity that was in them which immediately grew my affection. In a sad way though, it was their eyes that betrayed them; they were all of them young, but their eyes were much older, having grown quickly and matured with the harshness of third world life. I generally refrain from asking what if questions, but what if our roles were reversed. In my travels that was a question that seem to echo in my head. I looked at these pictures taken about 3 months ago, those memories rushed back, and I had to write them down. Thanks for listening.