Oh what? You thought I was done writing just because I came back to California. Like I’ve said, writing isn’t a thing you just do, it is a compulsion.
I’ve got to say, being back home is already making me a bit anxious. I’ve now slept in the same, comfy bed for three nights in a row, I ate a hamburger bigger than my head, and every time I go over to a friend’s house I am constantly looking around for where I left my backpack (it’s like a piece of my anatomy just disappeared). Switching from the transitive to the sedentary is a horrifying experience for some of us. Unpacking felt like “nesting,” even though I unpacked into a washing machine rather than into drawers.
Once you get back all the questions start again: “What is next for you?,” “Are you gonna get a job?,and “How was the trip?” (which only 10% of people who ask you that actually want the full answer). The point is, some of us don’t think about answers to questions, some of us just drift around and experience as much as we can, we feel nothing, we feel everything, but the pertinent question of “what’s next” doesn’t ever cross our path as the float on…until it does.
Back in the beginning of December I was greatly affected by what I had seen in Laos. American bombs lie in fields and have waited patiently over 40 years to explode and kill children who never even saw them fall from the sky. I wrote a vignette called “Volatile Land,” and it continued to weigh heavily on me. Over the next few weeks I considered joining an organization to help, or even starting my own. Not sure where I would even begin to start something that might actually be able to do some good in the world, I decided to put the idea in my figurative pocket while I finished up the remainder of my trip. The next step would be to talk to some people when I got back to California who might have a better idea of where I should start. That plan didn’t last long. I lost sleep over the next 3 weeks, all of the simple freedoms that I enjoyed turned bitter in my mouth at the thought of those going without. By the time I got to Australia I was openly talking to people about my intentions to begin a bomb clearance organization focusing solely on Laos. It was incredible, every doubt I had was immediately extinguished by the positive response and helpful advice I received. Within a single week I had met a robotics engineer, two cold fusion scientists, and plenty more intellectuals with great ideas for the best approach.
Now that I am back in California, I have begun contacting (and attempting to contact) government figures, ex-military specialists, and other NGO heads. Everyone I run into wants to pitch in with skills, contacts, or funding. It’s wonderful that the altruism that inspired me to keep traveling is alive and well here in California as well.
I really do feel like I am lost at sea in this, but I’ve never felt so full of purpose and determination. A friend asked me, “So, what is the end goal for this?” My response is this, “I want to get one single bomb out of one field in Laos.” Success to me will be weighed by one life changed for the better, and if we can prove that we can do it for one village, then the goal will change from there.
So, I hope that answers the question of “What’s next, Jordan?”
The wheels of the bike wobble as they struggle down the straight path out of the city. The bike makes a sound like an old man stretching, his bones cracking and popping as he moves. A motorbike speeds past, three geese gently dangle by their legs as they crane their necks away from the gravelly road.The little girl holding the geese’ legs smiles and then waves to us with her free hand. Small barber shops, restaurants, and bungalows line the path that leads to the beach. “Hello, how are you? Where you from?” Owners try to hail us as we drive by, even the bicycles we ride on don’t deter them from their industrious nature. By the time we get to the beach, over twenty different shop owners have called out to us. The beach crashes gently upon the shore as we sip cold smoothies from our lounge chairs. Vendors approach us every other minute, each with a fiery, unrelenting approach to salesmanship:
“You want massage?”
“No, thank you.”
“Sunglasses? Very cheap.”
“I’m wearing sunglasses.”
“I have a drink in my hand.”
“You want a book?”
I’m running out of excuses…
Back in Hoi An, the deep orange of the sun sinks into the river, setting the river aflame. The Vietnamese have a legend that a giant dragon stretches out across Asia: Japan is the dragon’s head, China the tail, and Vietnam is the body. Whenever the head or tail shakes, the stomach will have problems. I can only wonder how often the head and tail must uneasily shake. And what does that make the USA? The orange of the river fades with the sun, but instead of transforming into the black water of a post-twilight evening, the water takes on a multi-colored glow. Lanterns hang above the “Vietnamese Tailored Suits” signs in shop windows, they hang across the balconies of restaurants filled by patrons looking out over the water, and they hang from the small dragon boats that line the river’s edge. The river is full of the soft, distorted glows of red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and purple. The dragon scales of Hoi An shimmer in rainbow colors under the bright, full-moon light. Women and children sell small candle-lit lanterns in red boxes to float down the river. Small candle-lit lotuses bloom one at a time with each purchase.
As the restaurants die down, the bar life comes ablaze. Flashes of light spasm in the full spectrum of colors as a hit pop song rattles the corner amplifiers. With each strobe of varied color, I see glimpses of people living absentmindedly of the cost tomorrow might bring. Tonight they are young. Tonight they are fueled by fire. Tomorrow they will burn. Tomorrow is hundreds of years away. An overhead light spreads small red pin dots out through the crowd. The dots converge, twist, and then diverge again. Hundreds of sniper rifles trained on the hopeful hearts of entranced dancers. One by one they are picked off and the club dies down to a few survivors. People shuffle back onto the empty streets in search of their hostels to sleep into the afternoon.
The dragon takes the fire, churns it through his stomach until it forms into a perfectly round orb, and then it spits one large fire back into the Eastern sky to rise back over the world once again.
“Helloooooo!” The voice is distant and sounds out across the large stretch of dark green water. “Hellooooooo!” It’s five in the morning and the small bamboo-crafted boat is a silhouette as it cuts a path through the water towards the large junk boat I sit atop. “Hello! You want Pringles?” she yells up to where I sit on the boat two floors up. “No, thank you.” Her boat is filled with cookies, chips, cigarettes, and alcohol, it is a miracle of weight distribution, and a demonstration of a gift of spacial awareness that could easily take her to the top levels of Tetris. I wonder how much money Vietnam has earned off drunk tourists deep-set need for Pringles. I take a deep breath as she turns her small boat-market towards the next junk boat. “Hellooooo!” By the time I exhale another small woman in an identical bamboo boat repeats her predecessor’s questions. This time I ignore her as politely as I can and turn my gaze back to the sunrise.
The engine and generator rumble gently behind the boat, throwing small circular rings out into the otherwise tranquil waters. Caramel-colored Vietnamese coffee peaks through my slowly tanning web of fingers, wrapped around the glass cup to absorb it’s precious warmth. The rising sun peaks through two round mountain tops; a bright yellow yoke birthed between it’s cracked egg shell. This is the part of the world where the sun is born daily. As the sun pulls itself higher into the sky, color pours over the mountains and into the bay. The world I find myself in shifts from a quiet grey to shades of green. As light fills the surroundings with color, people being to awaken as well. Before long the boat is awake. The staff serves breakfast to groggy guests as the boat imperceptibly pushes itself towards the island shores of Cat Ba.
The forest envelops the eight of us as we hike up to the top of the mountain. The natural stone steps provide easy access to the top, but also force us to change the pace of our steps as we climb; a large step that clenches my quadriceps as I force myself upward, then a two quick steps to change my footing on a sturdier rock, and then crossing back and forth between stones that split the path. All of us move in a single-file march up the hill, all of us except one. Our guide looks human, he speaks Vietnamese, but he is most definitely a monkey masquerading as a human. He throws leaves and flowers at us as he passes me, then he grabs the sunglasses off of the tattooed British traveler from Cornwall. Before he can ask for his glasses back, the guide has jumped off of the stone path and grabbed onto a dangling vine of a tree. Without any effort, he is up in the treetops looking down and laughing at us. Once we reach the summit, he lavishes in the attention he gets from other tourists. He poses in impossible yoga positions on top of precarious rocks as camera shutters click in unison. A small tower with a “Do not climb” signpost compels me to decline it’s suggestion. The steps are sturdy, but the handrail is rusted and jagged. Don’t grip the sides, don’t grip the sides. At the top, I step forward and my leg doesn’t meet anything solid. The top of the tower has several wooden boards positioned across a 30 meter drop onto the rocks below. I steady myself and look out over the green, rolling mountain-scape that spreads in every direction. A small sliver of the sea hides just shy of the horizon; a perfect place to kayak.
We grab kayaks from a floating restaurant. It’s foundation is a series of plastic crates and buoys that cause the wooden boards to rise and fall with the sea. “Don’t go out of the bay, the ocean water is strong and dangerous,” the restaurant owner warns us as we place our feet into the long, red kayak. We know as they warn us that the ocean is the only place we can go, our rebellious streak continues. The ocean pitches and throws water into the kayak, but the paddles still push us forward around small top-heavy ocean islands. Each one of the islands is built of dark grey stone at it’s base that widens as it rises up to the forested top. I imagine a chess board beneath the surface of HaLong Bay, only bishops and pawns still in play. I wonder where the King is? Perhaps he has been tipped and the game ended long ago, before all the water. Hidden beaches lie around some of the larger chess pieces, each one a soft secret whispered only to fishermen and kayakers. The sun begins to dry the salt that the wind has blown past us, drawing small lightening patterns of white over our arms and shoulders. This is the mark of the ocean accepting us in this place. Our kayak gently splits the water as the sun continues it’s journey to the West, eventually aging and being put to rest by my family and friends in California. A new sun will be born tomorrow, HaLong will hatch a new yoke that I will warmly welcome before sending it to all of you.
The life of rural Laotians is a difficult life of destitution and starvation caused by the “Secret War” that the U.S. waged on Laos after President Johnson recalled our soldiers from Vietnam. The area that I visited, Phonsavan, is the most heavily bombed area in the entire world, and a large percentage of those bombs failed to explode on impact, leaving unexploded ordnances scattered across the landscape. Decades later, rural Laotian life is still crippled by a war in Laos that I had never even read about. Being here, in this place at this time, was devastating to me. Talking to the people, hearing their stories, seeing the damage…it impacted me, and I hope this vignette of their life demonstrates their struggle well:
Imagine the small sprouts of the rice as it peaks through the murky water. Imagine the water buffalo as it moves apathetically over land and water alike. Imagine the sun as it burns the back of your neck, turning your already tanned skin into a darker and tougher version of itself. Imagine the rough calluses on your hands from years of gripping the same metal hoe, it’s history of upturning soil shown in the rust and chipped surfaces. You cup a hand over your eyes and look at the empty land that sits just past your rice fields; the forbidden space in the landscape. The dry land stretches out towards the mountains, small patches of yellow grass covering it’s surface. The lands are perfect for expanding the fields, but at what cost?
Last year was difficult for everyone. Even thought the weather held in good favor, the rice harvest only fed the village for nine months. One of the families kills their goat to help feed themselves and some of the neighbors. The goat is a heavy loss that could have provided milk for years, but choice and free will were taken from them by hunger. With the meager rice crop there was nothing left over to sell; there was no money to buy blankets, shoes, or school supplies. This year will be even harder than the last; six of the mothers have had new children born, and more children means more mouths to feed. The men gather together to make an impossible decision: expand the fields or starve. The lands just on the opposite side of the rice fields sit untouched, challenging the men to plow the land and ready it for growing rice. Buried underneath any part of the dirt could be something explosive, something that was not part of the land, something foreign that drills fear into the hearts of the farmers. To plow is to risk death, to not plow is to risk starvation.
The men decide they have no choice but to plow. Eight men head out into the dry land to prepare it for planting rice. Just behind them, one small woman follows them with a hoe in her hand. Although she is a small woman, she will help the larger and stronger men. Her husband lost his right hand, three fingers on his left hand, and his vision last year when the men had risked expansion; a risk that was not worthwhile. Now, he attempts to take care of the two children at home while his wife works with the men of the village; he is haunted by the burden his disability has placed on his wife. Each time her hoe strikes the ground and disturbs the earth she winces, knowing that each swing could end her family. Preparing the field is physically draining, but the emotional drain is so much heavier upon her soul. As she wipes the sweat from her forehead, there is a loud boom in the distance. It is the sound each of the villagers hopes they will never hear. Everyone abandons the field in an instant and runs to the sound that interrupted the chirp of the birds, interrupted the low groan of the water buffalo, interrupted the quiet of the countryside.
A young boy lays bloody on the ground, life has left his body and his mother’s tears fall onto his face, mixing with the thick blood as it seeps into the land. On the way home from school, the boys had found a small metal ball. The metal orb was thrown back and forth between the boys as they laughed and ran home. It was just a harmless piece of scrap metal until it wasn’t. A cluster bomb from the ’70s with a forty year time delay. The nine-year-old boy lays dead on the ground, mission accomplished. The mothers cry in unison, the men attempt to remain stoic and strong.
One less boy in the village, one less mouth to feed, one less patch of volatile land to expand.
Statues of Buddha sit all around us, displaying the mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism that once mixed effortlessly in Laos. Garudas and Nagas are scattered in between the statues of Ganesh, Shiva, and the many different visages of Buddha. We eat fried bananas and French-Laotian sandwiches, a cultural remnant from before Laos’ Independence. Laos is a patchwork of influence from other countries; The road we travelled on was donated by the Germans, the hydro dam in the distance was donated by the French, and the prosthetic legs of a land-mine victim was funded by American relief (although sadly that relief will end this year, but the U.S. cluster bombs that still litter the fields will not). With so much global influence and guidance in Laos, it is difficult to determine the origins of his humorous story:
“A long time ago, God asked to meet with Man, Water Buffalo, Dog, and Monkey. When man and all the animals arrived God finally spoke, “Man, to you I will give thirty years of life, so that you may explore and enjoy the world that I give to you.” Man replied, “Thank you, God. I will enjoy these years.” God then turned to Water Buffalo, “To you water buffalo, I give thirty years so that you can help man work the fields.” Water Buffalo shook his head, “Thank you, God, but I do not need thirty years, it is too much. Please, let me only have ten years of life.” God agreed but asked, “And what shall I do with the other twenty years?” Water Buffalo thought carefully but couldn’t come up with an answer. Man spoke up, “If it is alright, I shall take the twenty years that Water Buffalo doesn’t want.” And so, God gave man the extra twenty years. Then God turned to Dog, “To you I shall give 30 years as well.” Dog quickly shook his head, “I feel the same as Water Buffalo, please let me live ten years and give the other twenty to Man.” God agreed and then turned to Monkey, “And you Monkey, will you take the thirty years I give to you?” Monkey said, “No, no, no. Please, give only ten years to me and give the rest to Man.” So, God gave Monkey’s twenty years to Man. In the end, Man was given ninety long years to live. And so, for the first thirty years of life Man lives his own life, doing only what he pleases. Then, when he is 30-50 years old Man borrows Water Buffalo’s years. During that time, Man must work very hard, never complaining and always struggling to do his best. When Man is 50-70 he uses Dog’s years. During that time he follows the younger men around barking at them to work hard and growling when they don’t. Then, when Man is 70-90 he uses Monkey’s years. During this time, he hunches his back, sits around all day, and yells loudly when younger Man does not give him the food he wants.”
He finishes with a flourish and then turns to me, “Are your parent’s on Dog years or Monkey years?” I smile because I was half-expecting the question, “My parents are on Dog years, but they aren’t the barking kind of dogs. They are the kind who get really excited to see me and go play outside.” Our Laotian guide smiles without saying a word, then we pack up the rest of our lunch and head to our next stop in Vientiane. As I get in the van to continue my journey through Southeast Asia, I can’t help but think that I only have a few years of my own left; Water Buffalo’s years are coming.