18 October 2010

"Effects Yet To Be Reckoned"

I once read that the United States military troops sprayed at least 20 million gallons of Agent Orange, or toxic herbicides, in Vietnam during the war. I looked it up, and according to the U.S. Department of Veterans affairs, this deadly chemical causes a variety of cancers, heart diseases, Hodgkin’s disease, Leukemia, diabetes, neuropathy and liver dysfunction. The chemical also causes birth defects, such as Spina Bifida, in the children of veterans. The physical mutations of Agent Orange in people in Vietnam were prevalent, to say the least.

I wrote one sentence in my journal the day we visited the War Remnants Museum:

Why does history keep repeating?

In Steve Hawley’s feature “What We Leave Behind” in the Winter 2004 Issue of the Bear Deluxe Magazine, he predicts, “Amid former battlefields [in Iraq], contaminated with depleted uranium, or DU, the true costs of war have yet to be reckoned.”

Hawley’s article reveals the overwhelming amount of toxic DU in Iraq from U.S. bullets. The numbers are staggering- some 260 to 270 millirads of radiation are emitted with a single charred bullet. Hawley points out that the limit of exposure for non-radiation workers is 100 millirads per year.

He also points out research suggesting that damage done by DU often manifests itself in the next generation. Just like Agent Orange, DU is a genotoxin that alters DNA, often in the children of people who have been exposed to it.

I’ll write it one more time:

Why does history keep repeating?

13 October 2010

Quite The Show

"Show don't tell."

That's what every teacher and professor has instructed me to do with my words for as long as I can remember. Writing should paint a vivid picture with sensory statements and artfully incorporate detail.  It should establish a sense of place, so much so that the reader feel as if he or she is there.

It's often difficult to show rather than tell travel stories because they represent my individual perceptions. They are not generalizations about these places or these people; they are just my own experiences. In no way am I qualified to speak knowledgably about these cultures. I'm simply documenting the mere hours I was there.

As you read my blogging, specificially about Vietnam, I encourage you to keep in mind that these are my own experiences painted with colorful words. In order to explain the things that I saw and how I felt about them, I must write candidly.

I visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and joined a mass of other tourists to mill through it's sobering maze of artifacts, books, testimonials and photography about "The American War in Vietnam." The western world calls it "The Vietnam War." Enough said.

As I scanned war photography, an English woman came alongside of me to ask what information I'd learned about the war in American school, and I was ashamed to respond "not much." Sure "The Vietnam War" had been in my textbooks, but certainly not in the graphic detail I experienced at the museum that day. It was at that photography exhibit that the war became tangible to me, and this is what I wrote...

Images That Will Never Leave Me

A soldier doubled over magazine crates, sobbing. The photographer must have caught him taking a private moment.  

The black and white of an airplane lifting a dead American soldier from underneath. Bold and simple. While dead American soldiers were flown home, dead Vietnamese soldiers were left to die in the ruins.

An American soldier crouching in the grass to hold the bloody remains of a Vietnamese civilian. His face is ragged and torn. I have no words.

05 October 2010

Worthwhile Wake-Up Call

I woke up early and sleepily trudged to the bus that would be taking me to one of the most authentic forms of entertainment in Vietnam, or so everyone said. I was skeptical. In my pre-coffee haze I started to question why an early morning water puppet show had sounded like such a good idea.

Maybe I was intrigued by the ambiguity involved with Vietnamese water puppetry. It takes two to three years of training in school to learn the secrets of crafting the bamboo puppets. Historically, some shows were performed in villages in secret so that overruling governments couldn’t copyright them.

Our bus arrived and we assembled into a small outdoor amphitheater with a pond-sized pool where you’d expect a stage to be. From seemingly out of nowhere, a cast of bamboo characters appeared on the water. They erupted into an intricately choreographed routine.

I finally awakened from my slumber after the first splash of water on my face. The energetic, multicolored puppets held my captive attention for the rest of the show.

The puppeteers came out from behind the back curtain at the end of the show to reveal a bit of the mystery. During the performance, they wade in the pond and operate the puppets from underneath the surface of the water.

It’s clear they’ve put a great deal of practice into the routine, and their beaming faces suggest the amount of pride they take in their performance.

Water puppets are integral to Vietnamese culture; they represent a commitment to detailed craftsmanship, and emphasize the significance of education. The puppets have been used in the rice and rain ceremonies. They even suggest a certain gender division of labor. Our speaker tells us that women were not allowed to know the secrets of the puppets until 1956. He says, “Since then, the shows have become more gentle and beautiful.”

The puppet show is one I recommend to anyone traveling in Vietnam. It’s bright, entertaining and bound to make you smile. It’s worth waking up for.