Thursday, January 8, 2009

American Jungles

Dear Marf,

I just bought 450 milliliters of beer for 63 cents plus a serious shot of local rice vodka for the same. Eyeballing it, I’m guessing 450 milliliters is around sixteen ounces. I don’t really know. I just know this vodka would take rust off your tricycle. Shannon’s reading The Grapes of Wrath and I’m taking a break from Denis Johnson’s new one, Tree of Smoke. The book is 800-some-odd pages and will branch into, I’m guessing, a deranged autopsy of the American war in Vietnam filtered through the lenses of characters’ Bible Belt-assuredness, bureaucratic indecencies, and substance abuse-induced trauma. Parallels to the globe-arching lens on our current military cash-suck clusterfuck seem inevitable. It seemed an appropriate read.

It’s doubly appropriate because I’ll need something to do on the roughly 48 hours of bus ride we begin tomorrow. My 31st birthday will be spent on the road, with a bed in Saigon the hyphen between the two halves of the journey back to Siem Reap. At some point in the future – probably at many points in the future – I intend on raising a finger into a conversation and proclaiming, with a blur of booze at the edges of my tongue, “When I had my birthday in Saigon…” It’ll be awesome. Most any sentence that begins, “When I…,” and ends with “Saigon” is bound to carry some weight. Different kinds of weight depending, yes, but...

We’ve taken to renting motor bikes and driving all over Hell and Gone. At times I feel great and at other times like the H.S. Thompson-adolescence inside is grappling for the handlebars, still others like I’d better clench those brakes tight because we’re so high we’re looking down at clouds and there ain’t any guardrail between this loose-gravel asphalt and the edge where Air meets Cloud over Nothing. This is all an interesting test of will against impulse. Not to get too symbolic, but…

One of those moto rides was up and over the mountains north of a town called Sapa, the mountains that separate it from another town called Lai Chau, an ugly place surrounded by sublime (Lonely Planet’s word but still the best one) countryside that butts up against the Chinese border at Yunan. Sapa is the tourist hub of the area and the saving grace of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. There are fifteen Hill Tribes and they are the poorest of the poor. They could compete with Cambodia’s poor. They age young, make lots of babies, die young. Aside from rice and opium farming, they’ve got no lifeline but that coming from the pockets of Sapa tourists, that money used to buy the brilliant and surprising textiles the tribes’ women sew, the explosions of gaudy color sold for pennies. Most prominent among the tribes are the H’moung - -

I have to take an aside here to say that the man bringing us our drinks is rocking the solo ‘stach and has the most beautiful smile, and I wonder at the sources people call upon to keep not just smiling but actually open to humanity, regardless of Life’s firepower leveled against them, and at the exquisite power of beaming that to the world like they are radio towers of nothing but Summertime Singles, kind enough and full of promise enough to be intimidating and inspiring.

-- The H’moung and the mountains. Okay. So we took the motor bike off the beaten track outside of Sapa, fled the mini busses and tour groups and ended up descending the mountain into pyramidal terraces of rice paddies, around and around, and ultimately trekking by foot along a narrow path, followed at the heels by two H’moung girls. Ma is eleven and Tsu is fifteen, and soon we were long, long gone from the Actual Path, wandering through bamboo forests that wash everything green, over waterfalls, up the sides of more mountains where we gave clementine oranges to a band of five snot-nosed kids (all the hill tribe kids were snot-nosed, sick) the youngest two and the oldest not beyond five, no adults even in echoing distance. We broke out of the jungles onto the crest of another mountain and half-a-dozen villages were spread up and down the elevations of the land beneath us, spread so far beneath us that people could not even dream of being specks, and then the endless rice terraces, the endless rows of indigo plants tracing the terraces, clouds cascading down the slope, then blown gone, and it was all so beautiful – too beautiful – and so I have to note My American Studies Friend, my friend who sees the world’s cogs and wheels as I do, that I looked off to my left, up away from those terraces testifying to Man and Woman’s place in the land, and I saw as clear as day in my Mind’s Eye all of it erupt in fire, tilted my head back to the sun and watched jet fighters scream overhead, played in my brain Jesus-man Willem Defoe and Dana Delaney, Mathew Modine grinning like a cat and that dude from Wings scalped on Hamburger Hill, whomever wants to be there, clasping hands, all Outcast Niggers ‘cause it’s real man! and you don’t know! and they’ll never feel lit like you do back home…etc.

It is, I guess, real that the gap between jungle predator and the folks by the living room TV must have been the whole Pacific Ocean. But I only know that from what has been presented for me to devour on the big screen and the tube. Ron Kovic himself couldn’t compete except for the fact that Tom Cruise played him. Tim O’Brien has stuck it out but I don’t see over the jungle the things he details on his pages. There I was, in the actual jungles of NVA territory, and though I myself could process the beauty of the land spread around me, I could not escape the mythical place Vietnam occupies in the American rearview mirror when it came to intellect, emotion, the way my own boots fit against the dirt and stones.

The thing that doubles the weight is that the Vietnamese obviously see me through a similar lens. No, maybe it’s that they see me through the same instrument of devastation, but the lenses we each use are irrevocably incompatible, mine shaped by artists’ interpretations of a world only a director or a creative consultant knew, the Vietnamese lens shaped by real life. And then what of the lenses of those middle-aged American men who sit off by themselves while their wives bargain at the market with H’moung women, who wait for their turn further south, touring the DMZ? The weights brought to bear on an American sentence ending with the word Saigon are spread so wide across our culture. They are many varied weights and are not all equal, yet they all feel like burdens. It’s…is it a shame? Can a person say something that broad and have it mean anything? I know it must sound na├»ve and useless to say, but the unpassable chasms between one people and the next make me very sorry and, when high above the clouds looking down on Man and Earth, very sad. Adulthood is accepting the lost possibilities in the world. Righteousness is finding new ones.

Much love to you and V. Miss you.



Joe Basile said...

Happy Belated Birthday Jason. Your stories and trip sound amazing. Keep them coming...

Your old pal,

Joe Basile

Anna said...

"Adulthood is accepting the lost possibilities in the world."