What's done is done, what remains is to be seen

Guest Post and Photos by: Cory Potts and Margo Vansynghel

Originally appeared on Cory's blog: http://123velo.tumblr.com/

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Now it has been one week since we finished traveling around SE Asia with the intrepid Sarah and Eric. Since I’ve been back, people want to know, where did you go? What did you do?

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I answer, I was in SE Asia, I did Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. In French, “J’étais en Indochine, j’ai fait Thailande, Laos et Camboge”. With every answer, I’m talking and wincing. I hate saying I “did” these countries. “I did them” is diminutive and patriarchal. Tourists “do” countries the same way Empires did colonialism, with an eye out for opportunity and nostalgia for the snug comforts of being a relative king in a poor land.

To compensate, I’ve tried to complement talking about what I did by saying some about what was done to these countries. I say how in the 70s, Thailand seemed less affected by the swirl of secret and civil wars that drew in, then tore apart, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Laos saw its Eastern and Southern borders bombed to smithereens by American planes. Cambodia lost a civil war to itself and with the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians looking on, suffered three years of incoherent semi-communist rule.

Really, keeping your eyes open in this part of the world is to see signs of past conflict everywhere manifest. There are craters in sites preserved for their archaeological value, bullet holes in rebuilt temples laid low by invaders (both Chinese bandits in the 14th century and American bombers in the 20th), fire pits, tables, cooking stoves, house supports and decorations made from the remnants of fallen bombs, genocide museums, killing fields, warnings about land mines and warnings about unexploded ordinances, denuded hills, stories about parents who were lost. The happiness and seeming integrity of Thailand’s people and infrastructure even testifies to these conflicts. Smiles and miles of well maintained roads and train tracks are sharply different than the jutted roads and brusque manner of Laoatians and Cambodians.

Then there are the youngsters, young people, who make up the majority of the population found on sidewalks, in cities or across a country. Young people, especially babies, are everywhere on the streets, out front of village markets, running dirty across mountain roads, selling trinkets and books in front of temples. These countries are young. Their ancestors were transformed, either taken by war or made prematurely old because of it. The young everywhere remind us that only one generation separates these lands from a devastating conflict that ravaged them, displaced millions, and transformed its people.

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It is hard to come to grips with what such an explosive, deadly, blind and detached violence must feel like or look like. There were moments: being followed by a stray dog, riding in a tuk-tuk and feeling the woosh up a highway semi-truck as it passes you, eating a piece of unknown meat or landing a plane during a monsoon. But it’s nothing, nothing, like what a bomb can do, or a child soldier with a rifle, or a plane with bombs. We never came close to meeting our own fates on this trip, no matter what we were doing.

But I did ask myself constantly, “What if?” What if the the dog lunges? What if the semi-truck swerves? What if the meat has sat too long out in the sun? What if I had been born in this country, what if I had lived through a war?

I asked What if? But the question everyone we met wanted an answer to was how long? How long had we been in a particular city? How long were we staying in a country? For the women, how long were their skirts or pants? How long were their sleeves?

These questions were just below the surface of everything we saw. Not so long ago, ‘how long’ was the crucial question. How long would the conflict last? For better or worse, how long would the Americans stay or how long would they keep bombing? How long will this last ration of rice last? We asked them too, because so much of a trip depends on them. How long would we stay in this or that hotel? How long of a ride is it between two towns? We celebrated Sarah and Eric’s anniversary: how long had they been married? And the question everyone around them wants to know: how long will they travel for?

But judging time on a vacation has a funny effect. Time is circular. Like in the way we “go” on vacation putting our regular life on pause, coming back to find that nothing has changed. Time is particularly hard to judge in SE Asia. Questions have a way of looping back on themselves.

Q: What’s that temple over there?

A: What? It’s not a temple, it’s a wat.

Q: Who’s wat?

A: First it was Hindu, then Buddhist, then Hindu, then Buddhist again. Now it’s a ruin.

Q: Who ruined it?

A: Time, and the war.

Q: The war did this?

A: No, the war reduced it to rubble. Architects reconstructed the ruin, they made it look like a ruin.

Q: So now it is?

A: A tourist attraction, but still the center of town, where vendors set up their stalls, the heart pumping life back into demolished regions.

Time kept playing tricks on us like this. Like riding up behind a girl on a motor scooter, and us saying, “Let’s ask her for directions,” and pulling up beside the girl and discovering, from the lines on her face, that she must be sixty, that she must have seen the war. Even the young can look old, seeming new but built nonetheless assembled out of rubble, their ancientness and their youth hard to tell apart.

A metaphor for what we were seeing was the river. The rivers in SE Asia have shaped the people and the land more than the war. They carve out valleys in the mountains, they feed the rice patties, they flood and flow backwards, causing lakes to grow five times their normal size. We never saw the coast on our trip, we stayed near rivers. Talking to river people, you need to be careful when they ask you how long. In comparison, we measured time in terms of the month we were traveling, in terms of the hundreds of kilometers we covered. For river people, length is judged by knowledge of a river’s seeming endless snaking, its endless movement, its inexhaustible fund for renewal.

I remember seeing the Mekong for the first time, when I walked down two long sets of concrete steps early on a hot morning in Chang Khong, coming to the river’s edge seeing Laos across the light brown muddy water, thinking in the heat that the river looked like baked earth, knowing from its current that I would be swept away if I tried to reach its opposite bank.

For the next two days, we floated down the river on an over-sized canoe, long and narrow but fitted out with benches and a V-8 motor. On the river, I kept thinking about the fish I couldn’t see, watching fishermen in smaller canoes ply the waters to cast nets. I thought, How do fish survive in the constant flush? How do they sleep? And, to which country do the fish belong? If they are caught by a Thai or by a Laotian? 

This river carried the dead away from countries touched by the conflicts. A body dumped into it in N Laos could float through Cambodia and Vietnam, ending up in the S China Sea. The victims were carried away, just like their aggressors, carried away by a constant flow of armaments and power, each thinking that it was something new that was happening in a part of the world where the new and old flow into each other. Hindu to Buddhist, peace to war, rainy to dry, Belgium to Indochine.

It’s been hard to pin down what the trip did to me. I imagine Sarah and Eric will have an even harder time untangling what has changed them, whether it was a particular place or encounter or whether it has been their journey as a whole. But I know that this has changed: I am seeing people differently since I have come back. I see people and I wonder more what they are hiding and what they are letting me see. And I’m more willing to accept that I am not destined to shape the world. I have a new patience for trying to puzzle out what shapes me.