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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Mekong River Reverie

Usually, when I think of the Mekong River, I don't imagine roosters, strutting along the river promenade in Luang Prabang. No, I think of the Vietnam War – of the images I saw on TV growing up: a river rife with destruction and brutality, fear, dread. Of course it wasn’t the river per se, it was the Mekong delta. But such distinctions mean nothing to a child.

When I think of the Mekong River, I think of my father too, and of the summer of ’66: my brother had just graduated high school, and itching to get out from under our father’s control, he wanted to join the Marines. He wasn’t yet 18 and needed my father’s signature, which was not, at first, forthcoming. My father and brother argued, yelled. My mother wrung her hands together; her face etched with tears, my father’s with grim worry. My father, a WWII vet, saw the futility of the Vietnam War, disagreed with our government's reasons for being there and wanted his son to go to college, not to war. But my father did sign the papers; my brother joined not the Marines, but the Navy and went into the sub-service, stationed on the East Coast, out of Norfolk, Virginia. My parents exhaled a collective sigh of relief – their son was not off to Vietnam. All I understood was that my brother was not in Vietnam, but underneath the Atlantic in nuclear subs –whatever the heck those were.

But the image of the Mekong as a nightmarish hell (furthered amplified years later of course by the movie, Apocalypse Now) stuck with me, until two years ago, when I first beheld the river with my own eyes. I was traveling in the Golden Triangle region, where the Mekong River connects three countries and not so long ago, fostered a thriving drug trade. But the river I saw was not the river of American TV and movies; it was a broad, peaceful, beautiful river. Of course I hadn’t expected to see Willard on a makeshift PT boat, nor guns, nor furtive VC; nonetheless those were the images stuck in my head.

On this recent trip, I ate breakfast alongside the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, watching longboats with tourists, barges with equipment, and smaller skiffs with local fishermen make their way up and down the river, which ran brown and fast and full (as it is wont to do in the rainy season) . One evening we dined alongside the river and watched the lightning beyond the mountains on the west bank of the Mekong. The lightning was vivid, and yet so far away, we never heard the thunder. Like my childhood memories – I can still see those images, but the sound of their fury no longer shakes me.

Like any river, ithe Mekong shapes the lives of those who live alongside it. The Mekong brings fresh silt and water for agriculture – and floods and pestilence. The villagers and townspeople that live along its banks draw fish from its depths to serve for dinner. Boys play in it; teenagers steal furtive kisses from each other in the lush growth along its banks. It is a major road for commerce. And a major source of political and national wrangling as the countries through which the Mekong flows wrestle with
one another over damming and the blasting of

But the river itsel
f is unconcerned by the needs and desires of countries, of people, and pays no heed to the metaphors we create about it, the stories we tell about it. It begins its journey in the highland of Tibet, and runs 2,600 miles long, from those Tibetan highlands, through China, along the Myanmar-Laos border, along the Laos-Thailand border, into Cambodia and Vietnam, rolling toward the South China Sea and creating a vast delta region in Cambodia and Vietnam. I wonder how that delta compares

with the delta in California, where my brother's
family plays in the summer: boating, skiing, fishing.


Blogger Jack K. said...

Thank you for the wonderful description of an ancient, majestic waterway that serves so many.

I don't remember the place in the delta I visited for one day on one of my Viet Nam tours.

It's good to know that your brother survived his military service and is living with his family on the California delta.

August 26, 2006 2:03 PM  
Blogger CROAK said...

Wonderful words of memories and personal journey woven into your recent experiences.

The river looks healthy and swollen. No drought there!

BTW I thought chickens came from SE Asia originally so always picture them there.

August 26, 2006 7:09 PM  
Blogger ThursdayNext said...

Thank you for this post, sweet bird. I am teaching "The Things They Carried" once again this year, and the Mekong is mentioned.

I am glad your brother never went to Vietnam. I am not glad that my friend is still in Iraq. There is no calm river here in my heart...maybe one day the lands of Iraq will be as peaceful and calm and history will not be forgotten but also not be the first thoughts of such a place.

August 27, 2006 5:32 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

jack: yeah, altho the sub-service wasn't all that safe either, my brother is alive and well(and often drives me crazy - hahaha - but that's ok!). some of his high school buddies went to Vietnam and didn't come home...Glad you did.

croak: now i have something else to google!
yup - no drought there - but the river can wreak havoc - as can the Republic of China with their dam.

thursdaynext:i love that book...

a friend/colleague of mine teaches tttc as well - in case you'd like to have a cross-country discusion with her, here's her blog address - just post a comment.


i'd be interested in your lesson plan - have been thinking about teaching this text too.

August 27, 2006 7:36 PM  
Blogger Bird said...


sigh. i am sorry to hear you have a friend in iraq.

i will light a candle. i have far too many candles now burning on my balcony for folks in iraq.

August 27, 2006 7:46 PM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Enjoyed this memoir, reverie, rummnination. Travel does us good doan it? Heps us mature in unexpected ways. Never did wanna go to this areas of the world, but yore Laos/Thai descriptions pique my interest. Thanky.

(For the sake of rhetoric I'se put ya' in a veil today on the Back Porch....grin)

August 28, 2006 1:18 PM  
Blogger ThursdayNext said...

Dear Birdie,
Thank you. That means so much to me. Sometimes I feel like I am living in the summer of 1968, except so few around me understand what is really happening over there. Thank you for lighting the candle.
With appreciation,

August 28, 2006 6:59 PM  
Blogger K9 said...

/bark bark bark

boyed, what a trip! i too invision cap'n willard and some kids snaking up the mekong until the reach the bridge of purple haze. theres a line there i sue sometimes when lance, the surfer kid says "i'll go! I wann go"....its used anytime something has to be done thats a pain or edgy in anyway....

but now it is as you say, a lifeline to a people. swollen red from red clay like here in the south???

the rooster! one of less then 20 animals in all of the creatures who were domesticated. the jungle fowl!

i would love to go to a place that is as far from my culture as i can get. i figured that would be india but now maybe SEasia is the ticket.

thanks for these post bird.

(btw i had made lady wordsmiths birthday card way back during the mayden art series so i WAS NOT throwing time all over somebody else during this final crunch...i only uploaded it yesterday. boyedies first from now on)


August 29, 2006 6:41 AM  
Blogger Bird said...

TN: maybe 30 years from now amercans will be tourists in iraq, the way we are in laos and vietnam - and maybe we'll be just as welcome in iraq.

DAWG! If i had a tail, i'd wag it - instead, i'll sing. so nice to see you here and read your words.

i don't think the color is like the red clay from the south - it's more a brown really - the rainy season really stirs that river up - lots of mud.

as for travel (to both K9 and AB) - my travels to asia are really by happenstance -first china because of my in-laws, and of late thailand because friends live there. i don't seem to really travel by design - more by opportunity. i would love to see europe someday, and africa. and the midlle east, though i suspect i'll get to europe and africa long before the mid east - i wonder if it will ever be peaceful enough for me to step foot there.

August 29, 2006 8:32 PM  
Blogger boneman said...

further north are the black beaches, which I did not get t'set foot on.

However, even further toward the dmz, a city called Quang Tri, also with a river....but far away from the ocean, and so, a bit gentler.
East from there is Khe Sahn, and while I was there, it was a forever busy center of helicopter and C-130 traffic, along with occassional Broncos which the Air Force used as spotter planes.

Then, along a river going north east again, almost all the way to the border, lies Lang Vei, and that flight was the most beautiful I had ever experienced there or anywhere.

The river meanders quite a bit, and is spotted with domes that reach way up into the sky,...ancient domes, covered with lush green plants, teeming with birds of every color and every spieces ...
OK, I'm exagerating some, but, golly....It was some thirty five years ago.

If it hadn't been for the war, it would have been a very beautiful country...

From high ground looking west, I would get the idea that I could see fer hundreds of miles....maybe even thousands.

However, did NOT like the smell of napalm.
(kind'a liked the smell of JP-4, though. Fuel fer the helicopters)

August 31, 2006 3:45 PM  

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