“Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last–only at the very last. But the wilderness found him out early, and had taken vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude–and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Life has changed. Life has changed dramatically.
I started my time in Vietnam by commenting that life here could never be normal. However, experience soon gives the lie to expectation and, eventually, everything becomes normal. A climate that never drops below 30c simply becomes the everyday. The sweat, the noise, the traffic simply get absorbed by the mundane. By wondering when the electricity bill is due. By wondering if that rattle on the motorbike is just something coming loose, or something more serious. It’s like they say, no matter where you go, you take yourself with you.
There’s nothing wrong in that. Expecting anything otherwise would be wrong, self deluding too. No, life, in all its banality, will always take precedence.
On the one hand, that’s fine. Like I said, it’s as it should be. However, I have this worrying streak; one that’s still searching for extremes and, in that, working for the newspaper has found a home. Occasionally I wonder how much of this is me and how much is having previously lost, (and mostly regained) my sight. Certainly, the three years I lost after the accident still grate. However – if I’m really honest – the kamikaze has always run pretty strong within me.
I’ll give you a for instance, I had an itch to write a story on the My Lai Massacre. The idea was pretty grand. Somehow, interviewing and recording the victims would in some way prove historically significant.
More than that – and this is a little cynical – I was sure this would be part of the living history of the 20th Century I’d be recording. I wanted to reach out and touch that, even if it meant laying my hands on the scars.
My Lai, (it’s actually called Son My Village) is around five hundred miles from Saigon, meaning a flight to Danang, where I could hire a motorbike to get me to Hoi An, where I could get a hotel, and from there to Son My Village, (about one hundred and thirty five miles). This being Vietnam, my plan to get a decent motorbike for the trip consisted of arranging to meet Some Guy in A Bar, (capitals intended). With grinding predictability, the guy appeared, but the motorbike didn’t. I ended up making the trip on an ancient Honda Wave.
I’m not going to go into any detail on Son My, or interviewing the survivors. Not because those things are somehow sacred or too precious. They’re not. They’re just really big and anything like that is going to overshadow anything else I put in here. I’ll simply say that I left there numb.
Anyone who’s read this blog knows I have one eye and that one eye sports a contact lens the size of a fruit bowl. I’ll just throw that in here for the newbies. In any event, the Vietnam heat dries it out, which, as you’d imagine, is quite painful. That process is
obviously amplified on a motorbike, but I can usually get round it by wearing sunglasses, or pulling my visor down. Leaving Son My, it was sundown and I was wearing someone else’s helmet. One without a visor.
I could never have prepared myself for how dark the highway was at night. There is simply nothing. Fields and rice paddies cast no light and that is all there is for what seems like an eternity. The headlights of cars, trucks and buses can be seen for miles, before barreling up to you on full beam, scorching a hole right through to the back of your skull. You ride in a perfect cocoon of black, its only interruption being the dim yellow pool cast by the Wave’s headlight about two metres in front of the bike. The pain was pretty intense when riding, worse when I stopped. Every mile or so, a farmer or a young couple would suddenly come screaming into view, either stopped on the highway, walking or cycling; all without lights.
I got back without injury and, while I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, there it is. It’s never going to go away.
This isn’t going to be an inventory of the stories I’ve covered, even I’d be bored by that. Rather, I’m trying to pick selected highlights to give you an idea of where I’m going with this. Here’s one, I was on a beach in Quang Tri province, again, in the centre of Vietnam. It was incredibly hot. The kind of heat that causes the sand on the beach we were stood on to burn your skin. Anyway, there I was, staring at a rusted piece of American Ordinance, while the bomb expert was explaining its blast capability, (one hundred and fifty metres)
and how, due to its age, how incredibly unstable it was. I took pictures.
The list goes on. I interviewed kids born with the effects of Agent Orange, their arms and legs little more than stumps, or their heads formed without eye sockets. I spent time with the street kids trying to escape lives of theft and prostitution, or women who can’t get their kids into school because they were born HIV Positive. Last week I was in the Mekong Delta. There, I interviewed a family living in one of those bamboo houses the tourists
are fond of taking pictures of. There were three generations in there, doing what they could without running water or electricity. The house was pretty much on an island, its only connection to land being the logs supported over filthy snake infested water by bamboo forks. Poverty on that level always comes like a punch to the gut. You expect it to. What you don’t expect is the smell.
Straight after this, I traveled back to Saigon, washed, slept a bit, then put on a clean shirt and went in to teach. The mosquito bites were still fresh.
I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m somehow traumatized by any of this, I’m not. Obviously, you shield yourself from it at the time, but the true nature of what you’ve seen tends to work its way in over the following few days and that’s never nice. However, the reality is that I find myself getting increasingly hooked on it. There is something about seeking the extremes in others people’s lives that casts a reflection, not upon your life, but upon you. That’s not always a pleasant experience, but it’s never boring. However, to claim any kind of lofty philosophical motive, (though it’s definitely present) is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worse. It’s actually a lot simpler. It’s exciting. If you think there’s something dark in that, you’re probably right, and my enthusiasm for it scares me. But these are newspaper stories. Stories we all read so, in that, I suppose, it’s a darkness shared.
… and it’s not wondering when the electricity bill is due.