Wayward Sheep

Much has been made recently of a book by William Deresiewicz entitled Excellent Sheep. By most accounts, it is a scathing review of the highest echelons of  the American university system.  His main point is simple, we’ve created a system where entry to the top levels of society is predicated upon high achieving hyper-conformity.

Mountains of eerily similar student profiles litter the desks of admissions agents. Perfect grades, high SAT scores, and a carefully cultivated list of extracurricular activities are stacked in homogenous piles, waiting for a harried admissions agent to pick out the proverbial “needle in the haystack.”

How do so many high achievers end up looking exactly the same on paper? In an age where “individualism” is disingenuously held up as a self-evident virtue (the 40 other people at the train stop staring at their (I)phones are unique little snowflakes, doing exactly the same thing), how are we producing so many uniformly similar students?

I’ve spoken in earlier posts about the danger of narrow thinking. To pull some of society’s highest achievers into a conformity trap at a young age is condemning them to a life with a golden ceiling.

It prevents many of our best and brightest from ever trying their top gears, and we wonder why we have such high levels of depression in our high achievers. Life is great for a natural test taker so long as there is a test put on the desk. When the scantron becomes a blue book though, well that changes things.

Deresiewicz’s moniker of sheep seems harsh, but his point is that our high achievers have become excellent at doing what they’re told.

What are the long term ramifications for a society that promises security and wealth to those who show the most unwavering adherence to the script? Is our current political structure symptomatic of this thinking, so far as we’ve made no haven for truly dynamic leaders, only those who stick rigidly to the party line?

What happens to a society when our leaders are merely managers instead of visionaries? Like the multitude of blinkered horses dragging carts here in Thies, so many people are blinded to the wider world by the next task at hand. It is impossible to build an integrated sense of self if you are constantly waiting for an external force to reveal your next task.

It isn’t those tasks that reveal character, it is the introspection that occurs during and after. 2500 years ago, Socrates revealed that existential truth that “an unexamined life is not worth living” and it rings no less true today.

Unfortunately, the linear obstacle course only requires eyes on the horizon. The hyperlogical approach would say that there is nothing to be gained by looking around.

As I near the end of my trip, I find myself thinking more and more about my “place” in the world upon returning. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my development as a person has accelerated beyond my wildest dreams. I can feel it instinctively, and I can see it, plain as day through my writing.

Taking the blinkers off will do that.

Yet, there is an element of fear creeping in as my return gets closer and closer. That nagging doubt that says, “All this was fine as long as you kept running, but the downside is coming.”

It takes a certain amount of confidence to take off and start an adventure, but that can be faked if you start at a bit of a run. Ending an adventure requires a confidence that can’t be faked.

In every cell of my body, I know that this was the right decision. But now, I’ve got to return to the “real world” where the sum of a person is distilled to a resume and a cover letter. Excellent sheep make for excellent resumes.

I guess I’ll just have to see what wayward sheep make.

Hopefully not dog food.

The 4th in Foreign Lands

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus

Happy Birthday America!

238 years old. Quite a respectable age.

You’ve managed to stay intact through a Civil War which nearly ripped you in half.

You fought on behalf of liberty in two World Wars which enveloped you from across the globe, and even in victory, you magnanimously invited the vanquished back into the global community with open arms.

You’ve welcomed, albeit occasionally with gritted teeth, the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” of immigrants unwanted in their native lands and assimilated them into a society which has grown to be the richest in the world.

You faced down the threat of nuclear annihilation and the dehumanizing spectre of Communism largely with soft power instead of the destruction that total war brings.

For nearly two and a half centuries, you’ve held true to those most sacrosanct of ideals espoused by your Founding Fathers, “who brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and in doing so have been a source of hope for freedom loving people everywhere.

This isn’t to say that you’ve been blameless. No institution, no matter how grand its codified ideals can stay blameless forever. The stain of slavery, the dehumanization of those we found on this continent prior to European discovery, and the wars of choice fought over the past 60 years have fallen short of your commitment to those high minded ideals in favor of “realpolitik.”

***********

I should quit saying “you.” This isn’t a professional sports team I’ll never play for, this is America. This is the institution which has from my first breath, blessed me with the freedom, safety and mobility to be whomever I choose to be.

I cannot pick those attributes of America with which I agree a la carte, leaving the less desirable remainders for others to choke down. I cannot look at my neighbor and say, “Oh no, this is YOUR President. I didn’t vote for him.”

Men and women who came before me gave their blood, sweat, tears and lives to vouchsafe my ability to make this MY America, one where each voice, no matter its wealth, social status, or color of skin has an equal part to play in maintaining the greatest engine of human freedom and prosperity that the world has ever seen.

But today, another 4th of July abroad, I find myself tired.

I am tired of trying to explaining away the past 14 years of leadership so comically unenlightened that our political system has devolved into a shouting match incapable of legislating.

I’m tired of trying to explain to the Europeans, Vietnamese and everyone else who doesn’t share my passport cover that the policies of my government do not reflect Americans as individuals.

I’m tired of seeing my government encroaching further and further into the lives of its citizenry, of spying on even our allies, and systematically limiting the rights of the individual.

I’m tired of being called “brainwashed” because I believe in the fundamental American right to bear arms, even as another mass shooting occurs.

I’m tired of seeing my fellow Americans try to pass themselves off as Canadians to attempt to shirk a history that while imperfect, is still as proud or prouder than any nation the world has ever seen.

For all the chest beating talk of “American Exceptionalism” I hear at home, I am tired of being in a room of foreigners and seen as the idiot because I am not “properly embarrassed” of my homeland.

I am an American, and God help me if even for a fleeting moment that I deny that enviable truth.

I stand here today embracing the fact that the problems of the nation which has given me so much are inseparable from my own.

************

I look to the members of the so called “Greatest Generation,” who sacrificed lives by the millions against a tyrannical force as twisted and corrupt as any seen in the course of human history, for guidance.

They fought with a single mind against an enemy armed with weapons engineered to make the slaughter of innocents magnitudes more efficient than ever before. They had the same right to vote that I do.

They did not shirk from their duty, or try to hide behind their broken political system. They stood and took the mantle of liberty upon their own shoulders and said, “Liberty will prevail, and America will ensure it.”

What happened to that America?

Why is my generation different from that of my grandparents? Has our democratic right to vote been taken away? Has our voice been silenced by statute or dictat? Do we find men with guns at our doors waiting to silence opposition?

No. The answer is much more humiliating.

We’ve merely disengaged. We’ve taken the spoils that our forebears won for us and squandered our inheritance on iPhones and TVs. On houses that would’ve made even the richest in generations past blush with the embarrassment.

We’ve taken “conspicuous consumption,” once a behavior to be avoided at all costs, and made it into a virtue.

We excoriate politicians for the slightest misspoken word, while giving our hours and eyeballs to such enlightened television as “Teen Mom,” “Honey Boo-Boo,” and the brand Kardashian.

We’ve taken capitalism, an engine of growth designed to reward the hardest working and most creative among us, and corrupted it into a rigged game of three card monte through cronyism and financialization.

Americans have inherited a system which requires constant maintenance, and we’ve left it on autopilot. The adverse results were completely predictable.

Our education system, once envied as the best in the world, now languishes along side such countries as Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, and Russian.

Our middle class has been systematically gutted, our rural communities left to wither on the vine both economically and socially, and our political class has partitioned themselves away from the people whom they are elected to represent, happy to bicker from their DC perches rather than associate with the lower classes in anything more meaningful than a photo-op.

The America that we live in and the freedoms we enjoy are not ours by divine right. It is, and will continue to be an ever evolving experiment, the results of which are determined daily by the diligent effort of those citizens who continue to maintain it through their individual efforts.

It is the sacred duty of each of us to ensure that that inheritance is worth receiving.

America I haven’t given up on you. Your struggles have galvanized my belief in that responsibility George Washington entrusted to Americans 227 years ago.

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair

Generations of great men and women have both raised and maintained that standard, handing it to their sons and daughters in turn. It is the hallowed responsibility of mine to repair it to its former glory.

Happy Birthday America.

We’ve got work to do tomorrow.

Blood, Organ Snatchers and Caves

Sometimes while traveling, real life seems to sneak away. Outstanding one of a kind circumstances keep popping up, and every day is a new adventure waiting to be conquered. Everything might not be easy, but nothing goes far enough astray that it can’t be easily fixed.

Mopeds and mountains

Mopeds and mountains

Then you have weeks like this.

After leaving Siem Riep and Angkor Wat, (which I promise to go back and write about) I headed up on another shady 12 hour bus ride to Don Det, Laos.

Don Det is in the 4000 Island archipelego in the middle of the Mekong River straddling the Laos/Cambodia border. This was a border that I literally forded across through the river.
This puts it approximately in the middle of nowhere.

Chalk talk session on the bus/boat/river crossing to Don Det

Chalk talk session on the bus/boat/river crossing to Don Det

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Chilling with the local kids

Chilling with the local kids

I booked a room in Don Det prior to getting there, only to realize that the hotel was a 3 mile walk from the point that the boat dropped us off on the island. I quickly decided that opposed to walking that far with a loaded pack after a 12 hour journey, that it was time to duck into one of the many guest houses that lined the rutted dirt path through town.

The real power behind Mr. Mo's

The real power behind Mr. Mo’s

I settled on Mr. Mo’s Guesthouse, which was nestled against the river with a Spartan but clean restaurant that looked out over the water. On the 12 hour journey there, I met a German couple traveling with their two kids, Vido and Caroline. The kids were 3 and 6 and I was absolutely in awe of the bravery that it takes to do this kind of travel with little kids for 7 months. The father had a hernia pop out while in Manila, so the family was all helping him pick up the slack to transport their luggage through SE Asia.

I laughed to myself about the impossibility of meeting an American family traveling in the same manner. These kids will be better for their parents’ bravery without a doubt.

In Don Det, I ran into some semi familiar faces including my German friend Marius, and a pair of Canadian cousins I had met on the river in Kampot. A few days later, I made the acquaintance of Luke and Wendy, a British guy and Australian girl who had been traveling for several months as well.
While in Don Det, I took in the sights, including fishing on the Mekong, using a spark plug as a sinker, and a 9 hour kayak trip to see some of the last remaining freshwater dolphins in the world, and the SE Asian Niagara.

Fishing with Marius.

Fishing with Marius.

Throughout my travels, I keep running back into the Mekong, which is basically the Mississippi or Nile of this part of the world, acting as the watershed for countless acres throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is a massive river which allows the people here to live lives largely unchanged for generations.

Leaving Don Det, I picked up some bus tickets with Luke and Wendy to go see the Kong Lor Cave. A 12 hour bus ride to a place called Thaket, which can barely be called a town, allowed us to get mopeds for the 4 hour drive up to the caves. Finally had my first moped accident over here, going through some of the most treacherous roads I’ve ever seen. A graphically busted knee, bumped helmet and some road rash on my shoulder and hands were all that I came out with. Very lucky all things considered, as all 3 of us laid our mopeds down on the mountain right after a permanent sign that only said “Accident Ahead” in English. Guess we should’ve taken more heed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We stayed at a guesthouse in the valley for $3 a night and we were one of about 10 foreigners in the whole valley, which only got electricity 3 years ago. Surreal experience.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One more little note about Thaket and the valley. We heard that there was a band of Burmese organ snatchers on the loose in the area. The police and military were setting up random checkpoints to find them. At first I thought this sounded like a backpacker rumor gone wild, but it turns out that there really was a band trying to procure organs to sell to Chinese customers. Absolutely terrifying horror movie stuff, but in the spirit of traveling, we just laughed and said, “well I hope they take the left kidney, I’m rather partial to the right.”

Our moped rental owner actually knew the girl who was attacked a few nights before. Never a dull moment on the road in SE Asia.

I can’t be happier that we did it though. It was truly one of the more beautiful places I’ve been on this trip. It was basically the karst islands of Halong Bay formed into mountains. The cave itself was a 5 mile long cavern which was voluminous enough to stack the church I grew up in several times. Just absolutely breathtaking, Lord of the Rings stuff.

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

After we left Kong Lor, we headed to Vientienne, to stock up on bandages/Mac chargers/Western Food for about 12 hours before heading onto Vang Vieng. We arrived on the bus in a pouring rain about 1 AM, and jumped in a tuk-tuk to get to the city center and find somewhere to sleep. Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off on a road with nothing but prostitutes, and we wandered the city for another 2 hours before finally finding a hostel to lay our weary heads for the night. Always have to be adaptive when traveling, because things don’t always work to plan.

After our resupply in the “big city” we headed up to Vang Vieng, another small town on the Mekong known for tubing, bowling, a rave in the jungle and every restauarant constantly playing “Friends” repeats. Another dreamscape of a place surrounded by karst mountains, but so different from the Kong Lor valley.

I met back up with the Canadian cousins, and had a great time with them and a German couple who thinks that teaching me German is a hilarious activity. My accent is so bad that I wholeheartedly agree. I’d heard from someone that German is the hardest language for native English speakers to fully subsume. After a few days of impromtu German lessons, I can see why.

Boy it is a fantastic language to shout in though.

After all these idyllic landscapes, reality snuck back in. I woke up yesterday morning to go have breakfast on the river and as I was walking back, I came across Marayna, the female half of the Canadian cousins, covered in blood with a huge line of stitches in a shaved line on the front of her head. She was dazed, bloody, and confused. It was really a terrifying moment.

She’d fallen down a flight of unlit concrete steps at the guesthouse and in reality she was lucky that it wasn’t worse than it was. I got her calmed down and cleaned up, and she and her cousin quickly found a bus to get them closer to Bangkok, where the best Western style hospitals in SE Asia are located. Unfortunately it was still going to take them over 24 hours to get to a real hospital, but that’s part of traveling in remote places.

Last I heard from them, they were trying to get on a 7:30 AM flight to Bangkok today. I assume they’ve made it, but should know more soon. It is amazing the clinical detachment that everyone took on this situation. From the standard clinical nature of the Germans, to my scientific searching for best routes to Bangkok, to the simple fact that this situation wasn’t going to get any better without a little work, everyone pitched in and made sure that people who were strangers mere days before ended up getting to where they needed to go.
Most backpackers have a sense of, all for one, and being a solo backpacker myself, I thank God for that fact.

More will come now that I’m in one place, but I reckon that’s enough for now. Next up, World Cup watching!

Weasel Shit Coffee and Waterfalls

The best thing about traveling alone is waking up. After a day fraught with a little altitude sickness, (Dalat is placed in the mountains roughly a mile above sea level which conspired with scuba to give me a godawful headache) I slept fitfully, waking up at 5AM. Realizing that I had absolutely nothing on the docket for the day, I figured I had to find something to do. I did a little research on the internet, then consulted my secondhand copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam, which strongly suggested taking a Dalat Easyrider trip to see the sites of the surrounding area.

Point to you Lonely Planet.

I went downstairs and He at the front desk called to schedule a driver within 5 minutes. I headed off to go have some breakfast around the corner (2 baguettes, 2 Vietnamese coffees and 3 pork meatballs in a broth. Grand total $1.65.)

Between eating and playing peek-a-boo with the owner’s toddler, I was inspired to sketch out some more of my next fiction project, jotting down my notes in my trusty pocket sized Moleskine (this gets important later.) After about a half hour, I wandered back to my hostel, where my trusty guide Hero Hung (I couldn’t make this up if I tried) was waiting at the front door for me.

We sat down for about 5 minutes, pouring over some maps and pictures, as well as his binder of handwritten recommendations in every language from Mandarin to Spanish. After agreeing upon a course of action and a price ($35 for the day.) We went and grabbed me another moped, this one being a manual…we’ll be generous and say 100CC Honda.

On a moped...again

On a moped…again

I was a little worried about getting up and down the surrounding mountains on this glorified gas powered rollerblade, but Hero assured me that it would move my “big American ass” just fine.

Thanks Hero, you’re a real gent!

Our first stop was a Buddhist temple on the way out of Dalat. Hero explained to me how poor people from all around the area will go without even basic necessities, while giving as much as humanly possible to the temple. His wife and mother were in this demographic, and I could hear the frustration in his voice as he spoke. He told me that Vietnam is about 70% Buddhist, 20% Catholic, and 10% atheist. Hero struck me as an atheist if anything, but he made it very obvious that atheism is quite frowned upon in Vietnam so he was a begrudging Buddhist in his own mind.

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

I thought about the massive cathedrals of both the US and Europe, mostly built from the tithes of the poor, especially St. Patrick’s in NYC. An awful lot of immigrants went without in order to build that house of worship as well.

Apparently that part of religion is quite universal, but as usual, the people with the least are the most likely to share.

*****************

Leaving the temple, we headed out of town and into the mountains. As usual traffic was a barely navigable, schizophrenic mess, but soon we found ourselves going down a muddy dirt road around the side of a mountain. The road was once paved, but it was being widened…largely by hand. There were teams of Vietnamese workers with pickaxes working next to Soviet era excavators on a mountain that would’ve easily been a black diamond in Colorado given some snow.

Well there USED to be a road here

Well there USED to be a road here

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “I’d rather dig ditches.”

We made it through the sloppy mess that was and found ourselves at a flower farm.

Rarely have I seen anything more surreal than these acres and acres of roses and lillies. There were just stacks of long stemmed red roses everywhere, and lilies separated by color for as far as the eye could see. It was truly something to behold, and I’m far from a flower guy.

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

**************

Jumping back on the bikes, we headed up and down a few mountains before finally being deposited at a beautiful coffee plantation overlooking the surrounding valley. Hero quickly explained to me that this was no ordinary coffee plantation, this one had weasel coffee.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

From this

From this

After he showed me the different coffee plants; Arabica, Robusta and Moka. Hero took me to see the weasels.

Into this

Into this

They were penned into large enclosures, usually 3-4 in a shed sized cage.

Their only job was to eat coffee beans.

And shit them back out.

Resulting in this

Resulting in this

Best job in the animal kingdom.

Apparently these weasels can only partially digest coffee beans, which gives them a remarkably different flavor and consistency than standard roasted beans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak

After defecation, the beans are triple washed and then roasted normally. Since “Weasel Shit Coffee” was available by the cup, I figured I owed it to the little buggers to try their handiwork, which the plantation was charging 4x compared to a normal cup (though still less than $3.)

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

I must say, it definitely has a different taste than standard coffee, with a sweet rotting fruit aroma to it. There was a strong aftertaste, and while I’d never normally put sugar in my coffee, I was forced to with this.

I’m glad I drank a glass for the novelty, but I certainly wouldn’t pay the $30 a glass that some places in the US and Japan charge.

It was solidly worth the $3, nothing more.

While I was enjoying my coffee, Hero and I talked about his family. A native of the Dalat area, he initially drove cabs before realizing 7 years ago that there was much better money in Easyrider guiding. Being from the South, he had no problems of any kinds with Americans, in fact his father had fought and was killed along American GIs in the Vietnam War. Hero never knew his father, but he believed the cause that he died for, because from 1975 to 1989, when the country was reopened to the world, most Vietnamese people were incredibly poor.

As I looked out over the plantations of coffee, flowers and vegetables that the Dalat area had to offer, I was shocked to hear that Vietnam was a net importer of rice from the end of the war until the mid 1990s. Now Vietnam is either #1 or #2 in net coffee exports and has run an agricultural surplus for nearly a generation.

Vietnamese agriculture

Vietnamese agriculture

Hero talked about the rapid explosion of wealth happening in his country, with mixed emotions. While he was glad that people were no longer living on the meager poverty rations that the Communist government provided before opening the country, he was concerned that capitalism would create an inverted pyramid of wealth, with the poor, huddled masses going hungry once again.

Today, things are better than they’ve ever been and there is work available for nearly anyone in Vietnam. It might be digging ditches by hand, but there is the option of paying work for anyone willing to take it.

I wished that I could’ve been a proper cheerleader for capitalism, but the American system has eliminated much of the lowest skilled work, leaving people without the dignity that an earned paycheck brings. There’s no reason to be hungry in America, but that doesn’t by any means sanctify our breed of capitalism as a perfect system.

Getting back on the bike, all jacked up on Weasel Shit Coffee, we headed over to Elephant Falls for a few pictures. At this point, Hero left me to my own devices to climb down while he chainsmoked Marlboro Reds.

I decided to get real cheeky, climbing over the wet, muddy rocks to get better a better short of the falls. Getting to the shot I wanted was fine…

Elephant Falls

Elephant Falls

It was getting back that was the problem.

Getting a little cocky

Getting a little cocky

With one foot on a muddy rock and the other gently probing to see how deep an eddy was, I fell in, all the way over my head.

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Clothes, keys, notebook, cash and camera. Thankfully I’m a pretty strong swimmer, and managed to get myself back out of the water before I got into any real trouble, but there was a serious ding to my pride, and 6 weeks of jotted notes that I was quite concerned about. (Thank god Moleskine is made with good paper, an hour of drying in the sun, and it was more or less fine.)

Waterfalls 1, Conquest 0.

After I tried out, we grabbed some spring rolls, com ga (chicken and rice) and pho before getting back out on the road, next checking out a silk farm, which was fascinating to see. Still an awful lot of manual labor that goes into the manufacturing of silk goods as these ladies can attest.

Silk production

Silk production

Amazing how little the process has changed since Marco Polo reported on it some thousand years ago.

Our last stop of the day was, Chicken Village. Inhabited by a minority tribe that makes approximately no sense, Chicken Village was a place with strange customs and one giant stone cock.

Not a crude joke...well sorta

Not a crude joke…well sorta

Men are “bought” with a gift from the girl’s family of a cow and a water buffalo. The women then engage in backbreaking labor while the men do largely nothing. Children begin working with their mothers around the age of 7, until the boys turn 16 and get put on the auction block.

Like the weasels, great work if you can get it.

We headed back around the lake in Dalat and Hero dropped me off at home, all the while trying to convince me to let him guide me all the way to Saigon over the next 3 days. I’ve got to say, motorbiking around here is a ton of fun, and unequivocally the best way to see Vietnam, but I wanted to give my “big American ass” a shower and a few hours before I committed to anything.

As much fun as I had today though, 20 hours over 3 days on a moped is a long time.

I am seriously considering it. It would keep me off of another “sleeper bus.”

Sleeper bus of DOOM!

Sleeper bus of DOOM!

Unlikeliest of Friends

In the last 6 weeks on the road, I’ve made more than my fair share of friends. One friendship that I will truly treasure as highly as any will be with Man from Hoi An.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A university student, studying of all things, Banking and Finance, Man was our tour guide with Hoi An Kids, a group which puts Western tourists with local university students to develop student’s English and foster a positive tourism experience within Vietnam.

DSC03031

Man took us to a local island where we got to see and participate in a variety of traditional local activities, from rice noodle making, boat making, mat weaving and an understanding of a local family temple.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

After spending 5 hours sweating and smiling along with us, Man suggested hitting up a bahn mi spot in Hoi An, which to my delighted surprise was once visited by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The sandwich really was a symphony on a baguette, with beef, chili, fresh cucumber, fried egg, chili sauce and a host of other lightly pickled vegetables that almost made me cry knowing I’d probably never have another again. He dropped us into another local coffee shop where we talked about the economics of his family’s farm and his ambitions after finishing university.

I asked him if he had any suggestions on how best to get up to Hill 55, a place where my Uncle Denis had fought during the Vietnam War.

Normally, I would’ve been a touch nervous about bringing the war up, but Vietnam is a place that is largely at peace with its past. One of the youngest populations in the world, Vietnam doesn’t bother with the problem of trying to explain away its history. The Vietnamese ethos is firmly in the present, with a solid lean forward.

There is something to be learned from that, both as a nation and as an individual.

**************

Man said that he’d be more than happy to take me up to Hill 55, and that he’d see me bright and early in the morning. 8 AM rolled around and he was at the gate, smiling as I choked through a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee.

We took off on his moped, to go grab one for me. We pulled into an alley off the main drag, (ironically only a few doors down from Cafe 43, where we’ve been taking our cooking classes) and he smiled and said, ‘There’s yours.” I jumped on my bike and away we went, about 20 miles outside of Hoi An to the site.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Vietnamese traffic, let me tell you, this was an adventure. I’m pretty well fearless where motor vehicles are concerned (thank you again Uncle Andrew) but this was just insane.

Imagine an Indianapolis 500 with 200 cars in the field, except with mopeds, cars, touring buses, and bikes. All vehicles go approximately the same speed, no two horns sound alike (though all are constantly being used) and no one has a rear view mirror.

The only rule is to not kill another driver.

I still have yet to see a stop sign since we left Hanoi, and I’ve only seen a handful of stop lights, all of which were treated as flippant suggestions more than the law. There is no such thing as a Vietnamese traffic cop, other than the guy with a scoop shovel who cleans up the inevitable accidents.

I was excited, but my ass still hurts from the constant clenching as I weaved in and out of mopeds carrying families, 16 foot long PVC pipes, 5 100 lb bags of rice, and a massive pile of rice sheaves reminiscent of a certain Monet series.

Then there were the middle of the road cattle drives.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But we got there, and that’s what’s important.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once we got there, Man showed me the still flattened remnants of the old American Marine Bases, while showing me the panoramic geography of the area. Even to a total military novice like myself, it was very obvious to see the military value of such a hill, which is why it has been fought over between the Vietnamese and their various foreign invaders for the past 1100 years.

Once we got to the top of the hill, Man and I talked about his thoughts on the wars. We talked about the long history of Vietnamese occupation. His reverence for “Uncle Ho” was obvious, but so too was his understanding that the past does not dictate the present.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Only in the past 39 years has Vietnam been a country allowed to operate on its own.

I want to be clear that I’m not about to embark on an American apology tour, a la President Obama 2008. Nor am I about to engage in re-fighting a war which cost both sides entirely too many fathers, brothers and sons.

There is a lesson to be learned from all things if one is willing to stop trying to justify the actions taken, and look at a situation holistically. Too often, we constantly try to paint history to put ourselves in a better light, at the cost of real growth.

The Vietnam War was an absolute tragedy. Americans have for 40 years tried their hardest to ignore it, and in doing so we have failed to learn the lessons it offered.

In 12 years of school, I never once was taught anything about the Vietnam War aside from the fact that it happened. A war that cost nearly 60,000 American lives wasn’t considered important enough to teach to our students from 1993-2005.

That is absolutely criminal. Having lived half of my life in a world shaped by the post 9/11 wars, I find it absolutely asinine that we aren’t teaching our students about a war that so brutally divided a country we still haven’t completely healed.

How can we ask the next generation of leaders to be better than the last if they aren’t expected to consider the historical situations that got us to where we are today?

The lessons offered by the Vietnam War were paid for with the blood of 58,220 men. It is a callous offense to their memories if we don’t learn from it.

Since landing in this country, I have tried to educate myself on the ins and outs of Vietnamese history. Desire for self governance remains the prevailing theme regardless of what I read.

A day many thought would never come

A day many thought would never come

An excerpt of this unanswered letter, from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman in 1946 was particularly powerful to me.

“These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates (sic) as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”

As Man and I stood on that hillside, opposing heirs to a legacy of bloodshed, he looked at me and said.

“I do not hate America, I don’t understand why they fought my people, but that is in the past. The duplicitous Chinese are the enemy of the future, and Vietnam must stand with America against them.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As we spoke, there has been diplomatic saber rattling about China’s encroachment upon Vietnam’s maritime rights. I hope that America lives up to its once sterling reputation as “guardians and champions of world justice.”

For all of our diplomatic blunders, we are still the preeminent guarantors of freedom against those nations which would look to subjugate their neighbors.

I hope that we realize the responsibility of that preeminence. The world depends on it.