Jul 6, 2008

I knew I should have taken a left turn at Thôn Ke

Apologies to Bugs Bunny for the title but it seems appropriate. Talk about getting away from it all, I didn't see a single westerner all week. Meals for both Dung and myself were $3 (including two beers each) and the room we stayed in one night was a big splurge at $12 because it had A/C. It was all going great until we ran into the strong arm of Communism.

Instead of staying on Highway 9 (the main road) to Dông Hà, I wanted to take a shortcut via an unmarked road. We stopped at the intersection with Highway 9 at what we thought was the road and I pulled out my Viet Nam map to check. A roadside convention quickly formed of local experts, all curious to know where the Westerner was going and, seemingly, how they could help. The map apparently made me look like Indiana Jones and everyone wanted a starring role, including the one-armed, two-toothed old man who reeked of whiskey at 9 am (sorry, no picture, clearly wasn't thinking...).

We learned that the road was indeed our sought-after shortcut and that it follows the Quang Tri river towards Bâ Long and then on to Quang Tri. The "but" was that the nicely paved road quickly turned into dirt and then required three river crossings of us and the scooter in a wooden long boat to get there. Now it really was sounding like Indy and the Temple of Dung so my eyes lit up and I said let's go for it. Dung was game so I folded up the map and off we went.

The first family we met was none too friendly, but the teen we ran into next became much more amenable when we offered him some chewy sesame squares that were to comprise my breakfast. We then met three kids playing in the Quang Tri river and I got a chance to wade into blissful cool water while shooting them. Onward and we stopped at a house with a great pimpled-face teen and a mute 12-year-old, both of whom had that powerful innocence that I've been seeking out this whole trip. I was happier than a water buffalo in mud, getting ready to shoot them both, when the local heat showed up.

If you know me you know that I have an issue with cops (CHP excepted) because they so frequently abuse their power. This guy was throwing his weight around big time and, according to Dung, was a "stupid hard-talking Communist." I had to restrain myself from getting into a pissing contest with him but nonetheless made it very clear that I was a tourist with no evil capitalist agenda. But as soon as he found out that I was an American it was game over and he forced us to turn around. I didn't want to push it for fear of getting Dung into trouble and had no desire to bribe anyone so unsavory, so we turned around. Apparently one of our map "helpers" had squealed and the Commies were on to us almost as soon as we turned down the road. Dung is a calm guy but for the first time ever he was furious. He could only talk about how much be hated Communism and how he wanted to move out of Viet Nam as soon as his kids had finished school.

The event put a definite pallor over the rest of our day and I could tell that Dung had gotten gun-shy about approaching anyone else. This was my last day shooting and I wasn't about to let some so-and-so end this part of my trip on such a low note. I passed on a DMZ tour in favor of searching for more teens, and just as I was about to give up I spotted a young guy walking his bike next to an older man. We stopped, Dung did his magic and I got a shot of the boy and old man together that I think will be the killer portrait for the whole series.

I've been working to let go of my need to control the elements of my life, to think of every turn in the road as just the perfect thing, no matter what the outcome. In this case it seems like it was.

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