by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library
The River’s Tale: A Year On The Mekong
Almost twenty years ago Edward Gargan, a New York Times Asia correspondent, decided to leave his job and see Asia in a way he never could when he had to churn out piece after piece. You’ve heard of slow food? This is slow travel. Gargan journeyed down the Mekong River from its source in Tibet to its end in southern Vietnam. It took him a year to follow the river that is officially 1,824 miles long but is really 3,050 miles. It was a major challenge. “There are no boat schedules, no bus routes; indeed, sometimes no roads,” states Gargan in the intro.
The Mekong goes by many names. It flows through many countries, cultures, language areas. The book gets going in Tibet. Here it’s called the Dzachu. Gargan meets locals who employ much more silence in a conversation than talk. It reflects the way of life here high on the Tibetan plateau, far from towns or cities. In here and elsewhere in the book, Gargan looks for places “for whom modernity did not entail the obliteration of traditional cultures.” The people near the source of the river are like this, one of the few places in Tibet where the traditional culture hasn’t been obliterated by China.
In Yunnan the Mekong is called the Lancang Jiang. Here the author cannot find much left of the local ethnic minority traditions as they’ve been usurped by Han Chinese-led communism. Ironically, this dominant culture is itself being usurped by globalism in the form of a state blend of Marxism and capitalism. Everything is topsy-turvy, but locals are determined to try to preserve something of the refined, age-old west China culture.
From here Gargan travels to the Golden Triangle, the area where Laos, Burma, and Thailand meet. As always, he avails himself of whatever transport and food come to hand. Though he prefers boat, he employs bus, car, bicycle, motorcycle, and walking. Though he prefers food that’s familiar, he often can’t get it and eats everything from bush meat to insects. You can’t be choosy in these places. There are virtually no tourists. Even those familiar with the Golden Triangle may be surprised to learn that Gargan finds people who frequent opium dens. Opium has corrupted generations of governments here, but it hangs on because it makes enormous profits. The British legalized it, the Communists secretly (and not-so-secretly) enriched themselves with it, and post-Communists governments lap it up as well. Fortunately, there are other crops here, and Gargan charts the tea trade as well. Tea in South East Asia is ingested and prepared in many ways—eaten, drunk, fermented, mixed with milk, mixed with other foodstuffs—the list is quite long. As with anything else, tea encountered in ways foreign to your culture is looked down on.
Two benefits of areas less touched by industrialization are quiet and the absence of pollution. Poverty without pollution seems, to Gargan, to be better than poverty with it, which is what you have most everywhere you do have poverty. This book came out in 2002. You wonder if pollution and noise have infected these areas in the years since the author’s trip. I hope not. I don’t want to romanticize this geography, but poverty, bad as it can be, seems better without this modernization double whammy. Gargan makes a persuasive case.
Just how different the Mekong is is apparent in this passage: “Asia, however, particularly in its most remote corners, does not abide by the time pieces and schedules of the urbanized world, far less those of the Western urban world…” These norms force Gargan to confront just how Western, and modern, he is. It’s not always an easy task. To his credit, Gargan is free with presenting his indignities, embarrassment, inconveniences, and humiliations.
Most of the trip goes through rural areas and here people rise with the sun and retire with sundown. Light is for working, dark is for sleeping. It’s very much like the pre-industrial West. “No telephones, no electricity, no railroad, terrible roads.”
In a restaurant in Cambodia, Gargan observes that most “diners simply spat out the fish bones on the table or on the floor; in the relentless grip of Western etiquette I deposited them in a spare plastic bowl.” He does his best on the trip to not be a tourist, but he owns up to his clunkyness and contradictions. He can’t avoid talking about the legacy of the Khmer Rouge here or the Pathet Lao in Laos, nor should he. On the other hand, this is not an extended adventure in hair-shirting. Suffice it to say that the two communist regimes thoroughly transformed their countries, and not for the good. In Cambodia, as in Laos, the people’s resilience is heartening.
Though I’ve grouped my comments so far by countries, it’s necessary to say that Gargan encounters many in-between, blended and uncategorizable places. The borderless Mekong is the shaper of this ambiguity. It’s a stirrer of things, a melting pot, at times a culture to itself.
Vietnam’s bui doi, the offspring of American military men and Vietnamese women, warrant a section in the book. Looked down on by the Vietnamese, they are taken as too Western for Vietnam and too Asian by Americans. Gargan’s sympathy for out groups (and the Mekong is host to many) serves him well here. In Vietnam, as in most places in Southeast Asia the author visits, the locals didn’t support the American-backed governments, loathed the communists, and distrust whoever’s in charge now. Paradoxically, they look to moving to the U.S. as a solution. They are supporters of America’s domestic policies, not its foreign ones. America looms large here, mistrusted and longed-for.
Gargan often digs up oddities in his less-traveled roads and waterways. An offshoot of the Kuomintang, pursued by the Red Chinese, fled to the Golden Triangle. They didn’t expect to stay but eventually they got trapped by the opium tar baby and later gave up all pretense of retaking China or even moving to Taiwan. In South Vietnam, Gargan uncovers a creation myth that’s especially interesting. Two heavenly beings descend to Earth. They eat from a tree in the middle of the Earth but find they can’t fly back up to heaven. They have a family. The denizens of the celestial realms send down a peach tree to feed the new family. The parents go on a trip and instruct their children not to eat from the tree while they’re gone. The children disobey, stripping the fruit from the tree. The parents return, see that their children have disobeyed, become enraged and banish them from their home, sending them in all directions over the Earth, where they became the ancestors of people today. Gargan observes: “It is not entirely clear from where this folktale emanates, although it is widely known here…”
This is the value of a good travel book, introducing you to something you couldn’t have imagined, taking you out of your fixed cultural place, challenging your assumptions. The River’s Tale is a journey into Asia’s recent past, ancient past and mythic past. It’s an exploration of the timeless Mekong itself, a river so long and various that it wasn’t understood to be a single river until modern times. A river entirely various and complex, containing multitudes. It was a lot to take on, but Gargan goes a very long way to making it understandable.