One day I woke up at 3:35am to catch a flight from Tân Sơn Nhất Airport in Sai Gon. I flew to Cà Mau, Viet Nam’s southernmost town, nestled in tip of the Mekong Delta. I was met at the airport by local officials and taken into the town. It was my first time visiting, but I didn’t have time to look around; we had a bridge inauguration ceremony to get to. We drove south, through Cà Mau and when the road turned into a mangrove forest, we took a boat. Over the next hour, the wide river turned into smaller and smaller inlets until the sides of the boat were brushed by palms fronds and water hyacinth.
We arrive and I see for the first time with my own eyes the bridge that I’m here to help open. It is made from concrete, painted white and covered with flags. It is narrow but functional; it can hold both people and motorbikes; there are no cars in the village so its width isn’t a problem. It is solid and dependable; it won’t wash away in the annual flood waters… and it kind of looks like an overgrown bridge that escaped from a Claude Monet painting.
The new bridge was built to replace one of the village’s traditionally built bridges made from wood and rope. The traditional bridges have a bothersome habit of breaking up and washing away during the floods of the wet season, stranding one side of the village from the other. People tend to dismantle their bridges before this happens and reassemble them after the wet season, but they’re without a bridge all the same. This isn’t a small inconvenience; no bridge means a two minute walk turns into a 15 minute boat ride, or not crossing at all if the current is too strong. Motorbikes and cargo don’t travel too well on the village’s minuscule boats; so many people can’t actually go anywhere when they get to the other side. Getting to school and work is hard.
We arrived at the small dock outside a waterside village. My interpreter told me that that everyone in the village was going to attend the ceremony and that certainly seemed to be the case. There was a metal frame covered by tarpaulins in the centre of the village; the greatly respected older women had best positions in the front row, school children flanked the edges and everyone else was in the middle. I made a speech and sat through everyone else’s speeches. I didn’t panic during the ribbon cutting ceremony when I realised that the scissors I’d been given were blunt and I had to hack through a ribbon that I can only surmise was made of a Kevlar/Nylon blend.
Then we all crossed over the new bridge to have lunch at a house on the other side of the inlet. As I was crossing, I recalled a conversation I’d had several months before. I was holidaying in Cambodia and found myself sitting in a backpacker’s accommodation, talking to other travellers. These conversations always turn to which are the best places to visit, what to see, what to do. A reoccurring theme was places that were considered ‘authentic, genuine, and untouched by development.’ A lot of the time it seems that travellers are saying that they’re interested in visiting places where people are living in deeper deprivation than places that have gathered some of the conveniences they have taken for granted for their whole lives, ie electricity, potable water, sanitation and refrigeration. I call these the “New Horizon Travellers.” They are the Marco Polos, the Lewis and Clarks, the Edmund Hillarys of the travel set. They want to find that undefiled Eden, experience a lifestyle untouched by modernity, upload a 100 photos of it to Facebook and go home. These are the travellers that have fetishized people living lives of struggle and poverty as being genuine and pristine; uncontaminated by disgusting Western desecration.
“Go to Haiti, people are always smiling, everyone looks so happy. It isn’t too built up like Kenya. Malawi is great too.”
“See Laos before it turns into Cambodia.” And so the conversation went.
These are all great countries, with remarkable cultures, languages and histories, and are wonderful places to visit if you get the chance. It is just that the main virtue these travellers were intoning was that the majority of their residents are living agrarian lifestyles, living on less than $1US a day and have limited access to safe drinking water.
I’m in no way saying that the pinnacle of development is the Western model; based on things like consumerism, competition, entrepreneurship, rational economic calculation, and a profit-oriented ethos. At the same time I don’t think it is a bad thing to have electricity, it allows children to study at night, phones allow communication over long distances and refrigeration is pretty great at reducing food spoilage. So let’s complain a little less when the rural Zimbabwean village you’re staying at has icy cold cans of coke, that means that their shops have refrigeration and so does the local hospital for keeping vaccines in cold storage. Conversely, let’s not whine too much when you don’t get your chilled beverages at the end of a long day of sightseeing. Live vaccines like the heat even less than you do and show it by becoming totally useless at preventing polio… Vaccine cold chain – look it up.
So concrete bridges aren’t traditional or beautiful, but they are great at resisting flood waters and not falling down. They make things a little safer and easier for people whose life can be grindingly hard. A Papua New Guinean village with adequate sanitation haven’t been ruined and isn’t any less worth a visit than the settlement on the other side of the valley with no sanitation, that has been crippled by Diarrhoeal diseases brought on by faeces contaminated water. This is because a country’s unique environment and culture can and should be embraced, celebrated and protected; supporting the country’s most important heritage – its people, doesn’t have to undermine that.
All this flipped through my head on the short walk across the bridge and into the house on the other side. It was a nice walk, a little kid held my hand.
Later I was doing the consultation and evaluation part of my trip, and I asked one of the village leaders what else he’d like to see in his village. He paused for a moment and answered, “more bridges.”
Okay then, more bridges it is.
Please check out a news story on how parents transport their children across a swollen river, link to an English language Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre for the video clip http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/18403/exclusive-video-crossing-stream-in-plastic-bag (these are not my photos). Schooling is so important that they will put their children in plastic bags, so they don’t get wet and swim them across. This is an extreme case, but it illustrates the difficulty people face then they don’t have transportation options.