A tale of two bridges

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.

20130829 Ca Mau & travel to Rach Gai 085
The new bridge behind the traditional bridge it has replaced. The traditional bridge won’t last another wet season.

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.

crossing 1 crossing 2crossing 3

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A whiter shade of pale

One thing to know about me – I’m pale, very pale. Not by design or desire, just that my forbearers are, without exception, the kind that evolved in grey, shivery countries like Ireland and England where the sun shines for approximately 27 minutes per year.

Cruel fate (and global migration trends) deemed that I should be born in Australia, a country with an unreasonable about of sunlight (and skin cancer-causing ultra violet radiation). It was determined fairly early on that I was one of those people whose skin can be one of two colours – glowing white or angry red. This set me up for a vaguely sticky and sweaty childhood covered in various sun creams, hats, sunglasses, and long-sleeved shirts. I watched those bronzed Aussie clichés strolling about in the sunshine as I ran from shade to shade, hissing at the brightness. Moving to Ireland when I was still a child, offered me a reprieve from the relentless sunlight but my pallor was certainly not appreciated or considered attractive there either.

Many times during my teens, I was told I’d look better or healthier with some more colour. It has only been in recent years that my home countries found a new appreciation for us pasty individuals. I think we can thank those sparkly vampires in those teen romance books (or as I call it ‘the 10 warning signs of domestic violence and emotional abuse anthology’) for the newly discovered appreciation for the alabaster-skinned, but I digress.

Cut to my life in Viet Nam; I am walking around Sai Gon at lunchtime, on the lookout for some street vendors who usually assemble in one of the parks. I find them and awkwardly squat (all my squats are awkward) in front of a woman who is delicately julienning a green mango with a cleaver the size of my head. Her Green Mango Salad looks delicious and my mouth floods at the thought of the sour green mango and the vinegary dressing. I ask for some and she starts filling a bag.

She starts talking about me to her fellow vendors; I catch the word for foreigner. The more Vietnamese I learn, the more I realise that I’m often a topic of conversation. This is completely fine; I’m probably worth talking about. For one thing I look very different. I am taller, heavier, and paler than the average person around me. If I saw a colossal, phosphorescent-skinned creature with limited language skills hunkering down in front of me, you’d be damn sure that I’d be talking about them too.

One of the older ladies grabbed my arm and rotated it to get a look at the inside of my elbow and upper arm, which is the palest part of me that can be displayed without having to drop my pants. “Ummm, trắng (white),” she murmurs approvingly to her friends, then she smiles at me. “Cảm ơn, Bà (Thank you, Madam)” I reply somewhat feebly as it occurs to me that I am literally the single, white female in this exchange. I give her until my salad is ready and then I wiggle out of her grasp.

Actually, the ladies were very sweet and very complimentary. They just thought I looked nice and wanted to take the view a little closer up; nothing too wrong with that.

I’ll admit that it took me some time to fully understand where these paleness-based compliments were coming from. Initially, I had assumed that they were wrapped up in the ugliness and discrimination of colonialism; Viet Nam having been a French colony for a number of years. However, over the time I’ve spend living here I discovered that fondest for paler skin has very little to do with colonialism or other countries’ race relations. I’ll actually go so far as to say that having paler skin due to European ancestry isn’t as coveted as being pale with total Vietnamese ancestry.

Rather, the desire for pale skin stems from internal perceptions of poverty and wealth. People who are poorer have traditionally had to work outdoors and get tanned by the sun, while the wealthy live inside. Pale skin equaled high class and tanned skin was one of the symbols of poverty. These beauty ideals continue on to this day and people do what they can be paler. I called this, the desire to be ‘Baby Pale,’ the colour of brand new skin; untouched by sunshine.

People will go to extraordinary lengths to be Baby Pale; there are expensive skin whitening treatments at salons, and most people wear cover-up clothing when they are outside. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a city where there is a constant Invisible Man convention that no one told me about.

It takes a lot of dedication to dress like this in 90% humidity.  Image © 2003 AFP Photo/Hoang Dinh Nam
It takes a lot of dedication to dress like this in 90% humidity.
Image © 2003 AFP Photo/Hoang Dinh Nam

This perception about pale equaling beauty is slowly changing, but then, beauty ideals don’t generally change quickly.

Every skin product claims that it will whiten your skin - every lotion, skin crème, moisturizer, toner, deodorant.  
Every skin product claims that it will whiten your skin – every lotion, skin crème, moisturizer, toner, deodorant.
Every single one.
Every single one.

Even though I have a better understanding of the desire for paler skin, it doesn’t really make me feel at ease with the idea. It is still putting a value and a judgement on someone based on their appearance and their associated prosperity. Our skin colour at its most basic is the amount of brown-colored pigment called melanin that our skin produces; this quantity is based on genetics, exposure to ultraviolet light, our bodies’ vitamin D production requirements, and the breakdown of folic acid.

It is our perceptions and opinions that that loaded our skin with judgements. I think this, at the end of the day, is actually a good thing. Surely it has to be easier to change our minds, than our skin tone?

Campaign for real beauty?
Campaign for real beauty? Right…

The Phantom

Close to my work there is a man who sits on a street corner asking passers-by for money. He has to because he lost his legs below the knees some time ago. He looks to be the right age to have been involved in the American War (most people would know this conflict as the Vietnamese War), but it could have been the result of any sort of accident or malaise. I like this guy; he knows me by now and we wave to each other. He also has a terrific moustache that he keeps waxed in the Salvador Dali-style. I’d say he’d have some interesting stories.

One day I was heading back to work and I was walking over to him to give him my change from lunch when an approaching car caught my attention. I had never seen this car in person before but I instantly recognised what it was; a Rolls Royce Phantom. This is a car with a 6.8-litre V-12 engine which shits out 453 horsepower/720nm of torque. You can order it any of 44,000 paint colours and add teakwood trim, a drinks cabin, even a roof which incorporates hundreds of tiny fibre optics to give the impression of a star-filled night sky. It has a six-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive. It is over 2.6 metric tonnes but it can still jump to 100km/h in well under six seconds and has a top speed of 249 km/h. Though, considering that the average car on a Saigonese road probably doesn’t go above 15 km/h, I’d say you’d rarely utilise this feature.

But its speed and power are not the reasons this car was purchased, it is a signal to everyone how much money the owner has; it is the very definition of conspicuous consumption.

If you think this car would likely be expensive, then you’re only half right. It would be expensive in the United States where it retails for around USD$1 million, but what you may not know to that Vietnamese consumers seeking to purchase a new, imported vehicle are required to pay an additional 70-100 percent tax.

I was actually watching USD$2 million worth of car sail past a man with no legs, begging on the street. I handed to him, the sad amount of dong I had in my hand and continued on my way. There wasn’t anything to say.

This car doesn’t just drive around the streets of Sai Gon; it drives around the ever widening gap between the very rich and very poor in Viet Nam. We have gone beyond the Haves and the Have-Nots. We have entered the era of the Have-Nots and the Have–Yachts.

photo reference http://www.baomoi.com/Phantom-rong-va-dan-xe-khung-trong-dam-cuoi-o-Sai-Gon/145/12777930.epi
photo reference http://www.baomoi.com/Phantom-rong-va-dan-xe-khung-trong-dam-cuoi-o-Sai-Gon/145/12777930.epi