We leave on two buses for a hydroelectric plant in south Vietnam, near the forest where later in the day we will tend trees. I wear jeans, a blue t-shirt like everyone else, and a black baseball cap. The bus I am riding is half-full. It winds through narrow roads, and after an hour I start feeling carsick and have to sit up tall so I can see over the high-backed seats out the window.
My company has a strong tradition of volunteerism. In the past year I joined work colleagues from my department in painting the interior of a Peanut Butter & Jelly preschool for low-income kids in the town of Bernalillo and preparing care packages for families supported by Roadrunner Food Bank. On my own I have over the years volunteered in my daughters’ classrooms and in the process earned the schools matching cash grants. But I have never volunteered outside my greater community, much less outside my country.
The area we are heading to now was hard hit during the Vietnam War. Vegetation was and continues to be contaminated by Agent Orange. My Vietnamese colleagues earlier in the year planted a type of tree known for its ability to grow quickly. As they grow, the trees pull toxins out of the soil. After 20 years the trees are cut down, taking the toxins with them.
But the trees are planted in the jungle, where vines can choke the saplings. Our job is to tend to the trees, clearing away vines and other invasive plants with hoes, allowing the trees to flourish.
But first we stop at one of the largest hydroelectricity plants in the southern part of the country. We get a tour of the facility and meet up with students from a local high school who will join us for lunch and then for the tree tending in the afternoon.
I’m not one for being fascinated by things like hydroelectricity, not to mention the tour is conducted in Vietnamese, but I honestly enjoy seeing the place. It is located in the lush countryside, about two hours from Saigon, with rivers and a reservoir created by the dam. Especially interesting are black-and-white photos from when the plant was built.
∞ ∞ ∞
Hydroelectric Plant (one through four), old black-and-white photos of the building
of the plant in south Vietnam, photos © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
∞ ∞ ∞
After the tour, the students join us for lunch in a thatched-roofed restaurant where we eat build-your-own spring rolls made with tiny prawns from the reservoir. I have never seen such miniscule shrimp. They lend new meaning to their name.
Soon comes a round of Vietnamese toasting. With arms stretched toward the center of the table, mugs in hand, we count to three and yell, “Yo!” Always the instigator, I urge my table mates to roar the loudest. We definitely succeed.
It is steamy by the time we stand ready, hoes in gloved hands. In groups of three, each team begins work on two rows of trees. Even though it often rains in the afternoons this time of year, the yellow-red earth seems bone dry. I let loose on the vines that are choking the first tree on my row. I am, after all, hardy and not afraid of hard labor.
Sun bears down, sweat seeps from under my cap. Whack! Whack! Whack! I stop between chops to drink water.
By the time I am halfway down the row, I am dizzy and queasy. I sweat large amounts of water, and I drink large amounts of water to replace the sweat. But the more water I drink, the more nauseous I get. I squat near the base of the tree I’m working on and tug weakly at the vines. When I reach the end of the row, I sit in a spot of shade and regain my strength.
∞ ∞ ∞
Fast Grower, Seeds, Leaf, and Scorpion, scenes from the forest, including scorpion in a bottle, May 2009, photos © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
∞ ∞ ∞
After all the rows are done, we gather our tools and ourselves on blankets set under the shade of large trees. We gobble down fresh pineapple and papaya spears, peeled pomelo sections, and slices of watermelon. Everyone is laughing and talking. I am delighted to have been a part of the effort yet relieved that the work is over.
I pick up a couple of empty water bottles as we get ready to leave. Someone points to one of the bottles in my hand and I nearly drop it. Inside is a scorpion, caught and trapped by whoever was sharing the blanket with me. This is a different world!
The rain comes as the bus heads down the red dirt road out of the forest. I sit near the front, where I can look out the window. On the TV monitor above me, a beautiful Vietnamese singer croons a sad folk song. Life is not perfect, but this moment is.