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Bonding in the Jungle
Apr 29, 2024
Irina Rodriguez (second from left) with the Sticky Rice Gang.

Six months after returning from the heights of Machu Picchu, globetrotting Groundhogs took their adventures to the deep jungles and bustling metropolises of Southeast Asia over spring break. The Sticky Rice Gang, as we came to call ourselves, included Crusaders and their families of diverse ages, origins and walks of life, all of whom bonded together harmoniously, and sometimes rambunctiously, in the planes, buses, boats, tuktuks and karaoke bars of the journey. The nickname came from our Vietnamese guide Tung Thanh Bui — Tommy, for short — who thus explained the gregarious way of life in his country: “We stick together like sticky rice.” Vietnamese people of different generations live under the same roof and sometimes bury their loved ones in their backyard rice fields to continue sticking together in another life. We thought it a worthy metaphor for our UD community.

The trip began in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), which welcomed us with the genuine smiles of its busy inhabitants, an attack on all the senses, and Communist banners of hammers and sickles, making me feel like I was back in the Soviet Union of my childhood days. The Soviet paraphernalia felt anachronistic, however, as the streets were alight with capitalist-style commotion: restaurants and shops under each balcony and commercial transactions occupying every inch of the sidewalk space. People were eating, yelling, selling, laughing, negotiating, and driving and parking the ubiquitous motorbikes around the clock with little concern if someone like us happened on their way. Walking proved a challenge — more so if you chose to be courteous and give way to others, for you would never advance. The absence of English signs did not help, and at one point I spent an hour getting to our hotel from the market, which, as I later realized, was only a block away. The disorientation may have been a side effect of the market bargaining: Vendors engaged in it with vivid gusto, shoving the merchandise at us and shouting intensely (albeit in a friendly way), paralyzing any mental ability to convert the multiple-zero prices into dollars. One lady slightly hit my husband with a fan, scolding him for his persistent bargaining attempts, and then pretended to cry, smiling guilefully all along, and apparently enjoying herself. The defamiliarization was complete and exhilarating. 

We went on a tour of the Viet Cong tunnels where the Ho Chi Minh guerilla soldiers hid from American troops during the Vietnam War to reappear at night and retake “liberated” territory. We felt the extent of their perseverance as we climbed into a narrow dark hole, supposedly enlarged for Western tourist dimensions, but still tiny enough for us to kneel and crawl for parts of it, panting, sweating and suffering from intense claustrophobia. Despite appearances, the tunnel did not offer much cool relief from the 50-degree humidity. Partisans would spend a month at a time in those holes, we were told. 

We floated in boats in the Mekong River Delta canals within the dense canopy of palm fronds, continuing with a walk among the farms with mango trees, roosters and occasional mausoleums. The walk ended with a surprise tasting of tropical fruit, lime-and-honey tea and moonshine, accompanied by local musicians and singers in colorful tunics. I wanted to try the most exotic-looking beverage in a bottle with a marinated snake hypnotically looking at me, but I was told it was reserved for men only. A tuktuk ride through a shadowy countryside alley took us back to the motor boat, where fresh coconuts awaited. On the ride back to the city, we were greeted by motorcycles carrying whole families with babies and burdens ranging from guitars to refrigerators. 

After two days in Ho Chi Minh City and with an appetite whetted to see more of this fascinating country, we left Vietnam for the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, the gateway to the largest religious complex in the world — the mysterious Angkor Wat. The ruined capital city Angkor, built by the Khmer civilization in the 12th century, is a Machu Picchu of Asia: Covered by the jungle and lost to humanity for centuries after the takeover by the Thai, it was discovered in 1860 by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot. It remained mostly inaccessible to tourists until the 21st century due to the violence and genocide caused by the Khmer Rouge, an extremist Communist movement, and the mines left by them and by the Americans attempting to oust them and the Viet Cong forces operating there. We were lucky to visit the place while it is still relatively unspoiled by tourism. 

Originally a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat was later converted to the Buddhist one. It replicates the spatial universe, with the central tower representing Mt. Meru, surrounded by smaller peaks and continents in the form of lower courtyards. Its intricate bas-reliefs picture scenes from Buddhism and the Hindu epic Ramayana and include images of the temple founder, King Suryavarman II. Some of the figures on the walls looked fierce and frightening. Our guide, “Sam,” explained they were practicing an ancient Khmer martial arts form, later appropriated by the Thai, now known to the world as Muay Thai. Sam also pointed out the more recent historical traces: bullet holes on the temple walls from the Khmer Rouge warfare. The Khmer Rouge destroyed massive numbers of political opponents and brought about hunger and suffering to the residents of the surrounding lands barely cleared from the mines a decade ago. Sam himself was forcibly recruited to fight by Khmer Rouge forces when he was nine. He was lucky to survive — most of his seven siblings did not. 

Angkor Wat, the most famous structure, is just one of many breathtaking temples of the ancient capital, and we spent the day in awe of the whimsical grandeur of several others, entangled in the tentacles of immense tree roots. The surreal setting of the temple Ta Prohm became a set for one of the Tomb Raider films. Monkeys claimed the Bayon temple with Buddha faces staring down at us from its many spires, and we cautiously looked for photo ops in their midst, risking their attacks. On the long bus ride from Cambodia to Bangkok the following day, Tom Hansell, BA ’81, provided spiritual nourishment for our exhausted bodies with a book of exquisite haikus he authored to illustrate his photos of local and exotic natural treasures — a treat for the eyes, ears and soul. 

Bangkok dazzled with its royal temples, golden stupas and 40-foot statue of the reclining Buddha emanating peace and wisdom. On one glorious night there, we were taken on a Praya river cruise when our group lit up the party with spontaneous dancing and a conga line, with other guests and servers enthusiastically following our lead. We truly rocked the boat. It was a wholesome tribute to the tradition started by the Groundhogs during the Peru trip, when our spontaneous karaoke shook up the pueblo of Machu Picchu. And how can I forget the elephants? In the elephant reserve on the border with Myanmar, we felt like kids feeding the gentle giants, giving them (and ourselves) mud baths and swimming with them in the river. Although we were a bit scared at first, the photos suggest it was they who took refuge in the water from the excess of our affection. 

Our guide Tony taught us an elephant song, “Chang,” in Thai, as well as some elephant-imitating gestures we awkwardly and conscientiously imitated. It was a feast for our childhood selves, and we gladly indulged. I still find myself humming “Chang, Chang, Chang” when the routine drags me down and the mood dampens. On the way to the reserve, we hit another historical destination: the bridge on the Kwai River that was built by WWII prisoners of war detained by Japanese forces. Many more exciting memories spring in my mind, but I should not linger. I will mention the downsides: the 23-hour plane ride home, tenacious jet lag after the 13-hour time difference, and excruciating heat. The lifelong memories and the Sticky Rice friendships more than make up for these. 

Please, consider joining us on the Quito and Galapagos trip, March 15 - 23, 2025.

First photo by Irina Rodriguez; other photos by Jim Bush.

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May 20, 2024

The Cowan-Blakley Memorial Library was one of just 50 institutions around the country to receive a recent grant from Theatre Communications Group (TCG).

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