The typhoon that had just ravaged the country had swollen the mighty Mekong River, inundating its low-lying shores and even sweeping some villages away. I’d busied myself throughout the worst of it by helping my new-found friends among the riverside community at Biên Hòa. They’d been evacuating less able family members and trying to salvage what they could of their precious possessions and domestic beasts. For five days the typhoon had wreaked havoc, laying a swath of destruction in its wake as it raged along the east coast and down into the Delta. There, it seemed to momentarily gather strength, whipping up a bit more violence and destruction before dancing off into the South China Sea. The subsequent increased volume of water in the river along its run had caused even more and larger clumps of vegetation to be torn from its banks than was usual. These now floated by me like small mobile islets, turning sedately as they rode the great rush of water.
Biên Hòa was my last staging post in what had been, up till a week ago, a leisurely, lengthy and fulfilling project. Having been caught here in the violence of the Typhoon, I was now emotionally embroiled with the stunned local villagers. With its passing, the reality of monumental loss was hitting home and a sort of collective, morbid stupor had overcome them. I recognised the symptoms in myself, too. The bar where I sat sipping my café sua da, quietly relishing the sweet icy syrup as it trickled down my throat, had once been well inland on the landward side of the main road. Now it was a riverside convenience for displaced villagers, many of whose small craft were tied up alongside as the owners, numbed like me, sought respite in a drink. I gazed out in awe at the engorged torrent, savouring the shot of caffeine. I’d been idly counting each islet as it drifted by; only two hours and already a couple of hundred. The river was re-sculpting the landscape.
As I lowered the glass to the table something caught my eye and I started. I’d just seen what appeared to be a blackened human arm protruding upwards from one of the floating masses. I stood up, staring hard. It was definitely an arm, though live or dead – or even attached to a body – who knew. The fingers of the hand were half open and the index finger pointing, just as a raised hand calls for attention. As the islet turned in the current, the arm flopped in what I, in my exhausted state, interpreted as a clear, beckoning gesture. Come, follow me, it commanded.
I called for yet another bottle of Saigon Green. From behind me a disembodied arm crossed my concentrated gaze to place the beer on the table next to my other empties – they charged you by the number of empties you accumulated. I sat down again, still staring at the now fast-disappearing vegetation. It’s a sign, I muttered to myself. There, downriver, will be my closure. I’m being called to action. I reflected how, lately, my torpidity had been troubling me. In the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, in the stifling and dense tropical humidity, I felt my brain was beginning to rot along with the flora and fauna that had so recently been wrenched and uprooted from its domesticity. This flotsam now decayed as it lay around the villages, or, like that on my passing islet, was afloat only to bloat and rot in the merciless heat on its way out to sea: an offering to all the fish, sea-birds and raptors out there.
I knew the excessive alcohol and caffeine was working at odds with my ethos but was loath to quit its soothing stimulus. Soon, I reasoned, now that I have my sign. Soon, I will act. Draining the last of the iced coffee, I poured the beer over the ice remnants in the glass and sprawled back in the tiny, plastic chair. That arm had definitely beckoned to me. No one else had remarked upon it . . . maybe they hadn’t seen it. It was uniquely mine. It had even given me a direction. Damn it, I scolded myself, I need to act, to plot, to plan . . . to conclude. I must move: do something to snap me out of this post-apocalyptic lethargy. I took a swig of the chilled amber elixir and it felt good. As I continued my inner monologue I poured the last of the beer into the glass and concluded that I may – the ghoulish arm leading the way – just have the resolve and motivation required to conclude my mission, though how, precisely, I wasn’t sure. Destiny wasn’t showing all her cards.
At the very least it could provide an interesting end to my project and journey. The unscheduled drama of the last week or two had taxed me more than I had realised and I had indeed now become slothful in body and mind, content to idle the days away in a haze. The typhoon had been amazing: the sounds, the awesome power, the tearing, howling motion, the water – water everywhere. In that period I had been perpetually torn between the moral rectitude of aiding these stricken folk, and of opportunistically capturing the unfolding drama of the disaster-scene through my lens, even as it devastated them and their lives. It had done my head in.
With some hazy resolution formed I knocked back the beer and put enough Dong on the table to cover all my drinks. Shouldering my battered carrier bag I walked over to the Enfield 350, threw my leg over the worn, hot saddle and kicked her into life. I let her putter away, comforted by the throb of the bike’s four-stroke single cylinder while I mentally checked over my action plan. Finally satisfied with my reasoning, I dropped it straight into second gear, let the clutch out and motored sedately off down the extant pathway. Keeping the afternoon sun behind me, I headed east-south-east and down river. “Seek and ye shall find. Call and I shall answer” I sang into the breeze “The arm is my sign, the sign just in time . . .” I’d found my hymn.
My long journey to the Delta had started at the uppermost reaches of the Mekong River in northern Laos. I had been working my way downstream capturing the moods of this famous river and of its people who lived alongside and on it. The contract with my publisher gave me freedom of movement and artistic expression. It was up to me to construct a sequential photographic journal with a beginning, a substantial contextual middle, and an end. I had chosen the Mekong to build my structure upon. Now, following my sign, I was bound where the ancient river ceased her intricate meanderings and fed out to sea where she spewed forth all her accumulated nutrients and litter. From source to disgorging mouth; there, offshore, I knew I would find the perfect, dramatic ending. It was three days later in the early dawn, having taken many a detour and ferryboat ride between islands, that I found what I sought as the sun eased up over the eastern horizon.
The river’s end. Here, in the calm and muddied offshore waters now overlaid with a low mist, a bobbing flotilla of assorted water craft bore the bereaved. In that littered and detritus-strewn sea they were seeking to find their loved ones amongst the Typhoon’s bloated and blackened victims. There, among the clusters of floating corpses: dogs, pigs, cows . . . and humans, they were making a last-ditch attempt to find their missing kin in order to carry out a proper, ceremonial closure. Hooded to affect a discreet anonymity I steered my hired dinghy slowly among them, billowing the low blanket of dawn sea-mist as I moved.
With daylight, the sun’s increasing warmth began to clear the mist, reducing it to drifting wisps. Suddenly, from one of the nearby boats a loud, keening wail arose and cut through the muted air. Someone had recognised the corpse of a loved one amongst all that accumulated detritus. I motored slowly over to where they were now attempting to bring the body on board. Discretely circling them, I found my most advantageous spot and idled the motor. Lifting the D7000 DSLR from the bag, I levelled it on the appalling, yet compelling scene and clicked away. The vaporous, drifting wisps gave the scene an eerie, almost colourless depth. I knew with conviction that among all the hundreds of photos I had taken on this journey these pictures would eclipse them all. I had the classic end-shot. The images were in the memory cards and the text etched in my brain – even the end-piece, “The Mighty Mekong, it gives and it takes.”
Copyright © 2012 by John Cedric Watkins