Monday, May 9, 2011

Army Base

(PICTURE: Vietnamese soldiers.)

After seeing a family recover a loved one's body in Dien Bien Phu, Huyen and I were inspired to do more to find her uncle. Huyen started working the phone and calling office after office. After many many many calls -- which usually went like this: "I'm sorry, that section of Cambodia isn't this office" or "We don't have that information in this office" -- we finally had a lead. Coincidentally, the person Huyen talked with was in Pleiku, the next city we were planning on stopping in. The man on the phone told us to come to his office the next day to talk with him. He gave Huyen his address and we said we'd be there.

This call happened on a Thursday when we were in Kon Tum. Originally we had planned to do a trek and a homestay here but we canceled that to be able to meet the officer. We figured we would do a trek and a homestay instead in Buon Me Tuot since it now looked like we would be arriving early for Linh's wedding (see yesterday's post).

So the next morning we woke up at 6AM and did the short drive to the man's office. Well, it turned out his "office" was a Vietnamese army base just outside of Pleiku. We pulled up to the main gate and the armed guard look surprised to see us. Actually surprised isn't the right word. I'd go with startled. The guy took a firm grasp of his MACHINE GUN and said in Vietnamese, "Turn off your bike and take off your mask." As you might have noticed over the years, my Vietnamese blows. Huyen translated this for me and I quickly followed orders.

The guard's startled look soon turned to one of confusion as Huyen explained why we were there. Clearly, this was not a normal thing. The guy was bumbling around for answers when a large SUV pulled up. Inside was the bases general who wanted answers ASAP. The guard told him we were here to talk to someone about recovering Huyen's uncle's body and the general told him to let us in.

At this point, Huyen took the motorbike and drove it about 100 yards to a small office. I was on foot and not sure what exactly to do. I started walking towards Huyen -- I should mention I'm carrying a large backpack at this point which makes me look extra conspicuous -- but quickly got glances from the guard (yes, the one with the machine gun) who didn't seem to be happy that I was walking away from him. I sort of stopped in my tracks because in the distance I saw Huyen enter an office (we need to work on our communication sometimes). I was now standing on a path between a row of TANKS and ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS. One thought began to run through my mind: "We're probably not supposed to be here."

After another minute, Huyen came out of the office and fetched me. I walked towards her and right pass a small group of soldiers practicing marching. Now if you're like me, you imagine that all marching soldiers keep a stern, focused look on their faces at all times when they're marching. Well, not these guys. As soon as they saw me, their marching because completely out of synch and their faces said everything. To a man, they must have been thinking, "What the fuck is this guy doing here?"

Huyen and I ended up sitting in a room for twenty minutes talking to officer after officer until the guy who told us to come there showed up. One dude looked at my passport for ten minutes and then asked me, "Where are you from?" I wanted to say, "Dude, what the fuck have you been looking at in my passport for ten minutes if you haven't figured out where I'm from yet?" Instead I just said, "America." Nothing like telling a bunch of Vietnam war-aged army guys that you're an American.

Anyway, after talking with the officer from the phone we seemed to make a little progress. We gave him a very rough map that the army sent Huyen's family after her uncle was killed. The officer took it and said he would call the man in charge of recovering bodies in the part of Cambodia where Huyen's uncle died. Thus far we haven't heard anything back. However, we've got the guy's number so we're gonna call him soon.

Machine gun nearly to the face, interrupting marching soldiers...this was all before 9AM...and the bizarre day was just getting started...