Travelers Manifesto

"Okay, take a deep breath, you can do it." This is the silent, self-coaching, I chant, as I enter the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. I conclude, I should be more than capable of completing this foray because I have experience in confronting claustrophobically-laden confines.

Within nanoseconds, self-doubts spring forth as I flash back two years. This is when I ace the written portion of the scuba diving certification but my applicative abilities appear to be sub-par as I squirm on the seafloor of Lake Tahoe in the wintertime, sucking for air. I burn oxygen at a faster than normal rate; and, although I forewarn him, my instructor finally clicks in when he sees my tank needle hitting the danger zone. I believe I pass this practicum because the instructor appreciates my go-get-it attitude.

Fast-forwarding two months, I am practicing my limited scuba diving skills in the Gili Islands in Indonesia. Adventure rapidly transposes into misadventure when on my fifth scuba dive, I'm doing a drift dive for which I'm utterly unprepared. Losing one fin and being dragged along upside down by churning waters crystallizes the likelihood that my sixth scuba dive will be under the auspices of a refresher course.
I am not a newcomer to misadventure. Three decades prior to scuba diving, I give skydiving a go. I am rigorously trained by an Army Captain who is a member of the Golden Knights, the elite U.S. Army Parachute Team. Per usual, I do great on the written test but after a few skydives, I collide with a tree. Oops! Do you think that barking German Shepherd at the base of the tree I landed in is friendly?
Let's proceed unencumbered to this new adventure: the Cu Chi tunnels, a seventy-five mile network of underground passageways, located in Ho Chi Minh. During the Vietnam War, these subterranean structures are vital for food and weapon cache storage, medical care, military and communication operations and living quarters for the Vietnamese guerilla fighters. The Viet Cong pop out or back into these carefully concealed, grass-covered openings as needed.

Well, here's what seems like good news: I'm small enough to crawl through these miniature tunnels. The bad news is my six-foot plus husband is too big for this expedition.
My guide, a former Viet Cong officer, motions it's time to enter the hole. Lacking the foresight to ask how long or how far our underground journey will be, into the tunnel, like Alice in Wonderland, I go. In this downward expedition, I quickly discover that this is not a "one size fits all" adventure.
Corkscrewing through this compressed space, I find echolocation to be my only friend. Pitch-blackness, claustrophobic, mud-ridden territory that requires careful crawling, a lack of breathable air, unidentified creatures scurrying over my legs and what feels like one-hundred percent humidity defines this passageway into the unknown. It's time to recite another positive self-talk technique: "Keep moving. Other people have done this and you can too."

Twenty hours elapse, alright, it's really only about twenty minutes, and we emerge upward into the sunlight. Externally, I am covered in a sheen of sweat. Internally, my bounding heart rate, known as tachycardia, announces I'm still alive as I exit out of this "black echo."
Stumbling away, I have a new-found respect for Vietnamese and American soldiers, and for any individual who fights for a cause they cherish. What people endure for what they believe supersedes any thrill-seeking risks I have ever undertaken.

Prior to going to Vietnam, I wondered if the Vietnamese would have any resentment towards us because we were once the enemy, Americans. The answer is a resounding: "No." This journey is saturated with the smiles and friendliness of the Vietnamese and I learn that what I ethnocentrically label as the Vietnam War is actually called the American War in Vietnam. Wanderlust, again, turns out to be the pervasive antidote for pulverizing ethnocentrism.

Hopefully, my ever-expanding cultural templates of adventures and misadventures will continue to metamorphosize my traveler's manifesto. For now, I challenge myself and you to work upon becoming comfortably, uncomfortable in different countries and to flounder as long as necessary with conflicting, discordant information guided by the intention of resurfacing with a congealed, multi-layered, cultural perspective.

Of course, you are more than welcome to join me on the next journey but to ensure we are compatible traveling companions, I just want to ask you one question. Have you heard about the American War?

K McFadden

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