History is More Than the Textbooks

khe sanh combat base dmz vietnam
            My least favorite class in school was history.  Every day, I would do the bare minimum I needed to get an “A” which often meant glazing over a chapter of my textbook and paying close attention to the bolded terms and their definitions so that I would pass the inevitable “pop quiz” the following morning.  The school year wasn’t long enough to really dive into a topic and since I wasn’t really passionate about history, I didn’t spend any of my spare time trying to actually process the information that I had committed to memory.

trail marker bombs laos
With exploded and hidden bombs littering eastern Laos areas must be marked indicating the bomb safe areas.

            Fast-forward to my time abroad and all of a sudden I began to develop a passion for something I previously thought was impossible.  The bolded terms I had memorized began to actually make sense to me and I often laid awake at night researching more information about the topics I had more exposure to.

tank war museum siagon vietnam
A tank at the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

            In Vietnam, I crawled through the Cu Chi and Vinh Moc Tunnels where many Vietnamese people lived underground during the war.  It was hot, difficult to breathe, and entirely too small for me to get comfortable.  And yet, they were the very tunnels where people lived, attended school, were treated for medical problems, and gave birth for YEARS.  I saw leftover tanks, planes and bombs from the war.  I wandered around areas of the countryside where bomb craters plagued the Earth.  I wandered through the prison where many Americans were held captive.  And most importantly, I met survivors from the war, many of which were handicapped as a result of exploding bombs and agent orange and more than willing to share their stories.

cu chi tunnel entrance vietnam
The entrances to the tunnels were hidden and a very tight squeeze to get into.

living quarters vinh moc tunnels vietnam
Once inside, there were tiny chambers like the one pictured on the right where entire families would live.

In Laos, I spent three days trekking through the jungle with a local guide.  Prior to the war, he was a hunter in the rainforest.  During the war, he fought in the rainforest.  Now, he is working to protect and conserve the rainforest.  He did not speak any English, yet our body language and facial expressions said it all.  He showed me how to survive in the forest as he did, fashioning bowls out of bamboo and making plates out of banana leaves.  He pointed out to me the leftover bomb craters, trenches, and hiding places used during the war.

nam et phou louey national protected area hike lunch laos
During the hike, we stopped and laid banana leaves down to eat. 

nam et phou louey national protected area hike soup bamboo bowl laos
We ate with our hands and sometimes used hollowed out bamboo as bowls.

In Cambodia, I explored S21 which was used as a prison during the Cambodian Genocide.  I was face to face with the photos of over 20,000 prisoners who did not survive in that prison alone.  I wandered through the cells and torture chambers, many of which were still stained with old blood.  I walked around the Killing Fields where many prisoners were sent to be executed.  Now, a depressingly beautiful memorial stands in the center, full of layer after layer of human skulls and remains.

memorial tower killing fields cambodia
In the center of the Killing Fields is a memorial filled top to bottom with skulls and remains from those who were executed there.

killing fields memorial tower cambodia

memorial tower filled skulls killing field cambodia

            Prior to this trip, history was something I had to study for school and that was it.  Traveling internationally and living abroad has allowed me to meet so many different kinds of people, many of whom have several stories they are eager to share.  Now, I am able to actually contextualize what I have learned and share their stories with others.  History is about so much more than the bolded terms in our textbooks.  It’s about the lives of others and the impact our actions have on each other.

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