"The Peaceful Side of Pleiku"

By Valerie Schumacher

Since we were going no place fast out of Pleiku, our guide Viet (earning every dollar of his pay) talked our "guardians" of Pleiku Security into letting us visit the Bahnar and Jarai montagnard tribes outside Pleiku. Wish granted, much to our surprise.

We'd been moved to the Pleiku Hotel, which was actually nicer than the Yaly - pre-blast. It had the most godawful stuffed wild animals in the lobby - a ratty, yet frightening, tiger under the staircase - all with the same size staring marble eyes, no matter how big or small the defunct animal was.

One woman in our group kept making bomb jokes. I've got a hell of a sense of humor, but I did not find her the least bit funny at the time, though we all took to beginning all future postcards "Having a blast in Vietnam."

In retrospect, I realize she was coping with the situation the best she knew how; and it was probably better than the deep funk I'd gotten myself into over not being able to leave town *immediately*. I had my doubts about enjoying our prolonged stay in Pleiku, but that turned out to be wrong.

A local guide named Hai brought us out to visit the Bahnar, about 30 klicks from the Ia Drang Valley, he said. He told me he'd been one of the guides for the veterans who'd returned to Ia Drang (filmed for a Day One special), and I told him I'd seen them this past November in D.C. on Veterans Day.

These montagnards made the Ede and Mnong people look well off. They lived in abject poverty, though they made full use of all the old US military paraphernalia left behind - barbed wire and PSP galore.

Their longhouses were like shanties strewn together with wire and scrap metal. They were also much more shy than the Mnong, the women hiding their faces as though cameras would steal their souls; and children following at a distance, materializing out of bushes, faces like Cheshire cats in trees.

A tiny, wizened old man in a loincloth spoke perfect French and welcomed us in. I had the sense of being watched at all times, although there were few people to be seen.

We hiked through the red dust up to a little stream with a suspension bridge across it - one of those bamboo and barbed wire numbers. The last six feet of the flooring was missing, which made the crossing rather nerve-wracking.

I could have waded the stream but didn't think it a good idea given the water's microorganisms and my recently cut foot. I cursed my way across it, then laughed at myself as some montagnard boys followed suit at a run and bounced in the middle of the bridge for good measure, just to show what wimps we were.

We came upon another village on the hilltop; and there appeared to be no adults, only children. Ragged and dirty little children, little girls with babies on their hips. There was a hell of a ruckus coming from one longhouse, however; and there we found all the adults getting bombed on ruou can liquor, on a three day drunk celebrating the slaughter of a water buffalo. The others in my group went in to partake, but I declined the fun and hung out in their most incredible graveyard.

This graveyard, where I spent a good half hour mingling with the departed ancestors, just has to be seen to be believed. It was right on the top of the hill; and huge white cauliflower clouds boiled over the horizon, never obscuring the burning sun. Red dust and green peaks.

The Bahnar had built mini-hootches for the dead--little corpse-size longhouses roofed with shiny sheet metal that was blinding in the sunlight. Each grave had a stick fence around it; and under each hootch were offerings of liquor and fruit for the dead. Bamboo spikes at least fifteen feet tall were interspersed with the sticks, and atop each one was either a tiny toy-size conical hat or a little airplane or helicopter fashioned out of metal, all denoting important things in the deceased's life. Rags flew in the hot wind, and the skulls and hooves of water buffalo were nailed at the roof peaks.

It was a wild and eery place. I found some wooden planks decorated with primitive drawings, some incredible artwork, depicting tiger attacks, and copulation. These people were as interesting in death as in life.

We hiked on through a eucalyptus and bamboo forest to another village. The sun was setting by then and the colors just took my breath away; every- thing was red and gold and green and bathed in peace. Boys, leading home their water buffalo, stared fiercely; and I'd smile at them, getting one back in return. They almost seemed surprised at smiles.

In the last village the children swarmed behind us, keeping a good distance. I was always trailing last in line, so I'd stop and turn around to face them; and they'd stop dead in their tracks. It got to be a game. I'd walk exaggeratedly and stop and turn (you know that 'Three Stooges' thing - step by step, slowly I turn), and they'd giggle nervously, coming a little closer all the time.

Finally, they came right up and surrounded me; and I squatted in the dust (boy, was I red with it from top to bottom) to chat. My words were nonsensical to them, but we all got a kick out of it anyway. The most gorgeous little children, wearing lime green and mango colors, smeared with dirt, decorated with plastic beads and fake pearls, and sassy earrings.

Back in the village, the light was fading fast; and we were invited into their thatch roof community house for a short gong concert by the young men who'd returned from the fields. There was no light inside, and we could barely make out the figures of some drummers in the corner and two men at either end of a line hung with metal gongs of varying sizes. Clearly, they knew their routine by heart; and the wondrous music filled the room. I can only liken it to the steel drums you hear in the Carib- bean, very mellow and melodic. We sat rapt on the bamboo mat and clapped for them in earnest when they were through.

Back at the Pleiku Hotel, I opted out of dinner on the town and went to the kitchen for a bowl and a spoon with which to make myself some oatmeal. The cook invited me into his kitchen and pulled up a stool so we could talk, since he spoke impeccable English. For hours we sat, and I forgot my oatmeal.

Tinh was schooled in English in Saigon by the Americans and worked for the Army from 1968-70 and the Air Force from 1971-75. Like so many others, he'd been sent away for 10 years of reeducation; but there was a glint to his eyes that told me he wasn't fully "reeducated."

When I asked him if he believed the blast the day before had been caused by a bag of gunpowder, he gave me a wink and a funny grin and said, "Well, if that's what they say it was, then it must be, eh?"

He told me he loves to meet the American veterans who have just begun returning to Pleiku and said the Ia Drang vets had stayed at the Pleiku Hotel. "It was so funny!" he said. "Even so many years later, they still talk like GI's! Everything is 'fuck this' and 'fucking that'!"

I laughed and replied, "Well, Tinh, I have to admit - I do believe that's one of the words that came out of my mouth yesterday when that explosion went off."

And we laughed. If that bomb hadn't gone off, I never would have met Tinh, one of the jewels of my trip.

The next morning, before our 1:00 plane out of Pleiku, we visited a Jarai tribe outside of town. These people were very similar to the Bahnar, but their graves were decorated with carved wooden totem poles instead of the sticks and metal airplanes.

We were invited into the chief's home, and his daughter showed us some of the incredible weaving they create - brightly colored sarong-like skirts. In one corner was a pile of painted black gourds fashioned into water bottles, interspersed with old plastic Army canteens. We found many more of those gourds down at the bathing and watering area, where the Jarai had plunged long hollow tubes of bamboo into the mountainside to create showers for themselves.

Back in the village once again, I passed out more of Polecat's pens and pulled out some post-it notes I'd brought along for fun. I stuck one to a child's chest, and he looked at it in wonderment. Soon every kid had to have a post-it note stuck to his or her chest. I took a pen and wrote "HI!" on the first boy's chest; and next thing I knew, I felt like I was handing out autographs; every kid simply had to have "HI!" on their chests.

The entire child population of the Jarai posed with us for a group photo and then watched in puzzlement as we Americans posed for pictures next to the shattered windshield of our van (which we thought wiser to do *outside* of Pleiku). They yelled "Hello!" as we drove away. It sounds much better than goodbye.

Copyright 1995 By Valerie Schumacher, All Rights Reserved