Here’s the puzzle for me: the floating village is an articulate and inventive human response to the natural phenomenon that a lake that sustains them increases, seasonally, to six times its original size and then shrinks back from 6,000 square miles to a mere 960. It completes this cycle twice a year. That the villagers have adapted, are able to adapt, continue to adapt demonstrates a human doggedness not unlike the great migrations of birds from Patagonia to Canada or of the animals of the Serengeti braving the African veldt in search of water. The birds, however, have little choice. The stars align properly, and the temperature falls to a level that captures the attention of some genetic mechanism that tells them to fly. Monarch butterflies travel so far by virtue of their genes that no Monarch has ever seen the summer home the whole migratory bunch aims for. Only grandchildren complete that journey.
The humans, by contrast, could have moved inland. Could have created functional transportation systems that would allow them to reach the lake, do their fishing, and return home for dinner. Or, at worst, the fishermen might have sailed deep into the lake for two days or a week and then returned home to a fixed neighborhood with solid houses, schools, clinics, churches, crematoria.
But no, when the Tibetan snows melt and the Mekong becomes engorged and the tributaries and canals fill with charging water, the village cuts itself free of its moorings and sails inland. They pass along the drowning access road that runs for miles along the canals. They watch the water level rise over the bushes, last year’s moorings, the trees, the foundation stones of the crematorium the government built for them last year on something of a hill. When they have floated far enough, their long-tailed engines throbbing through the thick water, they anchor the school, the Catholic church some have chosen over their native Buddhism, the crocodile farm. Those who dragged a vegetable garden out into the river downstream drive stakes into the mud, trapping the air-filled oil drums that hold the veggie patch in place. Colorful houseplants reappear on the porch. The engine repair man and his son prepare for the weeks of labor facing them because many engines found the migration too demanding, and all the fishermen face a longer commute out into the now-distant lake. Some families reopen their markets, and the men roar off on their motorcycles to buy wholesale supplies to stock their shelves. Others, apparently serving shut-ins or those with too many responsibilities to motor or row off to shop, ready their grocery delivery skiffs. Children are instructed on the routes to pole their small boats to school. Big brothers ensure that little brothers have become strong swimmers. No one is allowed to start school without first demonstrating swimming skills. Some few, immune to the heat and sun, display themselves beautifully, serenely paddling through the neighborhood.
All is ready; all settles into the daily, placid, ritual, unquestioned routine of life on the water. In six months, the water will turn–the river that feeds the canals when the Mekong floods the lake is the only river in the world that completely reverses its course. So great is the pressure of the Mekong. So powerful is the Mekong’s influence on the genetic memory of the generations that have lived here.
I might be satisfied with the genetic argument: the floating village people live this life because it is ingrained in their very chromosomes. What a noble thought! But then, my view turns back to the people who live along the road the runs, in dry weather, for miles and miles, and who live there when the water begins to rise again, threatening their homes, their rice paddies, their duck farms, their settled communities. Are they also genetically predisposed to put their lives and livelihoods at risk every year? Are they the braver lot, ones who trust they can survive or have they given themselves up to an indifferent fate? Portraits from neither community suggest anxiety or depression. The duck farmer, the woman hip-deep in a pond while she gathers water lilies, the bicyclist sharing the road with the wandering cow, the boy leading his water buffalo somewhat further from our bus, the two young women sitting at a low table enjoying a morning coffee–all, as I suggested in the earlier post, seem to share a wisdom or complaisance or calme de vivre that, if it is not genetic, is altogether powerful and immensely human.