“Well this means war”

“Is is safe?” My dad asked me, just before we departed for Vietnam. He still remembered it as a war zone. Some days the place feels like a war between me and a country which I am still adjusting to. I am battling, every day for better animals welfare in a place where they are still seen largely as a commodity and I am certainly not the only one ensconced in this war here.

The wars of my parents memory are long gone but not forgotten. We discovered that firstly in Cambodia and yet again in Vietnam. Our visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh city was a thoroughly harrowing experience but completely different to how I felt after our time at The Killing Fields.

One spoke of lessons learned, intense sorrow and determined healing whereas the other seemed to highlight past mistakes which seemed all too familiar to me, born over a decade after the events occurred. Cambodia had struggled through their grief and smiled in spite of it whereas Vietnam felt much more like there were still rough edges, hard and sharp corners which hadn’t eroded with time. It reminded me a little of what I did during my own war; to bury it deep and hope that the cracks didn’t show. But they always do. However I still admire Vietnam for the welcome they have given to their previous foes. I have come across many Americans happily settled in this country despite the horrors of the past and to say that the war is still well within living memory makes the acceptance all the more admirable.

At the war museum we learned about Agent Orange. I already had some idea of the deformities the wide-scale use of it caused but what I didn’t realise was how long lasting the effects were. Second generation babies are still suffering from the exposure their grandparents encountered, both within the Vietnamese and American sides of the argument. It was sickening to see that this war has destroyed so many lives long after it’s 17 year reign of terror. And war continues to do this every day.

When my parents were growing up, Asia was at war. When Peter and I were growing up, Africa was at war, now that we are grown up, the Middle East is at war. When will the madness stop? I am too practically cynical to believe in the hope of worldwide peace but all this conflict is only highlighting the fact that we are not learning from our mistakes. Museums and history lessons and memories passed down are not doing enough to change our behaviour. We still argue, we still fight, we still take sides and it looks set to continue with more death, more suffering, more money spent and for what? In my head wars achieve very little in comparison to the impacts of the individuals caught up in it. Ruling wealth and power is fleeting. PTSD can last a life time.

Sadly I can feel a global tension brewing. Back home and in some of the most powerful nations in the world there are rumbles of discontent which cause me to fear what returning to “the real world” might merit after we finish travelling. Why must we class the harsh realities of conflict as the real world when the one I have been inhabiting is based on trust and mutual respect? Work stays require an enormous amount of trust between the host and worker. The host is inviting strangers into their home and their life, trusting them with their livelihoods, pets and kids. I even had one host give me her bank card! As workers we also trust the hosts to honour the amount of work agreed on and treat us as one of the family rather than cheap labour. Even if there are a few kinks to work out it will never amount to a full scale war. I only wish it could be that simple on a larger scale.

In my current world in Vietnam with my work in the zoo, the wars I am facing are of my own doing and my sacrifices were known to me (although perhaps not fully appreciated) before I set out for this part of our adventure. But this war is on a personal level. If I don’t fight for what I believe in the animals and keepers will go about their daily routines in much the same way as they always have done. But through gentle coercion, setting examples and coming up with ideas we are working together. We are making a difference despite our differences. They rely on me and I certainly could not achieve it without them either.

Humans are all the same, wherever we are from and whatever we do we are all the same species. We all sneeze, we all laugh, we all eat, we all cry. And the phrase “OK” seems to be universal in every language. But if we all just focused on our similarities we wouldn’t need war. We could still fight for what is right and what is good but in a connected way, fighting against the problems of mankind instead of the problems of one country versus another. Maybe peace is possible one day but for now I hope more people come to these places to learn the truth behind the propaganda. If we are to face more war we should at least know what it really means.

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