Sunday, April 3, 2011

Swimming the Mekong River, Mother and Son

Well in a convoluted way, an opportunity came up for me to re-pay Ernest the favor. And it’s called the Mekong River Swim. When I was first handed the flyer at the boys’ swim meet I thought, ‘Really? Can expats think up one more stupid thing to do in a foreign country?’ I taped the flyer to the wall in my office and looked at it for a few days.
The Mekong is a wide, silty, slow-flowing river that carries water off the Himalayas, through China, Laos, across Cambodia and into Vietnam. It barely moves during the dry season. The river carries great barges of commercial freight and trash, it is dotted with wooden fishing boats, and although the waters have been long devoid of salt water crocodiles (more than 25 years disappeared from the Mekong), it is home to a great many micro-organisms, and not too clean, either. I could already see in my mind’s eye the macho, Speedo-clad adventure-club plunging in.
Americans carry a special kind of collective bravado. In fairness, the Brits and Australians around here can put up a good show, too. Taken together, the American confidence doesn’t always look good—think George W. trying to be eloquent. American confidence takes all-you-can-eat as a challenge, drives muscle trucks, and buys sofa-sets with no payments for five years. The world must have enjoyed a laugh on us when Paul Krugman belittled America’s “confidence fairy” last week.
But foolish as we look from time to time—and certainly as foolish as all these expats in goggles and swim caps will look in the Mekong—confidence is everything. Taking risks, making things happen, convincing others to follow your lead, begin with believing that you know what you’re doing. (OK, to be fair, it takes a good deal of resourcefulness and competence, too.) A Khmer colleague at work recently looked me up and came by my office to tell me how infatuated he has become with America. Having just returned from his first visit to the States, he was in awe of the place. The freedoms? The openness? No. He was amazed by the size of the rockets at the National Air and Space Museum, and by the height of the buildings in Manhattan! You see? It’s a powerful force, this confidence thing.
Which brings me to Ernest. He’s in a tough spot as the oldest child in a family where two kids need help on the toilet and three kids get their shoes tied for them. He’s also trying to sort out two roles that he imagines we demand from him: the boy blasting his nerf machine gun and inventing things with legos, and the substitute-dad, who keeps his siblings in line and prepares mental check-lists for mom as we’re going out the door. And as I’ve got no prior experience raising pre-teens, sometimes my methods—cuddles and songs and extra dessert—don’t fit the bill. I realize in our two older boys that I’m not just in the nurture-and-love business, but I’m in the business of building men. And although this is kind of foreign territory for me, I think it has a lot to do with confidence.
So I paid the twenty bucks and put our names down. (Yoshi will have to wait—registration starts at age 10). I called our dependable driver and booked the date. I told a somber Ernest, who absorbed this new task seriously, and confirmed that yes, it must be done.

Sunday morning. Should I admit to Ernest that I spent the whole night tossing and turning? Could we still get out of it? No way! Ernest was already brushing his teeth and putting on his suit. The other kids, bleary-eyed, eating breakfast in their PJs, were curious to see what all the excitement was about. At 7:30, we set off across Phnom Penh in Phin’s Jeep, eight little legs swinging in the back seat.
We headed north over the Japanese Friendship Bridge up Highway 6 on the narrow peninsula that separates the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Rivers. About 6 km above Phnom Penh, an island splits the Mekong, providing a narrower river on the west side without shipping traffic, a little under 1 km wide. This would be our crossing point.  The parking lot at Prek Leap Agricultural College was filling up with swimmers—loud-talking tough guys in flip-flops and Speedos (as I had expected), but also moms and daughters, granddads and funny-shaped older women—lining up to sign-in and get numbers written on their upper arms. They would count us going in and count us coming out. The kids and Phin and I made a quick trip to scout out the river before the swim and take some pictures—there wouldn’t be any photos in the water. Again, I was wondering if we could still get out of this. Then the spectators were marshaled to an awaiting boat, and it was time for stripping off clothes and shoes, kisses and good luck, handing over the backpack to Yoshi, and putting Phin in charge. A wiry Brit with a megaphone was outlining the safety measures—lifeguards in kayaks and paramedics and boats carrying inner-tubes—and indicating our course—straight across. Before we knew it, we were lining up and making our slow, muddy descent to the river.
Doing crazy things is easy when you’re in a group, so making those first steps into shin-deep muck and wading out into the opaque brown water wasn’t too hard. Ernest was on a high from the excitement, and maybe also from the group of young girls swimming with their dad near us. He splashed and kicked and belly-flopped, cooling off while we waited for the go. And then came the buzzer.
I’ve never done a swim-a-thon like this before, so wasn’t quite prepared for all the hands and elbows and feet that splash in your face when 200+ people take off at the same time. Ernest and I agreed to swim side-by-side. “You’re going to talk to me along the way, right, Mom?” Right. Ernest put up a determined freestyle for the first fifty meters or so, following the bigger guys’ lead. I glided along in a sidestroke beside him, reminding him to take it easy and pace himself. We rolled on our backs and did some elementary backstroke, the easiest way to go a long distance without a lot of work. We rolled over and did some breaststroke. The crowd was spreading itself across the river, bound by two columns of kayaks and wooden life boats. Glide, glide. Stroke, stroke. I watched on my back Ernest’s head bobbing up and down to the rhythm of his breaststroke. When we reached the middle of the river, it was really peaceful. The current was only a gentle pull downstream. I could see we were a few meters off course. So we swam at a slight diagonal, and I stopped every few meters to wait for Ernest to catch up and stay alongside me. It was a long peaceful swim. One of the lifeguards kept his kayak at a close parallel with Ernest, talking him through the last leg. And then, there we were at the opposite shore. I treaded water again so that Ernest and I could step on the shoreline together and get the same finishing time.
Glurp, glurp. We stepped through more muck up the opposite shore and climbed aboard the return boat to the congratulations of the other swimmers. Ernest told me his legs felt wobbly, and I helped him up from behind. “How old are you anyway?” “Wow! You’re my hero!” Some of the older guys were pretty impressed with Ernie. And then, as we took our places in the line for water bottles and time-recording, I saw Ernest stand up a little straighter. He could see from off the side of the boat that many more swimmers were approaching the shore. We hadn’t been the last ones. He did it—and he was pretty good at it, too.
“Mom, do you think I could tell Dad about this?” “Yes Ernest, you sure can.”