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TRIBE

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Forty-three sets of new eyes stared at Dogster as he stumbled through the door. They were all perfectly paired, coiffed and extremely clean – he was neither clean, coiffed nor paired but did have impressive luggage.

Meeting point was an upstairs foyer at the Renaissance Hotel in old Saigon. When Dogster arrived late the full compliment of passengers were glued to him and his expensive silver suitcase. Mr. Dogster bowed and waved gaily at the sea of curiosity and made his solitary way to a high table in the centre of the room, acutely aware that all eyes were upon him. To his great surprise, some of them were smiling.  To Dogster’s even greater surprise, none of them were really, really old – in fact, most were positively youthful. Perhaps he was in the wrong place. Only old people go on cruises.

We were all shapes and sizes, even a few different colors, we were sun-burnt and fat and short and white and tall. Some were positively tiny. I found out later that they were children – seven of them aged from five to fourteen. We were couples and two singles; we were families, old and young and in-between. We were all of humanity from five to seventy-five – mostly German and Australian, with a Yank or two, a quartet of New Zealanders and a couple of keen young Swiss to balance out the two old Vietnamese smiling kindly in the distance. We were all going to spend seven days together on the Mekong, sailing upriver from Saigon to Siem Reap – a multi-cultural floating world.

‘Jayavarman?’

‘Yes,’ said a sweet Vietnamese woman, ‘and you must be Mr. Dogster!’

I was swamped with sweet Vietnamese attention. The more she attended, the sweeter she became – and of course, the more she attended, the more attention I attracted.

‘Pssssipipibitip,’ I heard, ‘psssisipip-who-isss-thisss-guy?’

Ms. Sweet Vietnam was a Jayavarman employee. She knew a tragic single when she saw one. To the Vietnamese anybody without a dozen relatives in tow is a loner. Ms. S.V. was kindly welcoming a sad old man into the fold. She was going to keep on welcoming me till I died.

‘Pssssipidipididipip,’ from the other passengers, ‘pssipidipi-VIP.’

Ears yawned at nearby tables, trying to catch every sweet Vietnamanglo-saxon word.

‘Psssipipidity-pss-wss-wzzz…

Cover blown, invisibility abandoned, Mr. Dogster looked around the room.

‘Wow,’ he said, just loud enough to be heard in Hanoi, ‘what a great looking bunch of passengers! I’m amazed, this is gonna be fun.’

‘Psssipidipity-ah-h-h-h,’ he heard.

Dogster’s moment in the sun was over. He had however been noted.

A gigantic peal of thunder heralded our arrival downstairs. We all clambered into two impressively large buses and set off for My Tho in the pouring rain. The Mekong was just an hour and a half down the road. I scored the bus with the tour guide – one Mr. Son. His first name was John.

John-son.

Get it? Hee hee hee.

Mr. Son was fresh-faced, newly-married and tremendously enthusiastic. He would entertain us till the Cambodian border with tales of Vietnam delivered in an accent so impenetrable he may as well have been talking about Poland for all most of us knew. The sixteen Germans and two Swiss were baffled before he began and weeping tears of dazed confusion by the time he finished – and this was just the bus ride. He had a little peak of hair that headed for China on the top of his head and a brilliant set of teeth. John-son looked exactly like Astro Boy.

‘In Vi-nam we li’ ka-ra-oke. Bitty Spee’. Ellybo’ li’ Britty Spee. The ga’ment pay da manee to da peepor then’ey go ka-ra-oke, sin’ Britty Spee…’

Then he began to sing ‘Besame Mucho’. I have no idea why.

Vinamee langua verry difficult,’ he continued, ‘thirty-si’ letters, every one not like you. Every lett’ diffelen’. Eeevree soun’ diffelen’, not li’ you. We say ‘Ma, ma’ or ‘Ma ma’ or ‘Mmaa mmaa’ or ‘ma ma’ or ‘Ma Ma’ and all diffelen…

‘Ma ma’ mean ‘ma ma’, li’ ma ma. ‘Ma Ma’ mean ‘show me you bosom’, ‘mma mma’ mean give me money, ‘ma ma’ mean ‘you house is on fi’’, ‘Ma Mar’ mean ‘your bum is velly big…’

Perhaps I have this wrong. All around me the lights were going out. German heads slumped on German chests, Aussies slumbered peacefully, blissfully unaware of anything. He could see he was losing his captive audience. Astro Boy decided to sing us all to sleep.

‘Bee-samee.. be-sa-me mooch..o…’

The meeting of the tribes had begun. These forty souls funneled through time and space to  arrive simultanously on a deck on the Delta. They look at you. You look at them. Where to sit? They look nice. Can I join you? Of course, you can, my name’s John – Or Judy, Or Bob, or Pam. Pleased to meet you. Do you like the boat? Where are you from? Oh, I’ve been there! Here’s the crew now; introductions, I’m the purser, I’m the director, he’s the captain, here’s the barman, here’s the deck-hand, here’s the cook and here’s the housemaid and clap for every swingle face you see. Forty-four souls are joined by thirty-five souls and together create their own floating world.

And all the time every eye is recording every action of each of their new companions, minutely examining each interactions, each smile, each snarl, each faux-pas; scanning each other from tip to toe, searching for a clue. Natural selection is going on. It’s all in the numbers.

There were sixteen Germans, including three family groups with five of the seven children. On arrival they were a tribe within a tribe. Five German children ran a separate state within their ranks. There were sixteen Australians, four New Zealanders – three tribes floating on the Mekong. Between these groups, lubricating the wheels, the lost children; the minorities wandered; the singles, the two American couples, a pair of young Swiss couple and a mouldy old Dog.  The dynamics were set. Now we just wait to see who cracks first.

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