Smithsonian Folklife Festival

A Day to Float the Bahnar Boat

A Thao, left, and A Kheng, Bahnar canoemakers from Vietnam, at the festival.
A Thao, left, and A Kheng, Bahnar canoemakers from Vietnam, at the festival. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

Abandon ship! goes the cry in the middle of the Mekong River area.

It's opening day of the 41st Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall, and it's pouring rain, a welcome reprieve from the sweltering heat. Until the thunder rumbles. "We're closing down," officials yell after receiving the orders via walkie-talkie that the Doppler looks dire, and the festival cannot continue in the storm.

Boats are supposed to be handy in a flash flood. The vessel in the Bahnar Arts tent, however, looks a lot like a solid 18-foot log. The Bahnar canoemakers will hew and chisel the poplar tree trunk for the duration of the 10-day festival, until a boat emerges from the wood. But right now, lightning could strike at any minute and a metal-framed tent may not be the best place to hang out.

For the English and the Native Americans in the Jamestown portion of the festival, and the Irish from Northern Ireland, the day is getting hectic; for the Bahnar dashing around in the tent, this is the easy part of their trip.

Clothing in this box. Axes here. Baskets over there, they say, or something to that effect.

The Bahnar live in the remote Central Highlands of Vietnam in the Kon Tum Province bordering Cambodia and Laos. Their lives have been largely untouched by modern civilization, and their traditional culture is still passed down orally from generation to generation.

La Thi Thanh Thuy, the presenter for the Bahnar Arts tent, tries to translate while helping the Bahnar close up shop and find their way to the Museum of Natural History. The Bahnar speak their own language and know little Vietnamese. Thuy knows even less Bahnar. She relies on a second translator, Phan Thanh Bang, an official with Vietnam's Ministry of Culture and Information. He, like the Bahnar, lives in Kon Tum Province. He speaks no English, but can translate fluidly from Bahnar to Vietnamese.

Communication takes a while to go through the stages: Bahnar to Vietnamese to English and back.

The exact utterances of the Bahnar, as they pose for a picture beneath the woolly mammoth in the museum's rotunda, are lost in translation. But the gist of their remarks seems to be: At least it's not the Los Angeles airport.

The Bahnar left home on June 21. The itinerary from Kon Tum Province was all planned out -- 12 hours by bus to Ho Chi Minh City, a couple of flights on Malaysian Airlines to Los Angeles, a hop to Washington. Every contingency was accounted for, except how long it might take for 14 people who don't speak English to get through customs when translation was like a game of telephone.

It took too long. The Bahnar missed their flight to Washington.

And they were getting sick, too. "They're used to eating rice and noodles," says Nguyen Duc Tang, an official with the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture and Information who accompanied the Bahnar. "Maybe you like it, but the airline food was not so good to some of them," he says.

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