This is the final installment of The Water Rising. I hope it has served to educate, inform, and inspire you to help. Please, direct donations, no matter how small, to https://sites.google.com/site/thailandfloodingrelief/.
The Water Rising, Part V: The Beginning
On Monday the SAO office was open, so I had some help with arranging transportation to the airport. On Sunday the flood waters had started to recede; the route to the airport from the capital was passable again. I called a neighbor, and she told me that the water was down in my house. I could stop by later if I wanted.
One of the accountants in the office took the SAO car and drove me to my village, but not before I had stocked up on dog food at 7-Eleven. He drove me to the front of the temple, and from there I took a boat to the dry land before my house. I walked through the area where I had left the dogs two days earlier, and none of them were there. I tried to convince myself they were just splashing around in the palm field somewhere, but my heart was sinking, nonetheless. That is, until I got to the second flooded area and saw the front of my house. Right there, in front of the garage doors, on a floor that was now visible again, all four dogs were sunning themselves on the green tile. When they heard my voice they got up and started splashing toward me; the water was barely over their heads in the deepest part of the road now. They followed me up to the house again, and I poured four heaping piles of dog food on the floor.
The neighbor in whose car I had stored my big bag came over and assured me that they had been fed a meal of rice and mackerel that morning. In retrospect, I had probably overreacted a few days earlier. But I am American, and we are prone to that kind of behavior. Plus, I had no way of knowing how high the water was going to get or for how long. I had had one of my famous “Milo and Otis” moments. That’s to say, I am the type of person who can watch Saving Private Ryan and scarcely shed a tear, but Homeward Bound sends me into convulsions. I expect other humans to be able to take care of themselves, but I take the weight of the rest of the animal kingdom on my shoulders. With the exception of mosquitoes and ants. They can eat my Raid.
|Pi Air and me with my sign|
With the knowledge that my girls were going to be alright, I started roaming my house, taking in the last of it. I grabbed a few things I had forgotten, but most of it would still have to be left. If I had been able to take a bus to Bangkok, I could have had two suitcases, but on the plane I could only have one. I told Pi Air and Pi Na to donate my clothes to charity and send all of the children’s books my relatives had sent me over the years to the schools. Pi Air and Pi Oi had made me a beautiful wooden sign with my name and Thai address on it, so I would be able to have a piece of my Thai home wherever I lived. I made a mental not that maybe I would have to ship a box home from Bangkok, after all. We got my luggage out of the car and started on our way back, pulling the suitcase on a boat with the dogs swimming behind us.
When we got back to dry land Bpa Euen, whom I had yelled at two days before, was waiting for us. But when I turned to get in the car, she pulled me aside. Before the rain had started she had promised me some gifts made of jute that she had woven for me to give to my mom and grandma. In her very stern way, she directed me to a boat, and sat in it. I pulled her the fifty meters to the village meeting room, where the jute products made by the village women’s group were stored. We walked in and picked out a hat for my mom and a purse for my grandma. She told me to give her my shoes to wear, since the floor was slick with mud from the receding water, and she was likely to slip. The dogs that had caused so much trouble followed closely behind us, licking at our hands and playing on the slick floor. I started to believe she secretly liked them.
When we had my gifts I pulled her back to land. I told everyone that I would be leaving the next day, and Bpa Euen asked if others would be leaving with me. I told her a few would, but most of my group had left already, that I had chosen to stay until the last day I could. She smiled. “Shows you like it here.” “I do.”
The next morning I met Pi Nu, Pi Bpeng, and several other friends and coworkers at the SAO at 8 am. I passed out all of the gifts my parents had sent for everyone from America. I gave Pi Bpeng the gifts I had left for people I had not been able to say goodbye to. Most of them didn’t have a house to put the gifts in, anyway.
|Pi Bpeng and me with the SAO picture of the King|
|Me with my coworkers in front of the SAO office|
They drove me as far as the provincial administrative building in the capital. There was still no clear way to get to the airport by car, so they watched as I boarded a huge army cargo truck with twenty other people bound for the airport. By this point, Pi Bpeng noted that I was all smiles. “Are you happy to be going home?” they asked. “I feel waan waan kom kom.” I answered. Bittersweet. They don’t usually use those words to describe that emotion, but they all understood what I meant.
|Me in the army truck|
We took a few pictures of me on the giant army truck, and then the truck lumbered away. The trip from the capital to the airport that would normally take fifteen minutes took almost three hours. Since the rain had cleared, the weather had snapped back to normal hot season highs. Standing in the back of the uncovered truck, the passengers passed around bottles of once-cold water and traded horror stories of the last few days as the sun beat down on us. You didn’t need to hear people’s voices to know what they were talking about. They pointed to their, knees, their waists, their chests, to indicate how high the water had been. Some of us gestured over our heads. The young mother beside me had a sick son. They hadn’t been able to get to the hospital for the first day of his illness, and once they did they were stuck there. There was no electricity, and she had had to sleep on the concret of the pediatric floor for three days. The man on my other side talked about the devastation to the rubber processing plant in Phunphin. On top of the loss of income, losing all of that rubber was a disgrace to the country. Some of it had been bound for Japan to help rebuild after the earthquake. Japan had helped southern Thailand after the Tsunami, and now they would be unable to repay the favor.
|Houses along the |
Whatever those of us in the back of the truck had experienced, it was nothing compared to the devastation we saw on the way to the airport. Phunphin was arguably the city hardest hit by the flood. It was hard to believe that conditions had actually improved since the two previous days. You could only barely make out the tips of roofs on the houses bordering the Dtapi river. People had taken refuge on overpasses and in stranded trains. There were refrigerators and TVs all over the roads from people trying frantically to get their most valuable belongings to higher ground. Now that the temperature was rising again, people were intermittently splashing into the water to stay cool.
|People living out of stranded trains|
|The stranded truck|
Past the bridge over the Dtapi the flood water over the roads was rushing as it receded back toward the banks. The water was still up to the tops of the wheels of trucks in some places, but in others the road was visible again, revealing an expanse of gravel and potholes where there was once smooth pavement. In one spot a semi was stuck in the rushing water after its wheels had been trapped in a two-foot deep pothole. When we drove by, our wheels also bobbed in and out of deep gaps. At one point my side of the truck dipped so deep that I was leaning at a 45-degree angle toward the water, and my face started to get wet. At another spot a whole lane of road had been lifted up in its entirety and placed neatly on top of the next lane.
|The lane of highway that was lifted up over the next lane|
Finally, after three hours, we arrived at the airport. I walked inside the air conditioned building, bought a diet coke, and sat down to a meal with my beat-up luggage. I was dirty and tired, dehydrated and infected. But I felt strangely at ease. As guilty as I felt for leaving my community in that state and the fact that I wouldn’t be there to help rebuild, I couldn’t’ deny that a huge weight had been lifted. I hadn’t just survived the flood; I had survived my whole Peace Corps service. I didn’t have anyone to report to. For the first time in a very long time, I was completely in charge of myself. I didn’t have to answer to anyone or pretend to be Thai. I didn’t have to ride a bike or smile when I didn’t feel like it or take a shower when I was told to. I was master of myself. I was an adult again.
By the time boarding began, the adrenaline that had had a hold on me for the past week had drained down to my feet. I could barely move them to walk down the aisle and into my seat. I needed to sleep, but as the plane took off, I happened to glance out the window. At that moment, even through the haze of my fatigue, I finally comprehended the enormity of what was happening. A landscape that should have been a vibrant green had been overtaken by a huge brown smear. The Dtapi dominated the landscape, spreading its fingers through the entire province. I had been there through the worst of the flood, but for everyone else, it was just the beginning.
|Flooded Surat Thani from the air|
Since leaving my village, I have stayed in contact with many friends. Aside from damage to roads and buildings, local farmers have lost entire fields of rubber and palm, and the grasses that farm animals feed on have been wiped out. Local people need funds to stay afloat so that they can replant and rebuild. It has been three months since the worst of the flooding, but the recovery process is far from over. I implore anyone who has read this story to go to https://sites.google.com/site/thailandfloodingrelief/ to make a donation.
|The Thai flag and King watching over some men boating through|
a municipal yard