Friday, July 1, 2011

The Water Rising, Part V: The Beginning

Hello all,

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

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
Dtapi River
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 to make a donation.
The Thai flag and King watching over some men boating through
 a  municipal yard

Be well,

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Water Rising, Part IV

Hello all,

Welcome to the fourth installment of The Water Rising. Please visit to make a donation and help with relief efforts.

The Water Rising, Part IV

Sharon and another dog
playing in the flood waters
After rescuing the dogs, I gave my dry land neighbors the bags of cat food I had taken from the store, telling them I didn’t know if I would be back, and please give it to the dogs. I started back toward the second round of water. The big dog was still following me. I screamed at him to stop, smacked him on the nose, and threw sticks at him, but it didn’t do any good. He had nowhere else to go, so he was determined to go with me.
I was already soaked, so it was pointless to wait for a boat--the water was only up to my chest at the highest. The big dog stayed with me the whole way. When he started to tug at my shoulders again I grabbed him about the waist and carried him along. One of my student’s fathers was also wading along. He had a “coconut boat”—two coconut shells connected by foot-long piece of rope—and we tried to put the dog’s front legs over the rope and make him ride it, but it did no good. We gave up, and I just carried the thing along with me.  Eventually we reached Pi Bpeng’s house, and the dog was finally intimidated by Pi Bpeng’s dogs, at least enough to stay out of the house.

I showered and tried to eat something. Pi Bpeng asked if I would prefer to sleep at her house that night or at the health station. She stressed that the health station was closer to 7-eleven and the SAO office, and I could come and go as I pleased there. I could tell she really wanted to get me out of the area. She worried about me when I took off in the water, and I was probably embarrassing her by getting myself all wet and crying in public. I was a mess, and I knew it, and I knew she was right. I needed to leave. I had gotten the dogs to safety, but I had offended Bpa Euen in the process. I had yelled at an old woman who had helped to take care of me for two years. I had embarrassed a lot of people with my blatant displays of emotion and animal rescue. On top of that, I was exhausted. Every muscle in my body was sore. I had blisters all over my feet, and a mosquito bite on my arm had gotten infected from the dirty water. Both practically and physically, there was nothing more I could do. I agreed to go to the health station as soon as the staff could come and pick me up.
A local girl watching the river
on the route to the health station

The health station SUV pulled up about fifteen minutes later. They stayed for a few minutes to drink coffee and eat snacks. A few tears were still spilling over onto my cheeks intermittently, making everyone uncomfortable. “Don’t worry about me,” I told them. “It’s just the flood. It’s reached eye level.”
For lunch the health station staff took me to a funeral. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Thai funerals are usually about a week long, and they often serve as much as a social gathering as a place of mourning. The whole point is that the grieving family doesn’t have to be alone, and everyone has a chance to show their support. Everyone is welcome at a funeral, and there are always funerals going on during hot season.

I’m not sure why, but hot season is dying season in Thailand. I’m not alone in thinking this, either. All causes of death seem to increase with the temperature—accidents, old age, violence. The heat makes people’s minds and bodies betray them. There were three funerals going on in the area that week. My last few days in my town, I ate almost all of my meals at funerals.

After the funeral the head nurse asked me if I needed to go anywhere before we headed to where I would be staying. I told her I needed clothes. In my hurry to grab the necessities and get out of my house the previous day a lot of things had seemed more important than t-shirts. My priorities were the objects that held my memories and the things I didn’t want people to find when they eventually cleaned the place out. As a result, I had rescued my computer, my external hard drive, my well-traveled old teddy bear, and every pair of underwear I had worn for two years. I am still quite positive this was a wise move. After all, my landlord’s father is the one in charge of burning the family’s trash. Whether we’re talking about my everyday, cotton, 100-plus degree biking briefs or the few Victoria’s Secret cheeky numbers I reserved for special occasions, I can only imagine the impact the contents of my unmentionable drawer could have had on my legacy.

My only option for clothing was the t-shirt stand outside 7-Eleven. I picked out the only two shirts that were big enough and headed inside to the air-conditioned convenience store. The shelves had been stripped of Thai necessities like canned mackerel and coconut milk. Fortunately, my necessities --peanut butter, bread, and chocolate--were still fully stocked. For the first time in over a week, things were going my way.
It was decided that I should sleep in the massage room of the health station. It had a mat on a raised surface that at least looked like a bed, and I would have access to a bathroom out back in an unused building. Not altogether bad digs, considering the circumstances.

I spent the majority of the next three days in that massage room. A couple of times the head nurse picked me up and took me to her house to shower. She had hot water, which felt amazing on my aching muscles, but I resented being told when to shower. It felt like training all over again, when my every move was dictated by my host family. I tried to refuse one morning, saying I hadn’t been sweating, and I had just showered the night before. Pi Nu was standing there, though. She explained that after two years I was basically a Thai person now, and Thai people shower at least twice a day, so therefore I needed to shower. I couldn’t argue with her logic. I showered and ate at the funeral, as I was told.

I had a couple of seasons of The Office and 30 Rock on my computer, so I was able to space out enough to fall asleep for a while that first night in the health station. In the morning I hitchhiked to 7-Eleven and got a coffee to drink out in front of the gas station cafĂ©. My mom, after watching news of the flood for several days, had decided she had to do something. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really anything she could do, so she settled on texting jokes to my phone at three minute intervals for an hour or so to lift my spirits. I’m not sure if it was the texts or the coffee or the chocolate, but I was definitely starting to feel better.

The second night I ate at the funeral of a young soldier who had been killed. He was 24. I tried to ask how he died, but the only answer I got from two different people was, “He was a soldier and he was shot.” I took the hint and left it alone.

His whole family was there, including his older sister, who was my age and spoke good English. She was studying Chinese in Beijing and had had trouble getting back for the funeral because of the flood. We had met before, and she seemed genuinely pleased to see me, as did her mom. I felt as though I was intruding on a very personal loss, even though I knew they didn’t see it that way. This was a Thai funeral, after all. I was honoring them by showing up, even though I didn’t really know the deceased or the family. Despite that, this funeral had a different feel from the one where I had eaten my other meals. That funeral was for an old man, and people were relaxed, even cheerful. This one had an air of calm sorrow. I watched the family in amazement. Just a day earlier I had been unable to hold back my tears of worry over a few dogs. This family was burying their youngest son, and they seemed almost serene. All around me, people were losing their homes, their livelihoods, and their loved ones, and I was the one crying. Were they repressing their emotions, or did they just have that much trust that things were going to be okay?
Proof of Thai optimism . My neighbors fish in
yard in the rain.
After dinner I sat for the evening ceremony. The monks entered, and everyone chanted a mixture of Thai and Pali. For the first time I started to understand the appeal of religion and ceremony. I was freaking out, in part, because I had no idea what to do. American culture, our famous melting pot, has no prescribed way for dealing with adversity and loss. Thai people have a process. It’s not logical or scientifically proven to be beneficial, but it exists. It frees you from choices in those first critical days when rational decisions are just out of reach.

Thank you for continuing to follow the story. Donations can be made at Stay tuned for the final installment of The Water Rising tomorrow. 

Be well,

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Water Rising, Part III

Hello all,

Thank you for tuning in to third installment of the story. Don't forget to visit to help with relief efforts

The Water Rising, Part III

I awoke just after dawn on Pi Bpeng's floor. I couldn't eat, so I went for a walk to a little shop to buy some food for the dogs. I was going to try to go visit them.  All the shop had was cat food, so I bought a couple of bags of that. As I was headed back Pi Nu passed me and asked where I was going. She was going in the same direction, so I caught a ride with her to where the water started in front of the temple. The water had gotten even higher overnight, and everyone told me it was best to take a boat. A lot of the people who fished in the Dtapi River had volunteered their boats to help people get back and forth from their homes. Multiple families were staying in the second story of the huge new house on the other side of my next door neighbor’s shop. 

My ride back to the house
While I was waiting for the boat I wondered whether or not I should have bought some snacks for them. What would they think if I brought food for the dogs but not the people? I asked the boat driver if I had time to go get something, and he assured me that people had already brought a bunch of provisions to them earlier. I got in the boat with a couple of kids headed back to their family’s house after sleeping with relatives. I took the boat over the first flooded area, then got off and waded through the second part. I was relieved to see that Stephanie was still running around on high ground. I tried to go to her to give her a bag of food, but a big German Shepherd-like dog I had never seen before kept following me around. I dumped out some food for him, then ran the other way and dumped out a pile for Steph. While they chowed, I started to wade over to my house. The big dog followed me, and when we got to where he couldn’t touch anymore he started to swim after me, I looked back and realized Steph was swimming behind him. There was nothing I could do to stop either one of them. I didn’t have any rope to tie them up, and no one else did, either.

The garage doors to my house were closed, and the water had risen significantly overnight. I waded past my house and my neighbor’s shop to the big house where everyone was staying. The water was up to my chest, and both dogs were getting tired. Steph started to panic and veer off course, out toward the river where the water was getting deeper. I tried to go after her, but the big dog started to climb up onto my shoulders. I called her, but she wouldn’t come toward me. I started screaming louder and more desperately as I neared the big house, where everyone was sitting eating snacks. 

“Who’s your friend?” they asked of the big dog.
 “I don’t even know this one!” I said. I yelled for Steph. They yelled at me to come up and eat rice. “Just hold him so he doesn’t follow me,” I told one neighbor sitting near the bottom. “I’m going to go get her.”
“Don’t go, it’s too deep. It’s over your head,” they told me.
“Just hold the dog,” I said again. She wouldn’t. She just stared at him. They all just stared at me as I went out. 

As I walked out toward Steph, the water came up to me chest, then my shoulders, and I was soon straining to keep my head above water. I would have swum out after her--she was going out further and further into deep water—but the big dog was climbing up my shoulders. He was whining and panicking, and I was helpless.

“It’ll come back on its own,” my neighbors shouted. “Don’t worry about it.” But I was frantic. I was almost crying again. I noticed that Pleng and Preh’s uncle was out in a boat further out. He turned and seemed to going in the direction of Steph, but I couldn’t be sure. There was nothing I could do; I was just making things worse.

My thoughts turned back to the dogs  I had left in the house the day before. “Where are the other three?” I asked Bpa Euen, who was sitting on the steps.

“They went and stayed in the capital.” She thought I was talking about Pi Air and Pi Oi. Even though I was using the classifier for animals, she thought I was talking about people—it seemed that absurd to her that I might be asking after the dogs. I felt foolish, and my foolishness made me angry.

 “No, the dogs! Where are they?”
“I don’t know!” she replied. She was not accustomed to little girls raising their voices at her.
“I’m going into my house,” I announced, abruptly turning my back on the crowd.

The big dog followed me around back, whining as the water rose over his head and he was forced to start swimming again. I opened my door, and the two of us waded inside.

My kitchen on the previous day. The water had reached the
cabinet doorknobs when I came back for the dogs
The water was up to my knees inside the house. The electricity had finally given out, and I could barely see where I was going. Filled with water and darkness, my house suddenly seemed so much smaller, claustrophobic.

I looked through to the living room, and there they were, all three of them, sitting just where I had left them on my bed frame. I went closer to them, but the big dog followed, and Janet started to growl. I couldn’t’ keep the big dog more than a few feet from me. He was freezing and wanted to climb on the bed frame with the girls. I walked to the kitchen counter and lifted him up onto it, then poured out some cat food for him. He stayed there long enough for me to walk over and pour out the last of my cat food for the girls. It wasn’t very much. I opened a couple cans of mackerel. The big dog had given up on eating by then. He just wanted to be near me. I searched the house for the cat food that I knew had to be stashed somewhere in my neighbor’s shop stock. It was nowhere to be found, and all four dogs were alternately whining, growling and barking. Meanwhile, I knew that Stephanie had to be drowning, and my vision blurred with tears and bitter frustration.

I knew I wouldn't be able to get the girls out of the house with the big dog following me. I went back outside, determined to find a rope and tie him up. As I neared the high, dry land, I saw Stephanie splashing through the shallow water. I’m still not sure if she came all the way back on her own or had help. I have my suspicions that Pleng and Preh’s uncle got her with his boat. I don’t know him well, but their entire family acted as my personal team of guardian angels in so many ways over those two years, it would not surprise me to know that he rescued my dog.

I called to Steph and let out a great sob of relief as my legs nearly gave out from under me. I started to realize just how tired I was. I had waded through well over a mile of water over the past two days, much of it with heavy bags or animals in tow. I went to my neighbors on dry land and asked if they had some rope. I was going to tie him up, then tie up the girls up as I got them, one by one, so they wouldn’t follow me back. There was no unused rope to be found, though. Since there was no way to contain the dogs I would have to do it in one trip and trust they would all follow me.
LaToya looking out the front of my house on the previous day.

I headed back to my neighbors at the big house. I grabbed my small bag that I had left with them, thanked them—for what, exactly? Holding my bag? Yes. Helping me? No. Tolerating my eccentricity for two years? Maybe.—then told them I was leaving and waded back to my house, big dog in tow the whole way. When I got back in, I finally found the stash of cat food from my neighbor’s store stock. I stuffed as much of it as I could in my bag, wrapped the bag around my neck, then opened the garage door at the front of my house. I picked up Janet and put her in the water, then did the same with La Toya. Then I lifted Janet and carried her outside. The big dog trudged along at my heels—if my heels had been visible through the water—followed by La Toya, and eventually Sharon. When they were all out I closed the garage door and waded up to dry land, holding Janet like a baby and calling to the others to keep them on course. Eventually we reached land, and Sharon and La Toya took off running into the rubber orchards. Janet stood for a few seconds looking unsure of herself, but within a few seconds they were all relieving themselves among the rubber trees. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who needed to take a load off. 

Tune in tomorrow for the fourth installment and go to to make a donation.

Be well,

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Water Rising, Part II

Hello all,

Welcome to the second installment of The Water Rising. Please son't forget to support Thailand Flood Relief at

I awoke the next morning at seven to Pi Air knocking at my window and asking if I had any gas left for my stove. I did, and she came over to carry it out of my house and onto the front porch area. The water was a foot deep in the street and people were carrying the full contents of their homes out of the area by truck, boat, and makeshift raft. The mood was almost playful. Somehow the electricity was still on, so anyone who still had access to a rice cooker or stove made a batch of rice. Pi Air’s sister, Pi Oi, used my gas and the stove they had carried over from next door to make 100 Styrofoam-boxed meals for all of the people who had been flooded out but were still in the area. I got some toys down and played with my little neighbor boy because I couldn’t figure out anything better to do. And the water was still rising.
My house the previous evening
My house when I woke up in the morning
Pi Air bringing rice from her house to mine for breakfast

Pi Oi cooking breakfast outside my house.
After breakfast I waded out of the area to see how far it had gone. There was a dry stretch of land about 100 meters long between my house and the temple. The reason it stayed dry was a combination of the fact that it was slightly higher than some of the surrounding area and it was the only land far enough away from both the Riang Creek and the Dtabi River, which run perpendicular to each other in my area. There were really two independent floods, the one from Riang, which spread from the creek through many palm and rubber fields and out to the temple, and the Dtapi river, which was running through village three. The water approaching my house was from the Dtapi.

I walked across the dry spot until I reached the temple and had to start wading through the water. At its highest point in the road, it was up to my knees. I reached my deputy mayor, Pi Beng’s, house, where she had set up coffee and snacks for all of the provincial and district officials who had come to inspect the situation and distribute goods. There were big government trucks from the customs department to help people out of the area. When I walked past the school there were a few dozen people lined up with their belongings, apparently waiting for the truck. I didn’t recognize them, and when I got closer I realized they weren’t speaking Thai. They were Burmese workers from a local factory who lived back near the factory in makeshift homes and factory barracks. They had been completely flooded out, so they had gathered their belongings and were being shipped off somewhere. I wanted to know more, but there were more pressing issues at hand. I was set to leave in four days, and the water was still rising.
My students, Chem and Kaojao, waiting for
boat in the dry patch

There was no way to get to Bangkok by bus and wouldn’t be for a week or more, in all likelihood. My only hope was to get out by plane. I asked if I could still get to the airport. Apparently it couldn’t be reached directly due to bridge and road outages, but army trucks were still transporting passengers between airport and provincial government center via Phunphin, my neighboring district. By that point my parents in the States were getting anxious. They were seeing the footage of the floods that was all over the internet, and they wanted me to get out as soon as I could. If I had left that moment I would have made it. I couldn’t leave yet, though. There were way too many other people in more dire situations. I couldn’t tie up a vehicle that could be used to get people to safety so that I could get to the airport. I wasn’t going to get out. And the water was still rising.

The water was coming from all directions. It was falling from the sky, flowing down from the mountains in Nakhon Si Thammarat, rising from the rivers, and closing in on all sides of my village.  Not knowing that my window of opportunity would soon be closed, I booked a plane ticket for the next morning.  The mayor told me to go back to my house and get whatever I could carry and take it to Pi Bpeng’s for the night. So I waded back. When I got back to my house, the floor was wet. Pleng and Pleh’s tiny mother had come by to gather the rest of their things, now that it was obvious that my house was going to be under water soon, too. “Don’t close the doors yet!” she pleaded “I’m coming back!” I assured her I would leave them open as long as she needed. I suddenly felt no rush to leave.

Pi Oi, having finished distributing the breakfast boxes, was making pad Thai for lunch as I packed my things. I put all of the absolute necessities in my two backpacks, then we put my suitcase of books, pictures, and nonessential clothing in the back of a neighbor’s car, which she had parked on a hill in the dry spot. Pi Oi made me take a couple of plastics bags full of pad Thai with me, and I waded the 300 m. back to Pi Beng’s house. The water in the road had reached my mid thigh. I struggled to keep the backpacks from submerging. At the start of the second flooded area I met up with Pleng and Preh’s mom. At less than five feet tall, she barely outweighed Preh, but she had carried the full contents of their closets through the flood all by herself. The rest of the family had gone north to stay with relatives. She stood with a huge pile of the kid’s clothes and toys, exhausted and wet, waiting for a boat to come pick her up. I got tired of waiting. Since I was taller than most everyone else and a good swimmer, I went ahead and made my second trip through the deepest waters.
At Pi Bpeng’s house I changed into dry clothes and shared my pad Thai lunch with the government workers at Pi Beng’s. 

I tried to sit still, but couldn’t. I walked around and took pictures and videos. There was a pretty big operation in place to save a pig farm on the other side of the school. Back at the barn the water was up to the chests of full-grown men. They were saving the pigs by pulling them by the ears across the 100 meters from the barn to the dry road. Then they loaded them onto a semi truck and took them to another town. They managed to save a few dozen. A few days later I asked a friend if any pigs were lost. “Yes,” he told me.” About 30 drowned, and they expect to lose quite a few more to disease in the coming days from the dirty water and the cold.”
Men pulling the pigs to safety by their ears

Meanwhile, the piglets had taken up residence on the roadside near the school. Oblivious to the ongoing events, they made themselves at home.
The piglets rest in front of what is normally
the schoolyard
By late afternoon, thinking I would be leaving for good the next morning, I waded back to my house to see the neighbors one last time. The water in front of the temple was well past my waist. When I got to my house, the water inside rose to my shin. Up until that point, this had all seemed like a big adventure. It was stressful, but during the morning and early afternoon, as people were riding their fishing boats through the streets, carrying their things to dry land, and preparing to spend a few days’ vacation at relatives’ houses, everyone was viewing it as a new experience. But in the late afternoon, as the murky water took over my house, the one island amidst the rising waters, the fatigue of the long night and day started to sink in. My neighbors started to process what cleanup would mean and how much this would cost them. I started to realize that my last glimpse of my home would be under a foot of water, that I might have to leave most of my things here, and the four street dogs that had kept me company for the past two years had nowhere to go. They were sitting on my bed frame, all four of them, eating canned mackerel from the next door neighbor’s shop stock. Pi Oi kept repeating, “There’s nothing I can do.” I nodded. I went into my bedroom, where I had slept for the past two years, the one place I could really hide and be myself. The water consumed my feet and ankles. One of the things I had always liked about that house was the floor tile. It was light green, pretty and soothing. Now the bottom of my house was oozing, brown and dirty. My living room was filled with other people’s stuff, and what was left of my things would have to be left behind. I started to cry. 
My living room, full of everyone's things and
under six inches of water
I announced that I was leaving, and I would fly out tomorrow morning. Pi Oi and other neighbors walked me back to Pi Bpeng’s house. They laughed off my crying, “She really loves those dogs!” It was true. A good portion of the tears were out of worry for the dogs, which I know now--and probably knew then--were unnecessary. What really made me heartsick about the dogs was that no one else seemed to care. To them, I was crying over nuisance animals. If they died, good riddance. I realize that most of my neighbors were more concerned for their belongings, and for good reason. If I lost most of my things, I would buy replacements back in that States. If they lost their things, they were gone. Still, I felt hurt that even after all of the cars had been driven to higher ground and the furniture and clothes had been lifted high or moved out, even after the motorcycles had all been carried to the second stories, even then nobody would help me move the dogs. So my tears were out of concern, yes, but they were also out of anger and frustration. Anger that my attempts to take care of life over possessions was being laughed at, and frustration that my last feelings for my neighbors would be include anger. 
LaToya, Sharon, and Janet in front of
my flooded house
I decided to take the dogs to dry land. I started with Stephanie, since she was usually the hardest to catch and carry. I waded out to the dry spot and set her down. Then I went back and got Sharon. I got her to land, but when I turned around and headed back to the house she followed me, swimming behind. I got Janet, and she stayed. Then I got LaToya, but she followed me back. I should have been happy to know for sure that they could swim, but instead I was just irritated that they kept following me back. I was afraid that if they stayed at the house with the water rising they would get stuck there. I didn’t know how high the water would go or how long it would stay up. If they tried to swim away from the house, how would they know which direction to go? There was no current pushing them in the right way, and if they went left they would just swim into deeper water. Eventually Pi Oi convinced me that they would be fine, that the neighbors would take care of them. So I left, because I had no choice. Steph was the only one to stay on dry land. The other three stayed in my house, on my bed frame, with the water still rising.
How I left them that day

I waded back with some neighbors who were saying goodbye, this time the water up past my hips and to their waists, all the way to Pi Bpeng’s house. She informed me that she didn’t know if I would be able to get to the airport the next day.  They ran through the options and made some calls, but even the huge army cargo trucks couldn’t get through to the airport. I was exhausted and couldn’t stand the thought of leaving like this. I told Pi Bpeng, who was trying to find a way to get me out, to stop trying. “In truth, I really don’t want to leave with the village in this state,” I told her. She nodded and smiled. I was being a huge burden on her. She had so many other things to worry about. Getting me out of the village so I could fill out some papers in Bangkok in time was the least of her worries. I showered and ate a dinner of curry and fried chicken feet with her daughters. I emailed Peace Corps that I was safe. I skyped with my mom. The internet was working, but I didn’t have cell phone service. I lay down to sleep on the floor upstairs in case the floods rose to her house overnight. I slept a little bit, but my adrenaline wouldn’t slow down. Everything was a mess, and the water was still rising.

Tune in tomorrow for the third of five installments, and don't forget to visit  to help my neighbors in their recovery efforts.

Be well,

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Water Rising, Part I

Hello all,
As many of you know, I have now finished my Peace Corps service. I am not yet finished with my blog, though. I plan to finish the month-by-month retelling of my service, although now instead of typing through the sweltering heat and mosquitoes in my Thai bedroom, I will be recounting my experiences in the comfort of a Starbucks or, as is the case today, in my living room with a sleeping puppy on my lap. There really is no place like home. 

Before I continue with my current project, though, I have a more urgent story that must be told. As I was preparing to leave my site in Surat Thani, massive out-of-season floods overtook much of southern Thailand, including my village. Many of my neighbors' houses were still under several feet of water when I left. So, although my service with the Peace Corps has ended, my connection and obligation to my community is far from over. They need help. What follows is a five-part retelling of the events leading up to my departure from my village. Each day that I post, you will find a link to a non-governmental organization run by a Thai friend of mine that is working to rebuild after the floods. It is a local organization, so your money will go directly to those in need. Please give generously to help those who helped me so much.

The Water Rising, Part I

Joy in her traditional costume
The mood was festive enough when the rain started on the morning May 24th 2011. It was the sixth grade graduation ceremony, and all of the parents, teachers, and local officials had braved the weather to come to the school and wish the kids well. We showed my documentary film, the culmination of a three-month-long project I had done with some students, my last project before leaving. That evening the students held their annual show. Each grade dressed in colorful outfits, wore traditional gaudy makeup, and performed a dance with their classmates. I spent all the money in my wallet on roses and ribbon leis to give to the kids, who were so excited to have a chance to be the center of everything. I was riding high on a mixture of pride and pleasant nostalgia over the coming end of my two-year service.
Job, Joy's little brother,  and a kindergarten friend getting ribbon leis after their performance
The kids had gotten so big. When I had arrived two years earlier my neighbors , Pleng and Preh, were 8 and 11. Pleng had been awkward, long and gangly-looking, and Preh barely kept up with her tiny legs. Now Preh had grown into Pleng’s former ranginess, and Pleng, having put form to her features, was a statuesque teenager, maternally taking pictures of her younger siblings. It struck me that the youngest of their four-sibling crew, Pat, was only two when I arrived. She likely didn’t remember life without me living down the road.
Preh, left, with Sin and Fon

The rain continued the next day. I didn’t go to work because I was tired, but the rain served as a good excuse. It remained just an excuse again the next day, but by the third day it was the truth. The water had washed away the bridge to the main highway, so I couldn’t have gotten to work if I had wanted to. There was no real reason for concern, though. During periods when my electricity and internet were working, I downloading and watched multiple seasons of The Office. In the back of my house my yard started to look like a coy pond, filled with clear water and decorated with trash. When it wasn’t raining local workers managed to fix the bridge, so I went to work on a couple of days and stopped to take pictures of what then looked like massive flooding in areas far from my house. It kept raining, and I heard some news of houses in the area being flooded. The bridge washed out again on the fifth day, so even during breaks in the rain I couldn’t go to work or leave my immediate area. The out-of-season rains started to make international news. There were mudslides in Krabi and Nakhon Si Thammarat, and my coy pond was getting deeper, but I still wasn’t concerned. Finally, On March 30 the rain seemed to stop. I went out and took pictures of my village and biked to a small shop to stock up on necessities like water, soy milk, and Korean imitation Cocoa Puffs. I would need them; the water was still rising.
Fishing in what was a palm field
When I got back in the evening my neighbors asked if I wanted to go look at the flooding closer to the Dtapi river. I followed along, my four favorite street dogs trotting behind, and we saw what at that point seemed to be amazing flooding. There were a few large trucks running back to try to get people’s belongings out. Some had taken boats, but mostly because they were amused that they could boat in their yards. A few people were visibly stressed, but only the Thai version of visibly stressed, meaning there was a sleight vertical wrinkle in between their eyes when they smiled. The water was lapping at the front door of Pleng and Preh’s house, so they were loading what they could into a truck and tying the rest to the support beams of the ceiling in plastic bags. The family would sleep at the house of a relative who had just built a mansion two houses down from mine. I offered to let them put their stuff in my house, and later that evening they did. It was still totally dry inside the house and since the rain had lightened up, the Coy pond started to go down. My landlord’s mom,  Bpa Euen, kept racks of potted plants, beside my house, and the water flowing out of the pots had slowed to a drip, so we assumed the worst was over. I went inside to watch the Office. It was colder than it had ever been since I had been there. And the water was still rising.
Some neighbors standing outside one of the first houses to flood
A dog gets a joy ride through the street
At about ten pm my landlord, Pi Air, called to ask if there was water in my house. “No,” I said, confused. I turned on the outside lights and walked outside. My clear Coy Pond had turned into Willy Wonka’s chocolate river; the dirty water from the river had oozed its way up to my backyard. I walked around the side of the house to see that the water was a foot deep inside my neighbor’s kitchen. It hadn’t yet overtaken the road, which was higher than some homes, so everyone was walking around in the street. People were scratching their heads, shrugging their shoulders, and—oddly enough--laughing. Grandpa told me I should leave that light on all night. I asked if I could do anything. Pi Air shook her head and said I should go to bed. But the water was still rising.
Pi Air stands in her yard the first night the floods reached us
Tune in tomorrow for the next installment, and don't forget to donate at:

Be well,

Monday, March 21, 2011

December 2009

Hello all,

I spent December performing a one-woman show I will call Chompu: The Amazing Supervolunteer. My work here generally runs in fits of feast and famine, with every month of productive gluttony followed by six weeks of wasting away in anxious anticipation of the next episode of Glee being uploaded to thepiratebay. December left no time for downloading, though, as I was on a total work binge, an obesity-inducing project bender, a veritable type-2 diabetic shock of effectiveness. I think you get the picture.

My first undertaking was coaching a 10- to 12-year-old girls’ volleyball team at my favorite school. I’d agreed to it back in October, and we’d begun practicing when school started up again in November. Thai kids don’t really have organized sports leagues like we do in the states. If they practice it all, it’s usually just a few days before the competition, and then they don’t look at a ball or a court again until the next year. So as you might expect, most of these girls had no idea how to really play a game of volleyball. They sort of knew how the scoring worked, most of them were aware that you had to rotate positions at some point during the game, and between the eight of them, about three could sometimes serve the ball over the net, underhand. Performing technique drills felt about as foreign to them as bowing to my superiors felt to me. But we had to start somewhere.

So we started where my own sports career had begun—the “ready” position. For those of you who did not grow up in sports families, allow me to explain: the “ready” position is the first thing your dad teaches you when he signs you up for any ball-sport-based little league so that you’ll have a leg up on all the other five-year-olds. It is usually followed by lessons like, “use your hips,” “eye on the ball,” and “stop doing cartwheels in the midfield!” The purpose of getting in the “ready” position is pretty obvious—to show your coach that you don’t want to be taken out of the game. I’m not sure why, but getting in a position similar to the one that I used to explain my nephew’s natural childbirth thirty seconds before a play even begins is a universal signal that all little league coaches understand to mean that a given pint-sized athlete "has good hustle.”
And my first order of business was to make sure that all of my girls had the necessary amount of hustle to properly beat the tar out of the other ten-year-old girls they would be competing against. So we learned the ready position in the military-inspired method I had learned so many years ago: one teammate or coach yells, “Are you ready?!” and everyone else immediately squats down, slaps the floor, claps their hands, puts their arms in front of them like they’re about to receive a pass and responds, “Ready!” Though many of those girls never learned how to effectively bump, pass, or spike, one thing was sure—they knew how to get ready to do all those things.

Though actually performing volleyball skills wasn’t nearly as much fun as getting ready to do them, the girls eventually warmed to the idea of drills and conditioning. Their favorite drills were the ones that involved yelling. We could spend hours in a circle bumping the ball back and forth and yelling “mine!” (or blai!, as they say it in Thai). Another favorite was simply lining up practicing serving until every person had made ten. I’m pretty sure that after a few weeks some of the girls preferred the drills to actually playing the game.

The biggest hurdle I faced in my new role as coach was not so much the language barrier or the fact that my co-coach didn’t know how to play volleyball, but that the volleyball court was located right beside a palm orchard. You see, palm tree branches are lined with huge, sharp thorns that would put any rose to shame. If those thorns come in contact with, say, a volleyball or a hand that is reaching out to pick up a volleyball, the thorns tends to puncture whatever material they have come in contact with. We lost a lot of good balls to those branches, not to mention a few fingertips.

The logical thing to do would have been to construct some sort of barrier around the court. It probably would have saved us money in the long run. However, barriers require materials and planning and a vehicle in which to transport those materials, whereas old volleyballs could be patched with duct tape, and cheap new ones could be purchased when I biked into town to buy rice. At many points in my service I have been frustrated by people’s unwillingness to put up a few bucks or a couple of days of work in advance to invest in something that will ultimately benefit them in the long term. I’m sure at some point in my undergrad I drew some graphs to describe this phenomenon. People view immediate one-time costs to be higher than long term benefits spread out over a period of time.

That’s the cold, economic argument. I’m not sure it is fully accurate, though. I say this because, despite the fact that after three weeks all six of our volleyballs were covered in holes and only stayed inflated for half a practice, no one actually verbalized the problem. We patched and inflated the balls every hour or so, we removed the thorns, but we never actually said, “Wow, playing so close to these palm trees is causing us problems.” So, in order for the above economic argument to make sense, the people involved would have to acknowledge that there was, in fact, a problem and a solution. I think what was actually going on was that people just accepted that volleyballs getting holes from palm thorns was a fact of life, and nothing could be done about it.

The other possibility is that the hierarchy was to blame for our holey problem. To suggest that we needed a barrier would be to tell a superior that our facilities were inadequate, that the principal had not sufficiently provided for us. By discreetly buying more and more volleyballs we could avoid the awkwardness of confrontation. Whatever the reason, the bottom line was that I spent a good chunk of my living allowance that month on volleyballs. And it was worth it.


Besides my foray into using sports to teach valuable life skills, in December I also ventured to teach life skills by teaching lifeskills. Specifically, I held my second lifeskills camp. This time the theme was “Love Environment”. Pi Nu and I had come up with the idea at the counterpart conference in July, and we had been planning it and putting it off in equal measure ever since.

In the end, Pi Nu and I make great work partners; she loves speaking to people at length about nothing in particular in Thai, especially on the phone. She is very good at signing papers and delegating tasks to her underlings. I, on the other hand, will do just about anything to avoid Thai small talk, especially on the phone, and am extremely shy about delegating anything that I am physically capable of doing myself. In the end, this usually means that in the course of any project we do together, I spend way too much time typing up, translating, printing, collating, and stapling. I view this as a fair tradeoff if it means that Pi Nu does all of the scheduling, relationship-maintaining, and speech-making. Unfortunately, though, I also generally have to sit through quite a few of her speeches, which sometimes tips the balances.

The Love Environment camp was one step up from my previous lifeskills camp in terms of effectiveness. I learned my lesson about letting the teachers convince me that they understood English, so this time I spent hours upon hours translating the directions for the activities into Thai. When I handed the teachers the directions for their stations, the conversation went something like this:

Teacher: Wow, Chompu, you can write in Thai!
Me: Yes, Those are the directions for the station you will be running. Do you understand them?
Teacher: It is very impressive that you can type in Thai!
Me: Yes, I have worked hard on it. Do you think you will be able to run the station with these directions?
Teacher: I will tell my friends about the foreigner who can type in Thai!

Amazingly, in the end the teachers basically understood about one fifth of the directions for their activities, and they were able to keep them going for, oh, about ten minutes. The first two of the three rotations ended up being further examples of the differences between Thai and American approaches to education. American educators—good ones, at least—can look at a one page lesson plan and see how that lesson can fill an hour. They know that in order for the students to fully grasp the content each activity will probably have to be performed several times. They can then adapt the activities as they go or come up with new ones on the fly to accomplish the goal of the lesson. After all, an American teacher’s goal would be to have the students understand the lesson.

Thai teachers, on the other hand, view getting through the lesson to be the goal. To do the same activity twice would be redundant, since it has already been taught, and it is the responsibility of the student to retain it. Therefore, a Thai teacher will look at a one page lesson plan, do precisely what is on the page, then let the children run wild for the remaining fifty minutes.   

And so, ten minutes into the first rotation of the Love Environment camp, twenty students were running wild in the soccer field, twenty were a playing duck-duck-goose-like game, initiated by one of the other teachers, and I was slaving away to keep the attention of the remaining twenty that had the misfortune of being sent to my station. During the snack break that followed, I explained to each teacher that the activities could be done more than once and suggested some ways in which they might be altered. The other two rotations lasted about thirty minutes. I deigned it a minor victory.

The capstone of the Love Environment camp was to be the placement of three bins, labeled “Paper,” “Plastic,” and “Glass,” near the cafeteria to collect recyclables that we would later sell to fund the activities of the youth group I was determined to start. We had, after all, spent the whole day learning how to clean and separate recyclables. We had made posters to put around the school to remind students and teachers to use the bins. Unfortunately, something had gotten lost in translation, and when the closing ceremonies were done and I was getting in the truck to go home, the principal and Pi Nu asked me what we should do with the three trash cans with the signs on them. Did I want to take them home with me, or should we put them in storage at the office in case we needed them again?

Well, at least all of the kids had had fun.


About a week before Christmas my program manager came to visit my site. The program manager only visits once during a Volunteer’s service, so it’s a special day for that reason alone. However, my program manager is something special on her own. I few years ago I read a book by Po Bronson called What Should I Do With My Life?  At that time I was about to graduate from college, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. In the time since I read that book I have run into countless people who are doing things that they absolutely shouldn’t be doing with their lives. Some are bad at what they do. Some are good at what they do, but it doesn’t make them happy. Worst of all, some are good at what they, and it makes them happy, but it hurts other people. Well, my program manager, Jaree, is the opposite of all of those things. She is good at what she does, it makes her happy, and it helps lots of people. So I was really looking forward to her visit. Plus, any visit by a Peace Corps staff member is, above all, a chance to have a translator for a few hours.

To maximize the number of people I could have translated conversations with that day, I set up several meetings beforehand. We started at the office with some village council members and SAO staff. After lunch we went to all three schools to meet with the principals and teachers.

The day was both productive and disheartening. It was productive because I got a lot of useful information, had several good conversations with important people, and got some great ideas for projects. However, at the end of the day I realized that Jaree had probably accomplished more in eight hours than I had in nine months. Part of it was the fact that she spoke fluent Thai, and thus didn’t have the language barrier that I deal with. More than that, though, she was able to do so much because she ­is Thai. She is one of them. Even if I could understand half of the information people shared with her, they probably would not be so forthcoming with me. I’m an outsider. I can only really understand so much. Having an educated, accomplished foreign woman come to their village makes them feel like a charity case. Having an educated, accomplished Thai woman visit their village makes them feel important. Jaree’s effect on the people she met with was identical to the effect that the Youth Conference had on Not and Jane. She gave everyone so much confidence. A compliment from her means something because she is coming from the same place as them. She grew up in a rural southern village, as well. She speaks their language, literally and figuratively.

So you see why I was ambivalent at the end of the day. I was like a little kid who just got to play one-on-one with LeBron. I was in awe what I had just witnessed, but I also knew I would never achieve anything like it.


The day after Jaree’s visit, a guy I work with found this snake near the hot springs in my town. I don’t have any funny stories about it, but I wanted to share it, ‘cause it’s a pretty friggin’ big snake.


The last big event of December was the big volleyball tournament. It was the culmination of everything the girls had worked so hard for. And all that work paid off—with a second-to-last place finish. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering that the previous year they hadn’t won a single game, let alone a match, it was a pretty big accomplishment. It didn’t necessarily feel like it to them at the time, though.

What the girls experienced at a few points during the tournament was the same effect I’ve written about in On Caring. They probably felt a little demoralized the previous year when they lost every game, but this year the better result felt worse because they had practiced. They had sweated for hours upon hours on the hot concrete to prepare this time. They had bruised their forearms and duct taped our punctured balls every practice. They had actually invested something in the tournament this year. And so even though we pulled off second-to-last instead of last, there were still some tears on the court. There were still dads yelling at them to do better from the comfortable shade of the sidelines. There was still the painful realization that you don’t always get out of life all that you put into it. The horrible thing about being twelve is that you don’t have enough experience behind you to put little things like a volleyball match in perspective. Fortunately, though, the great thing about being twelve is that you have enough resilience to bounce back from seemingly horrible blows.


When the tournament ended I had been at site for nearly six weeks straight, and I had been going strong for most of it. I can pinpoint the moment I lost my mojo, though. It was Christmas morning, at about 10am. I had gotten up around seven to open the three boxes worth of gifts my family had sent. There was a ton of chocolate, some great books, and a French press with real Starbucks coffee. I was ecstatic. I ate Godiva for breakfast and made myself an amazing cup of coffee. Then it was time to go to work.

At about the time that all of the good little boys and girls in America were getting tucked into bed to dream about dancing sugarplums and red-nosed reindeer and jolly little elves and all of the other lovely little lies their parents had told them, I was on my bike. On the highway. In 90-degree heat. Suddenly all of the enthusiasm I’d been bursting at the seams with for the past month disintegrated into tiny beads of sweat. A coworker passed me on his motorcycle and honked his horn to say hello. It was all I could do to stop myself from giving him the finger. Clearly it was time for a break.


So I did what I had to do, and I got myself to A’s house for New Year’s. After a long day of bikes, vans, buses, and taxis, I arrived at her house around midnight. Another Volunteer had beaten me there, and they’d made pasta for dinner. The three of us sat at the kitchen table while I ate and caught up on the happenings of the Volunteer world (which is not to be confused with the real world). I cannot even begin to describe how it felt to be sitting on chairs in a quiet kitchen, speaking English over a plate of spaghetti. December had had its high points, but I was so glad it was done.

Be well,