4KMTF - The Flood
Hey all! This is the fourth section of chapter four in my book Four Thousand Miles to Faith. Posting this for free here for anyone who might want to read. Enjoy!
Chapter 4 Part 4: The Flood
Chiangmai had consistently heavy rains while I was there, and Thailand is notorious for flooding. One day, Elder Xayavong and I woke up to a phone call from our zone leaders. They asked if we could meet them on the north side of the city to help a small village with flood damage.
We got on our bikes and set off toward the airport. Getting to this small village was no easy task; we had to ride down twisted back roads and alleys until we arrived at a small, dense group of hand-built houses. The houses had been built right along the banks of the river to provide easy transportation into the city and worry-free trash disposal. Over many years of dumping trash down the river, they had inadvertently clogged it, and the heavy rains brought more trash from upstream, creating a thick and tight dam of refuse.
The sight was appalling. Nasty rain, trash, and sewage water had risen several feet up and into these riverbank houses. We had to find a way to get the river unclogged or they would be completely wiped out by the sheer amount of water flowing through. The villagers armed us with several long poles, some of us got on makeshift rafts, and others just used our hands to pull out what we could. I spent the majority of our first day there on hand trash duty.
I cannot properly convey how disgusting it was to help this village with their dam. We pulled the strangest things from the trash dam, not limited to nasty, sopping clothes, sports equipment, coconut husks (tons), Styrofoam, soda cans, glass bottles, cardboard, a microwave, cords and wires, and some dead animals (some dead animals... as in more than one).
I had never been so sure that I would contract a deadly disease in my life.
It wasn’t as easy as getting the trash out of the river, we had to put it somewhere too. We sent a companionship of missionaries to 7-11 to buy black garbage bags to load the trash in. We’d put sopping waste in, poke holes in the bottom of the bags, leave them out for a few hours to drain and bake in the sun, and then stack them in an enormous trash mountain on a vacant lot of their village.
The work took many hours. We were there in the blazing humid heat all day, trying to get the dam unclogged before the rest of the rains came. It was quite the spectacular feat of collaboration. From time to time, we’d have to travel to a nearby village to borrow tools, manpower, boats, or other utilities in unclogging the dam. At one point, a news crew came by and I did a short interview with one of the anchors about our efforts to save the village.
Walking to the neighboring village was also not a simple task. The roads were all flooded. I had never tried to walk through floodwater before, but it is truly difficult. The water was up to my thighs, and I am 6’3” (190cm) tall. Each step was heavy; each step made my legs feel like giant oars. It took forever to get anywhere in the flood water because there was no way to walk any faster. Not to mention, any time Elder Xayavong and I went to the neighboring villages, we had to help them with something too.
One of these side quests came to us in the form of a partially flooded king size mattress. Villagers like these didn’t have much money, and something like a king size mattress was no asset to neglect. It took six of us to maneuver this colossal mattress out of the tiny door frames, down the stairs, and through the flooded streets to higher ground. Our arms got tired of holding this behemoth above the water level, so we hoisted the mattress on top of our heads and meandered through the flooded dirt and cobblestone alleyways.
The flood created a scene that was hard to take in. Kids played and swam in the flooded streets, splashing each other with the rancid rainwater. Some adults cried in the wake of the destruction of their homes, properties, and belongings. Other adults diligently and quietly worked to clear the trash dam before matters got worse.
In the afternoon, a woman who appeared to be the leader of the village took us from the various places where we were stationed and working. She told us that everyone here just called her Grandma, and we could call her the same. She brought us to the center of the town, where a large spread of tables and plates of food were set up. They fed us bowl after bowl of surprisingly tasty food, thanking us for our selflessness and willingness to help strangers.
Being in the center of the village made us realize that they had a closed circuit emergency broadcast system blaring updates on the weather and on the progress of the operation. It was really quite strange. They were broadcasting updates in the northern dialect of Thai, which was rarely spoken in the city. Everything about this village was peculiar.
They had us stand in front of what seemed to be a makeshift town hall and played a message over the speakers, saying, “Let us all join together in praising our white heroes, the English teachers sent by Jesus Christ to save us!” I guess the zone leaders had tried to explain to them who we were, but the villagers clearly didn’t quite get it yet. They understood the basics, though.
It took three straight days of constant work to get their river unclogged. We were gross, muddy, and probably crawling with strange diseases. We had gotten cut up, bruised, and beaten up, but it was so much fun. This experience was easily the most memorable service opportunity of my entire two years.
The way this village rewarded us is indicative of their Third World lifestyle. They brought Elder Xayavong and me in front of the building I understood to be their town hall. Grandma came out with some of the local leaders for another formal thank you. Grandma lifted her hands to her face and bowed to us. She then grabbed me by the arm and offered to take me on a tour of the village to see which of the women of the village I’d like to take to wife or to bed for a time.
I declined Grandma's offer as politely as I could, but she insisted I at least go around the village with her and see if any of the village daughters could catch my eye. She claimed that I deserved at least one of their daughters for my service to them. I explained to her that Jesus sent me here to help my fellow man for their salvation and no reward. They respected this answer. We referred a few people from the village to the zone leaders who eventually led a small family and two others to church, and then on to baptism.