So, do I have a story for you:
The worst flood that has hit the east coast of Malaysia in about 30 years decided to make an appearance earlier this month, and instead of just politely showing up at our doorstep asking to come in, it welcomed itself inside and proceeded to ravage all of our belongings, our home, and our sense of security. Monsoon season in Malaysia is in full swing, and after 3 days of heavy, torrential rain in Kemaman (and the other cities and states on the east coast), the rivers overflowed, the water dams broke and voila, we had a classic natural disaster at our hands. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of these kinds of floods in the newspapers or on television but naturally, never pictured myself being in the midst of it. As sad as I felt for the poor souls who had to suffer such sudden losses of home, belongings, and sometimes lives, my admittedly spoiled North American mindset always sent me the comforting message that this sort of thing would always be reserved for “the other”.. until “the other” became myself. Game-changer.
We found the entire first floor of our house covered in brown, ankle-high water one early morning after discovering that the power had gone out at some point in the night. In a state of panic and desperation, we managed to save a few valuables that were directly in contact with the water and could be easily lifted off the ground and moved to the second floor for safety. With semi-charged cell phones, we managed to make some rounds of phone calls asking for a rescue boat be sent to us, and then brainstormed ways to save our neighbours’ three dogs that were left home alone as they themselves were stranded in a nearby city as the roads to Kemaman were either flooded or the bridges had collapsed (update: dogs are fine). The funny thing, if there is one, is that we weren’t convinced that the water levels could actually get any higher until we went downstairs only to watch more of our belongings slowly disappear into brown, murky, sewage water. But unlike most funny things, this didn’t make me laugh. Our brand new sofas, the real casualty in this whole calamity, had now soaked up enough water to make them almost impossible to move upstairs and so, a mixture of naivety and denial convinced us that the water levels would soon cease to rise, and a boat would there to get us shortly. Outside, we saw people wade through waist-high water holding their belongings on top of their heads, an image that is now forever burned into my memory. We witnessed the guys living in front of us build a raft from scratch, put their motorbikes on it, and off they went all within the first few hours of flood. Amazed at their resourcefulness and ashamed by our own lack of it, we stood gazing out our bedroom window upstairs at the scenes around us: drowning chickens, screaming women, and perhaps the most disturbing: a lizard/crocodile-type thing swimming through the water right in front of our house! After seeing this, there was no way I was about to get into the water with creatures like that… No way.
10 hours later, our cell phones were now completely dead. There was maybe only 2 hours of daylight left, and we had brought upstairs whatever we could, slipping and sliding in water that was now almost up to our hips. We were also sick of eating chips all day, so upon my husband’s request.. no, forcefulness, we packed our backpacks and prepared to make the journey to dry land on our own. I, on the other hand, felt that staying in the house was the wiser choice – why on earth would I want to subject myself to the presence of snakes, diseases and crocodile-looking creatures when a rescue boat was on the way? The thought of having to swim through the grossness, though, was all it really took to convince me, and it just so turns out that the water did rise to what would have been far over our heads by the next morning. Imagine that. *shudder*.
And so, with broken hearts, I left a house I didn’t even recognize anymore – our lovely sofas floating sadly in a lake of brown, our fridge doing a killer front float in the kitchen, our car half-submerged, houseplants with leaves outstretched through the water, as if yelling for help. With these final images of “home” in mind, we left with our backpacks wrapped in garbage bags (which still didn’t prevent both of our laptops from permanent water damage) and proceeded to climb over our front gates that were no longer working. What an adventure. After a frigid 40min walk out of our neighbourhood in water that was at times chest-high, and while raining, we made it to dry land, but not without blistered feet to attest to the struggle of it all. We found a hawker-style food stall, and while eating the first meal of that day and unbeknown to us, the last for the following 2 days, we realized that the front doors of our house were left unlocked. Fearful over the real possibility of looters, my husband walked all the way back to the house against strong currents, rising waters, and a darkening sky and all the way back again, putting him in the water for a good 2 hours. What a hero.
We made our way to a company compound where some evacuees were being transferred to and remained there for the next 2 days. One of the employees that lived there, graciously gave us a room in his house and offered us whatever he could out of his stash of Maggi noodles, eggs, and limited clean water supply. Seeing as the power in the entire city was out, we spent these two days in a confused state of “what now?!”, needing hot showers, wearing flood-water-drenched clothes, and insanely hungry. Alas, hope was found in the friendships we forged at this house and over the next few weeks with others that shared in the experience. Families staying at the compound freely used the swimming pool as an all-in-one bathtub, dishwasher, and laundromat – hilarity. Seeing as the situation in Kemaman wasn’t going to improve anytime soon, the company chartered a plane and flew a good number of us to Kuala Lumpur where they put us up in a hotel until things got more settled back home. I guess I’m really not waking up from this dream, am I? I kept thinking, but really, being in KL made things a lot easier (and fun, at times) because, well… it’s KL. There was electricity, hot water, and food. When it comes down to it, that’s all you really need, guys! (I wish I actually believed that because if I did, I’d be totally cool with watching all my stuff drown before my eyes. And I’m not.)
I took some time to go back to Kemaman last week and while I knew that the condition of the house was dire, I also knew that the cleaners had done a good job removing the mud off most of our belongings and put everything outside leaving the bottom floor looking rather uninhabited and sad. After 2 weeks of being away, seeing all of the accumulated garbage in the neighbourhood, drowned chicken carcasses, and damaged household belongings and car really took an emotional toll I probably wasn’t ready to handle at that time. Regardless, I needed to survey it for myself and while the important thing is that we are alright, it wasn’t easy walking through a home that wasn’t exactly a quick adjustment in the first place. It took concentrated effort, intention, and hope to develop a feeling of being settled into the house and city, which seemed to simply wash away overnight.. literally.
Also, I’m embarrassed to say how much so many of my material belongings ended up mattering to me – how un-Buddhist of me, but I feel that it was more about what they represented than the mere physicality of them. Having to see so many things I cared about grow mold and wither away before my eyes, while throwing away precious wedding gifts and the like, was easily one of the most challenging things I’ve had to deal with. The sight of locals riding around on their motorbikes scavenging other peoples’ garbage was something I never thought I’d have to see, but I did, right in front of my house and as I was wrapped up in my own distress, it humbled me deeply. So after 3 days of being elbow-deep in filth and stench, and with the help of some dear friends, I tried to salvage whatever more I could and ended up letting go of what I couldn’t. I’m now back to where I started about 5-6 months ago – waiting in a hotel room for a house to be ready to live in once more, only this time with depressingly long to-do/insurance claim lists. I can’t say I’ve handled it well, in fact, I probably reacted in ways that were the opposite of how I would have imagined myself responding, but as we know, there really is no preparation for such unexpected events. So, things are okay, but what I need most is a big dose of patience right now so if you want to give me a present this holiday season or simply “just because you’re thinking of me”, feel free to send me a package or two of it. Hey, at least I get a crazy story to tell!
Wishing everyone much happiness, health, and love for the holidays.