High Water

It is nine o'clock at night and I am writing this from the desk by my bedroom window. Outside, "it is raining," as E.B. White once put it, "to beat the cars." Except that in my case, it is raining to beat my brand-new mountain bike, my host family's forlorn motorcycle, and our collective, corrugated-tin roof like a drum. (In a tropical country with a wet season, where motorcycles seem to outnumber cars by about five to one, people either vegetate indoors during a storm, or don a poncho and speed off on their usual two wheels, puddles and mud and poor visibility be damned. Driving around on four—dry and enclosed—feels like having it both ways.) At any rate, the roof of our house does not leak much at all, except through a few dime-sized holes above the kitchen counter. But the sound of the downpour against the sheet metal is constant and deafening, so that I can hardly hear myself think.

I have seen it rain hard before, but not for this long. The torrents have been coming in waves since midday, with each successive one seeming more severe than the last. After lunch, while it was still only raining hard enough for such an act to be spunky and not simply eyebrow-raising, I went out into the yard and stood beneath the spot where the rainwater collects and comes rushing off the edge of the roof in a steady stream—just for the fun of it. My host family got a good laugh out of that. An hour later, they had all sobered up, dragged a plastic barrel over to the same spot, and retreated to their bedrooms. It really is impossible to be productive when it sounds like it is raining inside of one's own skull. All one can do is wait Nature out and hope that in the meantime, she will spare one tall drum of clean water and a trip from the delivery company.

Round about three o'clock, there was an earsplitting clap of thunder directly overhead and a commotion in the alleyway next to our house. My host sisters, host mother, and I rushed over to the gate, peered outside, and found that the entire alleyway, along with the central lot and adjacent yards it opened into, were submerged, knee-deep, in fast-flowing, murky water that looked exactly like coffee with added creamer. The family next door was pushing along a drenched, sorry-looking mattress like a raft. Others, who I later learned were college students trying to save their term papers, were hastily bundling armfuls of books and loose papers out of the windows of flooded rooms and stacking them on the porch of the only dry house left (the water was lapping ominously against its top step, though, and threatening to deprive us of our last few square meters of high ground). More neighbors from down the street were streaming into the yard by the minute—both to help and to gape. Bottles, wrappers, and other bits of trash and debris bobbed here and there and some joker yelled to keep an eye out for catfish.

My host mother has told me that in the fifteen years since she and her husband moved to this neighborhood, it never once rained to the point of such severe flooding. Most days, the alleyway is idyllic—it dips down beneath street level and the wide, green banana leaves throw their shade invitingly over it. Now, a two-foot difference in elevation is responsible for turning it and our neighbors' yards into a shallow, roiling swamp. As I looked around, however, I saw that nobody seemed to be particularly surprised or upset by this apparently unprecedented turn of events. Even the college students could not be described as frantic. "At least our front yards are not four feet beneath street level and the water not up to our chests," seemed to be the prevailing thought (and relief, the corollary feeling) in the air. A few small children were splashing around gleefully and the most visibly emotional person in the crowd was a middle-aged housewife who appeared to be cursing and gesturing accusingly at the water swirling around her knees.

Presently, the crowd began to split into two discernible groups. One, comprised of young men, went to scoop floodwater into the neighborhood well with large, plastic washbasins. The other—a mixture of wives and husbands and the remaining adolescent boys and girls—clustered at the entrance of the alleyway and began to dam it up with fallen banana trees. Here, then, was a clear choice between ingenuity and brute force. And wanting to help, but not feeling particularly ingenious, I stripped down to my trunks and waded over to the well, feeling around gingerly for sharp rocks, potholes, or anything else that might make a fool out of me. I had previously met only one of the young men, and very briefly, at that. But as soon as I got over to them and laid hands on a washbasin, I felt a strange thrill come over me. It was an unspoken, even primal feeling of connectedness with the otherwise unfamiliar bodies around me—a basic awareness of our shared brawn and of the cumulative manpower that together we might amount to. In the back of mind, I had already accepted what the situation probably looked like from a distance—a well-meaning, conspicuously light-skinned foreigner, trying strenuously to be useful. But as far as I could tell, there was no such feeling of disconnect or misplacement around that well. Not one of the young men gave me the usual sidelong glance and knowing grin that I have come to expect on the streets, when I am actually trying to go quietly about my business. A pair of them wordlessly exchanged the small basin that they had been sharing for my larger one. And together we threw ourselves at the task before us with animal zeal, none of us certain or caring if we were making even the slightest difference. The neighborhood had never flooded before.

One basinful crashing down the well after another! From all around, the undifferentiated, all-enveloping rumble of thunder and rain and floodwater! I am reminded of the very first act of Disney's Fantasia—of Mickey Mouse, the sorcerer's witless apprentice, hacking one broomstick into many, of each broomstick with two pails in hand, sloshing its way down the endless hallways, of its terrifying dedication to its mission, come hell or, quite literally, high water. We were similarly single-minded. For a few minutes, we were deaf and dumb, feeling nothing but the mud and sand between our toes, solely possessed by the shapeless mystery of current and volume, tonnage and pressure, pounds per square inch, depth, suffocation, and the latent, menacing dreams of the evening bath-taker and the weekend beachgoer and the deep-sea diver alike—anybody who has ever been naked in the water. At some point my foot slipped and I felt the edge of a broken patio tile slice through my skin. I imagined blood seeping out of the cut, germs and parasites seeping in. But the pain was an afterthought.

Suddenly, there was a different sound, of metal against rock. Somebody had found what appeared to be an iron tamping rod and was driving the spiked end of it against the base of the well, in an apparent attempt to punch through its sidewall. It was an arresting sound—a reverberating clang that cut through the din of the storm. The rest of us stopped to watch and listen—clang, clang, clang! We knew, by its hollowness, and by the subsequent roar, that the last strike went home, and we all peered over the edge at the brown jet spewing from a jagged, gaping hole. The water level around the well was still much too high to watch our improvised drain at work from the other side. But it was clear that our job was done. We stacked the washbasins on the porch and the pair that exchanged theirs for mine now broke out into broad smiles and turned their newly-recovered attention towards me. What is your name? Where are you from? Are you married? The usual. It was about four o'clock. Somebody noticed that my foot was bleeding and there was a great fuss about it that I only managed to quell by agreeing to wear a pair of sandals. My host father laughed and mimed the action of dumping out a basinful of water, and I smiled sheepishly back.

I felt like I had proven something—my initiative and my willingness to get my hands dirty, perhaps. But I am not sure that anybody else saw it this way. At any rate, there was no question that the spell around the well had been broken and that the situation was once again assuming its true proportions. I loitered around the banana tree-dam for about another hour, shivering and watching my neighbors turn wayward cars back up the street, before my host mother summoned me back inside for dinner and a mandi. I am sure that by now, the floodwater has all but receded, leaving behind a trail of litter, waterlogged possessions, and a thin layer of reddish-brown silt caked over all surfaces. We will clean it up tomorrow.


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