Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Thoughts Underwater, Part Three

When not in the States, it's hard to think of the U.S. As having distinct cultural geographies. We all speak English. We all eat hamburgers and celebrate the 4th of July. This contrasts starkly with India which has something like twenty different languages and a striking division between the north of the country and south. The only real division I can think of is political. India has its political divides, too, and they are as divisive, but other than that America just sometimes seems like one strip shopping center after another from sea to shining sea.

Then, you land in Dallas.

I immediately appreciated the preponderance of cowboy hats. I loved that there were cowboy hats and country music everywhere even if it did seem completely preposterous on some level, because it was something uniquely American at a time when I am taking giant, purposeful gulps of all things American. As we were boarding our flight from Dallas to Portland, I even overheard a Hispanic man complimenting the young man behind him on his cowboy hat.

Though there was a sense of immediate calm upon arriving in Spokane, amidst the sense of safety and warmth, thoughts of our beloved Chennai permeated our thoughts for those first several days.

Chennai had been the victim of its heaviest monsoon rains in 100 hundred years. The entire city was beneath several feet of water. Many experts blame the economic boom and construction frenzy that made Chennai India's city for the current disaster. The international airport was closed for nearly a week, because all the runways were underwater. Our thoughts were not only with the friends and colleagues we had left behind but also with Sundar, Vasanthi, and Ms. Rita, our household staff that had taken such good care of us for the last two years. Their homes were flooded, all their material possessions washed away. 

It was hard to get information. Friends were marking themselves as "safe" on Facebook, when they had internet at all. Cell phone service was out across the city. We were getting sporadic updates via Facebook messages in the morning. Elise and I would compare notes as we poured the kids their morning bowls of breakfast cereal. "Did you hear from so-and-so?" "So-and-so said this, etc."

The rain persisted for several weeks before we heard the most crushing news of all. The wall to the CGR failed. Our house--the house we had moved out of only four short weeks ago--was filled with five feet of rushing water. Our house was vacant. Our neighbors' wasn't. They lost everything on the first floor. My boss's house next to the tennis courts was gone. My neighbor had to race from work in the middle of the day to rescue his family from the rising waters. He commandeered a mail truck and braved the standing water to reach his home. Photos on Facebook show him in waist-high water, carrying his youngest daughter from their home on his back. 

To say this hit a little too close to home is an understatement. Between Elise and I, there was a sense of survivor's guilt. Of course we are glad we missed the flood, but also wished we could have been there to help, though I can't imagine having to rescue my own children from rushing flood waters. One colleague described the flood waters as several feet "over sweet Clementine's head". There 's a thought to keep you lying awake at night.

Now, the rains have slowed but have yet to stop. There are even rumors of the sun showing its face. Photos on Facebook now are of heaps of garbage and not rats swimming through roads. Relief efforts are afoot. One inspiring photo showed traffic stopped for Muslims praying in the streets; the mosque has been washed away. And you can see how a country divided can be brought together in the face of adversity. Though I would never wish the same on our own country, it is sad to say what it needs is adversity to draw us together again--no, not a war, because it takes getting outside of the U.S. To see that we have so much more in common than we think and that regardless of whether we are from Dallas or NYC or Smalltown, Iowa, we are more alike than regional geographic stereotypes might allow. 

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