Since last month, heavy rains have caused serious floods in many parts of Asia, including in Sri Lanka. Undaunted, four married couples – including my wife and I – visited Sri Lanka on a seven-day tour around the year-end holidays.
On the third day of the tour, we were making the longest land travel in a 12-seater coach, and continually staring in amazement at swollen rivers, flooded padi-fields and inundated villages on the way to our hotel.
We were supposed to get there by 6pm, but because of flooded roads, we were delayed and had to make a stop at 8pm.
Some villagers were gathered where we were, excitedly looking in the direction where the noise of rushing water could be heard.
Our driver told us that the low vehicle-bridge ahead had submerged in the river, and there was no other way to the hotel, which was some 3km away.
Wind shook the surrounding trees and there was a slight drizzle. The place was pitch dark.
Our driver phoned the hotel for help, and we were told a small van from the hotel would pick us up – using a narrow bridge meant for pedestrians and motorcycles, near the submerged bridge.
When the van arrived, the eight of us hopped on without our luggage, which would be picked up on a second trip.
The van soon mounted the pedestrian bridge and rolled over it inch by inch, with only an inch’s clearance on either side of the railings. Our fate was in the hands of the hotel’s young driver.
WATER BASHING SUPPORTS
Any careless swerve towards the railings would mean disaster for us.
The river remained invisible. We could hear the noise of the furious on-rushing river water. From outside the van, the noise was probably deafening.
Midway across the bridge, we felt it vibrating because of the furious water bashing the supports of the bridge and the raging winds.
Though it was the eve of what was touted to be the end of the world on 21 December and we did not believe that, a mishap would surely send our van plunging into the raging waters. The thought made us wonder if indeed the wild predictions of the Mayan calendar was already occurring.
With heavily beating hearts, we prayed as our coach crawled along the bridge that was not straight but curved.
Then, after an aeon of distress, from the illumination of the headlights, we saw the van nearing the bank of the river. Upon reaching it, I heard our wives crying and expressing thanks to God for ending the ordeal.
Sri Lanka, a largely rural and agricultural island, is prone to flooding during intense rain, especially along rivers when they overflow and at low-lying areas such as padi fields.
Back home in Singapore, we have an urban landscape with a very decent drainage system. Still, in the last couple of years, many parts were hit with flash floods due to torrential rains and there have been four reported accidental deaths so far.
Just before this weekend, the weatherman warned that flash floods would happen in a few low-lying areas in these couple of days, especially when high tides coincide with heavy rain.
Singapore schoolchildren today do not experience the inconvenience caused by the rainy season as compared to that of my time five decades ago in Geylang Serai.
In those days, many kampung children would not be able to go to school as their homes would be flooded, and it would be dangerous to move around because of hidden ditches and panicky snakes surfacing.
When I was in my early teens in the1960s, Geylang Serai experienced one of the worst floods.
A couple of friends and I salvaged pieces of wood and wooden items that floated about to make rafts, and we had fun doing errands for housewives.
At some places, the water was thigh-deep, preventing people from getting food items to cook their food.
During one of the errand trips, we witnessed a man fall into a ditch and we rowed our raft rapidly to help him.
His cloth bag, which was full of items he had bought from a nearby sundry shop, also fell into the water and we retrieved it for him, saving only some while the rest vanished in the muddy water.
People falling and getting injured was common.
Worse still was the toilet situation.
Not only had the buckets of the jambans (kampung toilet) floated away, but pieces of human waste were also floating around.
The shared two-cubicle jamban of the longhouse, where my fatherless family of three rented a room, could not be used. The flood water had entered it, inconveniencing and embarrassing everyone as they had to find an alternative place to relieve themselves. Even the jamban itself, with the word “Bank” painted on its door by some great jokers, had collapsed.
Our kitchen was also flooded, but not the room as the longhouse was built on stilts about a metre high.
The rain stopped after a few days. A couple of days later, the sun appeared. Everyone was cheerful but the damage done to the kampung was enormous. The ground was covered with mud and debris.
Pak Busu, the kampung leader, called everyone together for a gotong royong (working together) during which we all cleared up muddy pedestrian tracks and removed rubbish that had clogged up ditches.
We also buried dead animals, especially chickens and ducks, or the occasional goat, belonging to families.
But those were the days when, though we had many friends, we had no opportunity to visit other countries, unlike today’s children.
Now that our children are grown up, we – the four couples who visited Sri Lanka and who had never even stepped into Malaysia in our younger days – have been travelling a lot.
The eight of us met for the first time in 2009 on a tour of North India. Our friendship blossomed and I can say the flood ordeal we encountered together strengthened our bonding.
Water destroys, but it is also a builder in other ways.
(Shaik Kadir is a retired school teacher who has been writing for various publications since 1976. He is also the author of several English books on Islam and 'A kite in the evening sky', a story set in Geylang Serai during the late 1950s and 1960s.)
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