The most personal post yet – A shit day in a developing country

8 Nov

A SHIT DAY IN A DEVELOPING COUNTRY  The heavy rains of Ho Chi Minh City make everything hard; it’s hard to see, hard to hear, hard to avoid traffic and especially hard to catch taxis. I’ve been hopelessly standing on the side of the road out the front of my office now for over ten minutes, watching taxi, after taxi drive by. But it’s six o’clock on a Friday evening, so what else could I expect? I’m just about to admit defeat and retreat to a nearby cafe for a lonely beer when I hear, “Maggie! Maggie!” That’s what my favourite xe om (motorbike taxi) driver, Mr Minh, calls me. He appears out of nowhere like a white knight.

We set off into the rain wearing ponchos for protection. Mr Minh is one of the fastest xe om drivers in the city but he judges the seemingly unpredictable actions of other drivers well, which normally makes me feel safe. But the traffic tonight is unusually chaotic and he’s darting in and out of lanes like we’re in a pinball machine. “Wow Anh Minh,” I say nervously, “You are very fast.”

“Mr Minh motorbike number one!” he yells wickedly and accelerates onto the footpath to bypass more traffic.

Suddenly, though, we hit a wall of hundreds of motorbikes which are standing still. Even Mr Minh can’t find gaps to penetrate this wall of people. We’re on my street as well. It must be floods, I think. But my street floods every single day and it never causes traffic like this. Maybe it’s an accident. Oh no. My stomach sinks, heart starts racing and I get a seriously hot flush. Please don’t let it be a motorbike accident. I can’t bear to see another body underneath a car.

Police are berating the crowd and forcing everyone onto one side of the road. So Mr Minh sees his opportunity. The police officer looks away for a moment, the crowd moves to the side as directed, and Mr Minh pulls out onto the open side of the road to jump the queue and reveal the real cause of chaos.

There’s been a house fire. Two house fires, in joint terrace houses that are side-by-side. Dozens of people are gathering at the doorsteps, consoling each other and watching fire fighters sort through debris on floors above. It’s all pitch black. Shit. There must have been dozens of people living in those houses and, with security bars on all windows (which is important due to high numbers of desperate crimes in the region) there would have been almost no way out for the poor people trapped inside. It looks like people must have died tonight. My neighbours must have died.

My street floods daily. Pictured is the view of my flooded street from the rooftop terrace.

Another policeman waves his baton at Mr Minh so we shift back onto the right side of the road. The traffic is moving now but we’ve hit floods and the scene becomes more desperate with every metre we progress. Hundreds of onlookers are standing out on the street, knee-deep in flood waters and getting pummeled by rain from above. The entire community is watching the devastated families.

I realise the community is like one big family, though, as all of the people around me have been working, speaking and eating together on this very street, seven days per week for years. It feels like a disaster zone; the shock, desperation and helplessness are palpable.

We continue driving and, as the number of people on the side of the road starts to thin out, the street becomes darker and darker. The fires have caused a major electrical black-out across the district. Mr Minh pulls up to my house and I have no choice but to jump off the bike and into the black, slimey flood waters. It makes me feel sick as I know there are all sorts of dangerous substances in the water which spread disease, including unfiltered sewage. I hope there are no cuts on my feet – an open door for Typhoid or Staph.

I close the front door behind me and let out a sigh of relief. The power is out and I’m home alone but at least it’s quiet.

I grab my trusty torch and start ascending the stairs to my room when I realise my feet are still soaking wet, and I know it can’t be from the flood waters outside. I lower the torch, squint into the darkness and see a layer of water on each of the stairs in front of me. What is that? Where is that water coming from? It can’t be from the street, can it? I’m so puzzled now, shining the torch all around me to see that I’m surrounded by water. I continue, slowly, creeping up each of the stairs, one at a time. They’re all flooded.

“Hey!” My housemate, Flo, jumps out from his bedroom and scares the shit out of me. “You’ll never guess what happened. It’s crazy,” he says in his distinctively German accent, “The drain on the rooftop balcony is blocked…”

It’s been raining for hours and hours and our drain has been blocked on the top storey of the house. Just half an hour earlier, our staircase was like Niagara Falls. And as the waters descended over four floors, a network of river systems branched off into each of the bedrooms. Shit! My room’s at the top of the house and I don’t know what I left on the floor. Panic sets in and I start leaping up the stairs towards my bedroom when my other housemate, Quentin, appears. He loudly proclaims: “This is not a house. It’s a swimming pool!” We burst into fits of laughter.

The streets of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta were flooded on our arrival as well.

I don’t think I’ll ever know what actually happened on Friday night. I can’t read the local newspaper and I don’t speak enough Vietnamese to ask the few friends I have made on my street. I will always remember that night, though, as it marks another huge turning point in my perspective and attitude.

It wasn’t the end of hardships for the weekend either, as I travelled to

Even the bus terminal was flooded when we arrived back in HCMC on Sunday evening.

regional areas in the Mekong Delta on Saturday and Sunday and was met by floods in every town. Thousands of families who live in fishing villages along the banks of the Can Tho River were flooded daily by the rising tides. Imagine dealing with a flooded house every single day for your entire life? I saw people walking through their living rooms in waist-deep water. Most of the people living in these houses can’t even swim!

Households like this, along the Can Tho River, flood from rising tides every day.

This post is not intended to make you feel sorry for me, my Vietnamese friends, or to donate money to my organisation. It’s simply to help you understand; to understand why Vietnam is making progress against some Millennium Development Goals and not others, why families cannot break the cycle of poverty, why climate change and rising tides are an important issue, why sometimes I’m tired and can’t reply to your email. This is Vietnam and its dealing me the hardest and greatest challenges of my life.

By Marissa Toohey

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2 Responses to “The most personal post yet – A shit day in a developing country”

  1. Tristan November 8, 2010 at 9:54 AM #

    Good Post Marissa…

    Hope nothing was destroyed in your room!

    • theBubbleBuster November 15, 2010 at 5:42 AM #

      Thanks Tristan! No, nothing was destroyed, I just had to dry my wet backpack which was on the floor. I’m careful not to leave anything on the floor now though!

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