The Dry Lands

Imagine, for a moment, looking out across rolling grass-hills stretching on as far as the eye can see, little green leaved guava trees speckling the landscape. Now imagine it has all turned brown. The grass. The leaves. The shrubs. Then you see smoke rising in the distance and you realize the field across from your house has been scorched by fire! That’s what dry season is like in Cambodia.

They (the former missionaries) told us that when dry season comes, everything turns brown. The grass is dead. The leaves have fallen. And the ground… well…the ground is always that reddish kind of brown that’ll stain your socks any time of year.

But anyhow, my experience was much different than what I had anticipated. When the dry season came the grass looked dead alright, and the leaves on the trees were brown and falling to the ground, but it did not seem like a gradual change as one would experience in the autumn season in the States. I drive to school every day and I can observe whether or not there is a noticeable decrease in the synthetization of chlorophyll in the collective vegetation around me. But all I can say is that one day the grass outside was green and there were leaves on the trees, and the next day it was all dried up (though interestingly enough some of the trees never browned or even lost any leaves for that matter).

The other drastic change in weather was that it became very windy, more so at night. The wind would blow and blow and when I would wake up, everything was the same. None of the trees had fallen over, except a few branches did depart from their normal resting place. So I would go to bed the next night and fall asleep to the wind howling away. And it would be like this for months. High winds. Dry fields. And dead plants.

But I wasn’t about to let any dryness get me down. I couldn’t let things just get dull around here. No. It was going to be the most exciting season of all! But little did I know how exciting…

One particularly dry and windy day I came home after school and decided to burn our trash pile (as is the standard way of disposing of trash in Cambodia). The trash was piled high with branches and other rubbish from around the yard, but after a few attempts with the lighter nothing seemed to hold a flame. I tried one last time and got a little twig burning, but I could see that it wasn’t maturing so I went back inside to read (side note: The book Customs and Cultures by Nida is highly informative, but an easy read if you’re looking to broaden your perspective and gain a better understanding of the world).

As I was reading I noticed out of the corner of my eye some smoke blowing past me. I turned to look out the window to see that my trash pile had really caught fire. Delighted that I could finally do away with all the garbage I sat and stared at the rising flames for a while.

As I watched, my eyes followed a smoldering path and I realized some flames had strayed and were trickling along the dry grass towards our house. Unalarmed, I decided I should go outside and end their journey.

As soon as I had finished raking over the dead grass towards the house I noticed that some more bold flames had decided to reach out to the dry grass along the other side of the burn pile. Realizing that if the flames continued that direction they would catch the whole field of dead grass next to our house on fire I quickly climbed over the fence and began raking at the dead grass to pull it away from the fire and bury the flames in dirt. 

Then all of the sudden the mass of tall dead grass in front of me lit up! The flames were leaping higher and higher and spreading farther and farther! I reacted promptly, beating the grass, hoeing it down, praying “Lord please no! Please no! Don’t let it spread!” doing anything and everything I could think of to put it out! But as soon as I extinguished a few square feet in front of me, the fire had more than doubled in size! And then, to make matter worse, my rake broke, and the fire was coming towards me!

The fence was flimsy and climbing back over it seemed hopeless, but deciding for life, I grabbed whatever was sturdy and pulled myself clumsily but successfully over to escape the flames.

At that point the landlord had come over to see what was going on. I tried to explain to her in broken Khmer that the fire was not intentional nor controlled. Fortunately she understood enough (with or without me trying to explain) she quickly ran to grab a hoe and hoe over the dead grass along the fence towards the house.

I ran to grab the garden hose and started extinguishing the trash pile (and no, not as if to cover any evidence of point of origin, but really to prevent any further spread in any other direction). I began to wet down the grass along the house when all of the sudden the water reduced to a small trickle out of the hose. I turned back to see the landlord looking despairingly at the water shooting out of the broken hose attachment!

By this time my fearless and trusty partner in Ministry, Anthony, had arrived on scene to see what all the ruckus was. Apparently he had heard an unusual roaring sound and figured I had started the burn pile, but was confused as to the magnitude and duration of the roar.

I didn’t need to explain much as he could clearly see the field up in smoke, but we did need to find the best course of action quickly because on the other side of the field was a house and car left open and very vulnerable to the flames, and if the fire reached even the car, we and whoever was living there would be done for.

So Anthony ran to call the school and let them know the situation and to ask if there was a fire station around while I jumped to the fence line to prevent any more flames from coming towards the house. But much to our dismay there was no fire station in town, and the fire was swelling! 

At this point Josh, the media missionary, had come outside, camera in hand, to capture what could be a most devastating story for the project. But I was eager to put it out before anything story worthy could develop. So we let Josh follow us around to capture in real-time a rare battle for the mission field as we jumped from bush to bush smothering the flames. Anthony decided to run up the road along the field to warn the people at the house as I moved along extinguishing curious flickers. 

Then, as I was running to and fro, I heard more unfavorable commotion and looked up the road to see where it was coming from. But because the wind was blowing the thick gray smoke from the fire across the road I couldn’t see who might be yelling about. Finally Anthony emerged through the cloud of gray only to tell me that the people weren’t home. He had tried getting the help of those passing by on the road, but they only looked on in awe and conveyed some expression of complementation as if we were looking for their approval. But the worst thing was that the field went right up under their car and if we didn’t do something quick we were going to see some serious fireworks. 

We looked out over the field as the flames leapt up into the bright blue sky and wondered what we were supposed to do. No fire station. No one along the way to help. Just a couple of American English teachers and a cameraman with nothing but a high school diploma and a few college credits under their belt.

But now was no time for a transcript review! (though no one was really thinking about that anyways) We needed a miracle!
Suddenly I remembered a movie I had seen about a school for juvenile delinquents and how they would have to learn to work as a team and live with each other in order to find restoration. The work they would do was firefighting.

As I visualized the techniques I had seen used for fighting fires I briefly conveyed them to Anthony who agreed it was the best shot we had at beating the fire. With that we leapt into the flames and began raking back the dead grass and creating a line of defense. From that line we moved fearlessly forward towards the approaching flames and began beating, raking over, and snuffing out the enflamed vegetation.

We fought and fought until our breaths gave out, and then we fought some more! Impassioned with fury at the apathetic blaze set before us we cried out and worked vigorously against it and its searing pain on our feet (for there was no time to change out of crocks and flip flops!) 

The flames were hot against our faces and the smoke burned our eyes, but we had only begun the fight. Yet even though we were making progress, I felt absolutely helpless. I was dedicated to ending this catastrophe, but the end seemed out of reach. Hopeless. Impossible. All we had was a shovel, a hoe, and an unquenchable fire.

We had delayed the fire from the roadside on a little ways into the field and were starting to believe we could beat it. But just as hope was rising, the far side of the field lit up in smoke and began burning the other direction.

Across a small valley stood our little school house, and the field went right to it. If the fire kept up at this rate, it would reach the school in no time, and then we’d really REALLY be in trouble. But before we could react the project truck showed up and three burly Cambodian guys and missionary came running out with branches in hand and determination in their eyes.

They flew past us growling at the seemingly indifferent conflagrations and began to whip out the fire with unfailing vigor. When Anthony’s shovel broke they tossed him a green leafed branch and we began fighting fires the Cambodian way. 

The green-leafed branches would hang on only for a time, but fortunately those spirited Cambodian guys always found something that would do. They didn’t seem to worry or have any fear; in fact, they didn’t have a serious bone in them, but that’s what gave us courage and hope.

Bunthieng (the second-grade teacher) showed up just after the other guys and worked with the landlord to bring out another hose and buckets to start dousing the fire. And only a minute later the principle showed up wielding a fire extinguisher in each hand.

I quickly grabbed one extinguisher and ran to the place of greatest need, but the tank was empty! So I reached for the other and let it rip for what seemed like only a moment until it too had been exhausted. Fortunately the fire had been extinguished for all but one area of the field, and with one more bucket-load of water the last of the flames were gone. 

Finally, it was over.

We looked around at the charred field before us to search for even the faintest glow, but none was to be found. We had done it. God had sent the right people at just the right time and showed us how together, language barrier and all, we could put out a field fire!

We took a moment to breathe before debriefing, at which time the adrenaline decided to cease its course and my body was free to express its complaints through aches and searing pains, especially where the flames had too often licked at my ankles. 

After debriefing (and me realizing that high winds and dry grass are not recommended conditions for starting small fires) all of the sudden out of the corner of my eye I saw flames leap up on another tall patch of grass. 

Not again.

I immediately ran through the simmering remains of the field and whipped out the fire in a heartbeat, threatening any other questionable looking patches of grass along the way.

“Okay, I think that’s the last of it”, I prayed. And it was. For uncontrolled fires that is.

As the rest of the week and months went on I would often see flickering fires in the distance where other landowners were burning their fields. We were encouraged to make precautions around the school grounds just in case any more fires got out of hand, and we even had a fire drill at school for the first time, but so far no danger has come near.

In fact, new life is springing up where once sat ashes and smoldering twigs. The field next to our house is sprouting new grass and the trees that had been singed by the flames are producing many colorful fruits. The winds have died down, the flowers are budding, and the rain clouds are blowing in as if to say “goodbye dry lands. No more dust and decay. Rainy season is soon upon us”.

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