Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why I'm Still in Bangkok

There's a storm front rolling in.

Not the kind that brings thunder, lightning and torrential downpours. In fact, at the moment, the skies over Bangkok are only partly cloudy and have been mostly clear for the majority of the week (unlike as in the photo above, which I took from my balcony on October 16). The storm front that I'm talking about will bring water from down below, moving in the opposite direction, upward. By some reports, the deluge will rise up to 1.5 meters or more in central Bangkok.

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is saying there's a 50/50 chance, but as I've previously reported, you can't believe everything you hear or read around here these days. (Channel NewsAsia just reported that it's now more like a 100 percent chance.) The threat of inner-city flooding has been with us for the last two weeks, but it's been presented with a bit more breathless urgency over the last few days. I'm beginning to feel like one of the workers in the World Trade Center on 9/11 who ignored that initial impulse to get the hell out of a burning building.

Of course, this is no 9/11. Although it's the worst flooding to hit Thailand in 50 years, and more than 350 lives have been claimed (with further casualties almost certain, due to post-flood illnesses such as cholera and dysentery), the situation here is not nearly the same as it was in New York City on September 11, 2001. Then, as now, I was sitting on the outskirts of a disaster area, preparing for the worst, if not quite expecting it.

So what's a smart guy like me still doing in a place like this? I'm not entirely sure. If I didn't love the city, my accommodations and my 14th-floor view, I probably would have been out of here days ago. Another part of me, the journalist, feels that it would be improper to leave the scene of potential impending disaster. If I can't do anything to help out, at the very least, I can help report the story with my digital camera and laptop.

The fact is I've never been in the middle of a natural disaster of any kind. I grew up in Florida, where, every hurricane season, I was possibly in the path of a raging storm. I've seen fire, I've seen rain, I've seen a few trees go down. I even saw all of the schools in Kissimmee closed down in 1979 due to Hurricane David. But I never saw the eye of the storm hit close to home.

Amazingly, I've never experienced a tornado either, although I spent my childhood terrified of them. Every time storm clouds rolled in, I would look up in the sky, expecting to see that funnel cloud that would whisk me up and away on my own Dorothy experience. Green may have been one of my favorite colors, but Emerald City was no place I wanted to visit. (That Wizard was one scary-looking guy!)

While I was watching storms go by as a kid, I read the news reports of the furious weather conditions in Southeast Asia that always seemed to claim hundreds of lives each year. When I was planning my trip here, it was with a little bit of trepidation that I'd run right into one. I nearly did: I missed the typhoon in Manila, Philippines, last month that claimed more than a dozen lives by just a couple of weeks.

There was nothing on that scale this past rainy season in Thailand. The current situation is the direct result of three months of steady downpours that brought more rain than usual. That part, I've experienced. In Pattaya, where, during my visit in September, I saw people walking through flooded streets in water up to their knees and cars (including the van bringing me into town) half submerged in water. In the rainforest in Koh Chang, I was stranded with my tour group on the wrong side of our vehicle by a waterfall that had been created by an unexpectedly heavy downpour.

It took several hours and a precarious balancing act, but we eventually made it over to the other side. Bangkok will make it over to the other side, too. Though tomorrow morning I might come to my senses and head to my gay getaway in Pattaya, for now I intend to stick around to see what happens next.

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