Nov 09 2011
I’m lucky. I’ve been able to report on the Thai floods as an unaffected observer. My house isn’t inundated, and the smell of sewage doesn’t fill my neighborhood. Ask me in a few days and I might no longer be able to say those things, but I’ll still be glad that our neighborhood lasted as long as it did. I’ve been asked a lot what it “feels like” in Bangkok right now, as citizens wait for the flood waters to either fill the streets or pass us by. Feelings are subjective, but this is what it feels like to me.
Everyday I wake up and immediately check out the window to see if the street has flooded. I know it’s illogical — the power would probably be off, and honestly I could probably smell it from bed before I got out. Also my dog would be furiously objecting to the water invading her own personal patio. But I do it anyway. I don’t do it out of a sense of obligation, but a sense of dread. Every day could be *the* day. Friends say they do the same thing.
I immediately look at Twitter, first my personal feed, then the frenzied (and often entirely incorrect/incoherent) #thaifloodeng stream. Next comes a quick round up of the two English-language dailies in Bangkok. Satisfied that the water isn’t right around the corner, it’s coffee and shower time. The kicker? I’ve had this routine going for more than a month now. I can hardly believe this natural disaster has been going on for a month; it’s become the new normal. After a shower, I decide if I have time to go and check the canals before work, or if I ride straight there. The last week there hasn’t been much reason to check the canals; they are always entirely full to the brim.
I ride to work in the glorious Bangkok sunshine — rainy season, after all, is well over, and the skies are blue as can be. I spend a full 50 percent of my non-kitchen time (I’m a chef when not writing for Travelfish.org) trying to source things that I can no longer get from my normal suppliers. Canned sweetened condensed milk (a necessity for serving coffee in the Kingdom!), tuna, frozen fruits, avocados — even bottled cooking gas — have a spotty supply. We beg, borrow, and plead what we can, and make the rest ourselves (including sweetened condensed milk, which is delicious when handmade). What is available seems to increase in price almost daily.
Home again in the dark, with a quick check up Phaholyothin or Vipihadi to see how far down the water’s come. It doesn’t take too long to make the check now that the water is a few hundred metres north of my normal turn off into my neighborhood. Getting food for ourselves is easy as long as we stick to Thai food — Huai Kwang wet market has been open and fully stocked through the duration. Our local Tesco Lotus and Big C (supermarket chains) have been a different story. The shopping experience is closer to what it must have been like in eastern Bloc countries or Argentina during their currency crisis — empty shelves, long lines, a lingering whiff of desperation.
Not being able to get Parmesan cheese isn’t exactly a crisis, but going into Tesco Lotus last Friday to pick up something for dinner I was presented with the barest shelves I have ever seen. If I wanted to buy oranges, fish sausages, batteries, aspirin, or headphones, I was set. Everything else was gone, including the chewing gum and ice. We decided to just have whiskey and soda for dinner, something we already had on hand.
We’ve moved all of our stuff to the second floor of our house, creating a makeshift living room in the small covered area where we normally dry our clothes. All that remains downstairs in the fridge (on blocks — we’ll move it up when the water arrives, along with the gas canisters and the burners). Our “survival stocks” are limited: pasta and tinned sauce, booze, soda water, cereal and boxed milk. When we don’t have power any more, our water will also be out (we have a pump that transfers water from the city mains to our water system — without electricity it doesn’t work), so we’ll be forced to evacuate once our reserved water for toilet flushing is exhausted.
It’s not that our day to day lives have changed so much — I still go to work every day, and barbecue something on the weekend, and fail to read the serious fiction I have on my book list. It’s that the only thing on everyone’s mind is the flood. Talking with our Thai friends in other parts of the city the conversation starts nam tuam mai? (is it flooding?). Are you going upcountry? Where will your family stay if you stay with the house? With our foreign friends we discuss what canal it has reached, and where to go if it comes and what to do if we’re left behind and all the exit routes are blocked. None of the answers are measured or reasoned, because none of us know what to do. Buy a boat and row out? Wade to higher ground? Hope the army evacuates us? Who knows. Some friends have already been shipped back to their home countries because the factories they worked at are still under a metre of water. Others, houses uninhabitable to the north, stay with friends or move down south.
It’s an echo chamber of nothing but the flood, happening under sunny blue skies and fair weather. It’s an absurd, surreal situation worthy of a South American mystical realism prose, involving talking water that’s actually your dad and a magical floating grandma.
In then end, the only thing I hold on to is that something will work out. Really, it takes up way too much mental space to consider other wise. Let’s not talk about it anymore — it’s exhausting — since we can still get beer, let’s drink it and not think about the water any more. We’ll fix it when it gets here. What can you do except look up and accept what’s coming?
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