Staying Dry

Dinner in Pathum Thani

Lately, I’ve been signing off all my texts/emails/WhatsApps (what DO you call these?) with the exhortation to “stay dry”. As if people needed reminding to, you know, “stay dry”. What can I say? It makes me feel better. But what does staying dry really mean?

Yes, floodwaters are rushing toward inner Bangkok. This makes people react in different ways. In my case, well, I guess it’s still a mixed bag of feelings that I have a hard time articulating. There is confusion, yes, and a little fear, and of course fatigue. I am very, very tired. But the thing I feel most right now is … curiosity. I am not so interested in thinking of defeat, or worrying, or angering, or, (I can’t believe I’m saying this) even eating. Okay, maybe eating, if it involves a buffet with an unlimited time span. Maybe that.

Bangkok Hospital has a program sending volunteer doctors and nurses on daily trips up north to see patients and distribute medicine to people who need it. Transport usually involves transferring from van to military vehicle to boat. Sometimes they go to a central location, like a temple, and sometimes they go into people’s houses. Until a week ago, they went to Ayutthaya; now that it is impossible, they go to Patum Thani. Obviously, I have no real, concrete skills of any kind, but I volunteered to go anyway. I was curious. My brother and I became the awkward hangers-on-slash-pretend pharmacists (don’t worry, one and sometimes two nurses double-checked the “orders” we filled).

I can’t lie, at first it was bleak. The smell of the rotting water made me woozy, making me break out into a panic-sweat. Aside from the sound of the motor, we traveled a couple of kilometers in deathly silence — no phones, no televisions, the view of cars parked along the expressway off-ramp constantly in the background. Water had already reached the lowest cars.

Traveling along a major road

(Photo by Sutree Duangnet)

We traveled to a temple that had flooded out completely on the ground floor. The second floor had turned into a de facto evacuation center and about 80 people lived there, sharing resources and space and energy. The doctors saw everyone, dispensed advice, and prescribed medicine — the most popular items turned out to be calamine lotion, eye drops and Diazepam.

What struck me was that people were kind, even crammed together without most of their belongings, confined to a space the size of an elementary school dining hall. They offered us water and food. One corner of the hall served as the kitchen; there was one shower and one toilet. A cat and her kittens lived on the ledge, while dogs — the strong, lucky ones — would jump through the windows from time to time.

Life went on, in its way. Everyone was staying dry the best way they could. Kids shouted from the window to the ones, also living on the second floor, next door. A man came in, offering sweets to the children. As we prepared to leave, they were setting up for dinner: rice, grilled Thai mackerel, shrimp paste chili dip. Three papayas and a bunch of bananas were waiting for dessert. They gave us the food we brought them as we got into the boat, saying they were “afraid it would spoil”. We ate it all on the way home.

The view from the front of the temple

(Photo by Sutree Duangnet)

On the way back, things seemed better. The rotten water was there, yes, but there was also: a group of friends on a wooden raft, enjoying an early dinner; an enterprising store-owner who had walled up half of her doorway with concrete, selling her wares to shoppers on boats; kids paddling along us, trying to flirt with the nurses. Our boat man made dinner plans with friends sitting on a nearby roof, their feet dangling over the water. As we waded through knee-deep water to our transport, he reminded us to “wash our feet”. Perhaps a new way to sign-off in the coming days.





Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, Thailand

10 responses to “Staying Dry

  1. Gautam

    With the city roads and varied urban environments being flushed by floodwaters, a greater load of chemicals of all sorts will eventually enter the waterways than would be the case with just the monsoon rains. How will this affect fish & aquatic ecology in the future, since quite a number of fish farms use the waterways? Are there any environmentalists pondering on these issues, which might also affect the tourist trade, at least peripherally?

    How might the floods affect the rural & urban rodent populations? Would the sewer rats of the city/towns experience a population collapse? Would various species of rural mice/rodents survive the flood in sufficient numbers to savage the remnants of the rice crop, or of other standing crops or fruit trees?

    Are there biologists working on the fisheries and rodent-related aspects of this flood, in both the urban & the rural environments? It seems a bit insensitive to ask, but rodent-induced famines are a dreaded feature in certain parts of north-eastern India. Population biologists from International agencies have lent their expertise and done much sound, innovative theoretical work that has helped immensely with understanding the dynamics of these events.

    • These are all good questions. Unfortunately, your guess is as good as mine. I have seen that the water has a corrosive effect on skin (rash if you don’t wash it off) and fur (I’ve seen some unlucky dogs, something I’d rather not remember). This water is not good for anything that lives.

      • Gautam

        Thank you. If it is not insensitive, here is the URL for your episode of Poh’s Kitchen. I cannot say how long the episodes remain “open” to all.

        BTW, you are NOT dark, but quite phet; no worries about fit, trust me. Those are purely US pathologies.

        • Thank you for the link! That is very kind of you.
          The klong-side Muslim community in Minburi that is featured in the episode is, very likely, underwater now. It’s nice to see this beautiful place as it was (and as it will be, I very much hope) in happier times.

  2. Mark Stanforth

    Hi Chaw,
    thinking of you all at this difficult time, hope things improve soon. DVD will go in the mail today. The program rated really well here in Australia, everyone very happy with the result!
    Take care. Mark

  3. Janet Brown

    I’d forgotten the exhortation of “wash your feet,” So common in the rainy season of 1995, remember? This is wonderful to wake up to; it really carries the essence of what I love about Bangkok–the generosity and kindness.and graciousness of the people who live there, Thank you.

  4. Great writing here. Thanks for sharing what you saw with us in a level headed, human way. While the story isn’t really about food, I love how it creeps it’s way in so often. Especially the moment when someone shows up with treats for the kids as you’re leaving. As the city panics and many choose self preservation, oblivious to the needs of others, I hope lessons from your journey and the gentle way in which you shared them will touch other people too.

    PS – Wash your feet! (no, really wash ’em.)

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