Friday, September 26, 2008

Kinds of Rain

Dear Grandma,

You told me once that when you watch the evening news, you always check the weather in whatever place I happen to be living. It’s a connection—a way of looking out for me. You did this when I lived in Chicago, you did this when I lived in New York. You got nervous about any inclement weather I might have to face. And now I have moved to a point beyond the edge of the weather map, which I know has only amplified your worries. So here is a special meteorological report, just for you.

I arrived in Cambodia near the end of the rainy season. How can I explain the rain here? In the mornings it comes down in long silver strands, drawing straight lines from the sky to the ground. Even in this crowded, chaotic city, that kind of rain seems to bring a hush, sort of like the muffling quality of Midwestern snow, and it can be calm and pretty—a rain painting. Or sometimes, in the middle of the day, a spattering of heavy raindrops will appear out of nowhere. The sky directly above will be clear and sunny, but fat blobs of water will splash onto my shoulders with the weight of coins. But in the late afternoon or evening, thunder booms in the distance and the rain comes down like watery missiles being fired into the ground. And then the wind picks up, creating enormous buffeted spheres of air and water droplets that roll through the streets like they’re chasing someone.

Two days ago, I witnessed my first flash flood. While Jason and I were walking to a museum, the rainclouds seemed to tip over all at once, drenching everything in an instant. In the shelter of a coffee shop, we licked ice cream cones and watched the tuk-tuk drivers, the men who own the little motorized taxi carts, throw on ponchos the colors of spring flowers and snap covers onto their vehicles. The gutters were full of turbulent currents when we climbed into one of the tuk-tuks; the streets had turned into canals just a few minutes later. The driver stopped and pointed at the block with the museum—the road had become an impromptu swimming pool for the neighborhood kids, who were unfazed by the still-torrential rain. “Back?” the driver asked us. “Go back?” That was when we made the questionable decision to climb onto the barely-there sidewalk and go on foot instead.

It was impossible not to think of all the stories you’ve told me about the floods on the Ohio: how you’d have to move all the furniture upstairs and then move it through the windows onto boats when the water reached the second floor; how it would be weeks or months until you could move back in and your father would have to keep the water moving through the house with brooms so that a knee-deep layer of mud didn’t collect; how the wooden floors warped under all that water until every board looked like a crumpled length of ribbon.

So I thought that, surely, this rain would shut Phnom Penh down for hours or even days. We gave up on walking to the museum—the entrance was at the end of a long swirling river. I had to close my eyes while we waded across the street, so I did not have to look at the paper cups and dead leaves and dog poop floating past my ankles. We fled to a nearby restaurant where I could wash my feet in the sink of the restroom, and as I did, I wondered how I would ever make it back to the apartment. So I found it curious that none of the native city-dwellers seemed to be treating the situation as a disaster. Hundreds of motorbikes and cars went about their usual business, plowing through the streets and leaving great rooster-tails of water in their wake. In the bars and restaurants, people were relaxing and laughing and beginning to order their after-work drinks. In minutes the rain had stopped; in an hour the floodwaters had disappeared, leaving behind a city that looked like it had received no more than a light shower. The rain here, just like lots of other things in Cambodia, works in mysterious ways, and I don’t pretend to understand it yet.

Whenever I talk to you on the phone, we speak of the weather, the droughts and storms in Felicity and wherever I am. But this is not because we are making mindless chitchat the way other people use weather talk. It is because you, more than anyone else I know, understand the importance of weather, the power of it. Tornadoes have been known to rip through entire communities just up the road from you, lightning now kills more people each year in Cambodia than landmines do—when you ask me how the weather is, I know it is not as simple a question as it seems.

So let me add, to offset this talk of storms, that there is lots of weather that happens between these brief spells of rain. The clouds disappear as soon as you turn your back. And if you’re lucky, there’s a dry period just as the sun gets low in the sky. It’s good to sit on the balcony when there’s a Golden Hour, that time of day that photographers love, when the angle of light makes everything soften and glow. The old buildings, the rusted gates, the teeming streets—suddenly they all look inviting and almost familiar. I sit and watch the world go by, and I think of you on your porch, and I hope that the sun is on its way to make an evening just like this one, for you, on the other side of the world.

Love always,

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