Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Feeling the Heat

Today, it’s hot, hot, hot! God is it hot and it’s only March. Can April really be hotter than this? Hotter than hell?

I did a bit of ‘Do It Myself’ this morning. It was a horrible job, using chemical paint stripper to strip off the blue paint Cat has managed to get all over the floor tiles on the verandah. It was only seven in the morning, an ungodly hour to be doing DIM, but the sweat was soon pouring off me.

Mopping my brow with the kitchen towel, I went and had a look at the thermometer on the jeep which is parked in the garage and it was showing 33 degrees. So cool for this time of the morning! It must be more than that.

When I’d given up on the manual work, I showered and now sit at my desk upstairs to do my email, quaffing from my bottle of ‘Nile Drinking Water’. When the bare skin of my chest touches the desk, it’s hot to the touch. The ceiling tiles are hot, radiating heat down from the roof and I’m not sure I can stay up here for long. It’s just so, so desperately hot.

Even the locals are complaining and lolling around, though annoyingly they look like an advert for anti-perspirant and all laugh at me when I ‘glow’ and drip. Even Ping, who’s only six and usually a bundle of energy, is looking a bit limp. She’s taking the Thai way out and has fallen fast asleep next to her mother on the hard tiled floor. I always find it difficult to give in and do nothing, so I go upstairs to look for the camera. I then creep downstairs and sneakily take a charming shot of her, fortunately without waking her.

For me, this hot season in Thailand has more than a touch of déjà vu about it. Thirty three years ago (perish the thought), I lived in a traditional African mud compound in Zaria old city in Northern Nigeria. With a ratio of about one white person to approximately ten thousand, it was a great experience to live there, though as you may guess it was hot, hot, hot. The mud rooms were square and immensely thick and once they’d absorbed the heat of the day, they’d stay hot overnight. We had running water and power, most mud cons in fact, but the table fan was pretty useless as the power was usually off. I remember sleeping on my back, or not sleeping more likely, one foot in a bucket of water on the floor. As a way of cooling the blood, it worked really quite well.

I don’t need a bucket now as I confess to an air conditioner in the bedroom, though there are similarities to life in the two places. The north of Nigeria has two seasons, the hot and muddy season, followed by the bloody hot and dusty season, when it doesn’t rain for six months. It happens that Nigeria and Thailand are my very first and my latest experience as an expat, though I don’t know which climate is more hot and horrible than the other… let’s just say I’ve jumped out of the frying pan into the frying pan.

Now today, we’re in the middle of Thailand’s annual drought when for six months everything’s parched and brown, the foliage is drab and bleached and you just long for a cooling shower. At about this time there are the so-called mango rains when thundershowers offer some blessed relief but my experience is that they’re always over the next village and they never fall on us.

A week ago, it was excessively hot and humid and all day the clouds were building up in the direction of Sangkha. Then late afternoon, with the black clouds towering over us, there was a strong flurry of wind which brought the delicious smell of rain on hot earth. We ran out and brought in the washing and watched the first glorious drops splattering down, making big round circles in the dust. I went upstairs and stood on the verandah happily watching as the roof turned dark, but to my disappointment the rain abruptly stopped and the clouds rolled away to the east. Sound and fury followed by a tantalizing dribble is all the rain gods ever seem to give us, the bastards that they are.

Meteorologically speaking, life’s pretty predictable round here because, as in Nigeria, there’s loads of climate but not much weather, which is disappointing for a Brit like me as it leaves very little to talk about. So all I can now tell you is that we’ve just come through the hot season and are coming into the very hot season which lasts from about March to May. Then in June it should start raining and the rains last for about five months, or so my Rough Guide to Thailand reliably reminds me. This is the rice growing season when the world becomes a rich green for several months before it becomes dry again and the rice turns golden brown for harvesting at the end of the year.

Despite the almost total absence of weather, the English language newspapers nonetheless always publish a daily weather forecast and they’re about as useful as the world weather forecasts on CNN. You know the ones… like, ‘Turning cloudy over Somalia,’ and ‘there’ll be light rain in the Himalayas’.

In Thailand it’d be much more sensible to have a month by month ‘climate forecast’, as follows. ‘It’ll be hot and dry in March, ridiculously hot and dry in April, and intolerably hot and even dryer in May’. But no, they insist there’s weather to be had every day. Today, 6 March 2007, The Bangkok Post forecasts 38 very hot degrees tomorrow right here in the North East and then goes on, ‘Thunderstorm, gusty wind and hail are expected in the areas. People should beware of thunderstorm, gusty wind and hail’. So true, we should! I’m so glad I’ve been warned.

A useless forecast they often trot out when it’s not quite intolerably hot is the one that says, ‘Cool with morning fog… 35 degrees’. Cool?? Thirty five degrees! And what am I supposed to do about this fog I've never ever seen? It’s a bit like those road signs warning of falling rocks. Beware of forecasts and road signs say I.

Having perhaps over-hyped the inescapable heat I suffer daily, there’s something I must now confess to. Thailand really does have a winter of sorts. Winter lasts for at least two or three days around the turn of the year when cool air from China comes down our way, and I really, really love it. All the locals stand around wrapped up in padded jackets, slapping their sides and asking their resident farang if it’s cold. ‘Nao, nao mai?’ they ask him with anticipation. It’s so bitter, surely even he must be cold. But no, I always disappoint them and tell them it’s still hot and that in England sometimes there’s ice on the ground just like in the freezer, though of course they never believe me.

This winter was particularly hard, lasting all of a week or two when the wind moaned in a Northerly sort of way and kicked dust and plastic bags high into the air. It was really pleasant, though if you’re foolish enough to ride a motorbike in a singlet, it's pretty chilly. Up in the mountains it’s much colder and the newspapers reported that Nan province was declared a disaster area when the temperature fell as low 13 degrees. Officials were busy distributing hundreds of thousands of blankets as they do each year, though I often wonder what happened to last year’s… perhaps they used them to light their little fires of coconut husks.

You see, every morning when it’s ‘cold’, everyone opens all the windows in the house to let out the residual warmth and then they rush outside and squat around fires, holding their hands out to the guttering flames. They never forget to wake the baby and they take him outside too in the thinnest of t-shirts and seem to wonder why he always gets sick.

Now winter’s just a distant memory, of feeling fresh and cool, of cycle rides and jaunts in the jeep out into the rice fields and being able to work in the garden without discomfort. And now it’s hot, hot, hot, so I think I’ll follow Ping’s example and stretch out on the floor downstairs. It certainly is the coolest, or do I mean the least hot place in the house.

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