Monday, September 30, 2013
Rain, Rain, Go Away
Rainy season is upon us. Massive storm clouds roll in from the mainland. We can see them from miles away before they reach us — a wide curtain of rain spread out across the water and obscuring everything behind it. Living on an upper floor of a high-rise tower, the mighty winds screaming past our condo send out a warning, too, of the impending downpour. It sounds like the high pitched wails of a thousand banshees trying to burst through the windows, and I occasionally find myself thinking, "Something wicked this way comes." I don't think it must sound this bad down at ground level because workmen have stopped what they're doing in the unit to comment on the noise. Sometimes, cracking open the sliding glass doors a few inches helps calm the roar, but then the wind whips through the house, sending loose papers flying and the chandelier swinging. Outside, plastic trash bags start floating through the sky, carried by an updraft higher and higher. The tropical thunder gets going with rumble after rumble rolling out ahead of the storm. Then, the rain hits us, and everything outside goes gray.
Before we moved, I wasn't quite sure of what to expect from the rainy monsoon season. I imagined torrential downpours lasting all day long that left the streets knee-deep in floodwaters, like the pictures from my parents' childhood in the Philippines. Thank goodness it's nothing like that. The rain comes down strong, but the storm blows past in an hour or so. Since Penang is a small island, the water seems to just run off into the ocean and never builds up along any of the roads I drive.
Every now and then, it will rain for hours on end. But that's atypical, and if it does, it's more of a light rain a notch or two above a drizzle. Sometimes, I can't even tell that it's raining. Living midway up the building, there's no pitter patter of raindrops hitting the roof. With no other buildings close by, it's difficult to discern if I'm just looking at a gray sky or if there's drops of rain falling in front of it. I have to peer way down to the street to see if the roadways are glistening or if I can see headlights reflected on a shiny, wet blacktop.
Once, it rather improbably rained so hard that our condo unit started flooding as did other units in our tower. No, this wasn't a storm of epic proportions (the kind where you expect to see Noah and his ark standing outside). It's just that the strong winds blew the rain horizontally under the 15 foot balcony cover and against the building so that it hit the windows, ran down them, and started seeping in under the window sills. Armed with mops, buckets and towels, we tried to soak up the rainwater as it ran into the rooms facing the storm. It was surreal.
To be honest, there's really not that much to distinguish between the wet monsoons and dry seasons. In the dry season, there's only a 40% chance of rain each day instead of the 60% chance during the wet. Overall, the temperatures are rather constant year round with some months being only a couple degrees warmer than others.
Growing up in Houston near the Texas coast, I was quite accustomed to quick, summer afternoon thunderstorms that released the hot, humid energy that built up over the course of the day. In this way, Penang so much reminds me of home. But Central Texas where we lived for the few decades before our move to Malaysia is in the midst of a multi-year drought. The water level of Lake Travis keeps dropping, forcing some of the companies serving the recreational boaters to close. I have just arranged for a large pear tree in the front yard of my Austin home to be chopped down, another victim of the lack of rain.
So, my kids were not really used to stormy weather before we moved to Penang.
Thunderstorms are the one thing that my daughter truly hates about Malaysia. Her pathological fear of them is something that wasn't much of a problem in drought-stricken Austin, but sometimes, it brings life to a standstill here in Penang. "My dog gets like that when it thunders," is what some people have commented when they see her start to quake and cry. I learned early on that if we were out in public, on the playground or the baseball field, we'd simply have to leave and go home lest her fear become the center of attention of everyone around us. It cannot be ignored. Even her teachers for the last few years know that my girl is going to be on edge in the classroom when a storm blows through. Her classmates huddle around her to provide comfort, and the school counselor has offered up her office as a place of refuge if my daughter's reaction starts distracting the other students.
In our condo with the wind and the rain whipping around above and below us, it's as if we are in the very center of the atmospheric disturbance, raised up like an offering. Sometimes, it feels like the lightening isn't crackling way up in the heavens but just outside the window close enough to touch. This is not an experience for the faint of heart. No amount of trying to claim "it's just the angels bowling" and "God's taking a flash photo" appeases my girl.
Over the first few months living in Penang, we finally came up with a way for her to cope with the storms. Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones plugged in to an iPod with dance music drowns out the cacophony. She retreats to the study, the room on the side of the condo furthest from a storm's leading edge and with the least number of windows. We draw all the blackout curtains closed, and turn on all the lights. No telltale flashes of lightening are going to squeeze into this room!
At 5 p.m., this little coping mechanism works out just fine. It's the middle of the night thunderstorms that do me in. As soon as my slumber is interrupted by a telltale rumble, I know that my girl will soon be by my bedside asking for the headphones. While I sleepily stumble into the study to set things up, she borders on being frantic, hoping that I'm done before the brunt of the storm hits. Then, I spend the next hour or so next to her on the couch to wait it out. Eventually, I drop off to sleep sitting upright with the ceiling lights glaring against my eyelids, waking every now and then to listen if I can still hear the rain. Finally, it's over, and both of us can get back into our regular beds for what remains of the night.
Frankly, it's exhausting. I'll be glad in another month or two when rainy season is over.