Friday, June 20, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Over the last several weeks, intense flooding has affected major parts of my old stomping grounds in the Midwest, even to the point of putting my alma mater under water. Many of my friends have had to evacuate their homes and have been involved in sandbagging efforts to keep the waters back.

Yet, even as my drought-plagued Australian friends here relish the sound and feel of a good, old-fashioned tropical downpour, it is always true that there can be too much of a good thing. It seems the weather here is intent on making me empathize with my home closer to me, even as I am halfway around the world. The rainy season is upon us here in full force, and in Cao Bang we were watching the river rise outside of our office windows. It's still far from anything near "flood" levels, but it is early in the season yet.

But the rains are chasing me – and they finally caught me last night in Hanoi. The Cao Bang team is currently in central Vietnam, enjoying their much deserved annual retreat. The CHIC project officer, Anh, and I stayed back in Hanoi for several important meetings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. While we were sorry to be missing out on the action, we thought we had the perfect plan: a 7:30 PM flight to Hue on Wednesday night would still give us two full working days and a fun day with the team, before we all flew back on Sunday. Maximize productivity and efficiency, and everybody comes out, at minimum, satisfied.

A perfect plan until Wednesday at about 3:30. We received a phone call saying our flight had already been delayed until 8:10 pm, so we cancelled our taxi for 4:30 and moved it to 5. Five o'clock is never a good time to be traveling anywhere, as it is the height of rush hour, but even an hour and a half spent on the road would get us there in plenty of time for the domestic flight.

But at 4:30, the rain started. At first I thought it might be a brief downpour that would blow itself out by the time we left, but the rain kept coming. And coming. We ran to eat dinner in the rain, only to have the ceiling of the restaurant cave in with rainwater and us wading through rivers where streets should have been. Then, our taxi was late. And lost. Even as the rain let up for a bit, we couldn't move anywhere because we couldn't find our car.

When the taxi finally did come at 5:30, I was beginning to see the writing on the wall. I figured we'd grumble about a wet day and bad traffic, get the airport late, find out our plane was gone, rebook and have to return the next morning. This I was prepared for. What I wasn't prepared for was turning a corner two kilometers from our office and find ourselves marooned as part of a temporary life raft of motorbikes and busses and cars and taxis as the only high ground as rising water engulfed our entire intersection.

I have no idea how extensive the problem was, but on our side of the four-way intersection, traffic was at a standstill in ankle-deep or higher water for at least two city blocks – and we stood there, moving maybe twenty feet, for three and a half hours. We were the fortunate ones – we had a comfortable, air conditioned car and only three of us in the car. We weren't prisoners in a rush hour commuter bus, and we weren't trapped completely exposed to the continuing downpour on a motorbike. Yet, as we watched the time of our flight come and go, I knew that even making it to the airport to change our ticket was just an optimistic dream.

Finally Anh decided it was time to do something. I was still comfortable sitting in the back of the taxi – and the taxi driver wasn't fussed about us being there since he was as trapped as anybody. But Anh didn't feel like prolonging the experience, so she mustered me into chancing a walk back to our office, some two water-logged and traffic-choked kilometers behind us. Fortunately I hadn't bothered to bring my usual heavy rolling suitcase, but had opted instead for my unsightly-but-still-serviceable duffle bag from my Madagascar mission days, long since held together with duct tape. Perhaps not the greatest choice for plane travel, but suddenly it was a huge advantage in this situation. By tying up the top tight, I made a nice bundle that I easily lifted, and thanks to too many buckets of water hauled in my former life, balanced on my head for the entire stretch of our return trip. A second good fortune – on my last trip home my aunt encouraged and subsidized the purchase of a water proof messenger bag for carrying my laptop, so I wasn't in the least concerned about the state of my precious work computer or documents on account of the rain. A final good fortune – the week before when I took the garbage out a lady selling a humongous variety of flip-flops and house slippers was waiting at the end of the street. I strolled by and found a pair of nice looking, durable black flip-flops that have become my new best friend. They stuck to my feet almost like glue and weren't a second bothered by the amount of dirtiness or wetness we encountered. And with me thus attired (and poor Anh somewhat less fortunate with no shoes at all as leather high heels weren't going to cut it, and her hard-sided briefcase a lot more awkward to carry), we stepped out of the taxi into calf-deep rainwater.

It was a sight. We were a sight. The whole feeling of it was intense. An entire four-lane street and two wide sidewalks were toe-to-heel, wheel-to-wheel, bumper-to-bumper and cheek-to-cheek cars, bikes, motorbikes, busses, trucks, and people. I'm sure the sheer mass of vehicles raised the level of the water by at least six inches. Everybody and everything was soaking wet. Fortunately the rain had slowed to a heavy misty drizzle at this point, but there was no keeping anything dry. And obviously, nobody wanted to be there, but the lights were still on, and there was just enough movement to keep people on the near side of sanity.

We started up the street against the flow of traffic. I'm sure my own appearance scored us some points in the progress we made: here I was, a foreigner wading through an unfortunate mess, obviously not in a condition to be thoroughly enjoying herself (although I actually was, at this point), and, would you look at that!, balancing a bag on top of her head! My computer bag made my hips inconveniently wide, so it took a bit more jostling and moving to make space for all of me between the bikes, but there were lots of smiles and sighs and people readily shifted whatever way they could to make room for me to slide through. Anh and a few strangers drifted along in my wake, taking advantage of the temporary parting of the motorbike sea I wrought.

I think my passage was also aided for a while by the unbuttoning of my light-weight button-down shirt I wore…I'm not exactly sure how many people got a personal view of my bra before it was kindly pointed out for me by a young girl on a motorbike that happened to know the single word, "Button!"

Still, no pain, no gain, and I did regain the confidence in my ability balance a bag on my head – no handed, none-the-less – and to fight my way slowly and persistently, to higher ground.

One thing I was supremely grateful for was the fact that this was not – or at least not perceived to be – a true emergency of life-and-death proportions. Everybody recognized this to be a serious and annoying inconvenience that would leave people hungry and cold and wet and tired and long grumbling about the state of transportation in their city. Probably a few more cars will be bought out of the mess. But during the situation nobody acted in a way that would seriously endanger their lives or the lives of those around them (at least no more than they do on a regular basis – and perhaps even a lot less). The mood wasn't happy and wasn't exactly relaxed, but there was enough humor for people to make jokes as I passed (several men seemed to, by reflex, start to ask me if I needed a motorbike-taxi, until they realized their mistake – but I caught them and asked them if they would drive me – and we and all around started laughing). But had people actually been trying to get away from something and encountered this situation, I would not want to be there. There was an underlying intensity that spoke to the decided individual spirit – a survival spirit, that, had the situation been further provoked, would have aroused instinctual behavior and probably would have at the very least benefited a very few and more than likely left more than a few people dead or seriously injured. There were simply too many people in too small a place with motorized means of transport and a willingness to use it at all costs. It was eerie – and as fun as it was to experience, I was relieved to get away from it too.

No comments: