22nd Oct 2010
The typhoon in the black lagoon.
Typhoon in the black Lagoon
Current location: Yilan North East Taiwan
Date: October 22nd 2010.
One of the most curious things about living on the North east coast of Taiwan is the extraordinarily blase attitude the locals have to natural disasters. Now I only see natural disasters in Hollywood movies and the occasional Discovery Channel documentary so to me they can only ever be sensational. The Taiwanese attitude to natural disasters is as far away from sensationalized as an attitude could get. Indeed, they emphasize the natural part more than the disaster. They will announce an imminent Typhoon in the most casual manor: 'Typhoon Megi will come to Yilan' this weekend they said, in a tone so lacking in urgency that you might use it to announce the arrival of an annoying family member coming to dinner. Now my reaction to this is to compensate for their lack of concern and drama with a considerable amount of my own. 'What?!!' I shriek. There is a typhoon heading this way?!!!!, at which point my eyes bulge, I visibly tremble and sweat and instantly take refuge under the nearest table - hollering: 'we are all going to die!!!!' in a manor befitting a character in a Roland Emmerich 'the end is nigh' disaster movie' Well this is an exaggeration, I'd like to do this but the Taiwanese are a particularly stoic race of people and this kind of reaction would mystify them. Even my toned down looks of fear mystified them. The two times they have announced typhoons in their casual way I have looked fearful and concerned which bemuses them no end. they looked at me with an amused expression that you might direct at a foreigner if they were ever to shudder with fear at a predicted snow flurry. They simply can't understand why I'd be afraid of a typhoon as they are a common occurrence in the North East of Taiwan.
With the words 'Typhoon Megi will come to town' emanating in my ears, I decided to check out some information on CNN to see where exactly Megi was on the storm watch channel. I found horrendous images from the Philippines where typhoon Megi first reeked havoc a few days ago. She has ripped the Philippines apart, creating a thriller in Manilla and sadly claiming the lives of eleven victims. This did not bode well or settle my mind - but the Taiwanese still went about their day, working diligently like always, indifferent to the typhoon gathering momentum in Northern Asia. Well they were indifferent until typhoon Megi drew closer. Megi's weapon of choice has not been the formidable wind power imagined but a ferocious and relentless multi-monsoon release of rain. When I say rain, I mean rain - a hard rain - a hard rain has definitely fallen here. In the days of Noah, God himself took forty days and forty nights to submerge the land. Well Noah would have had to built that ark in record time here as Megi turned Yilan into a sea in just three days.
I couldn't believe my eyes as I returned from Taipei yesterday. Exiting the tunnel which cuts some miles through the mountains, the whole place was completely submerged under water. Houses and cars jutted forlornly out from the murky water - it was a landscape that could have been mistaken for the ocean. Now this area is usually filled with paddy fields so I guess it doesn't take too long for them to flood. But as the bus pulled into the town centre, it was clear that the urban area was struggling as much to cope with the rising water levels as the countryside was. I was quite aggrieved to step off the bus into a pool of water that went above my trainers. I was cursing the bus driver in my mind for being stupid enough to pull up in a place that wasn't dry. It turned out it wasn't just my trainers that were about to be saturated. As I walked, the water levels rapidly started to rise. I reached a tunnel. There was a man gesticulating frantically at a particularly impatient driver who decided to ignore the man waving him back and thus, his car plunged into a tunnel of water that instantly enveloped the car past the bonnet - the engine instantly died and the other drivers considering doing the same had second thoughts, frantically reversing back. As I walked past the tunnel, which was high enough for a truck to pass through - I noticed the top of another car that was just visible above the water. I wondered if the occupant had managed to get out of the car - no-one else seemed concerned. At the other end, water was gushing into the tunnel like water flowing around a log flume at a theme park. As I walked a little further, I reached water that reached above my waist. I had to wade in this manor for quite sometime, watching people destroy their scooters and vehicles as they foolishly attempted to navigate roads that resembled rivers. Still the rain was lashing down powerfully.
When I eventually reached the school, It was clear that this was no ordinary typhoon and even the Taiwanese were perturbed by the scenes unfolding, so much so that they decided it would be too dangerous for the students to come to school. I hung out with some friends for a while and several hours later I decided to brave the rapidly rising waters and head home.
I had to ride my bike through waters that were higher than the wheels. Have you ever tried to ride your bike through high water? It isn't as hard as you might imagine, I found out. A bike soon becomes a makeshift pedelo. Night had fallen, and the sound or sirens rushing to the aid of the dammed, in, wailed in the air, adding a touch more drama to the extraordinary scenes unfolding. The streets were near deserted. There was an eerie stillness to the atmosphere. Abandoned taxis, and cars were parked awkwardly across the roads. Wrecked scooters lay everywhere - the scene was like an aquatic apocalypse. I reached the point where the tunnel usually is, to continue my arduous journey home. To my shock and surprise the tunnel had completely disappeared. A ten foot plus tunnel claimed by the rising tides. The only sign that there was a tunnel was a road ominously leading into a body of water. Passing via that tunnel was the only route I new out of town.
Further out, paddy fields had merged with rivers, and the rivers had claimed the roads - all three were one and the same. This posed considerable problems for me as my journey back home is usually a 30 minute bike ride on dry land passing several rivers as I go.
It took some effort to head out of town. I could only peddle so far before I had to ditch peddling for paddling. In places I waded through water that was waist deep for some miles. There were points I could ride, but the water was never less than half way up the wheel. I can't tell you how surreal it is to be riding your bike and then become unbalanced and fall in by a wave of water created by a truck battling through the river road. This happened to me last night and I was less than pleased. This happened several times in fact to the amusement of the truck drivers causing the rip tides. I would have moved quicker on a surf board or a dinghy. The occupants of the houses lining the road had worse problems than me - I watched their futile attempts at paling out the water that was flowing through their front rooms and ruining their furniture. Eventually, some fours hours later, I made it to a gas station which is the closet landmark to my apartment. The water level had risen half way up the petrol pumps - discarded cars were telling signs that the rise in the water had been rapid in these parts.
I waded away from the light into the darkness that awaited me on my approach to my house. Disconcertingly, the water levels here only started at waist deep. As I waded further into the darkness, the water continued to creep higher up my body; bits of debris and rubbish brushed my leg, making me shudder as I thought it was fish or other creatures from the Taiwanese waters. To my utter astonishment, the water had reached my shoulders, my head was barely above the surface of the brown, murky water. I I had to hoist my bag above my head and drag my bike behind me - which had long disappeared out of sight and was completely underwater now. I had been carrying a bag of shopping - food rations for the coming days - but there was no way I could stop the muddy waters contaminating my food, so I discarded the soggy bread and other groceries as they were a hindrance. As I gingerly tiptoed further, being very careful of my step, the waters continued to advance up my body to the point where I was neck deep, in muddy waters, in near darkness. I began to feel genuinely afraid that I could step off where the road once was and go totally under. I felt like a sniper in a Vietnam war movie wading through waters surrounded by palm trees and what used to be rice paddies - and my fear was just as palpable as a soldier in Nam. It's a funny feeling thinking you could drown on what hours before was a bone dry road. I felt demoralized as I walked further as I could feel, whatever terrain was beneath me was about to give way and leave me floundering in the nastiest water imaginable. I had no option but to wade back and seek out another approach to my place. I waded down several more blind watery avenues - and to my dismay, the waters were clearly going to be much higher than my head. I began to feel fearful that I would have to attempt to wade for another five hours back to town.
I tried another angle and the same thing happened; before long I was in grimy water that came up to my chest and threatened to climb further the more I walked. This time though the water leveled out at shoulder point but there was another hazard in my way...
Clearly, the cause of this extraordinary rise in water levels was that the river that runs by my apartment block had burst its banks. Further evidence of this lay ahead of me. The watery way was blocked by an extraordinary amount of water plantations that had taken root across where the roads once stood. I tried to disperse them but they were too awkward to move. Plants were wrapped around telephone pylons which brought to my attention how disturbingly close the wires now dangled in relation to the surface of the water. I wanted to get out of there quick but the stubborn plants would not be moved. I had to wade through them and as I did this, they wrapped around me like a demented plant from the day of the triffids. It was horrible. The smell it's self was unbearable. I looked down and a plethora of creepy insects were frantically moving around on my clothes. A rather big spider climbed onto my shoulder seemingly delighted that he had a pathway back to land - my heart leapt and I quickly flicked it off my shoulder, and brushed all the other insects and a number of horrible red eggs off my person but it was no use as the plantations were too long. I continued striding, pushing and pulling the plantations completely around me and batting off insects that tried to leap on to my shoulders for safety - my shoulders were barely above the water, I began to worry. Plants encompassed me, leaving me no option but to wade with them attached the 100 yards left to my place. The threat of the insects put an urgency in my wading style. A I approached what looked like dry land, I saw the silhouette of some Taiwanese people who had come out of their homes to see what exactly was emerging from the deep. I could see their expressions were completely surprised as what must have looked to them like a pile of shrubbery, inexplicably started to make its way towards them against the flow of the current. When they could see a figure in amongst the plants, they looked at me with expressions of complete astonishment. I can't imagine what I must have looked like to them - a dead ringer for the creature from the black lagoon, assuming they were a fan of old universal horror movies that is. As I exited the water, relieved to be on land, I brushed the plants from about my person and said to them in Chinese: 'the water is too tall!', sheepishly, they nodded. They still seemed astonished that I would think it wise to cross the waters in total darkness and be prepared to drag half a ton of river plantation with me. But where else could I have gone?
During the night, wind howled screamed and hissed against the building like a particularly raving banshee. Megi had the wind back in her sails and was picking up for one last assault.
Having experienced a typhoon, it's very easy to see how people could think that they are the work of a God or a vengeful deity of somekind. I have nothing but respect for the awesome force of nature typhoon Megi released on Yilian yesterday. I bow down in reverence - mirroring the actions of all those people I saw preying at the temples earlier. The fact that typhoons are given names gives the impression they have personalities. The air was alive with Megi's personality last night. She is one particularly angry bitch.
This afternoon the waters began to subside but only to the relative safety of chest height. I ventured out again. Yesterday I was muttering to myself that I would have been better off in a boat. Today, the joke had become a realization. I was up to my chest in water, when a boat containing a Taiwanese family began to approach me. There were guys rowing leisurely. They seemed amused that I didn't have a boat. As they passed, one of them reached out and passed me a package of food - which I was grateful for as I'd been living off cheese and crackers. They sailed past, ready to give more aid parcels to those stranded. Helicopters circled above looking for anyone who might have been plunged into danger the night before. There was a stillness - I felt like I was in a closing scene of my own private disaster movie, and in a way I was. I stood in the water reflecting on the events of the last 24 hours.
What I witnessed yesterday, is a window into the future of what global warming will do to low lying coastline places. Even the locals are talking about how rare an occurrence the recent levels of flooding is. This is clearly a weather anomaly that suggests climate change is real. I was amazed at just how quickly though a landscape can be turned into a scene straight out of Waterworld. As I close this out, a can here thunder brewing in the distant - typhoon Megi gathering her strength no doubt before she heads towards China to throw her wrath in the pathway of the Chinese. Be afraid China, be very afraid.