As a Brit, rain has been a pretty unavoidable part of the twenty-five years of my life, and yet it’s only after travelling over 125,000 miles in eighteen months that I’ve come to appreciate its myriad qualities.
My family has an agricultural background, so rain was always seen as necessary for business – but not particularly desirable for recreational purposes. British society is wired this way. Most parties in July or August may start off as outdoor BBQs, but will often have contingency plans for the strong chance the weak sun will be hidden by black clouds and the heavens will open, and there’s nothing like a huge drop in temperature to put a damper on things (no pun intended, honest). Who wants to be soaked, to be stood around in shorts and t-shirt that are not only sopping wet but also awfully chilly? Add in all the family wisdom about damp clothes causing all sorts of maladies – even when we know it’s simply not true – and we have a nagging feeling that it might just ruin our summer with a cold.
As someone who travels extensively in Asia and seems to only end up visiting countries when it’s rainy season, my perspective wasn’t particularly helpful for dealing with deluges that lasting two thirds of the day. At first, the only positive of this rain was that I had something to talk about with locals, as just like Brits, people all over the world revert to talking about the weather if nothing else immediately comes to mind. But then, caught out in the rain in the now famous rural town of Ubud in Central Bali, I had an epiphany.
I say epiphany; it was a combination of that and a flashback. I remembered that rain isn’t always awful, in fact reminded of swimming in the pool in a gite in the south of France. The sky had suddenly looked very angry, a tense and oppressive heat hanging over the small hillside town; it became a torrential downpour as thunder rumbled away, and there in that small pool the raindrops hitting the water were a revelation – whether you were on the surface or beneath, the splashes and the crowns forming upon impact, each one seemingly unique. I observed how the impact of this small drop of water, dropped from hundreds of metres above and formed around a dust mote, sank into the turquoise waters of the pool. And the contrast in temperature. The chilly drops, the muggy heat and the warm(ish) saltwater pool made me content in ways I didn’t know were possible.
But that was fifteen or so years ago. Since then my experience of rain was trudging through London, dodging puddles and pulling off damp overcoats, attempting to add some life into my bedraggled locks and generally not enjoying it. But that day in Bali, when the thunderbolts of Indra hammered into the lush jungle a few miles away, when the air turned from oppressively hot to a climate not so different from entering the bathroom after someone has just taken a hot shower, and the huge drops smashed into the pavement turning the light stone dark in a monochromatic imitation of a Jackson Pollock work, I realised I probably needed to reassess my attitude to this natural and everyday occurrence. The positives of the rain seem to slot into two categories: there’s the experience as the showers cascade down; then there’s the magic after the event.
As the showers came down upon me in Bali, it struck me that when rain is warm and it comes down at twice the rate of your shower back at home it’s a different beast entirely. Add in the acoustic aspect, the smack of the drops on the leafy undergrowth or the noise it makes as it hits the top of the pool, heavy, like dropping marbles, and it’s an immersive experience. And due to its daily visitation (you could pretty much set your watch to it – three in the afternoon until two o’clock in the morning) you need to get used to it. With this newfound appreciation for something I had been actively avoiding, my future travels were improved greatly.
It could be watching the storm clouds roll in and listening to the showers blown in with the typhoon in Taipei, and being down on the street with my white shirt turning completely translucent, or sipping a chilled beer in a wooden Khmer-style house in a palm-fringed clearing in the deep south of Cambodia. Someone above was seemingly emptying a bucket and rattling all the pots and pans in the heavens, each flash of the storm acting like an extremely slow strobe, and intermittently illuminating the landscape of lush jungle stretching down to the whipped-up sea. It’s quite the different experience to the grey drizzles we endure in back in Blighty.
But the magic of the torrent isn’t limited to the ongoing experience. I sometimes think post-deluge moments are the highlight. In the oppressive heat of June in Cambodia (where it often reaches 36o C) the rains are a welcome form of natural air conditioning, cooling everything down and filling the vast, rice-dominated landscape that so many citizens depend upon. In Japan and Taiwan, it provided a mirror for the neon glamour of the restaurants and shops to shimmer – red, green and yellow mixing like a backlight oil slick.
The steam rising off the roads in Myanmar, rather than the ever present dust, was a welcome change, and in the dense forests of Bali, the Kei Islands, Kep and Shan State, it breathed life back into the nature that surrounded me. From the batrachian orchestras that kick into action in fierce competition to the chorus of tropical birdsong, it all provides moments that will quite simply never happen again. This is where the tropical rains come into their own. Huge crystal droplets trickle down the leaf channels that have evolved over millennia for this exact purpose. The rainbow over the forest, mountains, or ocean retreats as the tempest moves on to parched pastures. Mesmerising experiences.
Sadly my haunts of Yorkshire and London lack tropical palms, tree frogs, white sands, and indeed warm rain, so it’s not quite the same. But has this Asian odyssey changed my view on rain in the grey and cold UK? Absolutely. Newfound pleasures such as watching the rains roll in, suspended in their dense banks of monochromatic cotton wool hovering over the landscape of towns, have materialised. I have become increasingly aware that Brits are never happy, much like farmers. A warm day is too hot, the rains ruin everything, and the snow brings everything to a grinding halt. But this much maligned weather pattern can be welcomed.
Whilst not tropical, nor populated by monkeys or vivid jungle birds, our forests gain a new dose of colour – the green is so much more vivid and simply alive. The streets also come into their own; the ballet of daily life incorporates a new movement cycle – the hesitation and calculation of depth and width of puddle, followed by a risky jump. The brave (stupid?) amongst us wade through those murky potential depths. The seas that surround our isle also are woken up, with storms whipping up whitecaps and the colour of the oceans taking on the dark hue of the clouds above them, creating an angry and contrasting masterpiece that would at one time have scared our seafaring ancestors. Now it can be appreciated as a quite unique part of the British natural world.