Jason Gagliardi on his three urban love affairs and bitter bust-ups: Brisbane, Hong Kong and Bangkok.
I was cowering in a corner of my upstairs bedroom as the floodwaters stole into my yard, crept inch by inch up the driveway and then began to lap at my doorstep. I maintained a sad vigil at the window, knowing my new home was doomed. And when the first filthy fingers of the flood slid under my front door, I knew I had to go.
In the time it took to sling my hastily packed bags over my shoulders and unlock the front gate, the waters had already risen two inches and covered my floor. My wife and I had only just bought our house in Nontaburi province, a backwater to the capital’s north-west where villages nestle amid verdant rice fields and the klongs, or canals, flow with something approaching actual water, not the poisonous black ectoplasm that runs in the capital’s veins. We had moved in just three months ago. For weeks we had watched as a vast water table oozed inexorably towards us from the massive lake that had once been the ancient capital of Ayutthya. And now, all of a sudden, I was moving out. For how long, I knew not. Days? Weeks? Months? We were at the mercy of the waters.
In what used to be the front yard, I saw a baby snake cut sinuous arcs through the oily brown soup. A pink teddy bear floated past, with a red centipede coiled on its belly.
My home was one of the thousands sacrificed to keep Bangkok dry—as the center city slammed down the sluices and piled on the sandbags, the flood runoff pouring down from the north couldn’t find its way out to sea and so swelled like some slow-motion tsunami. After days of watching the water rise gradually, the speed with which it marked its final arrival was scary. As I slogged more than 3km to dry land, it rose from my knee to my thigh to almost my waist in places. I saw cars ruined, pets stranded, and homes submerged to their eaves. Most of all, I saw the spectre of creeping misery and crushing hardship descending even as my Thai neighbours affixed their customary smiles in the face of adversity. So forgive me if I’m not feeling too charitably disposed towards cities just now.
My three great love affairs and bitter bust-ups have been with Brisbane, Hong Kong and Bangkok. The former, home to my first two and a half decades of existence, the latter pair my primary places of residence for roughly ten years apiece. Each in its own way once had me smitten. All still exert a powerful pull, tugging me in different directions, summoning vivid memories of highs and lows. But in the end it mostly feels thin and sour, a bittersweet toast charged with the dregs, the lees of life. Christ, but the highs …