I remember the first time I really started to understand weather. I was in New Zealand, on a life-changing round-the-world trip. Before then, I am a bit embarrassed to admit, weather was just something that happened – and then it passed. Perhaps I had just always led the sort of life that didn’t rely on weather forecasts. Mostly indoor, and if I had to go out, I could just take an umbrella. To be fair, I have always been the urban type – the thought of living in the rural countryside leaves me cold.
However, you can’t avoid weather in New Zealand. Mostly because it is so outdoorsy. And being on a big trip, with the intention of doing all those crazy things people on round-the-world adventures are meant to do (sky-diving, bungee-jumping, whale watching…) I also found I couldn’t avoid becoming one of those people who thinks about, talks about and even obsesses about the weather.Now I realise that, coming from the UK, some are going to accuse me of not really telling the truth here. After all, aren’t we meant to be obsessed with the weather? Well, yes, to some extent. But when we talk about the weather, we tend to talk about it while it’s happening. So, “cold out today”, “raining again”, “bit windy then” are all part of our every-day conversations.
But this isn’t about the weather. This is about polite, British small-talk – because we hate to stand in silence at the coffee machine with colleagues we only vaguely know, and the weather is always an easier thing to talk about than politics or religion.
So here I was in New Zealand, in charge of myself and all these activities I’d spent so much money on, and the weather actually mattered. First there was the tandem sky-dive that had to be cancelled because there were too many clouds. Cancelled AFTER I’d worked up enough courage to get into the tie-dyed telly-tubby style suits they made us wear to leap out of the plane.
The jump was back on later the same day, once the clouds had cleared enough for us to jump through what seemed like a miniscule gap and make it safely to the ground – but not before I realised that next time I planned such a stupid activity, I should check the forecast first.
Then there was the flight over Fjordland, the other-worldy area of the far south of the South Island, renowned for its stunning scenery. We were going on a very small plane and it was therefore very important that the weather was exactly right. All morning, we walked around with our heads craned upwards, observing the clouds and the wind-direction, listening to the knowledgeable guide who kept telling us first this would happen, then that (something to do with the sun coming out and burning off the cloud, if I recall). And he was right – it did all happen, just as he predicted. And you know why? Because, being a New Zealander and therefore spending quite a lot of his life outdoors, he understood weather patterns.
Finally in New Zealand, there was the time I decided it would be a really good idea to dive the Rainbow Warrior. This was the Greenpeace protest boat that was first bombed by the French, then sunk off the coast of New Zealand, eventually turning into a beautiful artificial reef. It was another of those things to “do” when you travelled in that part of the world and, despite the fact that I had only just learned to dive, I thought it sounded like a jolly jape.
This time the weather nearly won. It was rougher than it should have been, and the dive operator almost didn’t go. In fact, given that in the end it was a pretty hair-raising trip (especially for someone as new to diving as I was), I do wonder whether we should ever have gone at all. Thinking back though, the dive master was a Brit. Perhaps, despite living and working in New Zealand, he just hadn’t studied the weather enough.
So anyway – this was my roundabout way to tell you that there was time, before I was enlightened, that I really couldn’t give too hoots as to whether it was going to rain, snow, hail or shine the next day. Essentially, all it would mean for me was a last-minute decision as to which shoes I would wear to work.
But not anymore. Because since then, I have lived in countries where it really did matter what the weather-gods had in store for us. Since then, I have lived in the path of hurricanes.
Before I go on, I should mention that as a child, we lived in the Philippines.
Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the past couple of years will know that the Philippines has recently been hit by a few nasty typhoons and is as vulnerable to bad weather as anywhere in the world. But as a child, I didn’t need to worry about these things. That was the job of my parents. All I needed to know was when we had to stay at home because the beach was about to get washed away. It’s very different when it’s someone else’s responsibility.
As an adult myself, moving first to Jamaica and later to St Lucia, I certainly learnt to understand the importance of watching the weather. It’s hard to ignore storms in these countries – when there’s a hurricane bearing down on you, it becomes the nation’s obsession. Not only that, but we now have the Weather Channel, which means you can watch the swirling mass inch its way towards you across the north Atlantic 24 hours a day. You need to know all of this, though, in plenty of time – because you need to make sure you’ve got enough food and drink in the house, you need to move all your outdoors furniture safely indoors, and you need to decide which of your rooms is going to be the safest place to spend the night when the hurricane actually reaches you.
This happened to us several times – including two force five hurricanes that clipped the coast of Jamaica while we were there, and a force four which flooded our house in St Lucia. Of course, for the people of these small, vulnerable countries, bad weather is something they’ve become used to. Not for them the inconvenience of getting wet feet from having chosen the wrong pair of shoes in the morning, or having a touristy activity cancelled because the wind direction isn’t quite right. For them, weather watching isn’t a fun pastime, it’s a necessity.
Since we moved back to the UK, the weather in this country seems to have taken a nose-dive. We’ve had storms that uprooted massive, ancient trees; snow that’s stranded drivers all along the main trunk-roads of our country,;and floods that have left us weeping at the sheer devastation of the damage done.
But now I don’t take weather for granted any more. I know a lot more about what it means when a small swirl of activity starts to collect itself off the coast of Africa, heading resolutely towards the Caribbean. I understand the difference between a force 3, force 4 and force 5 hurricane. I also know what it means when the wind is coming from the north, or the rain from the west – and how likely we are to get hit. And because of this, I am prepared.
Food in the freezer? Tick.
I may not live in the path of hurricanes anymore, and I’m not yet sure what South Africa has in store for us (thunderstorms? Heatwaves?). But as a born-again weather-watcher, come rain, sleet, snow or shine from now on I’m going to be ready for it.
Have your travels changed your attitude towards the weather? Have you ever lived anywhere with particularly interesting weather? How have you dealt with it?
Born an expat, in Cuba to British diplomat parents, Clara Wiggins has travelled all her life, and has lived in 11 countries on 5 different continents. She and her family are currently preparing for another overseas move, to South Africa. Clara has used her extensive experience of living overseas, as a child, as a diplomat and as an accompanying spouse, to write a book The Expat Partner's Survival Guide (due out Spring 2015). You can find out more about the book and read her blog at expatpartnersurvival.