Currently reading an unbelievable API (air pollution index) number of 252, Penang Island today is completely crippled with smog levels that not even Singapore or Beijing sees very often. Somehow claiming “they’ve beencaught off guard”, all schools are closed indefinitely, flights are either delayed or cancelled and you can’t even hear any motorbike noise which basically means the island’s population may as well be dead. It’s been 18 years of illegal slash and burn practices one country over so I guess I’m not understanding why they think climate change somehow won’t affect them in drought years, especially with a highly publicized and strong El Niño event happening, but the only official information is a blurb telling residents to “stay indoors”. For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the API, levels under 50 are healthy and over 200 is basically hazardous to step outside. Indonesia remains in the mid 450s every day and many parts read “999” because the developers of the machinery that measures air quality probably pegged it impossible to ever break 1,000. For expats caught in the middle like us it means another day of sitting in the living room wasting energy although the smoky stench occasionally creeps through the air conditioning vents anyway.
Although it may have been better to pay the exorbitant storage fees and keep our 29 boxes of personal goods in the California storage locker, it’s too late now as the vessel arrives Saturday. Having paid the logistics company today, we expect delivery sometime next week through a “forwarding agent” so there’s nothing we can do but stay indoors all day and bear witness to an environmental situation that western minds couldn’t possibly wrap their heads around. Working out in the air-conditioned gym is almost impossible because the air stays off when it’s unoccupied, allowing the soot and stench to creep through the windows and under the door. Understandably, nobody in the rest of the world sans a small community of Greenpeace advocates and scientists pays much attention to a problem that doesn’t really seem important and many long-term expats tell us we should just leave since we have freedom of mobility. But those who follow this blog know how long and hard it was to get the MM2H visa thanks to a host of hurdles involving banking secrecy rules and tedious procedures so it’s not as simple as just picking up and leaving. Mostly it’s discouraging and admitting it’s not going to work for our lifestyle is not an easy thing to accept. But nature can’t fix this, rain is nowhere on the horizon despite Malaysia’s status as rainforest country and G8 leaders are not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring for help battling the wildfires. If this happened in California, CNN would be going bat shit covering it 24/7 and federal funds would free up to address the emergency. Southeast Asian nations live by different standards so all I can say is keep this in mind when considering an expat retirement destination.
Like something worse than a science fiction movie, severe haze and smoke that’s cancelling dozens of flights, keeping three million kids a day at home from school and paralyzing Malaysia’s economy is now “officially” predicted to be around for FIVE MORE MONTHS. (According to published reports in The Star and various other articles I found on the Internet). Experts predicted worse than normal conditions months ago thanks to a large El Niño event yet nobody in any position of authority made decisions that could have prevented what NASA predicts will possibly become the world’s largest environmental disaster. There’s really nothing good to say about this and being stuck barricaded in the air conditioning from morning till bedtime feels like being claustrophobic and trapped in an elevator. Trying to describe living in Penang today is like trying to make a snapshot of the Grand Canyon as good being there. I simply can’t put it into words. Seemingly an emergency (by western standards anyway), telling 30 million people they will inhale smoke and ash for months and be unable to take part in outside activities barely makes a blurb in the local media. “Contingency plans” include how the kids will be able to take their exams, how many more masks should be made available and everything except how to deal with the situation now.
Finally receiving a phone call from the logistics firm today, our 29 boxes of personal goods arrive from the USA after eight long weeks this weekend and we have to hang around because it takes a week to get it cleared and delivered. Rendering an immediate flight out of here impractical, it looks like we’ll be eating whatever cans of beans and soup are sitting around the cupboard, avoiding the pool which of course is outside and curling up inside like caged animals because we both get headaches and nausea after a few minutes outside. Possibly turning into the worst decision ever, moving here was the ultimate bad timing for outdoors enthusiasts, although we obviously couldn’t have known that El Niño would keep the monsoons season from arriving this year. For me it’s downright depressing waking up in the middle of a raging fire for weeks on end. Skies are devoid of clouds or sun and look like the smoldering ashes in a Mad Max movie.
Statistically, October is the rainiest month in Penang and we’ve seen about as much rain as California’s last three winters (that means practically none). Causing wind patterns to change without the seasonal rains, scientists conclude there’s little chance of nature helping this disaster any time soon. Trying not to judge anyone since we’re visitors, it seems reasonable to me that leaders might begin begging the developed world for a contingency of emergency firefighting help since the experts claim that this is emitting more greenhouse gas PER DAY than the entire USA does in 30 days. Unfortunately, today’s headline concerns itself with politicians and spokespeople talking about an alleged multi-billion dollar financial scandal so it looks like help will not come any time soon.
Apologizing once more for negativity and bad news, I felt I’d rather share what’s really happening here and not sugar coat the situation for the benefit of readers that diligently follow our story. Once we get our stuff, our contingency plan is fleeing to Chaing Mai before our planned visit to Hua Hin and returning in December to see if the scientists were a bit off base with their dire predictions. We’re also very excited for the upcoming Tasmanian trip involving a work exchange program in January which we’d still take no matter what. But if Chinese New Year arrives and the air quality remains as horrible as now, we may consider the experiment a failure, at least in Malaysia, and abandon the MM2H program because quite frankly, living here and talking to everyone produces a sense that this situation will repeat itself for many decades to come. Costa Rica is high on the list of other options and it’s a lot closer to Diane’s family so maybe we’d be better off anyway.
Thanks for reading and please pray for torrential monsoons in Indonesia.