Although it’s still 11 degrees below freezing this morning, it looks like the arctic winds have left us. I guess it’s gone back to restore the polar vortex in the north.
As Narnia-y as that sounds, a polar vortex did indeed descend upon us earlier this week, and the vicious head of the arctic wind had been charted closely as it charged like a dragon across most of the US. I know this because they keep reporting it on the news – flashing colorful amoebic patterns over a bright blue map littered with icons of giant snowflakes and diminutive suns – and I get to watch the news while I’m running on the treadmill in the gym, since we don’t have our own TV.
Speaking of running, I envy those winter runners in their leggings, neon tops and ear protectors, chugging away as if breathing in ice were nothing. One day, I will be like them. During the arctic blast, however, a simple walk in the park turned into inadvertent skating.
How did this happen?
If it’s baffling you, I can totally empathize. I was born and raised in Malaysia, nestled comfortably on the equator, as far away from both poles as one can get. From what I gathered, this is how it works:
A vortex is not simply something that exists in your couch when you sit down in it, making it almost impossible for you to get up off your ass to do anything useful. ( I am at least familiar with this concept, even though we don’t have a couch. Why not? Because we don’t have a TV. ) It is a perennial system of low pressure that keeps the polar regions nice and freezing.
Though it feels like a freezer, it’s also much like a kid’s inflatable pool, swirling the cold air round and round within its walls as it sits on the Arctic region in winter. What then happened was that a high pressure system interrupted the flow – coming in from the west, it rigged the walls somehow, causing the pool edge to sag down over the globe, bringing its icy goodness further south. Where we feel it most is at the newly described edge of the pool, along the celebrated jet stream, which runs like a broad ribbon in an easterly direction, freezing everything it touches.
The bright side to the ad nauseum weather reports is that it acts as an early warning system for most of its citizens. Everyone is told to be prepared for hard times ahead, and to take care by dressing warm, salting roads, limiting travel and avoiding exposure to chilling winds that can cause frostbite in under 15 minutes! It could be part of the reason why people here fare catastrophic weather a little better than in less developed countries. Wallahu’alam.
The snow certainly put on a show, and I got distracted several times while studying in my living room, particularly when the strong gusts of wind pushed them into violent spirals around the courtyard. “Who has seen the wind,” asks Christina Rosetti in her poem, “Neither I nor you. But when the leaves hang trembling, the wind is passing thro'”
It’s all a little bizarre for this tropical soul. Nevertheless, I sampled the outdoors twice on that coldest of days. It was -22 C and the snow was a daunting kind. There’s a platitude which states that the Eskimo have close to a dozen words for snow. Decidedly, Malays can, too:
Soft snow, very small, cannot make snowball – bedak snow
Harder, half-ice, can angkat a big clump in one go, underneath got grass – cendol snow
Thin sheet, can nicely crack if you walk on top – creme brulee snow
Pure ice, can see hanging down from the roof – aiskrim Malaysia snow
Just when I thought I’d had my arctic taster for the day, the sled that S had ordered online arrived at our doorstep. There was no stopping him from taking it out for a ride, despite the fact that it was dark by the time he got home from work. Frankly, it was so exciting that I couldn’t have waited til morning either. Like kids on Christmas day, we jumped up and down as we unwrapped the sled, even diving into the giant box for the sake of play, though when snugly inside, it reminded me of the harsh reality of people living on the streets in this weather. The community and recreation centers were working hard, helping to keep the homeless and impoverished warm and fed.
Outside, the wind was vicious and unbelievably cold. I fumbled with my face mask and felt micro-icicles forming on my eyelashes. The warnings about frostbite played in my head and made me paranoid when I lost sensation in my fingertips. For a brief moment, I imagined my fingers self-amputating beyond the proximal phalangeal joints. I feared that I’d have to be one of those surgeons who had to learn to operate with her metacarpals, and the other surgeons would call me “Paw-paw” behind my back. S grabbed the sled in one hand and my phantom fingers in the other, started running towards another incline, and told me to man up.
A few months ago, we were at this same hilly park just after sunset to watch the fireflies float and flicker in the grass. Now, we were trudging up and down the slopes with the snow halfway up our shins, sledding like madmen into the night.
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While on the topic of winds, I’d like to share a clip from one of my favorite movies, based on my even more favorite book, The English Patient, by my absolute favorite author, Michael Ondaatje. You are my Herodotus.
Photos of aiskrim Malaysia and cendol are from joshuaongys.com, mohdshahzudin.blogspot.com and calvinteo.blogspot.com | Polar vortex diagram from independent.co.uk. Click on image for full article | Video clip from the movie “The English Patient” which I do not own the rights to. No copyright infringment intended.
Other clip and photos by author.