"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, August 1, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Heat


It has been very hot in DC this summer, and July was the hottest on record.  I was not unhappy, however, because I love early morning warmth and humidity – the air so humid that I can breathe in every fragrance and scent -  the smell of grass, boxwoods, trees and flowers. I love midday when the hot sun hits my back as I walk out of the shade, the hot breeze not cooling but caressing.  I love the late afternoon, still hot but more still, never as fresh and scented as morning, nor filled with birdsongs, but there are the cicadas and more color in the sky than the high white of noon or the darkness of early morning. 

I love the hot weather so much that I have taken all my summer vacations in the Deep South, returning this week to Mississippi for six weeks.  A friend of mine from Mississippi said that it is not hotter there, just hotter longer; and the temperature data confirm that.  They have had just as hot a July as we have, but it will continue far into September and October when, alas, the cold weather begins to set in here.

Travelling as I did throughout Asia and Africa, the heat was always present, always an intrusive, persistent part of life. In Delhi where the pre-monsoon temperatures were consistently 110F which only dropped to 100F during the monsoon but were accompanied by 90 percent humidity. In the days when I lived in Delhi, there was little air conditioning.  Government offices were cooled by “desert coolers” – straw ticks through which water trickled, circulated by a small pump.  This system – plus the darkness  resulting by the ticks covering the biggest window and the thick drapes drawn over the rest – did lower the temperature by fifteen degrees or so, but the air in these chambers was dank, humid, and smelling of wet straw.  The noise of the water pumps and the ceiling fans turned up to helicopter speed killed any conversation below a yell; but it was cool.

There was no insulation in most expat houses – most were just improved cement blocks which retained the heat and the temperature inside during the day was only marginally lower than that outside and hotter at night.  Air conditioners in those days were simply not up to the job of cooling,so we slept on the floor under the most powerful, catching the slightest bit of cool air dropping from it, getting a few hours sleep before the machine iced up, groaned, and stopped working until it was turned off for an hour to let the built-up ice melt.

The hottest night I ever spent in India was in Nagpur in May, the hottest month of the year.  The hotel I stayed in – one of the few in the city – had no air conditioning, and the only way to get temporary relief was to soak a sheet in the bathtub, quickly get under it, turn the ceiling fan to ultra-high, freeze for a few minutes as the water evaporated, then return to the hot, impossible tossing and turning of hours until dawn.  I often crawled out onto the tiny balcony, curled myself up like a contortionist just to get the slight bit of cool being outside provided.

The heat was a presence even when it was cool. Surprisingly Delhi and most of North India in the winter can be just above freezing at dawn; but this relief lasted only a few months before the inexorable building of heat continued until the monsoon.  The absence of heat in a hot country only heightened the fact that the heat would return.  Indians wore sweaters until the temperature hit 90F, and the first year I spent in Delhi and noticed this, I knew we were in store for some serious heat.  After a year, I did the same thing, refusing to give up my sweater until the Indians did, reluctantly holding on to the relative cool of Spring.  The Fall was the same in reverse.  Indians put the sweaters back on at the first sign of cool, clearly noticeable in pockets in strange places – around a curve under low-hanging trees, going from one colony to another. 

Travelling in the interior was difficult because of the heat.  The car – with no air-conditioning and an often-broken firewall – was unbearable.  The rest houses stifling at all hours of the day except the early morning, and field trips out to remote villages over rutted tracks in blazing heat were an adventure.  The spicy, blazing hot food, often served at lunch made a siesta impossible – you belched fiery belches, lay still under helicopter fans which never cooled, stumbled back into oven-hot cars for more airless offices or baked villages.

There is no doubt in my mind the hottest I have ever been – Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, at that time a city that was really a large village with one paved road, few services, but pleasant, quiet, and friendly.  The daytime temperatures routinely hit 120F in the shade (I think only Niamey, which I never visited was hotter), there were few trees to provide shade for the car, there was little power so the saving tradition of India – ceiling fans – was absent.   Inside the car heated by the direct sun was at least 140F.  The only time I have ever had to quit, give up, and go back to my feebly-air conditioned room to quaff water and stretch out in the darkness was in Ouagadougou on one of these torrid days.  I felt weird – I couldn’t tell whether I was hot or cold.  I couldn’t concentrate, I was disoriented.  Scary, but it happened only once.  I was not as immune to high temperatures as I thought.  Yes, it was a dry heat, but over 110F it doesn’t matter.  At 110F+ I actually closed the windows of the car to block the furnace-like wind which hurt the eyes and ears.

Bombay was hot – well over 90F – for the entire year except for a brief period in December and January.  In May and early June the temperatures were always near 100F and the humidity – like Delhi in the pre-monsoon period – nearly 100 percent.  Going out was almost unbearable; but in an apartment in a city with very, very few amenities (for expatriates at least), I had to get out.  The excursions were short, debilitating, and totally enervating.  I returned totally soaked, dehydrated, and wiped out.  The twitchy air conditioning and the super Bombay Black (hashish laced with opium) which I had just purchased were my only refuge.

My greatest “development” sinecure was Haiti in the winter.  I travelled there in Baby Doc’s days, and the country was peaceful, crime-free, warm, and delightful.  I would leave icy Washington in the morning and be sipping rum punches on the porch of the Olaffson in the evening.  I loved Haiti.  I found every excuse to go there, extended my stay each trip.  I ate great French food in Petionville, went dancing to the meringue in Carrefour, went to the beach every weekend, did very little work, had long, civilized lunches by the pool.  Ahhhhhh, “development”!

I liked Kigali as well.  It was hot, too, but never scorching because it was at 5000 ft.  Just cool enough in the evening for a light sweater to eat on the terrace at the Mille Collines or eat outside at one of the many good restaurants nearby.

I couldn’t believe how cold it was in Lesotho in August – enough so that there was ice on the birdbath and the small hotel I stayed in on one field trip.  Somehow Africa and India have to be always hot, and the cold was a surprise.  In India hundreds of people die every year from the cold in parts of Bihar and eastern UP.

So, I love the heat, but it can be oppressive, brutal, and unbearable.  I love the heat, but I always have air conditioning to return to – a refuge which makes my claim a bit shaky.  I can state unequivocally that I hate the cold.  Washington winters are just about bearable, and I always think ‘go south’ in January.  There has never been any doubt in my mind about which I would prefer – unbearable heat or unbearable cold.  You can always survive the heat, but the cold is a bitchin’ killer.

1 comment:

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