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

Monday, July 1, 2013

Wow, Is It Ever Hot!

I grew up in central Connecticut before the age of air conditioning and hated the thick, humid summer heat.  Many people think that all New England is a summer vacationland – cool, ocean breezes and salty spume from Atlantic waves breaking on rocky shores.  Light sweaters in the morning and a pleasant, damp chill in the evenings.  Not so in the Connecticut River valley where summers were as steamy as the Deep South, 90F was not uncommon; but houses had not been built with Southern cross-ventilation in mind.

The only cool place in the house was the basement, and it was my refuge.  It was damp and always smelled a bit moldy, but it was below ground, a steady 65F, and a blessed relief from the thick, motionless air up top.

My father installed an exhaust fan and put it in the upstairs landing window.  It was big and powerful, sounded like a DC-3 yawing down the runway, and sucked cool air from outside through any open windows.  The trick was to close everything in the house except two windows in the den or kitchen and let the fan pull in the evening air.  The incoming breeze was so strong that we had to batten down the family pictures, the local newspaper, and the TV Guide. 

My mother insisted that the fan be turned off at night.  She said that she couldn’t possibly sleep with the roar of ‘that airplane engine’ 5 feet from her head and was worried that it would overheat, catch fire, and burn the house down.   Which meant that my room was always an airless hothouse – still, damp, and thickly humid.

I thought of my father’s exhaust fan when I lived in Delhi many years later.  In the late 60s Delhi still had few modern amenities and government offices were not air conditioned.  In summer daytime temperatures can reach 120F, but it is a dry heat, so humidifying the spacious rooms of higher-up government babus with ‘Desert Coolers’ was the only relief.  A Desert Cooler consisted of a straw tick extended from floor to ceiling in front of a large window.  At the top of the window was a small gutter in which holes were perforated.  Water pumped up into the gutter trickled down through the holes to soak the tick, and an industrial-strength fan blew air through the wet straw, humidifying and cooling the room.

Although the room was many degrees cooler than the infernal temperatures outside, it stank like a barnyard; and the noise of the fan, ten times bigger and more powerful than anything my father ever envisaged, was deafening.  It roared, rattled, and thundered as the power fluctuated.  When it was at its best the fan generated a wind so powerful that the official seated at his desk had to play chess with his paperweights.  As soon an official document was placed in front of him for signature, the babu slammed a paperweight on top of it; and when finished banged it back on top of another pile of fluttering, dog-eared documents.  It was grand burlesque.  I hollered my remarks to the babu-ji, he slammed his paperweights down, I held my breath against the rank, fetid air, and before I could begin, the audience was over.

Delhi in the summer then was hot, very hot. So hot that the walls of all the buildings retained the heat for hours, and even if you slept outside on the barsati it was too hot to sleep until it was time to get up.

Eventually we were able to buy an air conditioner, but because of the intermittent power, brown-outs and power cuts common in the city, many nights were spent sleepless, hopeless, and hot.  Even when the unit was working well, it only cooled a narrow corridor of air, just enough to send a breath of freshness across the face.

The hottest place in India has always been Nagpur, a city in the far eastern part of Maharashtra in the geographical center of the country.  In the winter it is one of the most pleasant places to visit. The air is fragrant with the perfume of orange blossoms and flowers.  In the summer, however, it is an inferno, and temperatures rise to 120F and stay there.  When I toured Nagpur in the late 60s, there was no air conditioning, and no air stirring in my small, cheap hotel room.  There were only two possibilities.  One could soak a sheet, lie under it while the ceiling fan dried it.  The rapid evaporation chilled the sheet and gave a few minutes of relief from the incessant, brutal heat. Or one could curl up on the tiny balcony outside, twisted like a contortionist in a circus, and fight mosquitos and scurrying rats.  It was hell.

The hottest I have ever been was in Ouagadougou during a national strike. For a week there was no electricity, no air conditioning, no fans, and no respite from daytime temperatures that approached 125F.  The only thing we could do was to sit outside in the hotel courtyard and drink beer until 2am, then go upstairs to bed.  Because the hotel was built for air conditioning, most rooms had no windows, and trying to sleep in a cell whose walls had been baked like a kiln for 14 hours was impossible.  Yet sleeping outside would have meant being bitten, eaten, stung, and crawled on by mosquitos, biting ants, cockroaches, and rats.

It is hard to believe, but all those years in the infernal bush of Africa and the torrid Deccan of India, I got used to the heat and became increasingly uncomfortable in the cold.  I now love living in Washington, DC where the summer temperatures are consistently above 90F and the humidity well over 60 percent.  I wait for the hot weather to set in so I can store all sweaters and long sleeves and live in sandals, T-shirts, and shorts for four months.  I now love the heat so much that I take summer vacations in the Deep South.  I never turn on the car air-conditioner and let the earthy smells of red dirt, cotton fields, and hot-baked prairies fill the car.

Hot, humid air holds the scents and perfumes of grass, flowers, bushes, and trees.  Air conditioning dries them out, excludes them, and provides only cool.  I admit that I sleep with an air conditioner; but spend as much time outside as possible even when the temperature is well into the 90s.  Perhaps being hot brings back good memories.  Like eating a civilized, four course meal on the deck of a restaurant over the Niger River in Bamako.  The lunchtime temperature was at least 100F, but the fans were enough, and the chilled Chardonnay was crisp, bright, and thirst-quenching. Or baking on a beach near Jacmel on the South Shore of Haiti, then eating lunch under the palm trees and drinking rum punches.

The world is divided into many halves – early-risers and slug-a-beds; couples with children and those without; and those who love the heat and those who hate it. Whereas I never break a sweat on a long walk on the C&O Canal near Washington, I often pass drenched and unhappy friends.  While I sit happily in the sun along the Waterfront in Georgetown, smelling the strong scent of river water, and and enjoying the summer mix of inboard diesel and sun tan lotion which brings me back to my days on Long Island Sound or the Jersey shore, my friends are holed ujp in dark, dank bars on M Street.

The thought of a skiing trip rattles my bones. When I was a student in New Haven, my roommates insisted that I go with them to northern Vermont to ski Stowe.  The temperatures at the bottom of the mountain were minus 15F.  It was so cold that the oil froze in gearboxes and it was painful to take deep breaths.  On the top of the mountain it was at least minus 25F.  Everything was still, frozen, without scent, and lifeless.  It was scary. 

Friends who go to Maine in the summer are crazy. My parents took summer vacations to Kennebunkport, and in the early morning a local resident would take a dip in the ocean and write the temperature in large numbers in the sand on the beach.  Fifty-seven, he wrote.  Fifty-five.  Fifty-eight.  The water was so cold that only the children went in and only for ten or fifteen minutes.  I remember standing at water’s edge, only up to my ankles.  The pain was unbelievable – a deep, dull ache, and then a numbed senselessness. The idea of going to Maine or Vermont for the summer is unconscionable, witless, and illogical.  Why would anyone want to be cold? In the waters off northern South Carolina where the Gulf Stream comes close to shore in the summer, the temperature is always in the low 80s. There you can float, look out at the ocean or the white beach, loll and roll, nap, and be totally, perfectly happy.

So, bring on the heat and the humidity.  Give me nineties in both categories.  Let me shvitz, bake, and cook until October.  The perfect climate is one in which you never feel cold – the ambient temperature is always near body temperature or higher.  Breezes are always warm. Changes in weather may bring rain, showers, and wind but never a Canadian cold front.  The closest to this ideal I can imagine is the Caribbean, and I still might get there.  There is still time.

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