Friday, April 16, 2010

35°C Blues

There’s an old adage that war is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Sometimes living in a rural town in the Philippines feels the same, only without the terror. (Maybe we’ll get that part during the election next month.) The Philippines is something of a slack country to begin with, and most of the excitement that does go on happens in the cities. Daily life in the outer towns is more or less the same every day, all year round, with only the slowly creeping change of the two seasons to ease the tedium out in the quiet barangays.

This is just restless westerner talk here. I don’t have a lot of the daily responsibilities that many Filipinos have – taking care of a family, running a sari-sari or laundry service, household chores – so often my times outside of work are somewhat empty even by their standards. I suppose I could ease the boredom by buying a television, but sitting through Korean soap operas and interminable Wowowee episodes is the worst possible way to pretend you’re happily occupied.

I could find things to do: I could go somewhere and take photos, bike up the coast, hop a jeep and explore some place I haven’t yet visited. But there’s one major reason I often nix those possibilities, which is the oppressive, pervasive heat.

I can hardly explain how incredibly disheartening and de-motivating the heat can be here. Even being relegated to lying in bed and sweating (and when I arrived in the Philippines, I discovered that I sweat a lot) is better than any kind of activity. Sometimes I dread eating because I know that the metabolic reactions the food induces will push me over that precarious edge and I’ll be drenched in sweat before I finish my sud-an.

The heat here is similar to a Mississippi summer, only it doesn’t change much all year. Yes, there is a dry season and a rainy season, and the rainy season is slightly more tolerable, but the change can’t be more than a scant few degrees. Still it’s enough that, after learning last year about just how brain-frying the summer heat can be, I regarded the current hot season with something approaching apocalyptic resignation. (And conversely, I’m now running on the knowledge that this will be the last hot season I have to suffer through.)

The other factor, of course, is that air conditioning is not so much an option for me here. At home, I mean – I’m rather lucky in that several of the offices at my center, including the one in which I spend most afternoons, have aircon. At least they do in-between the power outages. But aside from the fact that aircon wouldn’t even work in my house (it’s far from airtight), it’s too expensive for me to consider even if I lived in a sealed box.

One of the remarkable things about the heat here is that it lingers like a bad houseguest. I’m sure it’s the same way in Mississippi, but thanks to air conditioning I never really noticed it much. (And in California, well, that state has a reasonable climate so it’s hardly an issue.) Here I walk into my house three hours after the sun sets, and I can feel the heat still radiating from the walls. At ten o’clock at night it doesn’t feel like the temperature has budged one degree since five in the afternoon. I assume that’s because the humidity is always set one notch below “rain.” You know what the worst weather-related feeling is? It’s not when you’re in a heat stupor in the middle of the day, or when you’re doing manual labor in the hot sun with the sweat pouring down like rivers.

No, the worst is when you wake up in the middle of the night, and you know from the sinister silence that there has been a brownout, your fan has shut off and you have hours of dark, stuffy, moist misery ahead of you.

I don’t know if it’s because my years in California gave my body this crazy idea that heat is just this sometime thing, but I seem to have more trouble with the heat than even a lot of other westerners do. I was shocked when another volunteer told me his worst physical challenge in the Philippines is the cold showers. I hate the constant heat here so much that I literally can’t conceive of putting cold water, or anything else, higher on the list of discomforts.

One solution is to scurry to the city and find a frigidly air-conditioned oasis, but that has its own problems. The trip there is guaranteed to be searing, sweaty, probably dusty and, what with all the fumes floating languidly around like clouds come to earth, likely poisonous. And when I get there, I have to face the reality that air conditioning also sucks and will probably make me feel at least a little bit sick. What I really want, and have rarely gotten to experience, is cool, natural air.

The heat is one thing to which I will gleefully bid farewell when I finish my service. I imagine at some point I will remember many of the things I find difficult to deal with here, especially cultural issues, with amusement and some degree of fondness. But not the heat. Never the heat.

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